Repressive climate for civil society silences criticism of dam projects

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Lao civil society activists fear speaking up against Pak Lay dam

On 20th and 21st September, the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental organisation of countries along the Mekong River, held a forum to discuss the Pak Lay dam project —the fourth dam on the lower Mekong. The dam project has been criticised by environmental groups for its negative impacts on the environment and livelihood of river communities.

Several Thai and Cambodian civil society organisations rejected the invitation from the Laos government to attend the forum, as they disagreed with the consultation process. The Cambodia Mekong Alliance (CMA), a coalition of 52 NGOs, did not take part in the forum because its previous request to convey concerns over the potential impact of the Pak Lay and Pak Beng dams to the MRC’s representative body in Cambodia was ignored. They called for a suspension of the Pak Lay dam until a new transboundary environmental and social impact assessment has been completed, citing the poor quality of the current assessment.

However, an anonymous source from Lao civil society said that since it is a government project, Lao civil society organisations were too afraid of opposing the Pak Lay dam, even though they are aware of its potential negative impact. He said:

“This is a government project, so…CSOs in Laos cannot object to it, but can only report the negative impacts to the government, and that’s all...actually, people don’t even receive information about the negative impacts; they are just given propaganda about the positive impacts of dam projects.”

In August 2018, the Lao government announced a suspension of new dam projects and independent investigations of existing ones, following the collapse of an auxiliary dam at the USD 1 billion Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower project in Champasak province. The 23rd July disaster caused severe flooding that claimed the lives of at least 40 villagers, according to official figures, and displaced thousands of others who are now living in temporary camps. Civil society groups believe the figures are not credible and may be much higher, as initial reports stated that 800 people had disappeared.

Since the investigation on the dams began, the public has yet to be notified of any significant progress or findings. Despite the government’s pledge of a transparent investigation, some outsiders have expressed concern over the degree of transparency and accountability of the enquiry and its results.

Questioned by police over Facebook posts

Phijika Boonkwang, the president of the Vientiane Football United Club, was questioned by police in mid-September 2018 after being accused of defaming Lao’s football federation. In a live Facebook video on 25th August 2018, she criticised the condition of the road leading up to the federation headquarters.

On 29th August, she resigned in another live Facebook video after learning that she had been banned for 90 days. Later, on 5th September, the Lao National Football Federation sent a letter to police asking them to investigate Phijika for “conducting inappropriate activities” on social media. According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), Phijika was also accused of criticising a senior soccer officer, the son-in-law of a former Lao president.

Laos is a one-party communist state that tolerates no opposition, allows no media freedom and is highly sensitive to public criticism of conditions in the country. In July 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee raised concerns about “the existence of severe restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression which hinder the development of a civic space". In particular, Decree No. 327 of 16 September 2014, criminalises online criticism of the government and the Lao People's Revolutionary Party.

Change in prison conditions for government critics 

As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, Lod Thammavong, Soukane Chaithad and Somphone Phimmasone were detained in March 2017, for publishing a post on Facebook, drawing attention to the lack of democracy in Laos. They were forced to admit to their crimes on national television and were given lengthy prisons sentences of 12 years, 18 years, and 20 years in prison, respectively.

The three were imprisoned at the Xam Khe prison in the capital Vientiane—the country’s largest detention facility. According to news reports on 19th October, Soukane was transferred to a prison called Keangkhane in Savannakhet province where his family lives while Somphone and Lod are now being held with other prisoners in Xamke prison and allowed family visits each month.

Peaceful assembly

Police shut down fundraising concert

On 14th October 2018, a concert held to raise funds for a local school in Savannakhet province in southern Laos was shut down by police, unhappy with the t-shirts for sale at the venue with the wording—“No bribes for jobs!” According to the police, the wordings "challenged the directives and policies of the state". The police also claimed that the organisers had no written official permission, despite the fact that organisers had requested permission from the authorities to hold the event.

A concert organiser named Nang wrote on her Facebook page the next day:

“What is wrong with a T-shirt that says ‘No bribes for jobs!’ I would like to know what government or party policies or directives this message contradicts. The relevant officials had better explain this to me."

A source of Radio Free Asia (RFA) highlighted how citizens have recently become more critical of government officials, requesting bribes from those applying for government jobs. According to the same source, the concert’s organiser had also embarrassed education officials by publishing a video showing the poor conditions in the school, for which they were raising funds.