The Asean Civil Society Conference/Asean Peoples' Forum (ACSC/APF) which is to take place today in Dili, Timor-Leste appears to be clouded by uncertainty and fears.
Concerns have emerged as there have been no indications that the three-day meeting, as stated during preparatory events in March and May, can provide a safe space for Laos' progressive and independent civil society organisations (CSOs) -- a space where they can offer critiques, raise concerns and voice dissenting opinions on various issues, including human rights violations, forced disappearances and the negative impact of infrastructure development projects on ordinary peoples' lives.
By safe, I mean that even in the presence of government-sponsored NGO representatives, the voices of members of independent CSOs shall be heard. That they shall be allowed to organise and conduct their own panels and don't feel threatened or intimidated.
Chrek Sophea is Mekong programme officer at Focus on the Global South.
Before we go any further, let me make it clear that the above-point is made without intending to question the capability, independence nor activism of our comrades, brothers, and sisters in Timor-Leste. We continue to be inspired by their heroic struggles in the past for their country's liberation. We are not trying to criticise or block the upcoming ACSC/APF from happening. The above point is raised with greater concern for what transpired in the two previous preparatory meetings.
I recall that the decision to hold the 2016 conference in Dili was intended to support the membership of our friends in Timor-Leste and secondly to give space to Lao CSOs to talk about peoples' issues, as they would not be able to talk about human rights violations, disappearances, hydropower dams, indigenous peoples' rights or LGBT issues if the forum were to be held in Laos. If it were, there would be no guarantee that after this event Lao CSOs would be safe.
In the second regional consultation meeting, which took place in Laos in May, a larger number of pro-government voices, including some of those from Cambodia and Vietnam, were brought together. The Lao government's presence was clearly felt in this second meeting and, as a result, dissenting views were not expressed and issues of human rights violations, the disappearances of human rights defenders and community activists, and the negative impact of hydropower dams and land conflicts/evictions were not raised. A rosy picture was painted of Laos as a happy nation where such issues did not exist.
Meanwhile, the two representatives of the Lao National Organising Committee, who ideally should represent Lao CSOs, directly criticised CSOs saying they did not play constructive roles in working with the government of Laos. Those CSOs were also accused of being government opponents supported by outsiders. It was also saddening that Sombath Somphone, a prominent development worker, peaceful activist and current victim of forced disappearance, was blamed for reduced funding to Lao CSOs as a result of his disappearance and the campaign for his safe return.
"In the last decade, some groups of people who have lost their economic interest and political rights have tried to use the hand of some NGOs to criticise, blame, and subvert government. It is normal that such NGOs have had to follow sponsor's policy and such conduct is clearly revealed and disclosed to the public, consequently global NGOs have lost credibility day by day and created conflicts of opinion inside NGOs that lead to the pseudo-separation into two antagonistic groups: pro-government and anti-government," said Maydom Chanthanisnh, chair of the Laos National Organising Committee during his presentation.
"Laos' CSOs have lost face because of Sombath Somphone. We have lost the financial sources from donors because of him," said Cher Her, vice-chair of Laos National Organising Committee.
An alarming reality in all Asean countries is the deteriorating human rights situation and rising use of the military for domestic law and order. An increasing number of human rights defenders and community activists have been jailed in Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, and have been victims of forced disappearance, or are facing lawsuits and attitude adjustment, while spaces for public dialogue are shrinking.
At the same time, we cannot forget that this year Laos holds the chairmanship of Asean and thus has to be in the spotlight. The government of Laos has to address the issues and demands of its people, which include bringing Mr Sombath back to his family and to us, his community of CSOs. It will be unfortunate if his case and those of other forced disappearance cases, as well as in this region, are not brought up in the coming ACSC/APF.
This article was published in early July on www.sombath.org.