Laos Civil Society

Laos Monks at the morning alms-giving

Social space and infrastructure

The fourth census in 2015 resulted in a total population of almost 6.5 million, meanwhile with a growth of approx. 1.4% approximately 7.15 million. About a third of them live in cities along the Mekong. The fertile plains along the rivers are most densely populated, the mountain regions are only sparsely populated.

The province of Savannakhet is with around 969,700 residents the most populous and at the same time largest (21,774 square km) province.

The four largest cities in Laos are (2015 census):

  • the capital Vientiane with around 620,157 residents, the province Vientiane has around 820,940 residents
  • Savannakhet in the south with about 120,000 residents
  • Pakse in the south of the country with 68,093 residents in the southwesternmost province of Champasack
  • Luang Prabang in the north with approx. 66,781 residents

According to computerannals, the road network in Laos is being expanded; of over 40,000 kilometers of road, only just under a fifth percent are paved. During the rainy season, roads are washed away and muddy. Vehicles get stuck and block roads. For over 20 years, road construction projects, including all-weather roads, have focused on the sustainable expansion of the road network.

Especially in the north, the rivers are important alternatives to poorly developed transport links. They represent important alternative means of transport for goods and people by connecting villages and towns that are not yet connected to the road network. The 448 kilometer long Nam Ou north of Luang Prabang is such an important artery for the northern part of Laos. It has its source in Phongsaly Province and flows into the Mekong at the Pak Ou estuary. There are the two famous caves Tam Thing and Tam Phum.

Civil society and international NGOs

There is hardly any civil society in Laos. Most of the organizations that support the formation of a civil society are founded with international help. The iNGO network (network of international non-governmental organizations) with currently almost 80 member organizations has set itself the goal of bundling and disseminating information within the member organizations. In addition, the network seeks dialogue with the government and supports the formation of a civil society.

The 9th Asia-Europe People’s Forum in October 2012 in Vientiane

The 9th Civil Society Forum (Asia-Europe People’s Forum, AEPF9) offered a great opportunity for Laotian civil society to exchange ideas and network internationally. It took place in October 2012 in the run-up to the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM9) in Vientiane and was perceived by many as a positive impetus for the development of civil society.

Important and topical issues such as the construction of the Xayaburi dam and land grabbing were discussed openly, sometimes unexpectedly, and raised hopes that the country would open up politically.

But in retrospect, the hopes turned out to be premature. Civil society organizations came under pressure and Sombath Somphone, one of the organizers, disappeared without a trace. The founder and former director of the Laotian organization PADETC (Participatory Development Training Center) had a prominent role as a member of the National Organizing Committee at AEPF9 and gave a speech at both the opening and the closing meeting.

With PADETC, Sombath set up a comprehensive training institute with the aim of integrating both mind and heart into volunteer work in addition to imparting knowledge. In 2005 he received the Magsaysay Prize for his social commitment in the area of “Community Leadership”. The “spiritual well-being” is a central aspect of his work. “What makes you happy?” he keeps asking himself and others. The film “Happy Laos”, which was made as part of volunteer work at PADETC and was shown at the end of AEPF9, also deals with this question.

Sombath Somphone

His wife, Ng Shui Meng, last saw him on December 15, 2012. They were on their way home in two cars. However, Sombath never got there. Images from a surveillance camera show Sombath getting into a police checkpoint and later being taken away.

Since then there has been no more sign of life from Sombath.

Even six years later, in 2018, despite numerous investigations – including international ones – there are still no indications of Sombath’s disappearance. On the contrary, the fear of reprisals has grown, the work of civil society organizations has become more difficult and there is no cooperation between the Laotian authorities and international organizations to investigate Sombath’s disappearance. His wife Ng Shui Meng regularly reminds them of Sombath.

More about the background:

In a 2012 interview with ABC (Australian Broadcasting Association), Sombath’s wife Ng Shui Meng spoke about the events and asked the Laotian government for clarification. The EU also issued a statement expressing its concern and calling on the Lao government to investigate the case as soon as possible. Thai NGOs also support the call for information. Human Rights Watch (HRW) fears that Sombath is in the hands of the Laotian authorities and calls on the Lao government to swiftly and objectively investigate.

In a government statement dated December 19, 2012, the spokesman for the Laotian Foreign Ministry rejects any responsibility in the case: “The men in the video cannot be identified. The cause of Sombath’s abduction could also be private disputes or a business conflict.”

A week earlier, on the first weekend in December 2012, Ann-Sophie Gindroz, the managing director of the Swiss NGO Helvetas, had been expelled from Laos. A connection between Sombath’s disappearance, his work, his participation in AEPF9 and the expulsion of Gindroz can hardly be denied.

Laos Monks at the morning alms-giving