The European Union says it raised concerns with Laos about media controls, registration of NGOs, and other human rights issues during a bilateral dialogue in Belgium, underscoring the need for a vibrant civil society environment in the Southeast Asian state.
The EU said that at the meeting this week its representatives again highlighted the case of disappeared Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who some human rights groups suspect may have been abducted by government-linked groups when he went missing in December 2012.
“The EU stressed the importance of a vibrant civil society environment in order to contribute to the development of an inclusive and open society,” the EU said in a statement Wednesday after the May 19-20 meeting in Brussels.
It was the fifth round of talks of an annual Working Group on Human Rights and Governance between the two countries.
“In this respect the EU expressed concern regarding the limitation of freedom of expression, particularly the freedom of the media,” said the 28-member European bloc, a leading aid donor to Laos, one of the world's least-developed states.
The EU also told Laos not to drag its feet in the registration of non-governmental organizations.
“It welcomed the commitment of Lao to improve the transparency of registration of local civil society organizations but showed concern regarding how long the registration process takes,” the statement said.
On Sombath’s disappearance, a topic which the EU raises at nearly every official meeting with Laos, the representatives told the delegation from Vientiane that his “unexplained” disappearance was “of grave concern” to the group.
Sombath went missing on Dec. 15, 2012 and was last seen stopped at a police checkpoint in the Lao capital Vientiane.
Rights groups' complaints
International rights groups have accused Laos of being reluctant to investigate his enforced disappearance, saying his case has fostered a fearful environment for activists working in the country.
In a statement this week calling for the EU to make stronger ties with Laos contingent on progress on human rights issues, the International Federation for Human Rights and its affiliate the Lao Movement for Human Rights said there had been “growing fear” among Laos’s civil society groups since Sombath’s disappearance.
The groups also warned information restrictions in Laos were tightening and the registration process for civil society groups in the country was slow and subject to interference, while Lao citizens face rampant land grabbing and restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion.
“The authoritarian nature of the one-party state in Laos suppresses any open debate of ideas which would be regarded as critical or undermining state authority,” the groups said in a new report this week.
They reported that the registration process authorizing non-profit civil society organizations to operate in Laos was painfully slow, and that at times authorities had tried to influence the membership of civil society organizations’ boards or forced some to avoid sensitive words in their names.
It warned that the Lao government was continuing to “assume more control” over the flow of information in the country and that online communications were expected to be “more efficiently filtered and controlled” following the setup of a National Internet Center in 2013 with China’s support.
Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.