The vanguard voices of Laotian civil society

Julija Belej Bakovic is director of Asia programs for the International Republican Institute.

Sandwiched between Vietnam, Thailand, Burma and China, the landlocked nation of Laos generally attracts little attention in the West. Though listed as one of the United Nation’s least developed countries, Laos is quietly experiencing impressive economic growth. Annual gross domestic product has grown by an average of 6.8 percent between 2002 and 2006 due largely to regional trade expansion, windfalls from the extractive industries and an increase in energy exports. Laos has normalized trade relations with the U.S., and is on track to accede to the World Trade Organization. The newest edition of the UN’s annual Human Development Report, released in early October, praised Laos for improvements in human development indicators. A burgeoning civil society is expanding its role in giving all Laotians a chance to be a part of such development.

In the diplomatic realm, relations with the U.S. are improving rapidly. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted Lao Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Thongloun Sisoulith in Washington last summer, and in August released a statement congratulating Laos on 55 years of diplomatic relations. Despite this apparent economic and diplomatic awakening, little progress will be made in Laos until there are serious political reforms.

Politically, Laos is a one party state, ruled by a close circle of unelected civilian and military leaders from the communist Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. Single party elections do exist for the national assembly, but this body is known to be largely symbolic in nature. With press freedom restricted, citizens of Laos have few outlets for expression.

Fortunately, the first of a new generation of leaders, Prime Minister Bouasone Bouphavanh has confronted entrenched elite interests by slowly permitting some forms of civic participation. Central to this strategy was Bouphavanh’s April 29, 2009, signing of the Decree of Associations, which for the first time codified the registration process for civil society organizations. After a six-month period designed to draft regulations, applications for Laos’ first officially registered civil society groups were accepted in November 2009.

Civil society in Laos is in an embryonic phase. Prior to the decree, only 220 known indigenous groups existed (compared to more than 12,000 in neighboring Vietnam and millions in China) − a fractured assortment of groups with varying degrees of competence, organization and legitimacy in the eyes of the government. Absent clear laws, most functions otherwise performed by civil society in free societies were assumed by semi-official ‘mass organizations’ such as the Lao Women’s Union, Lao Youth Organization or Lao Trade Union. The issuance of the decree appears to represent the government’s recognition that, over time, civil society has the potential to play an important role in national development, particularly in more remote and ethnically diverse areas where government officials cannot easily operate.

These developments present an important segue into a wider discussion on the significance of civil society in closed societies. Without competitive multi-party elections, civil society often represents the only opportunity citizens have to participate in public life. In this context, civic organizations perform a function greater than their traditional societal role as service providers. They enable factions of people to advocate to their government, using the power of association and networks to petition the government for resources and rights. In other words, a vibrant civil society can have a representative function to channel the needs of the population to influence public policy.

Questions linger about the Lao government’s capacity to implement the decree fairly and effectively. More than a year after the decree went into effect, unofficial sources suggest that only one national and one provincial civil society organization have successfully registered despite dozens of applications. Nevertheless, there are signs the government is taking civil society seriously. In November, the Lao National Science Council convened representatives from 100 (previously registered) civil society groups to participate in a workshop on how they can better contribute to development.

Whether the momentum from this meeting will translate into a smoother process for nascent civil society organizations to achieve registration will become apparent in the coming months. Successful implementation of the decree will create an opportunity to unlock the creative potential of the Lao population, giving them a role to play in their country’s development. Stagnation and political interference will set back progress in Laos to the detriment of the Lao people.

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