President Obama will embark on his final trip to Asia in September, visiting China for the G-20 and Laos for the U.S.-ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit. While the primary purpose of the President’s visit to Laos is to participate in ASEAN-related activities, Obama should seek to address longstanding human rights challenges in his private meetings with Laotian government officials. More specifically, Obama should reiterate U.S. government calls for an investigation into the enforced disappearance of decorated Laotian rural community leader, Sombath Somphone.

Somphone’s Enforced Disappearance

Somphone’s early career was in development in Cambodia. He later founded what was arguably one of Laos’ most prominent NGOs: the Participatory Development Training Center (PADETC). PADETC provided leadership and skills-development training to youth and funded micro-enterprise projects that taught enhanced agricultural techniques, encouraged sustainable farming, and addressed key social issues like drug abuse. Somphone was the recipient of Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership.

Somphone disappeared on December 15, 2012 at a normal police checkpoint. Video footage obtained from police by Somphone’s wife shows him exiting his Jeep and escorted by police. Minutes later a man on a motorcycle took Somphone’s Jeep and later returned with another car where three men, one of them purportedly Somphone, entered and drove off. Footage shows the motorcyclist fire a shot in the air before the vehicle left. Somphone was never seen again.

More than three years later, the Lao government has failed to properly investigate the case. Calls from the international community, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State John Kerry, the European Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and countless Lao human rights advocacy organizations have gone unanswered. The Lao government even refused offers from foreign governments to help in the investigation.

Intransigence on the part of the Lao government led the international community to conclude that Somphone is a victim of enforced disappearance. His wife and family are desperately seeking answers to Somphone’s whereabouts, and many conclude that he is no longer alive.

Laos’ Legacy of Impunity

Somphone’s enforced disappearance is more indicative of the deteriorating state of basic freedoms in Laos than it is a reflection of the nature of his work, which was peaceful and productive.

According to The Heritage Foundation’s 2016 Index of Economic Freedom, economic freedom in Laos dropped from “Mostly Unfree” to “Repressed”. Every Freedom in the World Report produced by Freedom House since 1998 deemed Laos “Not Free”. Lack of freedom in Laos can be attributed to Laos’ communist government, a flawed constitution, and lack of rule of law.

Human rights abuse in Laos can be attributed to the lack of rule of law, as well as a lack of plurality in the communist political system, which has been dominated for over 40 years by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. While Laos does have elections, restrictions on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and many other basic rights are not guaranteed—making a free, fair, and impartial electoral process nearly impossible. Furthermore, were a new, viable party to emerge, it would have great difficulty maintaining control since the Lao constitution grants such expansive authority to the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party.

While Laos’ constitution technically guarantees a host of rights, including the right to freedom of speech, assembly, and the press in Article 44, Article 3 nullifies that by leaving the rights of Laotians subject to the whims and caprices of the ruling party.

Article 3 specifically states:

the rights of the multi-ethnic people to be the masters of the country are exercised and ensured through the functioning of the political system with the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party as its leading nucleus.

The basic construction of the Lao government’s constitution is reflective of a disordered view on the nature of rights. Rights are not granted by a government, but instead are natural, inherent, and possessed by all people. Rights are to be protected, but not provided, by government. Laos is an example of the danger of viewing rights as societally (or governmentally) granted. After all, if the government grants rights, it can just as easily take them away.

Laos has a checkered history of human rights abuse. From the extrajudicial imprisonment of between 30,000 and 60,000 people in labor camps in 1970s and 1980s, to abuse of individuals in drug rehabilitation facilities like Somsanga, to the continued imprisonment of an unknown number of political prisoners today, Laos has a track record of corruption and impunity. The case of Somphone is emblematic of the impunity and corruption that runs rampant in Laos.

What the U.S. Should Do

The Obama administration plans to use his final Asia visit to highlight the economic significance of Asia to America. Geopolitics is also not far from the surface, given the pull on Laos from China, and speculation on the alignment of the new Laotian leadership. None of this, however, should prevent President Obama from raising issues of human rights. In connection with the President’s trip, the U.S. should:

  • Press the Lao government to investigate the case of Sombath Somphone and ensure that other enforced disappearances in Laos are also properly investigated. Laos is a signatory, but has not yet ratified, the International Conventions for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. The U.S. should encourage the Lao government to accept outside assistance in performing investigations and call for the release of all political prisoners.
  • Call upon the Lao government to respect basic rights and freedoms. Freedom of speech, in particular, is under threat in Laos. After the enactment of a new law, Decree 327, online activities on social media sites like Facebook have been screened and used as grounds for arrest. The U.S. should encourage the Lao government to rescind Decree 327 and discontinue its practice of arresting citizens merely exercising their rights.
  • Improve economic freedom through improved rule of law initiatives in Laos. The U.S. should continue rule of law training in Laos through a myriad of programs including counternarcotics support and enhance rule of law efforts to decrease corruption among Lao law enforcement. The U.S. should also press for more broad-sweeping reform and even encourage Laos to consider revising the constitution to encourage plurality in political representation, among other necessary reforms.

Olivia Enos, research associate in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, specializes in human rights and transnational criminal issues. These include human trafficking and human smuggling, drug trafficking, religious freedom, and other social and humanitarian challenges facing Asia.

Photo Credit: Protest for Sombath Somphone in December 2012. By Prachatai, via Flickr.