A recently introduced law regulating civil society organizations (CSOs) in Laos has further restricted their work, according to sources in the sector, who said groups now face lengthy delays in funding, while others are being forced to operate as small businesses or shut down completely.
In August last year, the government of Laos issued the New Decree on Associations No. 238 of 2017 to replace the Decree on Associations No. 115 of 2009. The amended decree went into effect on Nov. 15, 2017.
The amendment was proposed in 2014, following the disappearance in late 2012 of prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone, and a 2013 call by then-president of Laos Choummaly Sayason for ruling Communist Party officials to “strictly control actions” of the groups “because they could destroy our country through nonviolent means.”
Among the restrictions in the new decree are articles requiring the government to approve the establishment of CSOs; greenlight their projects and acceptance of donations; review their assets; and provide advice and assistance to ensure their operations are in line with party policy, the law, and government regulations.
Other articles state that CSOs are prohibited from “abusing the rights to freedom” and carrying out “activities that threaten national security and the social order,” and that the Ministry of Home Affairs has the right to “discipline associations” for disobeying the law.
A development worker with a CSO recently told RFA’s Lao Service that groups had never been required to submit financial reports to the government under the previous law, and only needed to provide “broad details” of their activities.
“From now on, if we are going to request funding from foreign sources, the request must first be approved by the government,” the worker said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“This is too difficult—it will take us nearly a year to get funding.”
The representative of another CSO said the new law is regulating the groups out of existence.
“The new Decree on Associations forces many associations and non-profit organizations to transform themselves into small businesses to survive,” she said.
“Others don’t even bother renewing their permits, or simply shut down.”
Rights group concerns
The comments from CSO workers in Laos echo concerns stated by New York-based Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson, who said at a December press conference that the new law on associations “is actually worse than the previous decree.”
“Under this decree, the state controls the non-profit civil sectors in Laos,” Robertson said at the time, noting that articles in the law contradict the Lao government’s ratification of the international covenant on civil and political rights, which sets out standards on freedom of associations and peaceful public assembly.
A week after the press conference, which marked the fifth anniversary of the disappearance of Sombath Somphone—who is widely believed to have been abducted by government-linked actors—eight global NGOs joined Human Rights Watch in calling on the Lao government to repeal or significantly amend the decree to bring it in line with international rights laws and standards.
Bounthone Chanthalavong-Wiese, president of the Germany-based Alliance for Democracy in Laos, told RFA that would-be international donors to Laos have been stymied by the government’s new law, adding that his group also wants the decree scrapped.
But an official with the committee that drafted the decree rejected calls for its abandonment.
“This decree is not intended to restrict any organizations at all,” the official, who also asked to remain unnamed, recently told RFA.
“Before issuing it, we consulted with all levels of government,” he said, without specifying whether CSOs had been approached during the drafting period.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.