Laos: Editing Reality

2001

Dr Nick Enfield

The closing months of the year 2000 have been climactic for the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Security was put to the test –and coped well when Vientiane hosted a range of major events, including an international meeting of EU and ASEAN ministers, a visit from the Chinese Premier, and grand celebrations of the nation's 25th anniversary. The small-scale but regular bombings which have been reported for several months now did not cease, however, and on the eve of this month's EU/ASEAN ministers' meeting, a blast was reported near the 'Unknown Soldier' memorial at That Luang parade ground. In characteristic denial, the government announced that this was not a bomb but merely an aerosol can in a rubbish burn-off. However, residents of suburbs several kilometres away reported hearing the explosion, and diplomatic sources say that a bomb was indeed placed.

The recent culmination of important official anniversaries in Laos has included the 25th anniversary of the nation, the 45th anniversary of the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party, and the 80th anniversary of the birth of Kaysone Phomvihane, who has posthumously become redefined by official policy as leader of the Lao revolution. The recent Lao National Games provided the government with an opportunity to showcase the nation's progress in the context of these milestones. The National Sports Stadium in Vientiane, recently upgraded to 'half-international standard' with Chinese assistance, was the setting for a spectacular opening ceremony, broadcast live on government television. The ceremony even included a 'torch relay', which shockingly climaxed in an athlete setting his own shirt alight - the live broadcast handled this by quickly turning away the cameras, as the commentators carried on their description of the ceremony as if nothing happened. Such 'editing of reality' is typical in Laos, and it can go to ridiculous extremes.

A most recent example is the continued denial by government spokesmen of the embarrassing defection of Khamsay Souphanouvong, high-ranking official and son of the current regime's first president. A former member of the Party Central Committee, Khamsay has left Laos, and was granted ’Person of Concern’ status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He has been in New Zealand since, and the NZ government confirms that Khamsay has indeed been granted asylum there. As usual, where reliable information on Laos is unavailable, rumours abound, and theories surrounding Khamsay's defection attribute causes ranging from internal party factionalism, arms dealing, money laundering, embezzlement, and more. None of these reports are confirmed, yet none seem out of the question in the context of Laos's deeply entrenched problems with corruption.

WATCHPOINT: : Despite its poor record on human rights, the Lao government has largely avoided the kind of international pressure that Myanmar has received It may be only a matter of time.

 

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