Laos: In The Net


Nick Enfield

Laos' recent entry into ASEAN has provided the government with the challenge of accommodating to standards being set by the larger, more progressive world of the rest of Southeast Asia, while maintaining its own internal policies, still strongly based on socialist principles and concerns. One important challenge concerns social freedom, and especially free speech.

The Ministry of Information and Culture controls public information in Laos, and generally does a good job of keeping the flow in check. The Ministry has found itself unprepared, however, for the new challenge of the Internet. An extremely late comer, Laos has only within the last year seen the establishment of its first public Internet provider (GlobeNet, run by Phillipines-based GlobeCom, under the auspices of the Lao government news agency, KPL). The need for official Internet access by government departments came when the nation joined ASEAN (since the organisation distributes much of its documentation over the Internet). The drawback for the Lao government lies in the unrestricted availability of information considered politically and culturally undesirable (for example, information from various refugee communities who widely discuss and publicise their anti-Lao government causes over the Internet). Presently, however, the number of Lao people with access remains low.

Current restrictions on free speech and expression in Laos have been designed in part to ward off the dangers of political instability, ever-present in a state with only one political party. These measures have been successful, in that even the mildest criticism of the Party or the state is virtually unheard of. Indeed, those rare occasions of public dissent have resulted in well-known cases of political incarceration. The immunity to criticism that the Party enjoys creates a strong feeling in Lao society that certain subjects are best ignored.

Consider the extent of corruption in the government - now more serious than ever - for example in the distribution of funds associated with development projects. On the one hand, big project budgets are understandably exploited to provide government workers with something more than the unrealistic standard salary of 60,000 Kip (below US$7) per month. But on the other hand, this principle is unregulated, and is often taken to extremes, with glaring inequities in how these skimmed funds are shared out. For example, a recent report in Vientiane revealed that dozens of vehicles donated for official use during the course of a major long-term forestry program are currently untraceable.

WATCHPOINT: Lao people are increasingly exposed to the culture of critical political and social debate through their consumption of Thai media. Discontent with lack of freedom of expression in Laos may soon rise to the surface.


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