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Laos makes strides in emerging from isolation
ASEAN-Laos - by Didier Lauras

HANOI, July 22 (AFP) - Emerging from a long period of isolation, Laos is getting ready to host its second major international meeting within a space of eight months and carving out a spot on the global diplomatic circuit.

The land-locked country of 5.3 million people, which has been under rigid communist rule since 1975, last November had the luxury of hosting 15 heads of government, including those of regional giants, China, Japan and India.

Next week, the poorest of Southeast Asian states will again roll out the red carpet, this time for more than 20 foreign ministers.

In addition to the countries represented in the November summit, the meeting will be attended by leading diplomats from the European Union, Russia and the United States to talk about security.

Last December, after a month of discussions in the US Congress partly about the country's poor human rights records, Laos was granted the most favoured nation trading status.

MFN is essential for trading with the United States and Laos had been among a few countries out in the cold, alongside such international pariahs as Cuba and North Korea.

In March, Vientiane won another vote of international confidence when the World Bank and 26 other financial organisations approved credits for the controversial Nam Theun II hydroelectric project.

It is a sea change for a country which had been off the tourist map until the early 1990s.

Laos has since ushered in economic reforms and most importantly, gained entry into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which it currently holds the chair.

"The Lao are coming out of their shell a little bit," said a foreign observer in Vientiane, requesting anonymity.

Another Vientiane-based foreign expert said: "There is a feeling that one can do business with Laos and in Laos without any great risk of reversal in the situation. I think the country risk has diminished." learning the art of diplomacy.

Leading cadres are beginning to speak English. Thai television is seen in all homes and the Laotian leaders, for long given to looking within, are learning the art of diplomacy. learning the art of diplomacy.

"Since we joined ASEAN in 1997, the whole country and especially the state party apparatus have accepted the idea of international integration," said foreign ministry spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy.

"The major infrastructure projects are part of this policy. The dam will help integrate Laos and make it a power source for the region. And the highways will transform the country from a landlocked into a landlinked one," he told AFP.

There has been lively debate within the Laotian communist party on the changes.

"The debate is ongoing as new problems arise, calling for new solutions. In making contacts with the outside were are forced to confront questions that we did not before," the spokesman said.

Hardliners are however thinning out and Vientiane has in recent years been shedding the image of a dusty provincial town without a future.

But have changes within the regime kept pace with the image makeover? Many observers stress it has certainly gotten smarter in responding to its critics.

"The Lao become much more sophisticated in their responses to allegations of human rights shortcomings in Laos," the Vientiane-based observer said.

"The ministry of foreign affairs is creating a human rights division. This is not, of course, to promote human rights within Laos but to respond to the interest of people outside of Laos about human rights inside the country."

However, the new rhetoric fails to win universal approval. Laos still throttles freedom of expression and jails opponents, says the Lao Movement for Human Rights, a Paris-based group of exiled dissidents.

"The Laotian regime deserves no quarter," said the movement's leader Vanida Thephsouvan, reflecting the views of several exiled groups.

"But it seems that for the political leaders of the international community, economic, trade and geopolitical considerations are more important than liberty, democracy and respect for the fundamental rights of Laotian people."

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