Civil society organizations across Southeast Asia have endorsed a statement directed to the ASEAN Peoples’ Forum, which organizes the ASEAN Civil Society Conference, asking it not to hold its 2016 event in Laos because of the country’s grave human rights record.

Laos is chairing ASEAN in 2016.

The following is the statement of concern addressed to the ACSC/APF 2015 Regional Steering Committee (ASEAN Civil Society Conferences/ASEAN Peoples’ Forum). which will chair the ASEAN in 2016. Organizations or individuals interested in endorsing this statement are requested to email their endorsement to [email protected] by September 10.

Statement of Concern on Lao PDR and the ACSC/APF 2016

To the Regional Steering Committee

ACSC/APF 2015 Malaysia

We, the undersigned, are national and regional civil society organisations, networks and alliances from South East Asian countries, and key movers of the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ ASEAN People’s Forum  (ACSC/APF) processes through the last ten years, from 2005 to 2015. With you, we have been committed to promoting the ACSC/APF process as a civil society-driven, free and open space for building community and solidarity amongst the peoples of Southeast Asia.

While we have had a demonstrable commitment to the ACSC/APF process, we wish to raise our collective concern on the state of democracy and human rights in Lao PDR, and the difficulties we anticipate in having an ACSC/APF in Lao PDR in 2016.

During the consultations leading to and during the APF 2015, particularly during the 3rd Regional Organizing Meeting in March 2015, a group of unnamed Lao CSOs expressed their objection to the ACSC/APF’s positions on issues, namely on 1) LGBTIQ/ lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, intersex, queer; 2) indigenous peoples, and dams; 3) multi-party systems and democracy; and, 4) the disappearance of Sombath Somphone. Dr Maydom, Lao representative to the SC, confirmed during the Regional Organizing meeting, that discussions on these issues would not be possible in Laos.

Based on this, we foresee and have reason to believe that any free discussions and dialogue on very crucial regional issues–on equality and diversity; on development projects and their impacts on peoples and environments; on freedoms and human rights–will not and cannot take place in Lao.

Based on the prior experience of the Asia Europe People’s Forum (AEPF9), we do not see any credible assurances from Lao CSOs based within the country that a prospective ACSC/APF 2016 in Lao will not be plagued by troubles similar to those experienced in AEPF9.

We are certain that an ACSC/APF 2016 will not be organized by Lao civil society. Instead, the government of Laos will certainly have its hand in controlling an ACSC/APF 2016, contrary to the spirit of a civil society organized event. Even if the current CSO representatives from Laos, or the government of Laos, are genuinely sincere in using this opportunity to recover its credibility to hold future events like the ACSC/APF, they have yet to address specific measures to prevent a repeat of any of the inexcusable examples of harassment and impunity by various state actors during and immediately after the AEPF9.

The issue of Sombath Somphone’s enforced disappearance, and the developments around the AEPF9, particularly the inability of the Laos government to make good their promise of allowing the event to be held independently, without interference, is a warning on the current state of Lao society, and the Lao government’s attitude towards civil society and the legitimate issues they work on. The reluctance of Lao civil society to participate, as well as the inability to do so independently in this post-AEPF9 period, clearly highlight the repercussions of the tragedy of the AEPF9. There should be no illusions about the reality of the prevailing fear within Lao society in mentioning issues that are deemed sensitive, such as, Sombath and enforced disappearances, Indigenous peoples, LGBTIQ, multi-party political systems and democracy.

The statement from the IOC of the AEPF and other sources of narration of the foreign civil society actors being dispelled from the country should serve as further reminders of the state’s involvement in the current alarming situation of human rights abuses and danger to civil society within Laos.

Considering all of the above, there seems to be no possibility of a freely organized ACSC/APF in Laos. It would be impossible to uphold the agreed engagement modalities and guiding principles as determined during the ACSC/APF 2015.

We, CSOs in Southeast Asia, hope that the ACSC/APF 2015 Regional Steering Committee will provide the courageous leadership in answering the following questions among the ACSC/APF community, which are central to the current crisis in Laos, and are relevant to the ACSC/APF going forward.

–       Are we prepared to accept an ACSC/APF that is not freely organized by regional civil society? Are we prepared to accept the controlling hand, whether seen or unseen, of the Lao government on the process?

–       Are we fully cognizant of the risks and dangers toward participants, particularly Lao participants, by holding an ACSC/APF in Laos?

–       Are we willing to disenfranchise participants and communities of the LGBTIQ, of indigenous peoples, of environmental groups, of anti-dam campaigners, of democracy activists and human rights defenders, of families of prisoners and the disappeared, by holding an ACSC/APF in Laos?

–       Even if we wish to act upon the idea of benefitting Lao peoples in Laos, and of supporting Lao civil society, are we prepared to compromise the integrity of the ACSC/APF process in Lao, while keeping faithful to the ACSC/APF guiding principles and engagement modalities?

We foresee that the painful answers to the questions we raise will be in the negative; and therefore,

We implore the ACSC/APF 2015 Steering Committee, to seriously consider the option of not endorsing an ACSC/APF 2016 process in Lao.

We implore the ACSC/APF 2015 Steering Committee to bring this discussion back to the country and regional caucuses, to jointly imagine an alternative ACSC/APF process in 2016 outside of Lao PDR, while ensuring that Lao peoples and civil society can still participate freely in such a process.

31 August 2015

The following organizations have endorsed this statement thus far:

1.     Adivasi Women’s Network

2.     Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara (AMAN)

3.     ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR)

4.     ASEAN SOGIE Caucus

5.     Asia Indigenous Peoples Network on Extractive Industries and Energy (AIPNEE)

6.     Asia Pacific Indigenous Youth Network (APIYN)

7.     BAI National Alliance of Indigenous Women, Philippines

8.     Boat People SOS (BPSOS)

9.     Borok Peoples Human Rights Organisation/Borok Indigenous /Tribal Peoples Development Center (BPHRO/BITPDC), India

10.  Burma Partnership (BP)

11.  Cambodia Indigenous Peoples Organization (CIPO)

12.  Cambodia Indigenous Youth Association (CIYA)

13.  Capacity Building Initiative, Myanmar

14.  Center for Sustainable Development in Mountainous Areas (CSDM), Vietnam

15.  CHT Indigenous Jumma Association Australia (CHTIJAA)

16.  Civil Society Women Organization (CSWO), Meghalaya, North East India

17.  Coalition to Abolish Modern-day Slavery in Asia (CAMSA)

18.  Coalition of Cambodian Farmers Community (CCFC)

19.  Colors Rainbow, Myanmar

20.  Equality Myanmar

21.  Finnish Asiatic Society

22.  Focus on the Global South

23.  Fundação Feto iha Kbiit Servisu Hamutuk (FFKSH), Timor Leste

24.  Gender Development Initiative, Myanmar

25.  Highlander Associations (HA), Cambodia

26.  Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders (IPHRD)

27.  Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self Determination and Liberation (APMSDL)

28.  Indigenous Peoples Task Force on ASEAN

29.  Innabuyog Federation of Indigenous Women in Cordillera, Philippines

30.  Institut Titian Perdamaian (ITP / Peacebuilding Institute), Indonesia

31.  International Council for the Indigenous Peoples of CHT (ICIP-CHT)

32.  International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC)

33.  International Rivers (IR)

34.  Kapaeeng Foundation, Bangladesh

35.  Karen Development Network, Myanmar

36.  Kusog sa Katawhang Lumad sa Mindanao (KALUMARAN), Philippines

37.  Land Core Group, Myanmar

38.  Lawyers for the Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP), Nepal

39.  La Voix des Jummas, France

40.  Local Resource Center, Myanmar

41.  Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA)

42.  Myanmar Civil Society Coordinating Group on ASEAN

43.  Naga Women’s Union, Manipur, India

44.  Organisation for the Promotion of Kui Culture (OKC), Cambodia

45.  Papora Indigenous Development Association (PIDA), Taiwan/China

46.  People’s Empowerment Foundation (PEF), Thailand

47.  Solidarity for Asian Peoples’ Advocacies (SAPA) Working Group on ASEAN

48.  South East Asian Committee for Advocacy (SEACA)

49.  The Sombath Initiative

50.  Thirst Aid, Myanmar

51.  Triangle Women Group, Myanmar

52.  United ACT, Myanmar

53.  Yayasan Lintas Nusa Batam, Indonesia

54.  Youth Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (YFIN), Nepal

Organizations or individuals interested in endorsing this statement are requested to email their endorsement to [email protected] by September 10.