‘Rebalancing’ to Asia falters in Laos?


Neither ‘Asian values’ nor any other form of regional exceptionalism can be invoked to justify authoritarian rule, President Barack Obama said in Laos today.

“[D]emocracy can flourish in Asia because we’ve seen it thrive from Japan and South Korea to Taiwan,” he said:

Across this region, we see citizens reaching to shape their own futures. And freedom of speech and assembly, and the right to organize peacefully in civil society without harassment or fear of arrest or disappearing we think makes a country stronger. A free press that can expose abuse and injustice makes a country stronger. And access to information and an open Internet where people can learn and share ideas makes a country stronger. An independent judiciary that upholds the rule of law, and free and fair elections so that citizens can choose their own leadersthese are all the rights that we seek for all people.

The disappearance of Sombath Somphone nearly four years ago is a reminder of the dismal human rights record of the authoritarian government of Laos, which is hosting President Obama and Asian leaders at a regional summit, AP reports:

The government says it is investigating but has provided no leads into Sombath’s whereabouts, and no arrests have been made, leading critics of Laos’ communist government to believe that his disappearance was state-orchestrated.

“It’s a test case for Obama. If he mentions it publicly it would make it much more difficult for Laos to sweep it under the carpet. The fact that the most powerful man on the planet cares about Sombath will count for something,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

But some analysts believe democracy and human rights have been subordinated to strategic concerns.

“The rebalancing is a complete failure on multiple levels,” says Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at National Taiwan University. “Obama has left a worsening authoritarian legacy. But they couldn’t care less because it’s all about China,” she told TIME magazine:

Certainly, Southeast Asia has regressed politically over the course of the “rebalance,” with the notable exception of Burma (officially called Myanmar), which has moved toward qualified democracy. A military junta has run Thailand since a May 2014 coup d’état. Malaysia’s opposition leader is once again behind bars, while Prime Minister Najib Razak stands accused of embezzling $700 million of state funds. (He denies any wrongdoing). Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, Brunei and Laos remain autocratic, with the 2012 disappearance of award-winning Lao activist Sombath Somphone still unexplained in the latter.

Yet the White House has pushed increased engagement with all these states. In May, Obama lifted a 50-year-old arms embargo with Vietnam. He did this even though key civil-society leaders were detained on their way meet him in Hanoi. Obama raised the issue, though still inked the deal.

“This was a necessary step politically as the conservatives in Vietnam basically made it nonnegotiable,” says Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor at Australia’s University of New South Wales.

Three France-based human rights organizations, the FIDH, the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) and the French League for Human Rights (LDH) this week called upon French President François Hollande to raise urgent human rights issues in his discussions with the Vietnamese leadership, in particular the ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression, religion and peaceful assembly.

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