On December 15, on his way back from work, the Laotian director, activist and award winner, Sombath Somphone, mysteriously disappeared. The last people to see him, according to leaked surveillance footage, were the Laotian authorities at a police control post, where he was pulled over, and then driven away in a different car.
Despite that, the Laotian government still went out with a full denial of any knowledge as to why Sombath Somphone was detained…by their own officers. Since then, there has been no sign of the director, and no explanation as to why he disappeared.
Just weeks before, another activist had a run-in with the Laotian authorities – the director of the Swiss NGO Helveta, Anne-Sophie Gindroz, were expelled with a 24-hour warning for writing a critical letter.
The Laotian government explained that she “dismayed” the government with her “improper behavior.” Whatever that means – a quite surprising argumentation for throwing a peaceful activist out of a country.
Somehow , though, Laos has still managed to successfully present themselves as a charming little nation with a slow pace and idyllic farm life for the ever-smiling population. Relaxation, leisure and spirituality are key words in any glittered tourist brochure on Laos.
Truth is that the life in Laos is far from idyllic, and the pace is very, very far from slow. Since the 90s, the Laotians have built dams, constructed hydropower plants and made deals with neighbors Thailand, China and Vietnam so efficiently that the economy is today the fastest growing economy in ASEAN.
The country has recently joined the World Trade Organization, hosted an ASEM-summit – the biggest diplomatic event ever to take place in the country – and they have co-signed a range of international agreements, putting them into a world market that they could only dream of entering just a few years ago.
The main reason for the excellent economical performance is the energy sector. 30 percent of the country´s BNP comes out of natural resources converted into energy, mainly hydro electricity from plants and dams on Mekong and it´s many tributaries.
And while making this profit and shining in the spotlight of international recognition, Laos – quite on par with the behavior in the cases of Somphone and Gindroz – ignores that there are people living on and off these rivers.
Right now, Laos is constructing a dam called the Xayaburi Dam. Since the proposal of the project in 2007 it has been met with protests from experts, governments, activists, NGOs…pretty much everyone, who knows anything about water: It will hurt the migration of fish, it will endanger a number of species of fish – including the rockstar of Mekong; the Mekong giant catfish – and it will affect crops cultivated in and near the river. WWF estimates that a whopping 60 million people will be affected by the dam in its present form.
Naturally, there are negotiations going on, both with international experts and with the neighboring countries, on how to construct the dam with minimal damage. Both Vietnam and Cambodia have officially called for a halt in construction.
The Laotian response? Well. They ignore all the fuss and carry on building.
Laos has risen from dirt-poverty into a flourishing trading nation, and the fact that it will hurt some groups in the population – namely the poor and the minorities – seems to be of minor importance. The logic is: You cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs.
But you know what, Laos? Economy is not an omelet and people are not eggs. There are ways to have economic growth without shattering the lives of the most vulnerable groups in your nation.
It is so, though, that the cases of horrible governance, the breaches of basic human rights, the bypassing of negotiations and good advice – all these things factor in, when you new lucrative, international friends are to do business with you.
You don´t seem to realize it, but the spotlight is on you now, Laos. What are you going to do with it?
Anya Palm, Journalist and NIAS Associate
One of the paradoxes that COP17 left us with to solve is that of how to really understand China as a global climate change player. China has become more and more sure of herself both politically and economically in any global setting. But when it comes to global climate change politics, we see a very careful and non-committing China. At home China is, however, doing quite a lot to transform the Chinese economy from brown growth to green growth as the recent five-year plan revealed as well as the figures for investments in renewables, where China is among the biggest investors in the world and leading in some technologies. Why is it then so difficult for China at the global stage to act more in accordance with national actions? The world would surely welcome it! More than that, the world expects it, and is not late to shame China for any failures in global negotiations as happened after the breakdown of COP15. Here, it is not so important whether or not China was to blame, the point is, that Chinese leaders were very surprised and had a hard time understanding this negative campaigning. At COP16 and COP17 it was clear that China had done a lot to prevent a similar negative campaigning. Chinese public statements about Chinese climate policies has since become very positive and open – but they still sound hollow as only national not global action is taken by China. And the world has become increasingly aware that other important players should also be held accountable for the lack of success in global climate talks; namely the USA, Canada, India and Russia.
Much of the confusion over China can be found in misperceptions over Chinese international policies and priorities. (Communist) China is still a relatively young actor in global politics, and on many issues, the Chinese position seems to be: leave domestic matters for ourselves to work out. A question of classic sovereignty as defined by Morgenthau. Chinese leaders make us believe that China is indeed a unitary actor. So when China is put under international pressure to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and commit to a global legally binding agreement, many fail to understand how fragmented China really is, and how difficult it is for China to undertake a needed transformation from a coal based to a sustainable economy.
And although climate change politics is one of the Chinese leadership’s main concerns, it is primarily a domestic concern related to three interlinked issues; energy security, sustainable economic development, and social stability and progress. China’s primary international concern is, however, to protect China’s sovereignty. Within China there are many diverging interests and understandings of climate change. Regions, cities, Chinese and foreign companies as well as NGO’s each play their different part in China’s economic, social, and environmental development. Officially these non-state actors cannot play a role in Chinese foreign policy, but they are still part of what frames the international understanding that China is becoming greener, because the green actors and the central government have an interest in showcasing their green development – thereby attracting investments or gaining other co-benefits such as better public health.
Other actors in the coal industry and the majority of the production economy dependent on cheap and accessible energy should also be taken into account. These actors protect their vested interests and fight against moving too fast from a brown to a green economy. And coal is still by far the largest energy source in China.
So there are many incentives for the Chinese leaders to present China as green and going green, but it is far harder to achieve, because of the fragmented domestic scene.
The major reason, however, for Chinese lack of global commitment is that an eventual implementation of a global legally binding climate change agreement will clash with priority number one: sovereignty. And it will furthermore have enormous consequences for China’s role in the developing world.
In the global institutional framework being negotiated there is a pressure from most of the developed world, including USA and Canada, to agree on a global standardisation of how to measure and report GHG levels and reductions. The argument is simple and persuasive: If we don’t have the same measures globally we will not be sure that we’re doing enough – we won’t even be sure about what needs to be done. This principle is called MRV – Measure, Report, Validate – and this clashed with the Chinese understanding of sovereignty in such a degree, that China is fighting the principle of MRV with all means. The Chinese leaders all to vividly imagine what the consequences would be, if an international corps of GHG-controllers were allowed to enter China and validate the Chinese statistics with access to even the smallest coal plant and factory. This in itself is not so scary, but the dangers are many; Chinese statistics could be full of mistakes (deliberate or not), which would mean more international shaming, but the biggest danger is that the principle of the international community gaining access to China to validate progress on a certain policy area means that soon enough, human rights would be mentioned as the next area.
A different kind of consequence of a Chinese commitment to a global legally binding agreement is that of a change in definitions of equity. One of China’s main arguments against Chinese commitment is framed as common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) meaning basically that climate change is a global problem and common for all to share the burden, but the developed world must bare the biggest burden and do most since historically and per capita the developed world is more responsible, etc.
China is still aligned with the developing world on this issue. But if China really opened up for discussions on binding commitments, equity and CBDR would have to be reinterpreted; by asking if equity is the same for all developing countries – are there not a substantial difference between the small island states and e.g. China, which would then – more true to China’s economic size and growth rates categorise China as an emerging economy? It would split up the world in many more categories than just the developed and developing countries with a much more differentiated understanding of responsibility than is currently attached to the principle of equity and CBDR.
Furthermore, a China with a different global identity will probably lose her ability to act as a leader of the developing world in international forums like the UN. And China would lose her status as a developing country within the WTO, which would mean losing benefits of subsidies, the ability to keep tariffs. And maybe China would also be more easily pressured into letting the currency float. This is in this light we must understand Obama’s phrasing of China as a grown-up.
So for all these reasons and Chinese imaginations of “what could go wrong”, China is doing what is possible domestically but resisting a global legally binding agreement on fighting climate change.
Department of Political Science
By Kristina Jönsson
Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science, Lund University.
Elections tend to receive a lot of media attention these days—Laos being an obvious exception. Still, in recent months two elections have taken place in Laos, one to the National Assembly (NA) and one to the Party Congress. Even if they by nature do not deliver any major surprises, they still say something about politics in Laos.
The election to the Lao National Assembly was held on April 30. Out of 190 candidates 132 members were elected—all were pre-selected by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party except five independent candidates. Of the elected members 31.8% were from the government and 68.18% from local authorities (75% were male and 25% female, a bit short of the goal to have 30% women in the Assembly). According to the newspaper Vientiane Times, the election results were quite impressive—99.6% of the eligible voters cast their ballots (!), and the “voters showed great enthusiasm in exercising their political rights to ensure qualified personnel elected to the NA”. In June the National Assembly will formally adopt the new government.
But those being familiar with Lao politics know that the real policymakers were elected already in March at the 9th Party Congress. At the congress 576 delegates represented 191,780 party members nationwide (out of a 6 million population), and they re-elected the 75-year old Choummaly Sayasone—also president of the country—as party secretary general. Members to the Politburo (11) and the Central Committee (61) were also elected. Interestingly, an increasing number of the elected members hold doctoral degrees.
It is quite obvious that the elections, which take place every five years, will not lead to any radical changes in politics or in power dynamics. However, it is expected that a new and younger generation of party technocrats gradually will take over the leadership of the ruling party, which probably will allow for more open discussions. Already now corruption and complaints of inefficient implementation of laws are being publicly discussed. But of course political opposition is still not allowed and media is under state control.
Economic circle in Indochina. Click here for larger picture. Picture by Kristina Jönsson.
A perhaps more significant dimension of Lao politics is the relationship with China and Vietnam. In December 2010, the previous Prime Minister Bouasone Bouphavanh unexpectedly resigned, and Thongsing Thammavong, previously National Assembly president, assumed the post. Some analysts say the change indicated a shift from China towards Vietnam—while others say that would be to miss nuances of Lao politics. There could be some truth in it though, as the presence of China in Laos has increased in recent years through business collaboration and large infrastructure projects but also in other fields, such as education and training. The Lao population has voiced their concern about the “invasion” from the big neighbour in the north, and it is possible that the leadership wanted to address this in some way.
The biggest challenge facing Lao policymakers today is how to develop the country economically. Laos is one of the least developed countries in Southeast Asia, and the aim of the government is to lift Laos from the least-developed nation status by 2020—primarily through selling off natural resources, such as timber, mining and hydropower. At the party congress in March, the party approved measures to “boost” the development (further). Laos has experienced a high economic growth the last few years and is expected to continue this year (7%- 8% GDP growth rate). But many worry about the management of the big influx of foreign investments and about environmental consequences. Take the Xayaburi dam building for example. Laos wants to become “the battery of the region” through the exploitation of hydropower—primarily by selling electricity to Thailand and Vietnam. However, the neighbouring countries, and environmentalists alike, have increasingly challenged this strategy. There are already four dams in China (and four more are planned), but Xayabury would be the first dam to affect the lower Mekong and the consequences are feared to be devastating. A report by the Mekong River Commission, of which Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand are members, states that 23-100 fish species are endangered and consequently also the livelihood and food security of the people in the region, as fish migration will be disrupt. In addition, soil will not reach the presently very fertile Vietnamese Mekong delta. Laos has reluctantly agreed to postpone the construction of the Xayaburi dam after the criticism, but for how long is not clear. The plan is to develop 70 hydro projects, 10 are already in operation and five are under construction—only in Laos!
The pressure on the government is mounting. Economic development is a top priority, but the road towards a higher income level is bumpy. Inequalities are increasing in Laos, even if poverty reduction has been successful at an aggregate level, and the government eventually needs to cater for all people not to loose legitimacy. In other words, the government needs to balance between economic development of the country and the development of its people—and to keep up good relations with the neighbouring countries at the same time. We may not expect any “flower revolution” in a foreseeable future, but that does not mean that there are no (political) changes in Laos. They are just expressed in a more subtle way than in many other places.