Laos government cracks down on social media use

Laos government cracks down on social media use

In a recent attempt to crackdown on social media use, Laos’ officials have televised the public apology of three Laos nationals accused of having published anti-government Facebook posts. This has raised concerns over human rights violations, and is likely to have a negative impact on the country’s burgeoning economy.        

In late May, the Laotian government broadcast the public apology of three Laos nationals on state television.

Somphone Phimmasone, Lodkham Thammavong and Soukan Chaithad were arrested in March as they arrived into Laos from Thailand, where all three worked. Their appearance on television was the first time they had been seen by friends and family since their arrest.

A threat to national security

The three were accused of threatening national security by posting critical content about the Laos government on Facebook. The posts related to instances of government corruption and human rights violations, and were sent while the accused were based in Thailand.

Dressed in prison clothes and surrounded by prison officials, the detained nationals apologised for their behaviour. Somphone Phimmasone stated, “from now on I will behave very well, change my attitude and stop all activities that betray the nation”.

A narrator stated, “Everyone who uses social media such as Facebook should be careful”.

In September 2014, a decree was signed into law that prohibits online criticism of the Laos government.

It is believed this was a response to the rapid growth of social media users in Laos, which grew from 60,000 in 2011, to 400,000 in 2013.

Tightening up Internet laws

The law, which came into effect on October 1st 2014, states that those using the Internet will face criminal charges for publishing untrue information about the government for the purpose of undermining the country.

The decree also requires Internet users to use their real names when setting up social media accounts, and can punish anybody encouraging terrorism or social unrest, or circulating national secrets.

It is believed Laos’ officials took the lead from Vietnam, which introduced a similar decree to control social media use in September 2013.

A potentially negative impact

US President Barack Obama is expected to visit Laos in late 2016, following his successful visit to Vietnam in May. If his trip goes ahead as planned, he will be the first US President to ever visit the country.

It is likely Laos’ officials will take this opportunity to enhance economic and political relations between the two countries. However, the United States is renowned for attaching certain conditions to increased aid and other economic benefits. It would be surprising if an improvement in the country’s human rights record were not one of these conditions.

With the visit looming, it is therefore in the Laotian government’s best interests to tackle instances of oppression and human rights violations.

Admittedly, Vietnam made little attempt to do the same, and yet still benefited greatly from President Obama’s recent visit.

However, Laos is of less strategic importance than Vietnam, and is unlikely to factor majorly into US plans to counter Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. Laos cannot therefore expect to receive the same preferential treatment as Vietnam recently has.

Laos also needs to consider the impact of its measures on its economy.

Laos is a growing economy, with GDP growth at 6.7% in 2015, a drop of nearly 1% from the previous year. Laos has struggled to tackle corruption, poor transparency, constraining non-tariff barriers, and slow economic liberalisation.

With foreign investment stagnating, economic reforms and an improved human rights record will be important tools for economic revitalisation.

Ultimately, these should be prioritised, rather than abandoned.


Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Laura Southgate

Dr Laura Southgate is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University in Birmingham, United Kingdom. She has a PhD in International Relations from the University of Otago, New Zealand, and an MA in International Relations and Security, and a BA in Law and Politics, from the University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the international relations and security of Southeast Asia.