Disappearance in Laos signals authoritarian backlash

“The disappearance nearly one month ago of Sombath Somphone, a United States-trained agriculture specialist who led one of the most successful nonprofit organizations in Laos, has baffled his family and friends and raised alarms that a nascent liberalization of the Communist-ruled country could be sliding backward,” The New York Times reports:

Mr. Sombath, 60, who won many awards for his public service, was known to be nonconfrontational and adept at forging compromises with the authoritarian government of Laos. ……The disappearance has set off an enormous campaign by Mr. Sombath’s large network of friends and aid workers across Southeast Asia who know him from his development work.

The campaign has put Laos, an obscure country run by an opaque Communist party, under increasing pressure to provide answers. The country has taken halting steps to modernize its one-party system in recent years but has also cracked down on dissent, and its security services have been linked to a series of politically motivated assassinations in neighboring Thailand.

Laos is one of a growing number of states to “have enacted or proposed new laws and regulations which diminish the legal space in which civil society can operate,” according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.

The regime has made tentative steps towards replicating the Market-Leninist model of neighboring Vietnam – liberalizing the economy while maintaining a Communist party dictatorship. The authorities’ determination to maintain close surveillance of potentially dissenting citizens may have backfired, says Times reporter Thomas Fuller:

Paradoxically for the Lao government, it is a network of cameras that the municipal police installed over the past three years to monitor “anti-social behavior” that have pointed to signs of the government’s involvement in Mr. Sombath’s disappearance.

Helpful workers at a local police station initially showed the family images of Mr. Sombath’s jeep stopped at a police checkpoint on the evening of Dec. 15. Mr. Sombath then appeared to be driven off in a white vehicle.

Family members had the presence of mind to record the footage with their own digital devices — crucial because the government now refuses to let them view the video again despite pleas by diplomats who would like to analyze it for clues like license plates. (The video is now circulating on YouTube (above) and is also available at sombath.org, a site put up by Mr. Sombath’s friends and dedicated to tracing his whereabouts).


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Democratic Transitions in the Arab World: Tunisia as a Model?

Transitional justice, security sector reforms, the role of international actors in advancing Arab democracy, and relations between Islamists and secularists will be among the issues to be addressed at a forthcoming conference on Democratic Transitions in the Arab World: Tunisia as a Model?

Over 200-300 international experts, scholars, politicians, and democracy activists are expected to attend this international conference, from Tunisia and from outside Tunisia, to shed light on the main issues and challenges facing Tunisia and the rest of the post-revolutionary Arab Spring countries, and to discuss lessons learned from democratic transitions in other countries.  The conference will last two days, and registration is required.  Keynote invited speakers, and a more detailed program will be announced before the end of January.

Paper proposals are invited from prospective participants on the following four broad topics related to the main conference theme.  Papers can be presented in either English or Arabic (simultaneous translation will be provided).  Prospective presenters are also welcome to submit papers that fall outside these topics, but must establish their relevance to the broader conference theme:

Paper proposals (no more than 400 words) are due by January 20, 2013 and should be sent in either Arabic or English to:

E-mail: CSID_Tunisia_conference2013@islam-democracy.org

Authors of accepted proposals will be notified by January 31, 2013 and final papers must be submitted by March 1, 2013.

All participants, panelists, and speakers must cover their own travel and accommodations to participate in the conference, and pay the $150 conference registration fee ($100 for CSID Members) by March 10 (or they will be removed from the program)Speakers and panelists (only) coming from outside Tunisia will receive a contribution of $500 from CSID-Tunisia to help defray travel expenses.

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NGOs call on US to combat human trafficking

Today is international Human Trafficking Awareness Day – no more appropriate day to view Radio Free Asia’s award-winning series (above) on the issue.  

“Nonprofits are asking the Obama administration to renew the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which would provide resources for those trying to protect the 27 million people who are considered modern-day slaves engaged in forced labor and sex,” the Huffington Post reports

Congress allowed the TVPA to expire in 2011 after years of bipartisan support, leaving programs that fight trafficking at risk, according to a release from the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST). Nonprofits say the political inertia is stalling real progress. 

Victims of human trafficking are highlighted in a recent report from the Washington-based Solidarity Center, an institute of the National Endowment for Democracy, which funds programs combatting human trafficking in Vietnam, Latin America and Caribbean and Russia.

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Who funds Egypt’s Islamists?

If hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, the double standards of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood may be another factor in the growing public hostility toward the group.

“In Egypt, a strange situation has emerged after the revolution,” commentators observe.

Political parties are subject to government supervision and required to divulge their funding sources – except for Islamist groups.

“Officials of these parties refuse to declare their sources of funding, while they spend millions of pounds before our eyes every day,” according to Alaa Al-Aswany.

“The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists are buying hundreds of buildings in the governorates of Egypt with money of an unknown source,” he writes on ALMonitor:

It is enough to know that the Muslim Brotherhood owns 1,375 headquarters across Egypt, and that the main Brotherhood headquarters in the Muqattam district of Cairo alone was built at a cost of 30 million Egyptian pounds [$4.7 million]…..During the elections, the Brotherhood and Salafists handed out thousands of tons of free food to the poor in order to buy out their votes, and sometimes have subsidized the price of gas in a way that the state is unable to.

“We have repeatedly asked the Brotherhood and Salafist leaders to disclose their sources of funding, and each time they get angry and respond by directing insults and accusations against us,” they say.

The Brotherhood and its Salafist allies enthusiastically supported the prosecution of pro-democracy NGOs on the grounds that the wholly transparent foreign funding compromised Egypt’s sovereignty and advanced the interests of external powers. But they appear to have no such qualms about the opaque sources of foreign funding from the Gulf and elsewhere for Islamist groups.

“The use of anonymous sources of funding by Islamist parties undermines and endangers the state’s sovereignty and dignity, because it allows foreign parties to control the course of events in Egypt,” according to Abboud, Tanoukhi, Khoury and Ghoussoub:

Before the revolution, Salafist associations used to seek permission from the Ministry of Social Solidarity in order to obtain funding from Gulf figures and associations. … However, when Mubarak stepped down, the Brotherhood and Salafists forged an alliance with the military council based on mutual benefits. … As a result of this alliance, the council has completely ignored the Brotherhood and Salafists’ sources of funding.

On Feb. 21, 2011, the Ministry of Social Solidarity approved the amount of 296 million Egyptian pounds [$46.3 million], which was provided by the Gulf to a Salafist association as funding. …. They claimed that they spent 30 million pounds [$4.7 million] for the purposes of orphans and care for the poor. As for the rest of the amount, the association said it was used for “different development purposes.”


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