“We are poor, not blind”: Opinion Piece
By: Dr. Maydom Chanthanasinh
(KPL) In recent weeks, the Government of Lao PDR (GoL), has received a visit from a UN Special Rapporteur (SR), who holds a mandate on extreme poverty and human rights.
According to information posted on his Facebook and Website, the SR has been travelling to parts (Attapeu and Huaphan provinces) of Laos, meeting government agencies and local authorities during his 11-day visit.
At the end of his mission, the SR produced a 23 page “end of mission statement”, one that seems to have been prepared beforehand, perhaps rather filled with words of frustrations and ill intentions from the NGOs abroad, with just small and carefully picked out segments of words, from just a few of the many people he encountered during his mission, that served his true purpose of attacking the very Government that has opened its arms to him, those biasedly selected words were just to add salt to the wounds rather than adding any credibility to his so-called “UN mission”.
There are a lot to digest, his end of mission statement, his news release (derived hugely from the end of mission statement) and his free for all buffet press conference of blame and shame at the UN house on the 28 March 2019.
Watching his live streamed press conference, as a Lao person, I would have liked to jump at the opportunity to refute and defend against his ignorant and biased claims at the very first instance, but it was impossible without physically being present and also careful examination and research needed to be done before debunking these NGOs’ pre-paid statements.
At the time of writing this Opinion Piece, I was hugely tempted to tackle the claims made one by one, but an opinion piece has its boundaries that need to be complied, though it must be balanced for the readers’ sake of being better informed.
To be fair, there are some facts that have been used in the said statement. But according to the government official who made an intervention at the press conference and from whom I decided to seek further views for this Opinion Piece, there were many other factors and explanations by the GoL that have been omitted, seemingly done on purpose.
The official said that some useful recommendations were also included, but it is a shame that the overwhelming emphasis on attacking the Lao government might have casted a shadow too vast and dark for those recommendations to find any significant light of attention. Therefore, I have decided to make some small investigation of my own, albeit one that is not as well facilitated as that of the Special Rapporteur, some contrasting truths have emerged here.
It ought to begin with briefly looking back at the historical facts, Laos and its people were under foreign influence and rule for a very long period of its history, during which the rights of the people were virtually non-existent as they were treated as subjects of abuse and exploitations. Then came the mass destruction of war, from 1964-1973 the country and its people endured so much gruesome devastations that poverty and grave-danger were a norm, safety and security were by chance, and making a normal living was a pipe dream.
I believe the Lao people remembers who to “thank” for that enforced poverty. “…they were trying to bomb us back to the Stone Age…” said an older man I used to know and respect, who lost his sanity and eventually his life to two of those bombs (on two separate occasions). Even today, those remnants of war (UXOs) still haunt (kill, injure and maim) Lao people to this day.
“…I also know that the remnants of war continue to shatter lives here in Laos. Many bombs that were dropped were never exploded. Over the years, thousands of Laotians have been killed or injured –farmers tending their fields, children playing…” President Obama said in his remarks to Laos on 6 September 2016, in Vientiane.
“… the socio-economic impact of UXO contamination means that people lack confidence in the safety of their land, which in turn has negative impacts on the income of rural farmers and their families and inhibits the development of the whole country…” UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon said in Vientiane on 7 September 2016, and Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator and Chair of the Development Group stated that “the national designation of an MDG 9 [reducing the impact of UXO] was an important Lao national innovation. It highlighted an additional formidable challenge which the country faces – that of an estimated 8.7 million hectares of land contaminated by UXOs…”
These are some examples of many other significant figures that have similar views on the seriousness of UXOs and its hampering effects on poverty reduction in Laos. Yet, the SR has managed to dismiss UXOs as a non-poverty issue during his press conference as well as in his written statement, and discredited the UN and other development partners’ work in this area, by falsely mortifying all those who have been working with Laos for the very purpose of development for the people and freeing them from UXOs. This is a direct insult to those who have been working very hard to solve this problem and those who have lost so much and remain in grief and poverty because of UXOs.
Looking at the attacking comments of the SR, they seem rather petty than critical. For example, the SR claims that there is no evidence of the government’s policies benefiting the people in the real world, not exactly certain which world he’s been visiting. I have been living in the country all my life which is much longer than the SR’s 11 day visit, I can attest to that things in reality are different from the SR’s ignorant descriptions and surely it is the policies of the GoL that have resulted in the social, economic and poverty reduction progresses that the country has made over the past four decades.
In 1995, the UN adopted two definitions of poverty: absolute poverty and overall poverty. Many wrongful accusations from the SR regarding the GoL’s policies and implementations were about the GoL’s efforts to eradicate those two and all forms of poverty. Of course, being a LDC means those efforts and its execution cannot match those of the more developed countries. Nevertheless, they should not be painted as evil schemes to further “entrench poverty”. Many other factors and specific characteristics of Laos have also been neglected in the SR’s polarized report.
Laos has many mountainous areas, and many of the ethnic groups live their lives well deep into the remote and difficult-to-access shades of the hills and cliffs. By the internationally recognized definitions, these people are extremely poor, but in reality they are used to these conditions and have been living comfortably despite lacking many of the modern world’s basic demands. Slash and burn cultivation was a way of life for some groups that needed to be changed for the collective wellbeing of all Lao multi-ethnic people.
With limited resources of the Lao PDR, the UNTAD’s consistent advice to the GoL was to prioritize and allocate them accordingly. Asking for foreign loans to invest for the poor may have the same appeal as asking for charity. Building infrastructure on the other hand, might be better received, while conditions attached are often limiting the GoL to prioritize enhancing the existing structure rather than scattering effort to reach all population just for the sake of it. As such, clustering and consolidating villages is the best possible way to provide a wider reach of access to infrastructures and social services. This is difficult but necessary for all people in general, to adapt to new conditions and way of life, be it the poor or not so poor.
Many people who are used to living freely in the unclaimed land and forest, have had difficulties in abandoning slash and burn cultivation and other illegal cultivation or hunting of wildlife. It can be observed in the media that the GoL have held many dissemination campaigns as well as trainings to try to calve out these prohibited old ways and to help ease their transition into modern, legal and more productive cultivation. Other campaigns have been made to help the people be more adaptive to a better way of life, including sanitation, health care and education for children.
The SR seems to have suggested that the GoL leave them where they were originally, and just provide basic services (which would be too costly and difficult to reach), while allowing them to continue to go on with their old and harmful ways of life (e.g. deforestation, hunting of endangered wildlife, leave women to give birth in the forests, child marriages and so on).
In terms of human rights, according to the official who I talked to, the GoL has always tried to uphold its international human rights obligations, be that as it may it is less than perfect, but no country on earth can claim otherwise. Changes can be seen on the Constitution and legislations that have adopted international human rights concepts, principles and clauses into its provisions, some laws have also included human rights related terms and offenses.
In practice, consultations and dissemination campaigns (including through various Medias and community speakers) have been held, also training workshops for law schools, and government officials have also been conducted over the past decade. We are learning as we go and it is important that we are moving forward steadily without drastic changes that may not match the desire of our people, said the official.
In so many words, the SR has “entrenched” himself as an accuser and judge. There are more constructive and useful ways to be critical, but his “news release” has shown that his mind had been made up before ever coming to Laos, his words crafted by some NGOs who have been looking from the outside-in and kept trying to survive and make themselves be present and relevant for their own gains. Anyone can make baseless allegations, the worse is that this UN man hides behind his UN cloaks while trying to hold the rest of us accountable for our true opinions. Though gradually declines, poverty in Laos is still real, it is easy to throw the blame around and leave, but nothing ever gets solved by doing just that. It is a shame that the UN’s Special Procedure has been turned into just another mud-throwing festival for the arrogant few that can afford to.
 Summary report of the National Technical Capacity Building Workshop on Fostering Productive Capacities and Structural Economic Transformation in Lao PDR: Implications for Graduation from LDC category, 29-30 August 2018, Vientiane, Lao PDR