VIENTIANE - Amid an unprecedented
flurry of public debate and critique of government
policies and actions, Lao authorities abruptly
canceled a popular call-in radio program in late
January without any public explanation.
The program, Talk of the News, ran for
four consecutive years and encouraged the public
to comment on issues of the day through often
anonymous phone calls. The host, Ounkeo
Souksavanh, an urbane ex-print journalist found
himself uniquely enmeshed in the Lao population's
complaints and grievances.
overt corruption and land grabs were daily fare on
Talk of the News, a rarity in Laos' authoritarian
context. While many wondered when the boot would
drop on the program, Lao listeners had grown
accustomed to this point of light in the
government-controlled media landscape.
Summoned by the director of Lao National
Radio, Ounkeo was told that Minister of
Information, Culture and Tourism Bosengkham
Vongdara had issued the cancellation order. "I was
shocked. I had no warning," said Ounkeo. "Suddenly
I was told by the head of national radio that he
had been told to cancel my show. I think the order
came from high up in the Ministry of Information
and Culture," Ounkeo said.
"I take my
program from the daily news. I open the show by
reading out segments from the Lao press and then
open the lines for people to comment. Recently
people have been saying strange things. When many
nightclubs were re-opened, someone called to say,
'well what do you expect - you know who owns them'
and then he hung up." The rub was that they are
likely owned by senior government officials.
"Later, someone called me and warned me
not to give space to the public. But it's an open
line program, so people complain about many
things; the Vietnamese taking land from veterans
for a golf course, the loss of farming land on Don
Chang [an island outside of Vientiane]. What can I
Hopes that Laos may emulate Myanmar's
recent tentative moves to greater press freedom,
or that the ruling Communist Party might begin to
move towards more enlightened policies, have been
snuffed out with the program's closure. The
cancelation and continued human-rights abuses
indicate that democracy is still elusive.
"Who [demanded the closure] is not the
issue here, but there is no legal reasons at all.
There is no warning about the mistakes. This case
reflects that the Lao government limits on
people's freedom expression [and is] violating the
national constitution. It expresses that the power
belongs to only the government. In fact that the
constitution says power belong to people, by
people and for people [sic]" one anonymous fan
posted to the program's website.
used the anonymity of radio to bring into question
what one long time Vientiane observer has called
"patrimonial politics", referring to the dominance
of several influential families in Laos' politics
Some suggest the last straw
may have been a live-to-air interview with a
delegation of farmers from the Boloven plateau, a
well-known coffee growing region in the south.
They insisted that a Vietnamese coffee company had
been given permission to plant 150 hectares of
Over time, however, the area had
expanded into 1,000 hectares. The farmers alleged
the district governor had taken bribes from the
company to look the other way, and that he had
recently been seen driving a new luxury car, which
they insinuated was part of his pay-off.
That particular program attracted a huge
audience and might have contributed to the
subsequent deluge of the National Assembly's
hot-line with similar land-grabbing complaints.
Before the program's airing, Ounkeo had
already achieved a degree of Robin Hood-like fame
for giving voice to poor versus rich social
justice issues. For instance, he took his
microphone into the city's jail to interview a
woman wrongly accused of arson following a
neighborhood feud with a wealthy Lao family. The
woman was subsequently released.
show's cancelation caused unprecedented commentary
among Laos' online community. Members of Lao
Links, a Lao language online bulletin board,
expressed dismay and regret that "society won't be
able to listen to this program anymore because it
is as same as a big microphone to speak out about
social problems", one online contributor wrote.
"It's the hot issue on Lao Links right
now," engineer Khantone Soumiphone said. "We are
all wondering why it happened and we are very
concerned. It was the only source of interesting
news and discussion about important development
issues ... The government says it is
pro-development but closes the only program that
discusses the results. It doesn't make sense."
After the program's closure, Ounkeo held
discussions with European Union charge d'affaires
Michel Goffin, who apparently told him that the
issue of press freedom would be raised at the
forthcoming 9th Asia-Europe Summit (ASEM) to be
held in Vientiane in November. Goffin did not
answer this correspondent's request for
confirmation that he made the comment.
Ironically, some of the complaints raised
on Ounkeo's radio show were about the agricultural
land on Don Chang. A luxury hotel is scheduled to
be constructed in time for the ASEM meeting on
land that previously provided much of Vientiane's
Meanwhile, less than a week
after the program's cancelation, the front page
headline in Laos English language daily newspaper,
Vientiane Times, announced that the party was
poised to "bolster propaganda at grassroots
The Ministry of Information and
Culture's Propaganda and Training Board is "to
accelerate the establishment of mobile propaganda
teams ... to penetrate grassroots communities".
The new propaganda drive, some suggest, is a
government reaction to the open public hostility
to its policies and actions often aired on
Those grievances are
apparently mounting. It is an open secret that
many Lao provinces still function as modern-day
fiefdoms for Lao political leaders to extract
money and privilege. "Gate keeping, influence
peddling and rent seeking are national sports
disguised as development," said agro-economist
Jeff Casey from Bangkok.
While Laos' gross
domestic product has grown in recent years, so too
has the national Gini coefficient, a statistical
measure of economic inequality. Laos remains one
of the world's poorest countries and mushrooming
mansions owned by government officials and the
sheer number of new luxury cars on Vientiane's
roads have raised uncomfortable questions about
who are the real beneficiaries of the communist
leadership's development agenda.
residents believe that the party is rattled by the
spate of demonstrations against official abuse in
neighboring Vietnam and the rise in local
complaints lodged via the National Assembly's
hot-line. Most of those complaints have focused on
a lack of government transparency, particularly on
land issues, and systemic corruption that Ounkeo's
program not so subtly suggested taints all levels
Beaumont Smith is
a freelance journalist.
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