Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

The Laos files from WikiLeaks underscored the country’s underdevelopment, endemic corruption in the bureaucracy and the fragile state of its environment. But we already know that. What makes the cables interesting is the kind of frankness that we don’t often get to see or hear from diplomats’ public statements.

For example, here’s how the US Embassy in Vientiane described the poor and unequal economic conditions in the country:

‘Although GoL (Government of Laos) ministers and officials with salaries of less than S75 per month sport villas and cars worthy of Monte Carlo, GDP per capita is still officially less than $400…Unemployment is epidemic, underemployment is endemic, crime is rising, and the investment climate is among the least hospitable in the world.

‘There is almost no rule of law or basic human freedom in Laos, and education is in the hands of a corrupt and ideologically hidebound ministry that uses ADB money to build a grandiose but unnecessary new ministry building while rural children sit on logs and try to remember what a teacher looked like.’

One report even declared a ‘direct consequence of decades of abuse of power is that there is no public trust’ and that ‘government officials are presumed to be corrupt unless proven otherwise.’

These corrupt officials apparently approved the implementation of several development projects that are hurting the poor:

‘Intent on giving an open door to some foreign investors, the government has few compunctions about trampling on its own citizens, ignoring their traditional lands and livelihoods and utter dependence on their environment for their survival. In the near-absence of meaningful rule of law, those affected are at the mercy of sometimes venal, usually uncaring, bureaucrats administering the land use system. As Laos’ reputation grows as an “easy” place for investors in sectors like hydropower, plantation forests and mining, more and more of Laos’ poorest citizens are likely to find themselves dispossessed of their traditional lands.’

It’s important to highlight that China, which shares land borders with Laos, is the biggest investor in northern Laos. It has cornered the big item land development projects which, according to WikiLeaks, have seriously damaged the environment. But would environmental preservation really still be a major concern if the investors were Americans and not Chinese?

Meanwhile, even the conduct of elections in Laos was indirectly criticized in the WikiLeaks cables

‘By-and-large, Lao citizens took the election seriously, as a matter of national pride. Voters were expected to show their regard for the electoral process. Women who showed up to polling stations wearing slacks or “improper” dress were sent home. In spite of the guarantee of a “secret” ballot, election officials were on hand to inspect each ballot to make sure the voters took their responsibility seriously and voted correctly.’

But there were also cable reports that recognized some achievements by the Laos government especially on its success in reducing opium cultivation in the country. From the late 1980’s until 2005, Laos was the third largest producer of opium poppy in the world. But the aggressive anti-opium drive of the local government, which received significant assistance from the US government, has effectively weakened the poppy cultivation industry in the country.

As far as Laos is concerned, WikiLeaks has no startling revelations to offer other than to confirm what we already know about this small, landlocked country in Southeast Asia. It must be emphasized, too, that the cables merely reflect what Washington considers important in deciding the future of its relationship with Laos. They don’t necessarily represent what Laotians really feel and think about their present and future.

Written for The Diplomat

Cambodia’s Overcrowded Prisons

According to human rights group Licadho, prison occupancy in Cambodia is alarmingly close to 180 percent, making the country’s prison system among the 25 most overcrowded in the world. The group warned that if reforms aren’t immediately implemented to curb the prison population boom, Cambodia’s prison system could end up being the most overcrowded in the world as soon as 2019.

Licadho said that as of April this year, Cambodia’s total prison population stood at 15,001, which was a 12.6 percent increase compared with last year. The records of Cambodia’s General Department of Prisons showed that they processed 6,836 new admissions last year, which represented almost half the prison population.

Seven years ago, Licadho notified authorities that the 18 prisons monitored by the group were already filled to capacity and called for drastic judicial reforms to reduce the number of inmates in dilapidated prison cells. But it seems their petition went unheeded because the number of prisoners has continued to rise, despite the absence of programmes to expand and improve the country’s prison facilities.

Based on Licadho’s documentation, there are three factors that contributed to the prison overcrowding in Cambodia: The practice of detaining those who can’t pay criminal fines, a pilot programme in which pre-trial inmates were transferred to a community drug detention centre, and the use of prison sentences that aren’t commensurate with the crimes committed.

Human rights advocates have raised concerns that people convicted of minor crimes are handed excessively long prison sentences. For example, a juvenile in Sihanoukville was sentenced to six months imprisonment for breaking a window. In Svay Rieng, an 18-year-old man was arrested last year for stealing a chicken and was sentenced to a year in prison. In Kampong Cham, a man was arrested and charged with stealing a bottle of cooking oil and was later convicted and sentenced to seven months in jail for theft.

As a preliminary reform measure, Licadho proposed that a nationwide survey of the country’s prisons be conducted by the government and preferably assisted by an international partner in order to determine the system’s true capacity. Next, the government should ‘compile a reliable and accurate profile of the prison population to help inform criminal justice policy decisions.’ The evaluation of the prison population should include details such as sentence length and the age of offenders.

Licadho also reminded the government that the practice of detaining individuals who can’t afford to pay fines costs the state more money because of the expense of incarceration. Instead of automatic imprisonment for every offense committed, they suggested the use of non-custodial sentences as a possible response to petty crimes.

Licadho believes that alternative sentencing measures could the reduce prison population by half. They added that ‘judicious use of prosecutions’ can be easily accomplished if government is ready to provide adequate resources to the courts, police and other institutions of the judiciary. This is necessary so that ‘clear processes and procedures for monitoring adherence to non-custodial sentences’ can be established.

The government should seriously consider the recommendations submitted by Licadho, especially the development of a probation department and the use of alternative sentencing, if it wants to improve the country’s prison system. Otherwise, it will end up having to keep converting abandoned buildings into makeshift prison cells as it has had to in Pailin City.

Written for The Diplomat

2 Responses to “WikiLeaks on Laos”

  1. […] this entry through the RSS 2.0 […]

    Hmong News - WikiLeaks on Laos - Hmong People, Hmong Culuture

  2. Very interesting post, thanks for sharing, u did a very good job.
    I’ve found this webpage related to Lao WikiLeaks and analysis:

    Hope this might interest your readers as well.


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