- Activists, journalists, environmental lawyers and others who raise attention for environmental issues in the Mekong region say they feel threatened by authoritarian governments.
- Environment defenders say they feel under surveillance and at risk both in their home countries and abroad.
- The risks they face include violence and arrests, as well as state-backed harassment such as asset freezes and smear campaigns.
While attending a recent United Nations forum, Toto, a Lao environmental activist, had an opportunity to meet with a U.N. special rapporteur in person. In the end, he decided not to do so.
“It would be great to meet him, but it would be dangerous for me,” says Toto, who like all Mekong-based activists interviewed for this story asked for a pseudonym to avoid government reprisals.
“I was afraid meeting him would make it even harder to do what I am doing now,” Toto says.
Souk, another Lao environmental activist, found herself in the same boat as Toto: They were both scared when they were asked to introduce themselves while participating in various activities at the U.N. forum. “Being seen as attending human rights events would put us at risk,” Souk says.
On paper, U.N. protocols protect participants in U.N. human rights forums from reprisals, but this doesn’t necessarily provide activists with solace. Their concerns stem from harsh realities. In May, a well-known young Lao activist, Anousa Luangsuphom, was shot in the face and chest, sending shockwaves to the public at home and abroad.
“We all know that our government is involved in it,” Toto says.
Across the Lower Mekong countries, the voices of civil society actors have been progressively more curtailed and controlled. Activists, journalists, environmental lawyers and others who raise attention for environmental issues tell Mongabay they feel threatened by increasingly authoritarian governments.
In Laos, Toto and Souk have been struggling to strike a balance between expanding their work and maintaining their safety. Thanks to personal connections, Toto was made aware that his work to provide support to underprivileged people facing land rights issues had landed him on the watchlist of the local authorities. Having worked for a variety of local and international NGOs over the past decade, Souk says there are lots of gray areas in her work, since Lao NGOs are far from independent.
“There are so many unpredictable things in the NGO sector,” Souk says.
Similar to their counterparts in neighboring communist-ruled Vietnam, Lao NGOs can only operate under the control or supervision of state agencies. Laos’s 2017 Decree on Associations states: “the Government approves the official establishment of Associations and only the Government’s agencies have the right the approve the establishment of Association.”
A former U.S. diplomat, also speaking anonymously to avoid being denied entry to Vietnam in the future due to his media statements, says that despite international pressure, both Vietnam and Laos have been slow in reforming their laws on associations.
While Toto and Souk had not yet faced direct threats, the situation in Vietnam has been alarming.
Award-winning environmental champion Nguỵ Thị Khanh was sentenced to prison for tax evasion in June 2022. Khanh was released in May 2023, but Vietnamese authorities have continued to imprison other prominent environmental defenders. In September, Hoàng Thị Minh Hồng, director of Change, a Ho Chi Minh City-based nonprofit, was sentenced to three years in prison for tax evasion.
That same month, Ngô Thị Tố Nhiên, executive director of the Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition (VIET), was detained on the charge of “appropriating documents of state agencies.” Two contracted consultants were also detained for having provided internal documents from state-owned utility Vietnam Electricity (EVN) to Nhiên.
In both cases, police raided the offices and interrogated current or former staff members of the organizations the arrested advocates worked with. At the same time, the state-controlled media embarked on a campaign to justify the arrests.
When asked at a press conference about the arrests, Phạm Thu Hằng, a spokesperson for the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters, “We completely reject false information with bad intentions about Vietnam’s crime fighting and prevention activities as well as Vietnam’s relations.”
In the same vein, Tô Ân Xô, spokesperson for the Ministry of Public Security, said that after Nhiên’s arrest, some foreign media outlets and “reactionary” exile organizations had spread distorted information, accusing Vietnam of imprisoning environmental activists. “There is absolutely no truth to the claim of arresting environmental activists.”
“In Laos, we would never be able to see news on arrests of Vietnamese NGOs,” Souk says. “The government definitely censors it.” Aware of the censorship in Laos, activists like Souk and Toto have been following Thai media closely, as the Lao and Thai languages are mutually understandable.
Bin, a lawyer based in Yangon, says most lawyers involved in legal aid activities in Myanmar face threats, especially when supporting arrested individuals — and particularly political prisoners.
“The police are now watching people closely,” Bin says. “There are numerous checkpoints. One needs to always prepare [to] make up stories, in case they are interrogated by the police.”
Similarly, a Cambodian youth activist reports concerns about the escalating surveillance of activists in his country. His colleagues from a Phnom Penh-based NGO organized a peaceful workshop on environmental rights. The organizing team was secretly followed by the police, who obtained the training materials from trash cans as evidence of their alleged subversion.
“The police were able to obtain their workshop materials, which they had forgotten to destroy,” the activist says. “Then they used the materials to accuse the NGO of conspiring a ‘revolution.’”
The NGO has now ceased to operate.
“Revolution is a very sensitive word now in Cambodia,” the activist says.
In a recent webinar on civic engagement in natural resource management, Romchat Wachirarattanakornkul from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said comprehensive data on attacks against environmental rights defenders in the Asia-Pacific region remains sorely lacking.
However, reports from Forum Asia have shown an increase in lethal and nonlethal attacks on environmental defenders in Asia in general.
Kiên, a Hanoi-based environmental activist, says there’s some media coverage of arrested NGO leaders, but hardly any attention is given to staff members, who haven’t been arrested but still face many forms of harassment.
“For example, some NGO workers suddenly had their personal banks accounts frozen permanently right after their NGOs were closed, ” Kiên says. “Banks could not help them, since they were ordered by Vietnamese authorities to do so.”
In addition, when the top leader of a local NGO was arrested, all former and current full-time employees were summoned to a local police station for investigation of the NGO’s activities.
“There was no written order, and all the ‘invited’ staff were warned against contacting media and foreign embassies,” Kiên says.
Not safe overseas
Souk says that participating in international events must be approached with caution, noting that she’s wary of other Lao participants if she doesn’t know who they are.
“My colleagues have told me stories of security officers sent to international events to monitor Lao participants,” she says.
Thar is a Myanmar environmental defender based overseas. Her organization receives funding from an international organization to support at-risk activists who are still in Myanmar. For her, the major challenge comes from Western, mostly U.S., donors who want to have a list of all Myanmar beneficiaries. Identifying the recipients could potentially endanger them, Thar says.
“It is so hard to support them while disclosing them to the donors,” Thar says. “We are not even sure who would have access to the list.”
Recent developments in Thailand also speak volumes about the failure of the government there to protect exiled activists from fragile countries.
In April, Dương Văn Thái, a prominent Vietnamese dissident and refugee recognized by the UNHCR, was reportedly abducted outside Bangkok. In late 2021, the U.N. Refugee Agency strongly criticized the Thai government for having deported Cambodian activists back to their home country, where they were jailed shortly afterward.
Ploy, an activist from Thailand, says activists living in exile are in a precarious situation because there are no specific laws to protect them. “Indeed, there are a very limited number of initiatives to support exiled communities,” Ploy says.
Speaking up isn’t easy
“Many NGOs now rather take a risk-averse approach,” says Paul, a European consultant based in Laos.
Earlier this year, Paul contributed a report about illegal logging in Laos to a global research report. He says his former workplace, an international NGO based in Vientiane, asked him to do so anonymously so as to avoid upsetting Lao authorities. Paul attributes this to self-censorship, since a similar report was even presented to Lao officials without any issue when Paul worked for a state agency in Vientiane.
A Thai lawyer based in Chiang Mai with experience on environmental cases says NGOs have to pick their battles carefully due to fear of reprisals from Thai authorities. Her former workplace, which advocates for environmental rights, has faced harassment from the government. “Our boss told us to shut up so that the Thai government would not shut us down,” says the lawyer, now working as an independent legal consultant.
All Lower Mekong Region countries restrict freedom of the press to some degree, according to Reporters Without Borders, which surveyed 180 countries for its latest report. The worst offenders were Vietnam (ranked 178th), Myanmar (173) and Laos (160). Thailand and Cambodia rank 106th and 147th respectively. In addition, environmental defenders find it increasingly difficult to work online, as there’s also been a regression in internet freedom. According to the 2022 “Freedom on the Net” report, the internet in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar is rated as “not free,” while in Cambodia it’s rated as only “partly free.”
Maria, a Western consultant on Myanmar environmental issues based in a Lower Mekong country, says that as an international staffer, she faces less risk than Myanmar activists, and is thus more able and willing to attend international events and tries her best to speak on their behalf.
However, she says she’s worried about potential repercussions to her own situation if speaking up.
“I would lose my job, and my visa,” Maria says, adding she’s already considering changing her risk-ridden job.
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