Book Review: Laos, the Silent Repression

In December of 2012, Laotian authorities expelled Anne-Sophie Gindroz, the country director of the Swiss development organization Helvetas from the poverty-stricken nation, giving her 48 hours to get out, allegedly because she was disseminating anti-government propaganda.

Gindroz, now 50, has written an uncompromising 145-page account “Laos, the Silent Repression,” describing her experience. It is really more of a diary than an actual book. But it is a sad and dispiriting story of how the Laotian people are pushed from one corner of their landlocked country to another with little regard for their well-being. Their lives, according to Gindroz’ account, are being sacrificed to progress. And progress emphatically necessitates the despoliation of the environment.

Central to the story is the disappearance of Sombath Somphone on Dec. 15, 2012 – a week after Gindroz had been ordered out of the country. A popular and internationally known development expert and recipient of the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award and many other prestigious honors, Sombath disappeared almost prosaically as he was on his way home to dinner from his office, followed by his wife in another car. He stopped at a police checkpoint and was never seen again. There are suspicions that Sombath had aroused the antagonism of major land interests over his attempts to protect the interests of the largely rural peasant population. Because of his prominence, the disappearance has grown into an international issue that has deeply discredited the Laotian government.

But while the disappearance forms a major part of the book, chapter after chapter, Gindroz details the disheartening wreckage of a once-pleasant country that is being destroyed. Each day, without warning, the bulldozers would appear. Villagers would be given a few hours to collect belongings from homes they had lived in for decades and to get out. Their homes would be torn apart before their eyes.

“We arrive(d) full of confidence, due to our experience of living in this part of the world, and with a strong desire to discover new horizons. And also with a few idyllic preconceived notions collected from travel guides. Of course, since I have come here for work, I was briefed by my organization -- with, I must add, some details that rather puzzled me.”

She was informed about the Communist system, she said, and was well aware that power was concentrated in the hands of a political party. There were no alarming reports of huan rights abuses. At the time, Myanmar, the neighboring country, was the focus of human rights concerns.

But she found herself in the middle of a nightmare. In her job as development director for Helvetas, she said, Laotians never spoke spontaneously about land-grabbing issues or repression.

“It is a very deceiving picture,” she told an interviewer. “Laos is a beautiful country exuding social harmony and serenity. But when we dig a little deeper, there is a very dark side about which almost nothing is said, because there are no human rights organizations working in Laos. The local organizations are not authorized to deal with these issues, and big international organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have no access.”

Each new chapter contains a fresh outrage, including event the sprawling, traditional wooden home she, her husband and children had taken.

“On the morning of the fourth day, excavators were tearing off the wall and crushing the trees that we had not been able to move back. They also removed telephone lines and pipes, which made water gush from the trench. Our yard turned progressively into a swamp. Our neighbor, who lived at the corner of the street, had just started building an extra room at the back of his house. Now, his house was partially amputated. Within a few days, the neighborhood was totally transformed, as if a typhoon had come through.”

The pleasant, low-slung capital of Vientiane, she found, was suddenly in the middle of a significant transformation. “Constructions sites pop up everywhere like mushrooms, and cranes suddenly appear out of nowhere. Corrugated sheet fences erected in different parts in the city mark out the wide areas to be developed. Large banners covered with ideographs show the presence of the powerful Chinese brother in the Laotian capital.”

As Gindros travels to the farthest corners of the country, the story is the same, time after time. A new village chief calls a meeting. The district authorities have asked him to ensure peace and harmony in the village. “His mission is to make sure all villagers support the development projects in the area, because these projects are part of an ambitious plan aimed at developing the country – Laos can no longer remain backward, content with simple subsistence agriculture. Laos must progress and shift to market-oriented agriculture, because Laos must become part of the global market.

“The eyes of the village chief light up. His face shows the satisfaction of one who has carried out his duty.”

It is a sad commentary, of a country that is vanishing outside the sight of the world as the country’s leaders, in thrall to their neighbors the Chinese and Thais, destroy it in the name of progress. Somewhere along the line, they also physically destroyed Sombath, one of Southeast Asia’s most effective campaigners against what is happening.

When she remonstrates over the destruction of a village’s rice farms to plant rubber, “I will be accused of having gone too far, of having provoked a confrontation and having made the Deputy Minister lose face. It would certainly have been better had I shut up when the problem so close to my heart was simply being overlooked. It would have been better for my colleagues. Not for the farmers who are losing their land.”