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Learning from Lao

This ASEAN Economic Community cannot come a moment too soon.  If nothing else, it will give Thailand a chance to learn how to do things properly from the more advanced countries in ASEAN.  Like Lao.

It is a common complaint that while Thailand is still bickering over the allocation of 3G mobile phone licences, Lao is ready with 4G.  This is taken as a symbol of Thailand’s endemic inefficiency.  But where does this inefficiency lie?

According to well-placed sources (as if anyone would cite poorly-placed sources), the superior efficiency of Lao resides in its streamlined system of bribery.  Effectively, there is just one responsible agency, and anyone wanting a licence in Lao just pays them the one bribe and the deal is done.  

In Thailand, there’s all sorts of people involved and you’ve no sooner paid off one than you find that there’s someone else expecting a backhander.  And then another, and another who may already have taken money off your competitor.  It is the time it takes to line up all the dots that makes Thailand lag behind its neighbour to the northeast.

So come on, corrupt officials, get your house in order.  Surely it shouldn’t beyond you to figure out a one-stop bribery shop?  The inefficiency of your corrupt practices is giving the country a bad name.

Then there is the recent enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone in Vientiane.  After the initial blunder in allowing CCTV footage to be copied onto the Internet, the response of the Vientiane authorities has been exemplary.  Comparisons to the 2004 case of Somchai Neelapaijit in Thailand are not flattering to those agents of the Thai state whose duties include crimes of this sort.

First of all, the Lao choice of victim has been far superior to the Thai case.  Somchai was snatched in Bangkok right after he had made it clear that he was going to name police names in the torture of Muslim suspects.  Remove him from the scene, and who are you intimidating?  Presumably anyone else thinking of publicly exposing criminals in uniform in the next few days.  And there aren’t too many of those.

But people doing ordinary development work, protesting government development disasters or criticizing politicians’ greed and stupidity were not going to be scared off by this kind of threat.  The high-ranking thugs may have protected themselves from scandal, but otherwise, life went on as before, except that now the disappearance of Somchai itself became another stick with which to beat the authorities.

But in Sombath, the Lao security goons have picked a winner.  Soft-spoken, accommodating, and well-respected, Sombath posed no clear and present threat to the Lao powers-that-be other than by demonstrating that there was a superior way of doing things which the Lao government wasn’t really interested in.  There is widespread speculation about what may have triggered his abduction, but it is only speculation.  Nobody really knows.

So the effect has been properly paralyzing.  Nobody in Lao can guess who will be next.  Nobody knows where the line is that they should not cross.  Some people have left the country; some have done a duck dive, flitting from safe house to safe house in the hope that the security forces are still a few steps behind.  And everyone is keeping their mouths firmly shut.  Lao civil society, always a poor scrawny thing, has been obliterated under a jackboot of fear.

All the shouting and screaming is being done outside the country and Thailand, for all its Computer-Related Crime Act and other censorship laws, could learn a thing or two from Lao about keeping its people in the dark of ignorance.  

Then there has been the Lao government response to this external pressure (and by the way, the pressure from the Thai government over the Sombath case seems to have been so intense as to be invisible).  The Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs has simply brazened it out with bare-faced fairy tales.

He was stopped by traffic police for a normal check of his documents, they claim.  The fact that a mysterious man on a motorcycle can drive his car away from outside the police post and that someone can escort him into a vehicle with flashing lights indicates, in the opinion of the Lao government, some kind of personal or business conflict.

Compare that with the virtual admission by then PM Thaksin that he knew what had happened to Somchai but wasn’t saying and the statement in parliament by then Deputy PM Chavalit that Somchai was dead.  And the appearance of Somchai’s car at the bus station with all fingerprints so thoroughly wiped clean that it had the fingerprints of a police operation all over it.

No, when it comes to being properly criminal, there’s a lot to learn from Lao.