Why you should care
When it comes to dictators, watch out for the quiet ones.
The old man squints down at the paper as he reads, haltingly and softly. His hair is thinning but, from the looks of it, is his only vanity. It is slicked back and ink-black, too dark for a man of 78.
Could a dictator be this banal?
President Choummaly Sayasone of Laos is a very odd type of tyrant — the dull one. Kim Jong-un loves to see his portrait everywhere, and King Mswati III of Swaziland has luxury jets and 5 wives. The Laotian president, in comparison, displays a remarkable lack of charisma. The camera seems to discomfit him, as it would any apparatchik: It took him half a century to climb the ranks of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. His mien is that of a retired accountant, except that his track record of human rights violations flows as long as the river Mekong.
The economy, though? Never mind the Communism: The place is booming. Decades of stagnation behind it, small, landlocked Lao now boasts one of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies — an 8.5 percent clip — and attracts ever more tourists and investors. “He’s been good at providing the necessary stability and peace for foreigners to come,” says Ian Baird, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who lived in Laos for 15 years.
Of course, stability can help leaders enrich themselves too. Sayasone and other party officials have often been accused of expropriating peasant land and selling the rights to foreign companies — mostly Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai groups looking to produce rubber, mine for gold or build hydroelectric dams. “The current political system encourages corruption and nepotism, which are endemic at every level of the party,” says Martin Stuart-Fox, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Queensland. The party has granted more than 20 percent of the country’s territory in concessions. The smallholder farmers suffer, as they usually do — they constitute most of the 23 percent of Laotians who live in poverty.
Little-Known Dictators: The second in a series of three profiles.
“The president and the party exploit the country like it belongs to them,” says Seng Chidhalay, a pro-democracy activist. Expressing such views would get him killed in Laos; Chidhalay lives in the U.S. A decade as defense minister taught Sayasone the virtues of controlling information flows. The government owns all newspapers and radio and TV stations, so few dare speak up, and when they do, arbitrary detentions and forced disappearances tend to follow. Villagers who fight for their land are usually arrested. A couple of years ago, Sombath Somphone, the country’s most prominent social activist, disappeared after being stopped by police. The government denies responsibility, but human rights organizations insist it was a state-sanctioned abduction.
Away from the cameras, Sayasone knows how to get his hands dirty. The son of a farmer, he grew up in the rural south of the country, became a soldier during the Vietnam War (in which Laos was heavily bombed) and then joined the Communist fight against the royalists. The Communists forced the king to abdicate in 1975 and imposed the Marxist-like government that Sayasone now protects so fiercely.
Of late, local dissidents have taken to the Internet to vent, but last year, Sayasone signed a decree that restricts freedom of expression online in dangerously vague terms. It forbids, for example, spreading “false information” about the party or sharing content that could lead to “terrorism” or “social disorder.” Says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch, Asia Division, “The grip seems to be tightening on all fronts, and it’s sending a very chilling wind.”
And so Laos’ Communist regime and its unassuming leader seem immutable. While the local opposition is paralyzed by fear, no Western pressure for political reform is likely to make a difference; Laos enjoys the support of fellow Communist regimes like China and Vietnam, and the Western powers are unlikely to rock the boat. Even opponents abroad can’t operate freely. In 2007, the U.S. charged nine Laotian exiles with stocking ammunition and planning a coup to overthrow the government. The charges were dropped, and there have been no close calls since.
In 2016, a new Congress of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party will gather to choose its leader. Sayasone will likely be reelected. After all, his predecessor ruled until he was 82. Yet some still hold on to the hope that the tighter the grip, the harder the unraveling. “Anything can happen when people are as desperate as some Laotians are,” says Chidhalay, from the U.S. “But it will be difficult. Freedom is never free.”