Country Report Laos June 2009

The political scene: Relations with Thailand are overshadowed by refugees

Relations with Thailand, which supplies the majority of Laos's imports and is also a major investor and cultural influence, remain cordial, despite the political instability that has occurred in Thailand in the past two years or so. Thai investment in hydropower projects is crucial to Lao economic planning, and the government hopes that existing electricity export agreements can be renegotiated to raise the low tariffs that Thailand managed to secure in previous years. The president, Choummaly Sayasone, paid a mainly ceremonial visit in May to the Thai capital, Bangkok, at the invitation of the Thai monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. In that month Laos and Thailand also signed various co-operation agreements, including deals on electricity trade.

However, the relationship remains overshadowed by the 5,000 or so Lao Hmong refugees (or "illegal migrants", according to Laos) who are still in Thailand. At a meeting in May Thailand promised to return all the Hmong detained at the Huay Nam Khao camp in Petchaboun province in northern Thailand before the end of 2009. After a meeting, the Lao government said that the two sides had agreed that all Hmong in that camp, plus the 158 people held at a detention camp in Thailand's Nong Khai province, were illegal migrants. This followed an April announcement by the Thai foreign minister, Kasit Piromya, that his government regarded the 158 Hmong in Nong Khai as "asylum seekers" and would facilitate their resettlement in third countries. Since December 2005 more than 2,800 of the refugees have returned to Laos. Around 450 Hmong returned in late March, while another 300 were repatriated at the end of April. Those interviewed by Lao state media spoke of poor conditions in the Huay Nam Khao camp and said that they had been tricked into going to Thailand by traffickers, who had promised passage to the US for a fee of Bt3,000 (US$95) per person.

The case of a British woman, Samantha Orobator, who was imprisoned in Laos for alleged heroin smuggling, but became pregnant after her detention began, led has to the first Lao ministerial visit to the UK in many years. In May the foreign ministers of the two countries signed a prisoner transfer agreement that would permit Miss Orobator to be deported to the UK if she were convicted. She was found guilty of trafficking on June 3rd and was sentenced to life imprisonment. She is now awaiting deportation to the UK. The incident has proved to be embarrassing for the Lao authorities, with international media attention focusing on its opaque judicial system and poor prison conditions.

© 2009 The Economist lntelligence Unit Ltd. All rights reserved
Whilst every effort has been taken to verify the accuracy of this information, The Economist lntelligence Unit Ltd. cannot accept any responsibility or liability for reliance by any person on this information