ASEAN CSO networks are increasingly active around their concerns with what they see as a restrictive legislative, regulatory and political framework for CSO action in Lao PDR. The cancelling of the ACSC/APF in Laos in 2016 reflects widespread regional CSO concerns about participation in pan-ASEAN events in Vientiane during Laos’ 2016 ASEAN presidency. In this context, ASEAN CSOs would welcome the participation of Lao CSOs with genuine constituencies in a wide range of existing networks and platforms.
The Government of Laos has not yet developed a strategy for occupying these spaces or denying them to independent CSOs. Independent CSOs could therefore occupy these spaces. This does not require declarations of opposition (or loyalty) to the Government of Laos. The government is not politically or financially capable of providing ‘officially supported’ representatives across these forums, and during 2016 will be more focused on controlling domestic spaces of possible dissent.
The critical consensus among regional CSOs provides a supportive environment for participation of Lao CSOs in regional networks. Since regional structures are unlikely to recognise any Lao groupings as official or representative, there are unlikely to be significant Government of Laos attempts to prevent CSO participation. The Government of Laos may continue its attempts to promote an officially sponsored group, but as long as other Lao CSOs avoid direct criticism of these individuals in international forums, there is little risk of repression.
A range of ASEAN-level frameworks for civil society networking have emerged in recent years. Some are more dynamic than others. Most have not consolidated a political, institutional and financial sustainability. Their future development depends on many factors outside the influence of Lao CSOs, including the extent to which the relevant intergovernmental ASEAN structures are willing to collaborate with CSOs. The lack of a clear hierarchy may be an advantage in the Lao context – it enables all Lao CSOs to find an appropriate place, and to avoid disputes about who represents who.