Year of Laos: Queries for the New ASEAN Chair


Habibah Hermanadi, Intern Staff ASEAN Studies Center Universitas Gadjah Mada

The role of ASEAN chairmanship will be held in the hands of Laos in 2016; despite the fact that it is not the first time the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to hold the role as the chair of ASEAN since 2004 questions still arose due the fact that conditions had shifted as the global political course had changed. It is perceivable since ASEAN had ratified new treaties, the dynamics of states had been refined according new pillars and agreements among state members and Laos had changed within the last decade. Many deemed Lao’s leadership will bring significant changes for the region but there are also others who query this particular leadership turnover.

As ASEAN gradually walk towards a more human rights oriented path by creating an identity which could cohesively represent its community, Laos has been seen unfit to represent such agenda, recent case would be reflected from Laos who has been unresponsive in regard to 80 human rights recommendations by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (Amnesty International, 2015). And instead it is visible that international pressures to improve transparency and protect human rights have only reinforced the government’s resolve to suppress public and political opposition. More importantly media has limited freedom when it comes to dealing with Laos (Hunt, 2016), as the existence of draconian media monitoring laws with the country’s current role as the 2016 ASEAN Chair; the laws have potentials to constrain international reporting on important transnational issues discussed at ASEAN meetings and conferences (Sims, 2016)

However, as part of the integration initiatives this landlocked country might serve a fresh perspective for the rest of the other ASEAN member states. Thongloun Sisoulith declared it not long ago prior to his appointment as Prime Minister of Laos that the top priorities for Laos’ chairmanship are narrowing the development gaps between member states, promoting connectivity by promoting small and midsize enterprises. Under this chairmanship Sisoulith emphasized the need to improve trade facilitation, encourage more subsistence workers to enter the formal economy, and step up efforts to preserve and promote ASEAN’s cultural heritage (Chongkittavor, 2016). It cannot be eluded the fact that Laos was the one who pushed a successful joint declaration on the basis of ASEAN during the United States-ASEAN Summit last February hosted by Barrack Obama, That document will serve as the foundation for stronger ASEAN-U.S. cooperation in the years to come, tangible progress on advancing the U.S.-ASEAN relationship a step further from November 2015, when the United States and ASEAN elevated their relationship to the level of a strategic partnership and laid out a concrete plan of action to implement it out to 2020 (Prameswaran, 2016).

Laos has show its potential in balancing how ASEAN should steer itself among the superpowers, as another interest shown by another contending actor in the ground known as the South China Sea, we cannot outlook People’s Republic of China as the largest trading partner of Laos and perceptible role among the ASEAN state members, most importantly China’s diplomatic approach had been fully committed in gradually courting smaller countries in ASEAN mainly Brunei, Laos, and Cambodia (Johnson, 2016). Laos will also have to stand its ground to be the chair the ASEAN aspired to be in positioning itself facing the ongoing negotiation between Trans Pacific Partnership and Regional Economic Cooperation Partnership which had sparked the interest of other member states, Laos can navigate the issues relating to overlapping maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea and the rise of China and its increasingly competitive rivalry with the US rebalance in Asia (Vilavong, 2016). Yet under this chairmanship whichever the institution leaned itself towards ASEAN must not to neglect the core of ASEAN Economic Community and its extension due in 2025.

Amidst the internal human rights inside of Laos’ political regime and inherent fragmentation within the ASEAN itself the new set of chairmanship must be able to attain the integration which is the main aim of ASEAN. If the agenda of gap elimination could be fulfilled as it was mentioned by Sisoulith the next step for deepening the integration and acquiring an ASEAN standard would seem near foreseeable future. Laos’ new leadership must be able to answer some difficult questions and challenges regionally and internationally. Will Laos be capable of hosting the ASEAN summit and related meetings? The AEC aspects of being ASEAN Chair have increased significantly since the last time Laos held position as chair, as have the Political-Security and Socio-Cultural community aspects.  Such responsibilities, along with the logistical burdens that would come with having two ASEAN Summits in 2016, led Laos to propose having the two summits mandated by the ASEAN Charter on a back-to-back basis in November 2016, effectively resulting in a single meeting (Sim, 2015). Laos has a whole year to prove itself as these meetings hold the key of uniting ASEAN’s states members in facing external influences and balancing their powers in the region.

Photo source

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