Shifting Dynamics: Vietnam, Laos Face Scrutiny Over Democracy and Rights Amid ASEAN Leadership

Vietnam and Laos, under the spotlight for governance and human rights issues, play critical roles in ASEAN's stability and its relationships with the West and China.


Emmanuel Abara Benson - BNN | 04 Mar 2024

As Vietnam garners interest from Western entities seeking to diversify away from China, and Laos takes the helm of ASEAN for the year, the political landscapes within these nations are drawing critical attention. Both countries, maintaining their governance under the Communist Party without the facade of independent elections, are at a pivotal juncture. The spotlight on these nations is not just due to their geopolitical significance but also because of the increasing concerns over human rights and democracy backsliding, issues that hold profound implications for regional stability and international relations, particularly with the Australian government expressing apprehension over China's expanding influence in Southeast Asia.

Intensified Crackdowns and the Western Gaze

In recent times, Vietnam has been subjected to heightened scrutiny by Western capitals and corporations eager to "de-risk" their supply chains from Chinese dependencies. This interest, however, comes at a time when Vietnam's government has ramped up its suppression of activists, including those advocating for environmental protections. Such actions cast a long shadow over the country's human rights record, complicating its burgeoning relationships with Western partners. Simultaneously, Laos, despite its lower profile on the international stage, faces similar challenges. As it leads ASEAN throughout the year, its approach to governance and human rights will inevitably influence the regional bloc's direction and credibility, especially in light of tensions with China and the crisis in Myanmar.

ASEAN's Credibility at Stake

The ASEAN region, currently under the leadership of Laos, finds itself at a crossroads. The bloc's ability to navigate the complex geopolitical tensions with China, particularly concerning the South China Sea disputes and the humanitarian situation in Myanmar, is critical. The Australian government's proposition for ASEAN to issue joint statements supporting arbitration rulings against China's territorial claims underscores the delicate balance the association must maintain. Furthermore, ASEAN's effectiveness in mitigating China's influence and addressing human rights issues within its member states, including the crackdowns in Vietnam and the political situation in Laos, remains a matter of international scrutiny.

China's Influence and the Surveillance Economy

Amidst these geopolitical maneuvers, the shadow of China looms large. Chinese companies, leveraging the construction of "smart" city infrastructures across Southeast Asia, are amassing vast quantities of personal data without adequate oversight. This development speaks volumes about the broader concerns over privacy, surveillance, and the influence of China in shaping the socio-political landscape of the region. The role of such technologies in monitoring and potentially suppressing dissent further complicates the dialogue on democracy and human rights in ASEAN countries.

As Vietnam and Laos continue to navigate their roles within ASEAN and their relationships with both Western countries and China, the issues of democracy, human rights, and regional stability remain at the forefront. The actions of these nations, coupled with the response of ASEAN and the international community, will undoubtedly shape the future trajectory of Southeast Asia. The ongoing developments serve as a poignant reminder of the intricate web of diplomacy, governance, and human rights that characterizes the region's political landscape, urging a thoughtful consideration of the path forward.




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