Laos establishes task force to monitor social media platforms – The Diplomat
Smartphones for sale in a shop in Muang Xay, Oudomxay province, Laos, February 4, 2017.
This week, Radio Free Asia’s (RFA) Lao service reported on the creation of a new task force by the Lao government to monitor the use of social media, focusing in particular on so-called “fake news” and posts made by the government or the ruling Laotian People’s Revolutionary Criticize Party (LPRP).
The report quoted an official from the Lao Ministry of Public Security who said the task force set up on May 21 includes police officers and members of the government’s media department.
“Our job is to provide advice and set the rules and penalties for those who abuse social media,” the official told RFA. “We will warn first-time offenders and then give fines for a second offense.” He added, “For a third offense, we will put her in jail.”
The country had a social media penetration rate of 49.1 percent of the total population in January 2021, up from 43 percent the previous year. While this is relatively low by Southeast Asian standards – social media penetration in neighboring Thailand and Vietnam is 78.7 percent and 73.7 percent, respectively – it continues to grow. As in other nations, this has resulted in citizens increasingly using this space to discuss important issues, including spreading complaints against the government and the ruling Communist Party.
This was seen last year amid anti-government protests in Thailand, when the protesters’ savvy social media tactics spilled over the Mekong into Laos. Last year I reported the emergence of a Lao hashtag # ຖ້າ ການ ເມືອງ ລາວ ດີ (“if the politics were good” in Lao) based on a similar Thai hashtag that went viral in Laos. “We have to be one to fight against the dictatorship,” tweeted a Laotian user in English under the hashtag. “One day we [are] in the hope that Laos and other countries will be free. “
The rare rise in online disagreement seemed to suggest that Laos might join the digital Milk Tea Alliance, the transnational anti-authoritarian movement that unites activists in Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
However, as the formation of this task force suggests, the LPRP government is moving quickly to ensure that the Milk Tea Alliance does not gain a foothold in Laos. In August 2020, the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications warned social media users not to post content criticizing the country’s government. According to RFA, last month the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism ordered provincial departments to register all owners of websites, Facebook pages and other social media news channels.
Learn about the history of the week and develop stories to see across the Asia Pacific region.
Get the newsletter
In recent years, surveillance and persecution of Laotian citizens for critical comments on the internet has also increased. A representative case was the arrest of social media influencer Houayheuang Xayabouly (then 30), also known as Muay, in September 2019, after she posted a video on Facebook of the government’s delayed response criticized the flooding caused by a dam collapse. She was then sentenced to five years in prison.
The role model for all these efforts is Laos’ neighbor and long-time patron Vietnam, who has had a better grip on the Internet and social media platforms in recent years. In late 2017, Vietnam formed a 10,000-strong cyber unit to combat “false beliefs” on the internet, and the country has recently seen multiple arrests of independent journalists, bloggers and common web users.
The new task force expresses the concerns of the ruling LPRP that Facebook could act as an incubator for anti-government and anti-party disagreements. It also suggests that repressive governments in Southeast Asia will take steps to bring them under increasing control, as long as the internet in general, and social media in particular, remain popular platforms for political discussion and activism.