Cablegate: Governance, Women's Issues, and Iri's Efforts To


DE RUEHVN #0154/01 0541007
R 231007Z FEB 07





E.O. 12958: N/A


B. 04 VIENTIANE 1286

1. (SBU) Summary: Ms. Johanna Kao of the International
Republican Institute (IRI) and embassy officers met with
government officials, women's groups, and non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) in Laos from February 4 - 7. NGO
representatives informed Ms. Kao of the difficult operating
environment and offered advice. The Lao Women's Union (LWU)
Shelter for Victims of Domestic Violence and Human
Trafficking described the shelter's role in advising women of
their legal rights, as well as providing shelter, counseling,
and vocational training. Lao women leaders indicated that
the GoL needs assistance in building the capacity of women
and suggested that IRI consider a project that addresses
capacity needs. A United Nations Development Program (UNDP)
representative explained UNDP's efforts to promote good
governance and legal reform and also discussed the extreme
power of Lao provincial governors. He suggested a potential
avenue for IRI to provide some training assistance to the
National Assembly (NA) within the context of UNDP's NA
assistance program. IRI plans to prepare a project proposal
to submit to the Government of Laos (GoL) during a future
visit. End Summary.

IRI's Efforts to Gain a Foothold
2. (U) The Indonesia Country Director of the International
Republican Institute (IRI), Ms. Johanna Kao, visited Laos
February 4 - 7. Since she is based in the region, Ms. Kao
has been tasked by IRI to develop an IRI program for Laos.
The trip was her second in the past six months and was
intended to build key relationships with the hope of
receiving Government of Laos (GoL) approval for an IRI
assistance project. While IRI has not yet developed a
project proposal specifically for Laos, Ms. Kao sought to
encourage Lao participation in IRI's regional networking
project entitled the "women's democracy network." During
this visit, Ms. Kao and PolOff met with government officials,
women's organizations, as well as NGOs and international

The NGO Coordination Network
3. (SBU) Ms. Kao met with the NGO Coordination Network's NGO
Focal Point in Laos, a position set up by NGOs in 2004 to
assist in coordinating their activities. The network was
originally started by five NGOs and now has 62 member NGOs.
Member dues fund both the NGO Focal Point position and the
Coordination Network's web site The
network is run by a board of directors that rotates every two
years and has six sector working groups that meet every six
weeks. The six working groups include: health, education,
governance, rural development and agriculture, unexploded
ordnance (UXO), and private sector development. While the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) originally did not approve
the network and the Focal Point position, the MFA recently
provided a work visa to the latest person to serve as the NGO
Focal Point. The Coordination Network, besides coordinating
the efforts of NGOs already in Laos, is also regarded as an
information source for NGOs that wish to operate in Laos but a
re not sure how to navigate the approval process.

NGO Work in Laos
4. (SBU) During Ms. Kao's meeting with the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs' Department of International Organizations
(IO), Deputy Director General Phonesavanh Chanthavilay noted
that there are currently 139 NGOs registered with the IO
Department in Laos. In 2006, total approved projects were
valued over $40 million USD. On average, he noted, NGOs
provide approximately $50 - $60 million USD in assistance to
Laos each year. He explained that the IO Department's role
in reviewing and approving project proposals was identified
in Prime Minister's Decree 71 which was issued in 1998.

5. (SBU) Demonstrating his familiarity with IRI's 2004
proposal to assist with village elections in Laos, which was
not approved by the GoL, Phonesavanh said election assistance
is not needed (Refs A and B). He suggested that IRI look at
other areas of potential assistance, such as promotion of
women's participation in government and leadership positions
or other projects that would fall under the GoL's poverty
reduction plan such as health, education, agriculture,
communications, and infrastructure. He invited IRI to
develop a project proposal for the IO Department to review.

6. (SBU) During a lunch meeting with several NGOs working on
human trafficking, gender equality, and unexploded
ordnance-related education projects, Ms. Kao was advised that
IRI should avoid working with national-level line ministries
as much as possible. They suggested that, when possible, it
is easiest to work with provincial-level departments. They
also suggested that both women's participation as well as
projects that raise awareness of citizen's rights under Lao
law are areas of need.

Vientiane Women's Business Association
7. (SBU) The Vientiane Women's Business Association (VWBA)
was established in 2001 and is headed by a nine-member board
with 84 members. The VWBA focuses on seven business sectors:
import/export; precious metals trade; hospitality services;
textiles, garments, and handicrafts; private schools;
construction; and markets/trade fairs. Ms. Somchanh
Singthabouth, President of the VWBA, and several other board
members informed Ms. Kao that, while the VWBA is an
independent organization, its establishment required the
approval of the Vientiane branch of the Lao Women's Union
(LWU). All 84 members of the VWBA are successful business
owners. The VWBA has received some Canadian and
International Labor Organization (ILO) assistance for
training but generally has not attracted significant donor
attention. Ms. Kao encouraged the board members to consider
participating in an upcoming 2007 women's conference to be
held in Jakarta, Indonesia, and promised to provide more
information on IRI's Women's Democracy Network project.
Lao Women's Union Shelter
8. (SBU) During a visit to the LWU Shelter for Victims of
Domestic Abuse and Human Trafficking, shelter representative
Ms. Bounleua informed Ms. Kao that since its establishment in
2005 the shelter has provided more than 1,600 counseling
sessions to more than 120 people. The primary function of
the facility is to provide legal, social, and health
counseling. Counseling is often related to divorce, property
rights, and dealing with husbands who have mistresses. The
LWU recently expanded its counseling services and now covers
Vientiane Municipality as well as Champassak, Oudomsay,
Savannakhet, and Vientiane Provinces.

9. (SBU) The shelter's secondary function is to assist
victims of human trafficking and domestic violence by
providing lodging, counseling, and short-term vocational
training. The shelter has ten staff members, all of whom
have received some training in Thailand. Cases of domestic
violence and human trafficking are referred to the shelter by
police, hospitals, and LWU contacts. Human trafficking
victims generally remain at the shelter for four to six
months. In total, 22 victims of domestic violence and human
trafficking were assisted at the shelter in 2006, half of
whom were trafficking victims.

10. (SBU) In regard to trafficking in persons (TIP), Ms.
Bounleua said there are gaps in enforcement of the Law on the
Protection of Women at all levels - police, prosecutors,
courts, and government officials in general. In an effort to
address these gaps, she said the LWU is in the process of
planning seminars for each of these groups in 2007. She
noted that the Asia Foundation will provide support for the
training of law enforcement officials. Additionally, she
said the LWU would support TIP awareness-raising in 2007
through the use of radio and television broadcasts in the
Lao, Hmong, and Khmu languages.

LWU Gender Research Information and Development Center
--------------------------------------------- ---------
11. (U) On February 6, Ms. Kao and PolOff met with Ms.
Bouachanh Syhanath, the LWU's Acting Director of the Cabinet
and Director of the Gender Research and Development Center.
She informed us that the LWU has played an active role in
Laos since 1955, claims more than one million members, and
has 80 central-level employees, as well as 5 - 10 at each
provincial level office, 3 - 4 at each district level office,
and one representative in most major villages. (Note: There
are roughly 11,000 villages in Laos. End note). The LWU
receives monthly reports from each provincial-level office
and is the primary authority for dissemination of information
and laws related to women's issues within Laos. The LWU hold
an annual Congress and also meets every three months with
line ministries.

12. (U) Ms. Bouachanh explained that the LWU's new Gender
Research Information and Development Center (GRID) was

originally established in 1997. Small GRID libraries have
been set up in Vientiane Municipality as well as Luang
Prabang, Sayabourly, Savannakhet, and Xieng Khouang
Provinces. The Center's primary objective is to support
policy-making that is relevant to women. GRID also works
with the National Statistics Center to improve data
collection on women in Laos.

National Coalition for the Advancement of Women
--------------------------------------------- --
13. (SBU) Ms. Kao and the Ambassador met with Ms. Chansoda
Phonethip of the National Coalition for the Advancement of
Women (NCAW) on February 6. She explained that the NCAW was
established in 2004 to assist the GoL in formulating and
reviewing policies that are seen as related to gender
equality and the elimination of discrimination against women.
The Coalition is part of the Prime Minister's Office. The
Coalition has developed a National Strategy for the
Advancement of Women for 2006 - 2010 that consists of five
target areas: poverty reduction, education, health,
empowerment, and strengthening the national machinery for the
protection of women's rights. NCAW Deputy Director Ms.
Chansoda Phonethip told Ms. Kao that the greatest challenge
is the lack of capacity among Lao women, indicating that very
few women are capable of filling high-level central
government positions. She also explained that advancement of
women is not yet reflected in the national budget but is
expected to be in the 2008 budget.

National Assembly Meeting
14. (SBU) On February 6, Ms. Kao, the Deputy Chief of
Mission (DCM), and PolOff met with Dr. Souvanpheng
Boupphanouvong, the NA's Vice Chair of the Committee on
Economic Planning and Finance. She informed Ms. Kao that
women currently make up 25 percent of NA members, 29 of 115
members. The current Vice President of the NA is a woman,
and a Parliamentary Women's Caucus was established during the
Fifth National Assembly (about three years ago) with the task
of monitoring the Socio-Economic Development Plan and other
issues of specific concern to women. Souvanpheng noted that
most female NA members came from the health, education, and
social sciences sectors and lack knowledge of law, finance,
economics, and leadership. She added that Laos is
implementing the 1995 Beijing Declaration to recognize the
status of women and promote women's participation in all
aspects of government and society. In order to meet
expectations regarding female participation, she noted that
the GoL "orders the number of women who
should run" for NA seats.

15. (SBU) Referring to the new Budget Law that was passed by
the NA in December 2006, Souvanpheng indicated that the law
clearly establishes the oversight role of the NA. She also
commented that greater responsibilities resulting from the
law would require greater capacity on the part of NA members.
The DCM informed Souvanpheng that the Embassy's Public
Diplomacy Section has access to many materials that NA
members may find useful. Souvanpheng brought up the issue of
gender budgeting as has been used in South Africa and
indicated that she would be interested in receiving
additional details regarding South Africa's use of gender
budgeting, and the DCM promised to follow up.

UNDP and Governance
16. (SBU) The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has
provided significant assistance to the GoL in an effort to
support good governance and legal reform in Laos. UNDP's
Assistant Resident Coordinator informed Ms. Kao that UNDP is
currently conducting a service delivery survey in the
provinces of Salavan, Luang Prabang, and Xieng Khouang. The
survey will focus on health, education, and
agriculture-related services. He also noted that the GoL
released its Strategic Plan on Governance in November 2006,
which he described a good template for donors interested in
offering assistance. The plan covers public service, public
participation, rule of law, and financial management and is
aligned with the GoL's five-year socio-economic development
plan. He pointed out that the governance plan includes
mention of civil service organizations, a topic that has
previously been taboo to the GoL. However, in accordance
with the plan, the Prime Minister's Office is reportedly
working on a piece of legislation that
will address the role of civil service organizations in Laos.

17. (SBU) One significant issue of concern in Laos,
according to the UNDP representative, is the extreme power
held by provincial governors. He opined that almost all
provincial governors are more powerful than cabinet
ministers, and said those in revenue "surplus provinces" are
particularly powerful, surplus provinces being those that do
not rely on Vientiane for financial support. Currently,
Champassak and Savannakhet are the most flush with cash with
Luang Prabang quickly joining the club due to its increasing
tourist-driven revenues. He explained that cabinet
ministers, because they lack power over the provincial
administrations, are unable or unwilling to force surplus
provinces to meet their obligation to remit money to the
central government for redistribution to deficit provinces.
Therefore, deficit provinces are starving for funding to
provide even the most basic government services.

18. (SBU) Describing UNDP's assistance to the NA, he
informed Ms. Kao that the UNDP works with the NA at the
committee level to provide capacity-building assistance based
on specific committee requests. UNDP is also allowed two
full days to work with the entire NA each session, four days
per year. During these four days, UNDP brings in guest
speakers and provides training on specific topics. The
project is co-financed by the European Union (EU) Commission.
At the committee level, UNDP has provided training on
economics, finance, and legal analysis. Given the recently
passed Budget Law, which gives the NA greater oversight
powers, capacity building for the NA is now of increased
importance, he said. He also informed Ms. Kao that UNDP
would be receptive to a proposal if IRI wished to provide a
guest speaker or training session during one of the upcoming
NA sessions.

19. (SBU) Lastly, the UNDP representative informed Ms. Kao
that a new Human Rights Center is being established within
the Prime Minister's Office under the National Social
Sciences Institute. The Prime Minister's Decree announcing
the establishment of the Center is being translated into
English and is expected to be released soon. How the Center
will operate remains unclear, but it is expected to research
both human rights and issues of ethnicity.

20. (SBU) The Embassy is supportive of IRI's efforts to
develop an assistance proposal for Laos. Assistance to
increase the capacity of women leaders as well as to promote
the increased participation of women in general here is of
vital importance. Both areas receive insufficient donor
funding. The UNDP representative's comments regarding the
power of provincial governors in Laos demonstrates a serious
flaw in the relationship between the central government and
the provinces. This issue seriously affects the government's
ability to meet basic service needs in so-called deficit
provinces as well as its ability to effectuate reforms in the
provinces. The new Budget Law is designed to overhaul the
current ineffective system, but whether the provinces will
acquiesce in its full implementation is unclear. This makes
an IRI program to enhance the NA's capacity to supervise
financial issues even more valuable.

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