When Laos joined the World Trade Organization in October 2012, many applauded. The move was expected not only to integrate the long-isolated country into the global economy, but into global political norms and rule of law as well.
Laos is falling short of this expectation. A series of unsettling incidents raises concern about Laos’ ability to open politically as it reforms economically. Development economist Sombath Somphone, who was removed from his vehicle by unidentified persons on December 15, 2012, remains missing under suspicious circumstances, despite international pressure. Secretary of State John Kerry publicly pressed the Lao government on March 24, 100 days after Sombath was last seen, to do everything it could “without delay” to find the activist. Lao authorities deny involvement, though surveillance footage last showed unidentified men driving him away after stopping his vehicle.