Laos: Rough Ways

Coming hot on the heels of the July 30th U.N anti-trafficking resolution, the culmination of 3 years of negotiation amongst 80 members, is an article in The New York Times which emphasises the difficulties of enforcing wildlife laws – even amongst the willing – and shows, once again, that Southeast Asia will remain the front line in the battle to defeat traffickers and those who enable them.

It is in Laos, a Southeast Asian country which sits between China, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, that the known trafficker Vixay Keosavang operates, and from where he runs the so-called “Xaysavang network”, named after the trading company he set up in 2008, and which has been implicated in the poaching and trafficking of thousands upon thousands of animals. Seen as the kingpin of animal trafficking in the region – though only one of a handful of criminal gang leaders who are known to authorities – Keosavang seems to enjoy the kind of favour enjoyed by other wanted men before him: even as the US government puts up a $1 million bounty for information leading to the break up of the Xaysavang network, Keosavang lives quite openly, under the political protection of a corrupted state, which has never investigated him or his network.

The regime that harbours Keosavang is an inaccessible single-party communist state, with a poor human rights record, and a politburo dominated by military generals. There is a weak rule of law in the country, and this has created a fertile ground for corruption; the rapid and illegal decimation of the forests of Laos is being done so by the Laotian military in partnership with companies from neighbouring Vietnam. In a situation typical of countries that suffer from systemic corruption, even when the logging or development is legal, money that should be used to improve a nation that ranks lowly in development indices is instead funnelled to outside partners, or to those inside the country with the right government connections.

It is this backdrop that has created a haven for the region’s traffickers and criminal gangs, and the complicity of the Laotian government in wildlife crime cannot be denied. They are reluctant to investigate wildlife crime, as the New York Times reports, and pay it such little attention that Keosavang even had rhino horns shipped directly to his house; in 2009, 600 pounds of elephant tusks intercepted by Kenyan wildlife authorities were on their way to his company, Xaysavang. Such is the impunity with which he operates, Keosavang and his network did not feel the need to hide the destination. They do still feel the need to smuggle, though, and they took advantage of Thai laws that stated authorities needed a warrant and permission from the destination country to search containers and shipments passing through Thailand. These laws changed on March 4th 2015, however, and Thai officials have found elephant tusks valued up to $6 million dollars hidden amongst shipments of beans from the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as the massive cache of tusks the New York Times reported.

Even though the seizures of elephant tusks are the result of coordinated international efforts – which are encouraging and should only improve after the UN resolution – the Times notes that there were no arrests or even an investigation to speak of in the destination of the shipments, Laos. This is hardly surprising, and it remains to be seen how the Laotian government can be pressured into assisting the international effort to combat the illegal wildlife trade. Vietnam, with whom Laos has a special relationship, as well as the regional superpower, China, will have roles to play in lobbying the government – a fellow communist party, it should be remembered. The lawlessness that exists in Laos, Myanmar, and the areas that border these countries makes enforcing any kind of law very challenging, and it will take great diplomatic efforts and watchfulness on the behalf of those who can police shipments going to and from the region to help stem the tide.


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