The mounting tension between Thailand and Cambodia is providing a distinctly unfriendly and unneighbourly backdrop for next month’s Southeast Asian Games in Laos, the motto for which is ‘Generosity, Amity, Healthy Lifestyle’ (see the official website here). Of course, this is why the games are so interesting: they provide a celebration of ‘friendship’ and shared destiny among a group of countries that spend a good deal of time at each other’s throats. In any case, I would be interested to know if anyone comes across reports on the SEA Games referring to the Thai-Cambodian dispute (or vice versa).

The SEA Games seem also to be sparking controversy in Laos itself and among the Lao diaspora. In the past week or so, Radio Free Asia has picked up on reports that Lao authorities stopped a convoy of 150 people heading to Vientiane to ‘stage a pro-democracy protest’ at the Patuxay monument, detaining nine of the group. The government denied the reports saying ‘people with bad intentions’ want to ‘tarnish the reputation and destroy the image of the Lao PDR’ on the eve of National Day (Dec 2nd) and the SEA Games. Meanwhile, the ‘protesters’ said they only ‘wanted help’ from the government.

But this is just the tip of the online iceberg. A stream of press releases from sites like Online PR News and Media Newswire have suggested more than 1000 ‘dissidents’ and ‘ordinary citizens urging peaceful reform’ have been arrested. Because it is Laos, it is impossible to verify any of these reports and nothing has made it through to the mainstream media. Also, the press releases seem to have been produced by – or at least with the cooperation of – anti-government groups working outside the country, which refer to the ‘November 2nd 2009 protest’ as a ten-year commemoration of student protests in October 1999

It is not unexpected that an event like the SEA Games, with the foreign attention it brings, would spark protests. But in Laos organised public demonstrations are rare and even less commonly heard about.