Laos, or the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), is an authoritarian state ruled by a single party, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party is the only legal political party in Laos.
First, we want to raise our deep concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in the Lao PDR. Since 1975, when the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party first came to power, human rights abuses have become the norm, and there is little space for civil society to operate or hold the government accountable. Poverty is endemic: 75% of Lao people live on less than $2 a day, according to a 2015 World Bank report, despite an average GDP growth rate of 6 to 8% over the past decade. Corruption is rampant, taking place at all governmental levels from top to bottom. Laos is ranked 154th out of 178 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perception index. There is no rule of law; the justice system is biased and corrupted. In such an environment, the government implements its arbitrary and repressive policies and routinely violates the human rights of its citizens with impunity.
Laos’s communist government has ruled the country under a dictatorial regime for over 40 years.
Citizens have no right to choose their government. There is no freedom of assembly, of association, of peaceful protest, and no freedom of expression. There is no mechanism or space for Laotian citizens to criticize the government. There is no free press; all media is state-controlled and serves as the propaganda arm of the LPRP. Last October, Lao authorities enacted a new law, Decree 327, that regulated online discussion. The government warned Facebook users that their accounts would be blocked if their postings in any way “disrupt social order and undermine security.” Those who raise any social or political issue that might be construed as “criticism” of the authorities are duly arrested, and even the most innocuous forms of political dissidence are dealt with harshly. Laos ranked 173th of 180 countries on the latest Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.
Arbitrary arrests without due process and enforced disappearances are a means to silence voices calling for democracy in Laos. Noteworthy cases include the following:
- In 1990, a group of senior Lao officials spoke out in favor of democratic reforms and were consequently arrested and imprisoned in a labor camp for 14 years. One of them died due to the harsh treatment meted out to him while in custody.
- In October 1999, the students’ movement held a peaceful protest in Vientiane to press for social justice and democratic reform; its members were immediately arrested and sentenced to 14-year prison terms; however, even though the terms have expired, the activists are now going into their 17th year of imprisonment.
- In 2009, a group of nine farmers—women and men—called for legal reforms related to land. To date, their whereabouts are unknown.
- In 2012, the case of Mr. Sombath Somphone, an internationally acclaimed community rights activist, development worker, and prominent member of Lao civil society, further illustrated the regime’s systematic campaign to repress all civil society voices. Sombath was abducted in front of a police checkpoint in Vientiane, which was captured on a closed circuit video camera. The scene shows him leaving in a vehicle that is clearly marked as belonging to the Lao security forces. Despite sustained pressure from the international community, including the US government, Lao authorities adamantly deny the state’s complicity in his disappearance. They have also refused offers of technical assistance from the international community to examine footage from the video surveillance camera. In response to international criticism, Laotian authorities maintain that they are conducting an on-going internal investigation. To date, his fate remains unknown. While this has been particularly devastating for his family and friends, it has also sent a chilling message to Laotian civil society to self-censor and keep silent on any issues that might reflect badly on the government. However, his wife, Lao human activists, and the NGO community continue to press for a thorough investigation of his case.
- In 2015, a Polish business man of Lao descent, Mr. Bounthanh Thammavong, was arrested in Vientiane and sentenced to a prison term of five years on the charge of criticizing the government’s policies online.
- In May 2016, three workers—Somphone Phimmasone (29), Lodkham Thammavong (30), and Soukan Chaithat (32)—were detained for criticizing the Lao authorities’ policies on social media and staging a peaceful protest calling for human rights and democracy in Laos in front of the Lao embassy in Bangkok, Thailand while working there. The arrest took place in March when they returned home to renew their expired passports. In the state TV broadcast, the police authorities cited their action as a grave crime, a threat to national security, and a betrayal of the country. We all fear for their safety and lives since Laos lacks legal due process.
Although the Constitution of Laos contains provisions for religious freedom, protections for religious minorities are rarely guaranteed, arbitrarily enforced, and contingent on the whims of local authorities. The Lao Front for National Construction (LFNC), an arm of the government, is charged with oversight of all religious practice. The Decree on Religious Practice (Decree 92) is the principal legal instrument defining rules for faith groups and codifies the government’s role as the final arbiter of permissible religious practice. Authorities arbitrarily apply Decree 92 to restrict the activities of religious groups. The constant harassment of faith communities continues unchecked, especially convert Christians in the ethnic minorities. Since 2009, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has classified Lao PDR as a Tier 2 country, which places it on that agency’s watch list.
Sustained repression and persecution of ethnic minorities, specifically the Hmong tribes, remains widespread. More generally, arbitrary detention and torture are common, and prisoners are routinely subjected to inhumane treatment. Prison conditions remain abysmal including at the notorious Phontong Prison, which is used to hold foreign prisoners. Somsanga rehabilitation center in the nation capital is used as a dump site for undesired elements, mostly young folks.
In the name of economic development, the natural resources have been destroyed in an alarming fashion. Land grabbing and land evictions have become an increasingly serious problem in Laos, adversely affecting major portions of the Laotian people, and unlawfully forcing them from their farms and homes without fair compensation for the benefit of government officials and the companies that they favor; citizens have little recourse to address grievances. For example, the recent report “Rubber Barons: How Vietnamese Companies and International Financiers Are Driving a Land Grabbing Crisis in Cambodia and Laos,” issued by the group Global Witness in May of 2013, documents how Vietnamese-owned firms Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) and the Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG) were granted land concessions in the Southern provinces (1.1 million hectares or 5%) by the government of Laos that displaced thousands of families, “devastating local livelihoods and the environment” without providing the victims proper compensation or relocation assistance. Land concessions are overwhelmingly signed in mining, commercial plantations, and hydropower dams. Deforestation is unprecedented; national forests including precious species, formerly covering 70% of the nation, have been diminished to less than 30%, according to a 2011 survey by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).
Upcoming trip of President Obama to Laos
The people of Laos will welcome the visit of the US president to Laos this Fall with enthusiasm and delight—the first ever in the country’s history. It is seen as a great opportunity to boost bilateral ties between the two nations and bolster trust between the two sides. However, Laotians overseas who embrace freedom and democracy would have mixed feelings. They urge President Obama to use his historic visit to step up the pressure on his Lao counterpart to improve the country’s human rights record. We Laotian-Americans have high expectations that President Obama, a champion of human rights and democracy, will demonstrate more concrete actions and play a more forceful role to promote the respect of human rights and democratic principles by the Lao leadership. It is imperative that all US aid to Laos should be contingent on the human rights performance of the Lao communist government, assessed on the basis of concrete proof as stipulated by universal standards. Laos is the ASEAN chair this year, a situation that presents an opportunity to raise these important issues. The Government of Laos must open up space for civil society, release all political prisoners, and abide by the international human rights covenants to which it is a signatory. It must also provide a comprehensive account of the events surrounding Sombath Somphone’s disappearance, and those found responsible of any wrongdoing must be held accountable. If Laos wants to be viewed as a credible regional player, it must be reminded of its international obligations and accountability to its citizens, for Laos plays an important integral role on both the regional and the international stage. It is also necessary that all assistance to Laos be closely monitored to ensure that it truly benefits the targeted purposes and reaches the people of Laos.
The people of Laos have suffered too much and for too long under a repressive regime. Their basic rights have been routinely violated and suppressed by their dictatorial leaders—the LPRP, which in turn is under the complete control of its communist Vietnamese creator. Laotian citizens have therefore endured double layers of tyranny for the past four long decades.
Furthermore, with the United States government’s political and economic interests rebalancing towards Asia—the “Pivot to Asia,” visible most recently in the aggressive promotion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, the policy of reconciliation with Vietnam in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the repeal of the arms embargo on communist Vietnam, and the hot South China Sea challenge—we are extremely concerned that our government will be manipulated to the maximum by communist Vietnam. We want to remind our government about Hanoi’s deceitful pattern of behavior with its “allies in ideology” and even its “fellow combat brothers,” such as Laos and Cambodia. History shows that Hanoi can’t be trusted. Facing the South China Sea crisis at the present time, Hanoi has turned to the US for support. Poor tiny land-locked Laos, given its geo-strategic location and small size, finds itself at the center of all the region’s geopolitical conflicts and is inevitably pulled into the affairs of its neighbors again and again.
On a final note: At this point in time, we also urge the US government not to turn away from its moral obligation—as Laos was once a strong ally of the US in defending and protecting freedom and democratic principles in the region. We urge our government to take forceful and robust actions, along with the regional and international communities, to bring independence and democratic reforms to this tiny country and ensure the stability of the entire Southeast Asian region.