On December 2, 1975, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR) was proclaimed. Kaysone Phomvihane, Secretary General of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party—the Communist Party—reiterated the promises of national concord and reconciliation: complete pardon for those who worked for the old regime, general participation of all Lao citizens, regardless of race, religion or political conception, national reconstruction, welcome to foreigners who wanted to invest in Laos. There existed neither conqueror nor conquered, he promised; the only victor was the Lao people. American imperialism had been defeated. He promised general elections by universal suffrage.
But the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP), with the massive help of the North Vietnamese, set up a communist regime and established absolute power. The Treaty of Special Friendship and Cooperation between Vietnam and Laos, signed on July 18, 1977, established what was in effect the occupation and colonization of Laos by Vietnam. It was a dark day in the history of the country. King Sri Savang Vatthana was forced to abdicate; the Queen, the Crown Prince, members of the Royal Government, military officials, policemen and even civilians were arrested and deported to concentration camps.
Initially, the Laotian people were hopeful for what the future promised. The communist takeover had been relatively popular and nonviolent. But once the communist regime was in place, there were tens of thousands of executions, according to the reports of the Committee on Human Rights and witnesses.
Communist cadres insisted that those who opposed them were the “residue of capitalist society,” who needed to be “re-educated.” In the communist system, re-education means deportation, concentration camps, dark, underground cells, and forced labor. To paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, Laos became a huge prison camp. The concentration camps of communist Laos are machines of destruction, generally located in uninhabited and inhospitable areas, where cries of suffering are lost in the wind. The most irreducible of prisoners are subjected to special treatment: packed 70 or 80 in a cell designed for 20, with only a hole in the ground for personal needs, water, bindweed, and a little red rice mixed with pebbles for food, polluted and strictly rationed water, no medicine, no blankets against the icy north winds of certain regions, no mail, and no visits. And then there are the assignments to “go fetch wood” from which the prisoners never return.
Former prisoners are no longer citizens like others, but irrecoverables, counter-revolutionaries, the detritus of imperialism, marked for life, tattooed like beasts to beat. Kept under close surveillance and the constant threat of renewed imprisonment at the slightest word or gesture, they continue to languish behind invisible bars.
The International Committee for Defense of Human Rights described the sum of all this extreme cruelty as a genocide. The crimes of the communist regime in Laos have led to an exodus unprecedented in the country’s history: more than a tenth of the population, or 420,000 people, have had to leave their homeland to seek refuge in free and democratic countries like the United States, Europe, Canada, and Australia.
The first observation to be made is that since the seizure of power in Laos by the communist rulers in 1975, its leaders have had no vision for the future of the country. Rather, the successive leaders of the party-state have sought power mainly to enrich themselves and to form a new comprador bourgeoisie. As a result, money laundering and transfer of public funds to foreign banks become routine, coupled with the looting of national mineral resources and forestry. Corruption on a huge scale is the daily practice of the new Lao elite class. In 2016, Transparency International ranked Laos 123rd out of 176 countries.
Laos has resources and wealth, and a class of people wealthier than the rich of developed countries. Yet international institutions classify Laos as one of the poorest countries in the world, with areas of under-nourishment both in the cities and in the countryside. The majority of the population has endured misery and extreme poverty with all its inevitable social consequences: drug addiction, drug trafficking, theft, prostitution, AIDS, human trafficking, and legal and illegal job seeking in neighboring countries. This is the result of rampant corruption and poorly planned and mismanaged major infrastructure projects on the part of the party-state. The 2017 World Bank Report stated that the fiscal deficit widened significantly in 2016 and brought public debt to almost 70 percent of GDP.
Laos has zero tolerance for civil society. This is a longstanding reality, as demonstrated by the fact that the survivors of a group of students who were arrested in 1999 for peacefully protesting for social justice and democracy were recently released after 17 years of detention. Enforced disappearance is common. Sombath Somphone, a prominent community developer and human rights defender, was abducted in December 2012 at a police check point in Vientiane, the national capital for discussing land rights (the incident captured by closed-circuit camera). To this day, there has been no public disclosure of his whereabouts, despite constant pressure by his family and by regional and international communities. Many cases similar to Sombath Somphone’s have occurred in the past but gone unnoticed and unreported.
Laos has one of the most restrictive media environments in the world and was ranked 173 out of 179 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 Annual Press Freedom Index. Media outlets are tightly controlled and government-owned. A draconian presidential decree on social media issued in 2014 prohibited posting criticism of the government online. Stiff penalties are applied for any violation of the law. As a result, in April of this year, three young activists, Somphone Phimmasone, Soukan Chaithad, and Lodkham Thammavong, were sentenced respectively to 20, 18, and 12 years of imprisonment for staging a peaceful demonstration calling for social justice and democracy and for criticizing government policies on Facebook while living abroad.
Today, it is clear to all that the promises of communist leaders have remained unfulfilled. All Laotians know that their country is under the control of a dictatorial regime and undermined by corruption. All this has occurred in the name of the Revolution, that is to say, the hope of a better and more dignified life. The dream of a Laos that could finally have known national concord, democracy and prosperity has collapsed. No process of democratization is yet perceptible. The Lao citizen still has no right to free expression, no freedom of religion, no freedom of assembly nor peaceful demonstration, though the Lao Constitution stipulates all these things.
In order to emerge from this very alarming situation, Laos needs a surge of change in the regime, which will bring the country under the rule of law and deliver prompt and adequate solutions. A new institutional order is absolutely necessary. A new social project is fundamental and essential for getting the country out of its underdevelopment.
The Laotian people only want to live in peace and good understanding with their neighbors and have no other ambition than to be free of ideological obedience and foreign interference by countries like Vietnam. The UN, the United States, Europe, Asia, peace-loving countries and all international institutions must demand that the Lao communist leaders immediately put an end to the dictatorial regime and establish a new structure, a just and free society, a state of law. The people of Laos have been yearning and fighting for too long for lasting peace, independence and freedom. Under the overwhelming control of its larger and more powerful neighbor, communist Vietnam, Laos can’t do it on its own. Indeed, it needs robust and forceful help and action from the international community, including the United States.
Photo by Flickr user Yeowatzup