Thailand-based rights activist arrested in Laos after returning to home village

Lao dissidents living abroad have been harshly punished after returning to the country.
By Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA Lao
2023.05.09
Thailand-based rights activist arrested in Laos after returning to home village Savang Phaleuth, a human rights activist and member of the Free Laos group, is seen in this June 2022 photo.
Credit: Citizen journalist

A human rights activist and member of the Thailand-based Free Laos group was arrested when he recently returned to Laos to visit his hometown, friends of the activist told Radio Free Asia.

Savang Phaleuth, in his 40s, has worked in Thailand for years, according to a friend. He traveled to Done Sart village in Song Khone district last month and was detained at his family’s home on April 20 and later taken to Savannakhet city, the friend said.  

“Friends had reminded him not to go home because Lao officials have identified him,” the friend said. “But he insisted on going.”

Laos deals severely with dissidents who call for democracy and respect for human rights in the one-party communist state, and Lao dissidents living abroad have been harshly punished after returning or being forced back to Laos.

The rights group Free Laos was set up by Lao workers and residents in Thailand to promote human rights and democracy in their home country. 

Savang had posted on social media about those issues in Laos. It’s unclear where he is being held or if he has been charged.

A village headman told RFA that someone named Savang was arrested in Done Sart on April 20 but the reason was unknown. 

A source who is close to a high ranking police officer in Savannakhet province told RFA that Savang was arrested for his political campaign work.

“The police took Savang away but I don’t know where he is detained,” the source said. “First of all, he must be questioned for more details.”

Previous arrests of Thai-based Laotians

The co-founder of Free Laos, Khoukham Keomanivong, urged the Lao government to respect people’s rights and to not treat rights activists as traitors. 

Khoukham, a U.N.-recognized refugee, was convicted last year in a closed-door Thai trial of overstaying his visa and had been held pending deportation to Laos, where he faced arrest for his advocacy work. He was later released on bail and was finally allowed to leave Thailand for Canada, where he now lives. 

“We don’t like that the government treats people with different opinions as enemies,” he said. “It’s a severe abuse of human rights when people who express opinions different from the government are arrested and then disappear.”

Savang’s arrest is reminiscent of three rights activists who were arrested in Laos in March 2016.

Somphone Pimmasone, 29, Lodkham Thammavong, 30, and Soukane Chaithad, 32, were arrested after entering Laos to renew their passports from Thailand, where they had been working. 

They were charged with criticizing the Lao government online while working abroad and for taking part in a protest outside the Lao embassy in Thailand. The three were handed prison terms described by rights groups as harsh at a secret trial in April 2017.

In another case, democracy activist Od Sayavong, a friend of Khoukham, vanished under mysterious circumstances in Bangkok in 2019 after posting a video clip online criticizing the government. 

Listed as a “person of concern” by the UNHCR because of his advocacy for democracy and human rights, his whereabouts remain unknown. He was 34 at the time he went missing.

Vientiane shooting

Meanwhile, police said on Monday that a preliminary investigation into the April 29 shooting of a Lao political activist in Vientiane indicates it was related to either a business or romantic dispute.

That statement was met with skepticism from Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch and others who questioned whether Lao authorities were serious about investigating the attack on Jack Anousa.

Anousa, 25, has been the administrator of a Facebook group that’s uncovered and denounced human rights abuses and has called for the end of one-party rule in Laos.

Security camera footage that was later posted on the Facebook group page showed an unidentified gunman, wearing a cap and beige jacket, firing two shots at Anousa at a Vientiane shop. 

The same Facebook page said Anousa died at a hospital the next day, but that report proved to be false after Anousa’s family and other sources gave verbal confirmation and photographic evidence that he survived the shooting. The identity of the gunman remains unknown and no arrest has been made.

“Coming to such a quick, convenient conclusion without doing a thorough investigation is just the sort of pathetically poor performance we’ve come to expect from the Lao police,” Robertson said on Monday. “This looks like the start of the Lao government cover-up rather than the sort of thorough and impartial investigation that is truly needed to find the shooter and anyone else connected with him.”

Bounthone Chanthalavong-Weiser, president of the Germany-based Alliance for Democracy in Laos, said Anousa was an employee, not a business owner – so a business conflict was unlikely. 

“He also didn’t have a love conflict with anyone,” she said. “He was shot because he was fighting for democracy and human rights in Laos. The Lao government just doesn’t like these people.”

Edited by Matt Reed.

POST A COMMENT

Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.