Updated at 2:45 p.m. EST on 2014-10-31.
An exiled leader of a pro-democracy student-led protest in Laos that was suppressed by the government 15 years ago still believes the struggle to bring about freedom in the communist state will one day be realized.
Aliyaphon Chanthala, now 35 and living in the United States, was one of 11 protest leaders who organized a peaceful protest to demand social justice, respect of basic citizens’ rights and democratic reforms in the capital Vientiane on Oct. 26, 1999.
But the authorities got wind of the protest as the gathering of hundreds of anti-government demonstrators was just unraveling outside the presidential palace.
When the people spotted a police car approaching, the crowd began to panic and dispersed.
Police arrested five student leaders on “treason” charges—of whom four remain locked up in Laos, one died after alleged torture in prison, and another has been freed—while six others, including Aliyaphon, fled the country a week later when the authorities began to go after protest organizers.
Looking back at the episode, Aliyaphon, who was a 19-year-old student at the time, said that although the protest ended prematurely, its aims and objective remain alive today.
“If we keep doing what we hope for, sooner or later it will be successful,” he told RFA’s Lao Service from West Hartford, Connecticut.
“We will continue to try to rid Laos of communism and in every way press the government to release the four members of the Thongpraseuth [Keuakoun] group who are still in prison somewhere.”
Thongpraseuth, a former university student who founded the Lao Students Movement for Democracy in February 1998, recruited other students and teachers for the Oct. 26, 1999, protest, which he led.
He and two others, Sengaloun Phengphanh and Bouvanh Chanmanivong, are believed to be serving time in a Lao prison, although the government is keeping mum over their fate.
“This is something I’ll never forget even though it has been long time, 15 years,” Aliyaphon said.
“Our plan was to start a protest in front of ‘Ho Kham,’ the presidential palace,” he said. “We chose that day, October 26, 1999, because it was the end of the Buddhist lent and the day that the annual traditional boat race along the Mekong River was held.”
“We wanted to hold the protest banner up and use the loudspeaker to announce that we were protesting for democracy, and then wanted to march along the grand avenue toward the victory monument. We anticipated that every point we marched past, there would be a group of students who would join us.”
“Unexpectedly some of us got arrested, especially our leader, Thongpraseuth, when he was about to lift up a banner and speak about the government’s shortcomings. We had a good plan, but our protest plan had leaked out.”
Fleeing to Thailand
Days after the event, fearing for their safety, Aliyaphon and five other leaders decided to flee to Thailand where they went to the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangkok to apply for third-country asylum, he said.
The agency took care of them until they were accepted by the United States 11 months later.
The Lao authorities have been providing contradictory statements on the fate of the jailed protesters.
In 2007, Thongsing Thammavong, Laos’ current prime minister who was at the time president of the National Assembly (parliament), told the head of a visiting European Parliament delegation that the prisoners had been released a year earlier, according to a statement from the Paris-based Lao Movement for Human Rights.
But Thongsing denied a request from delegation to meet with the “released” leaders, it said.
At a U.N. review of Laos’s rights record three years later, the Lao authorities rejected a recommendation to release the detained protest leaders.
Hard to believe
Catherine Ashton, the European Union (EU) Foreign Policy Chief, said in 2011 that Lao authorities had indicated that two of the student-leader prisoners—Sengaloun and Bouvanh— were scheduled for release in 2012, reports had said.
She found the assurance hard to believe.
“We find it hard to trust, and we are skeptical,” Ashton said at the time, according to Vanida Thephsouvanh, president of the Paris-based Lao Movement for Human Rights.
Vanida said that according to Ashton, information received from the prisoners’ families indicated that they have been transferred from one prison to another, “always a harsher prison regime.”
“To obtain news on these political prisoners or to be able to send them some food, their families have to bribe every level of the prison,” Ashton was quoted as saying.
The Lao authorities also had detained more than 300 people as they traveled to Vientiane in 2009 for a similar student-led pro-democracy protest to demand social justice and basic respect for human rights.
Although most were quickly released, nine were arrested and imprisoned.
Today, their fate is also unknown, according to the Lao Movement for Human Rights.
The movement and other human rights groups have demanded that the government release the 12 political prisoners before Laos proceeds with its plans to vie for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council for the 2016-1017 term.
They have also urged the government to disclose the prisoners’ whereabouts and physical conditions before the U.N. Human Rights Council reviews the country’s human rights record at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, in January.
Reported by Champathong and Somnet Inthapannha for RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Somnet Inthapannha and Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
Correction: An earlier version contained a misspelling of Aliyaphon Chanthala's name as Ariyaphone.