Laos’ Rights Record Marred by Arbitrary Arrests, Forced Disappearances and Harsh Treatment in Custody

The situation is “getting worse,” experts say, while the government blames lack of progress on COVID-19.
2020-12-10
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Laos’ Rights Record Marred by Arbitrary Arrests, Forced Disappearances and Harsh Treatment in Custody Jailed Lao blogger 'Mouay' is shown in an undated photo.
Photo provided by citizen journalist

Citizens who criticize the Lao government are forcibly disappeared or arrested without due process, and endure harsh treatment and lengthy prison terms, experts said on the anniversary of key United Nations human rights pacts that the communist nation has ratified but regularly violates.

Human Rights Day Thursday marks the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the UN General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948.

Laos, whose one-party communist government marked its 45th anniversary on Dec. 2, ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other key U.N. rights instruments in the 1990s, but the rights commitments are not honored, rights experts and activists say.

The country's only legal political party, the Lao People's Revolutionary Party, has a record for intolerance of dissent that surpasses even other authoritarian states in continental Southeast Asia.

“The Lao people have no freedom to speak out against the government or against its wrongdoing. Those who dare are arrested and severely punished,” Bounthone Chanthalavong-Weiser, president of the Germany-based Alliance for Democracy in Laos, told RFA’s Lao Service.

She pointed to the case of Houayheuang Xayabouly, who was arrested on Sept 12, 2019 for complaining in a Facebook video about the lackluster response to severe flooding in the country’s south and later sentenced to five years in jail for “campaigning against, defaming, and attempting to overthrow the party, state, and government."

“Human rights conditions in Laos have not improved, in fact, they have gotten worse,” Chanthalavong-Weiser said

Mouay is a clear example of this, as she was sentenced to five years in prison just for calling out for help for flood victims,” she added.

In a measure of the repressed atmosphere, a Lao academic requested anonymity for comments defending the country’s rights record and policies.

“We in Laos have freedom of speech. We have the right to express our opinions and we have all the democratic rights under which the minority depends on the majority,” a professor at the National University of Laos, told RFA.

A resident of the Lao capital Vientiane disagreed that Laos has freedom of speech but told RFA that this was not a problem.

“Freedom has to have a limit. We can’t just say whatever we want. As an ordinary person, we might not know it all. We might not know the whole truth,” said the resident, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

“Whoever speaks out against the government has to be careful,” Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, told RFA.

Some critics of Lao government policies don’t even get a communist show trial.

The most infamous case is that of Sombath Somphone, a rural education and development expert who had challenged massive land deals negotiated by the Lao government that had left thousands of rural villagers homeless with little compensation.

On December 15, 2012, police stopped Sombath Somphone in his vehicle at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the capital Vientiane. Video evidence shows he was then transferred to another vehicle. He has not been heard from since.

December 15, 2020 marks the eighth anniversary since Sombath Somphone’s disappearance. His family plans to host a Buddhist ceremony at a temple in the capital Sunday in remembrance.

“We would like to remind others not to forget him,” his niece told RFA.

The seizure of land for development or agricultural use—often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents—has been a major cause of protest in Laos.

To silence protests, the government simply arrests organizers and participants.

In July 2017, 15 residents of Yeub village Laos’ southeastern Sekong province were taken into custody for obstructing workers and cutting down trees on their former land, which the government granted to a Vietnamese rubber company.

Several of those detained were beaten or subjected to electric shocks in the days following their arrest, with another later reported to have died in custody.

After a two-year pretrial detention, nine of the 15 were tried in July 2019 and sentenced between two and six years on charges of: causing divisiveness of unity, gathering for disruption, destroying citizen property, destroying crops, obstructing officers on duty and defaming officers.

Four of the nine have since been released.

“The fact that these people are still being prosecuted by the Lao government for these actions is a clear violation of human rights,” Robertson said.

Robertson called on the Lao government to immediately release those still in prison and compensate them not only for the lands that they lost, but also for the time they spent in prison for actions that are not crimes.

“Everyone knows just how bad the Lao prisons are… the poor conditions, the lack of adequate food. All the problems come up for anybody who is put in prison and faces eventually a health crisis because of the poor treatment they receive there at the hands of the officials,” said Robertson.

Former UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston, meanwhile, told RFA that villagers are at a legal disadvantage when the government decides to make concessions out of land they live on.

“The Lao Government has prioritized the transfer of land to commercial interests over the rights and well-being of ordinary citizens.  The least well-off persons in villages are the ones who have suffered most, and the party elites and their allies are the ones who have benefited almost exclusively,” Alston told RFA. 

“In order to make this system work, the government has blocked off all avenues for appeal or accountability and if villagers complain they are punished,” he said.

“The Lao legal system is essentially an extension of the will of the party leadership.  It does not function independently.  The police and the judiciary understand their role as to carry out the government's orders rather than to do justice,” said Alston.

RFA tried to contact a high-ranking official in Sekong for more information on court proceedings but the official could not be reached for comment

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service and Ounkeo Souksavanh. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh and Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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