Popular Lao Musician Ther Una Arrested, Questioned on Unknown Charges

His songs took on bribery and social ills in a one-party state that brooks no public criticism.
2021-07-28
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Popular Lao Musician Ther Una Arrested, Questioned on Unknown Charges Lao musician and social commentator Ther Una is shown in an undated photo.
Facebook / Ther Una

Authorities in Laos have arrested a popular young Lao musician and producer known for singing songs criticizing official corruption in the one-party communist state, sources in the country say.

Syphone Vongchinda, better known as Ther Una, was taken into custody last week in the Sepon district of Savannakhet province in southern Laos, according to a district police officer and his neighbors.

“According to reports, he was summoned and taken away by provincial police,” the district police officer told RFA’s Lao Service on July 27, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I don’t know why they arrested him," he said.

Ther Una is currently being held and questioned at the Provincial Police Headquarters in Kaysone Phomvihane City, capital of Savannakhet province, the officer added.

Requests by RFA for comment from the provincial police headquarters received no response this week.

Also speaking to RFA, one of Ther Una’s neighbors confirmed the musician’s arrest, adding, “The reason for his arrest is still unknown.”

“Because Ther Una lives close to me in the same village, I want to know why he has been detained,” he said.

A fan of Ther Una’s music who regularly follows him on Facebook said he wasn’t sure of his arrest. “But I’ve noticed that he has stopped all his activity on social media like Facebook for a while now.”

“I saw a post on one Facebook page saying he’d been arrested, but I’m waiting for an official announcement from the authorities,” another music fan said. “They may not announce anything about this case, though, since they usually only broadcast the arrests of drug traffickers on their show,” he said.

Now in his late twenties, Ther Una is a well-known performing artist in Laos, with more than a million followers on YouTube and his Facebook page and fans in next-door Thailand. He is also the owner of Una Studio, which produces songs, videos, news, and short feature stories about social and economic issues in the country.

Concert shut down

On Oct. 14, 2018, police in Savannakhet’s Kaysone district shut down a benefit concert held by Ther Una to raise funds for schools in remote areas after they objected to a slogan found on T-shirts sold at the site, sources told RFA in an earlier report.

The concert had run for only 40 minutes before police closed it down and attempted to detain a concert organizer found wearing a T-shirt carrying the slogan “No bribes for jobs!”

Speaking to RFA the following day, Ther Una said that authorities should have shown more consideration to the concert’s organizers and audience, simply warning them not to wear the T-shirts if they were inappropriate.

“This should not have been a big enough deal to stop our concert,” he said.

A year later, Ther Una published a song titled “Poor Guy With a Degree,” telling the story of a high school graduate from the countryside whose parents sold their rice field to finance his college education, but who later couldn’t find a job because he had no money to bribe the officials who could help him get one.

lao-theruna2-072721.jpg
Lao musician and social commentator Ther Una is shown in an undated photo. Facebook / Ther Una

Interviews with US, EU ambassadors

Host of Una Studio interviews in July last year and April this year with U.S. Ambassador to Laos Peter Haymond, Ther Una spoke in Lao with Haymond about U.S. aid programs to Laos supporting initiatives in education, nutrition, health, and anti-trafficking efforts, and the clearance of unexploded ordnance left behind in Laos after the Vietnam War.

And in an Una Studio interview conducted in English in December last year, Thun Era spoke with European Union Ambassador to Laos Ina Marciulionyte about EU efforts to promote European investment in Laos and to support rural schools and provide financial and health-care support to victims of flooding in Savannakhet.

Ther Una is also a close friend of Lao blogger Houayheuang Xayabouly, also called Mouay, now serving a five-year prison term for criticizing the Lao government in posts online.

Mouay, now in her early 30s, was arrested Sept. 12, 2019, a week after she voiced her concern about the government response to flooding in the country’s southern Champassak and Salavan provinces in a Facebook Live video.

The delayed government response had left many Lao villagers stranded and cut off from help, she said in the video, which was viewed more than 150,000 times.

In an annual survey of press freedom released in 2021, Laos was ranked 172 out of 180 countries for the previous year by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) which said the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party “exercises absolute control over the media.”

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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