BANGKOK—An ethnic Lao man briefly detained as he and several hundred others tried to converge on the Lao capital to petition the government has said the group was planning to seek help from the authorities rather than stage a political protest.
“What have we done that is so wrong, that we had to be detained? All we were doing was asking the government for help. I want to live with dignity even if it costs my life,” the man, 47 and an illegal migrant worker in Thailand, said in an interview.
He spoke on condition of anonymity to protect himself, his three children, and his wife—one of the nine people who remain in Lao custody after they were detained en route to the Lao capital, Vientiane, on Nov. 2. The man was detained briefly and then released.
He said he was legally “stateless,” having left Laos after the Communists took power in 1975, then met his wife and married in a Thai refugee center. He has no Lao identification documents and works illegally in Thailand, one of what he described as “hundreds of thousands” of illegal Lao laborers there.
The couple have three children: a 22-year-old daughter, a 21-year-old son, and an eight-year-old girl, all born in Thailand. The older two attended school through the sixth grade, he said, adding that the oldest child works in construction alongside her parents in Thailand.
“When you are so poor, you do what you have to do to survive—and you sell whatever you have to sell to survive, your labor or yourself. It’s so sad… We have become merchandise.”
The Seattle-based Lao Students Movement for Democracy estimated that authorities had detained more than 300 people traveling to Vientiane from both North and South.
Most were quickly released, but the nine still in custody have been moved to Samkhe Prison in Vientiane, the group said in a statement, dated Nov. 5 and written in Lao.
The Lao government has denied detaining anyone, saying the reports were "fabricated" to harm the country’s image.
Lao sources identified those still detained as Ms. Kingkeo, 39; Mr. Soubin, 35; Mr. Souane, 50; Mr. Sinprasong, 43; Khamsone, 36; Mr. Nou, 54; Ms. Somchit, 29; Mr. Somkhit, 28; and Sourigna, 26.
Family members confirmed that all nine were under arrest, sources who asked not to be named said. Some were connected with the Oct. 26, 1999 student protests in the communist Southeast Asian country—four of whose leaders remain in Samkhe prison in Vientiane after one died in custody.
The man told RFA’s Lao service that the group, which last year decided to call itself Lao United for Economic and Social Renewal, was seeking economic and social support from the government as well as the re-integration of ethnic Lao returning from abroad.
“Everyone who was arrested was an average common person, not an activist,” he said. “They have grievances… they just wanted to petition.”
“The Vietnamese [living in Laos] have more rights than Lao people in Laos—it’s not right. Why this crackdown on us—when other vices are rampant and no one is doing anything about real crime?”
On Nov. 2, a convoy set out from the Nam Ngum dam area of Thalat in Vientiane province, heading to Vientiane by taxi when authorities intercepted them in Phone Hong town, some 60 kms from Vientiane and also in Vientiane province, at around 5 a.m., relatives said.
Two busloads carrying about 75 travelers each meanwhile set out from the south, and were detained in Pakading town some 70 kms from Vientiane in Borikhamxay province, witnesses said.
They had planned to meet several hundred others at the Patuxay monument in Vientiane, sources said.
Tiny, landlocked Laos, with a population nearing 7 million, is one of the world’s poorest countries. Literacy and life expectancy are low, and most of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture.
Original reporting by RFA’s Lao service. Lao service director: Viengsay Luangkhot. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.