Police in the Lao capital Vientiane detained eight people this week who were planning protests calling for free speech and condemning land grabs and dam projects, later releasing six of them, RFA’s Lao Service learned on Friday.
The arrests took place on Nov. 11 and 12, thwarting demonstrations the activists had planned for four locations in the capital during the That Luang festival, a Buddhist celebration of a 450-year-old, gold-covered temple.
“On November 11, policemen arrested some of protest leaders … and on November 12, the policemen locked some more protesters in Oudomphone guesthouse in Phonesinuan village, in Vientiane’s Sisatthanak district,” a leader of the planned protest, who avoided arrest, told RFA on Friday.
“First, people were going to rally for respect of human rights, and freedom of speech,” the organizer told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect his liberty.
“Second, they wanted to ask the government to prevent land grabs, dam building, deforestation, and unfair relocation of communities,” the activist added.
A Lao official with knowledge of the matter confirmed to RFA on Friday that “people were arrested on those days for planning to stage protests at four places (in Vientiane.”
The protests were planned for the That Luang pagoda grounds, the National University of Laos and two points along highway 13, the official said.
The guesthouse detention was witnessed by villagers.
“I don’t know whether or not those people had come to join the rally, but I saw around six people locked up by the policemen on November 12,” one villager told RFA on Friday.
“I heard some saying they are from the Phonethong district in the southern province of Champassak, but some were not from the south,” he added.
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said "these wrongful arrests are just the latest example of the government’s phony pledges to donor agencies and foreign governments that it will respect fundamental liberties.”
The protest leader identified the eight detained activists as Sounthone Fasongsay, Kamkone Phanthavong, Bounnhone Phanthavong, Chiengsone Phanthavong, Kiatthisak Hakmisouk, Phouvong Xaiyaseng, Santinoy Thepkaisone and the wife of Thepkaisone, whose name was unavailable.
On Friday, the Sisatthanak district police station issued an order to release the six would-be protesters who were held at the guest house.
“On November 12, policeman detained an individual for gathering and making a noise longer than limited time during the celebration of the That Luang festival,” read a copy of the order received by one of the six.
“After investigation, police officers reached a compromise to release him on conditions defined in the law. He has been released and handed over to his relatives and local authorities for reeducation,” it read.
One of the six who were released confirmed with RFA that he and five others were “released today after being held for a few days.”
RFA was unable to confirm the fate or whereabouts of two detainees who were not released with the others on Friday.
Reports of protests are rare in Laos, a one-party communist state since 1975 that brooks no public opposition and deals with dissent harshly.
"Lao authorities have frequently labeled as national security threats anyone peacefully expressing dissenting views, criticizing the government, or simply calling for respect for human rights and democratic rule." said Human Rights Watch.
There are no publicly available government figures on political prisoners in Laos, whose opaque judicial system makes it hard to give a reliable estimate on how many are being held. Three were arrested in 2017 and charged with treason after protesting in front of the Lao embassy in neighboring Thailand.
The fate of about 10 other detainees, including students protesters arrested in 1999 and self-styled freedom fighters who launched a raid via a Thai border checkpoint in 2000 remains unclear.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Paul Eckert.