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Laos

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Last updated on 17.01.2019 at 10:48

Laos Overview

Authorities in Laos maintain a firm grip on power and civic space through a destructive cocktail of fear and intimidation.

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Six years on, groups demand effective investigation into disappearance of activist Sombath Somphone

Six years on, groups demand effective investigation into disappearance of activist Sombath Somphone

On the sixth anniversary of the enforced disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, over 100 civil society organisations worldwide called for the Lao government to conduct an independent, impartial, and effective investigation to reveal his fate and whereabouts.

Association

Lao authorities fail to investigate disappearance of activist

On the sixth anniversary of the enforced disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, over 100 civil society organisations worldwide called for the Lao government to conduct an independent, impartial, and effective investigation to reveal his fate and whereabouts.

As previously documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, Sombath disappeared on the evening of 15th December 2012, after being stopped at a police checkpoint in a busy street in the capital,  Vientiane. CCTV footage show unknown individuals forcing him into another vehicle in the presence of police officers.

For the last six years, the Lao government has failed to provide any credible answers with regard to the disappearance of Sombath Somphone. In its most recent pronouncements, made during the review of Laos’ initial report by the Human Rights Committee (CCPR) in July 2018, the Lao government said it had been “trying very hard” to investigate Sombath’s fate and whereabouts. However, this statement has been contradicted by the government’s refusal to accept international assistance in conducting the investigation and to provide any details about the progress of its investigation. Lao authorities have failed to disclose any new findings from their investigation to the public since 8th June 2013 and have met with his wife, Shui Meng Ng, only twice since January 2013.

On 12th December 2018, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Focus on the Global South, International Federation for Human Rights and the International Commission of Jurists, held a panel discussion in Bangkok, Thailand on the case of Sombath. During the panel discussion, Shui-Meng Ng, the spouse of Sombath, denounced the smear campaign against her husband put in place by the Lao Government, while no efforts are in place to investigate his disappearance. The panel discussion can be watched here.

Seven Christians detained for holding prayer service released

Seven Lao Christians arrested on 29th December 2018 in the Southern province of Savannakhet for conducting an “illegal” church service were released on 2nd January 2019. The seven detainees were arrested by police in Nakanong village, according to a report citing information provided by the Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF). Police first took into custody three church leaders identified as Akeo, Kert, and Somwang, and then returned to take away four other church members named Boulai, Champee, Agae, and Ayoung. Authorities also demolished the church’s stage, cut off the power line, destroyed the sound system, and seized three mobile phones.

Reports continue of authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting, detaining, and exiling followers of minority religions, particularly Christians. Christian groups report longstanding problems registering and constructing churches in some areas. Christians who congregated in homes and other unregistered facilities for religious purposes were in some cases subjected to harassment by authorities

Four Lao Christians arrested in November 2018 in the Keovilai village of Savannakhet province’s Vilabouly district were held in custody for a week for conducting religious services without permission from authorities.

Peaceful assembly

Villagers block attempts to survey land

On 4th January 2019, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that villagers living in the Vang Vieng region are blocking attempts from a company to survey their land for a new Chinese investment project, fearing that they will be displaced from their homes. The project, managed by the Chinese firm Lao-Vang Vieng New Area Development Company, will affect 22 villages lying to the west of the Xong river and has been given permission from the Lao government to proceed. Villagers object to the plans and a villager leader said that verbal confrontations ended only when district authorities arrived to calm things down.

Lao citizens cannot officially own property, while the government has the right to reclaim land in the name of public interest, as in the case of national development projects. It is believed that the proposed special economic zone (SEZ) called the Sustainable Tourism Development Project will reportedly cover thousands of hectares of land in Vang Vieng.

Ten still in detention for land protests

In November 2018, a local civil society organisation expressed its concern for the status of 10 villagers who remain in prison, urging the government to disclose details on their case, including the prosecution’s timeline.

As previously documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, in July 2017, 14 residents of a village in Thateng district were arrested by police for obstructing workers and cutting down trees on land granted by the government to a Vietnamese rubber company. The residents of Yeub village in Sekong’s Thateng district have been in a dispute with the government over land rights since 2006.

Several of the detainees were allegedly beaten or subjected to electric shocks in the days following their arrest, while many are now malnourished and in failing health. In January 2018, one of the 14 villagers, Somsavanh, died under mysterious circumstances in police custody. The relatives challenged the government claims that the man had killed himself. Two children - Ny, a girl, and Nak, a boy - were released in June 2018.

Speaking to RFA in condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, the spokesperson of the local organisation pointed out that the detainees are facing poor conditions in jail and only allowed to meet with family members once a month after bribing the police.

Association in Laos

Despite clear protections for fundamental freedoms in the constitution, space for civil society is severely restricted in Laos.

Despite clear protections for fundamental freedoms in the constitution, space for civil society is severely restricted in Laos. Human Rights Defenders, particularly those working to defend communities in the face of natural resource development projects, face significant risks, including harassment, intimidation and disappearance. In December 2012, the prominent civil society activist Sombath Somphone was arrested and has not been seen since. Closed circuit television footage showed that police were involved in Somphone’s disappearance, and despite a vigorous civil society campaign, authorities have failed to mount an effective investigation into his case. Rights groups report that, in total, 14 activists remain behind bars or have disappeared, some of them having been imprisoned since 1999. At least one foreign activist working on land issues has been expelled in recent years. Registration processes for civil society organisations are slow and cumbersome, with only a few applications for registration approved at the national and provincial level in 2013. Details of a new decree to control civil society even more tightly by requiring approval to receive foreign funding and limiting CSOs’ operational areas were leaked in 2014, but it has not been implemented. Freedom of international nongovernmental organisations (INGOs) in Laos was also to be further restricted under the new laws.

Peaceful Assembly in Laos

Freedom of peaceful assembly is effectively denied by the government’s ban on participating in any organisation which engages in mass action, demonstrations or public protests that may cause social instability.

Freedom of peaceful assembly is effectively denied by the government’s ban on participating in any organisation which engages in mass action, demonstrations or public protests that may cause social instability. Article 66 of the amended penal code says that anyone who even attempts to organise a protest that causes ‘damage to the society’ can be imprisoned for up to five years. Two activists who took part in a protest in 1999 were charged with treason and remain in detention almost two decades later. A planned demonstration by farmers in 2009 led to 300 arrests, and to this day security forces have failed to release or confirm the whereabouts of 9 protest ‘leaders’. Even meetings held in private can be interfered with when they deal with social issues, democracy and human rights in Laos. For example, an important regional civil society meeting in 2016 could not be held in Laos because of fears for participants’ safety.

Expression in Laos

Laos view the media as the mouthpiece of the state, through which only the official position is communicated to the population.

Laos view the media as the mouthpiece of the state, through which only the official position is communicated to the population. Due to the severe penalties in place for violation of this unwritten rule, self-censorship by the media is widespread. Although Laos has dozens of newspapers and television stations, the majority are owned by the state or the ruling party. Journalists follow strict content guidelines, and rarely cover sensitive topics such as the forced repatriation of Hmong refugees or the negative impacts of hydroelectric plants, land clearing and illegal logging. Faced with a blackout on independent reporting through traditional media, young people are increasingly turning to the Internet as a source of uncensored news and the number of Facebook users in Laos has soared to half a million in recent years. In response, the government passed a restrictive cybercrime law, which prohibits online criticism of the Lao government and Communist Party, and provides stiff penalties for offenders. The law was used in May 2015 when a woman posted photos of alleged police extortion on Facebook, and in June 2015 when another user was arrested for posting a document showing a local official granting a land concession to a private developer.