Laos: Arrests for protest against potash mine while human rights defenders remain in jail
Civic space in Laos continues to be rated as ‘closed’ based on research by the CIVICUS Monitor. The rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly remain severely restricted, while the state exercises strict control over media and there is extensive surveillance of society.
Amnesty International’s annual report for 2022 highlighted that prominent human rights defenders remained imprisoned, and there was no progress in the investigation of various cases of enforced disappearance of activists and members of ethnic minorities.
In late December 2022, Lao Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh resigned for health reasons, after serving in the position for less than two years amid a tanking economy, with soaring inflation and a sharp drop in the value of the currency, the kip. Lawmakers of the country’s one-party government then voted overwhelmingly for Deputy Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone to be the new prime minister.
In recent months, there have been reports of arrests around a protest related to a potash mine in Nong Bok district, the persecution of Christians as well as concerns by communities around the effect of development projects. Human rights defenders remain in detention and there has been a lack of efforts to address cases of enforced disappearances.
Villagers arrested for staging a protest against a potash mine
Lao villagers arrested for protesting potash mine, later released https://t.co/07rIidfOlS pic.twitter.com/5tht6yOQfB— TheEazyCadet (@EazyCadet) December 30, 2022
In late December 2022, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that Lao authorities had arrested and later released a small group of protesters from Nong Bok district in the Khammouane province.
They were protesting against a 35-square kilometre potash mine being developed by a company linked to the Chinese government, which has made acquiring new reserves of the fertiliser feedstock a priority. The villagers claimed that they had not been adequately compensated for the loss of their homes and farms. According to a local resident, the compensation was almost half the value of their land.
The villagers claim they had not been compensated by developer Sino Agri International Potash Co., a subsidiary of Asia Potash. Asia Potash’s largest shareholder is China National Agricultural Means of Production Group Corp., which is a fully owned subsidiary of a company owned by the All-China Federation of Supply and Marketing Cooperatives, which China’s governing State Council leads.
As a result of Laos' infrastructure-heavy economic development initiatives, complaints concerning compensation in large infrastructure projects are widespread in the country.
Human rights defenders still in detention after seven years
#Laos: UN expert calls on the Government to immediately release human rights defenders Lodkham Thammavong, Soukane Chaithad and Somphone Phimmasone who have been detained for more than 5 years without fair trial or access to a lawyer. @LaosAtUNhttps://t.co/1mueqpz0er pic.twitter.com/mkoWzs1jrB— Josef Benedict (@josefroy2) April 13, 2021
Three Laotian human rights defenders – Lodkham Thammavong, Soukane Chaithad and Somphone Phimmasone – entered their seventh year in detention. As previously documented, they have been detained since March 2016 for taking part in a demonstration outside the Lao Embassy in Thailand to express concerns over the government’s human rights record. The three had also posted messages on social media criticising the government.
They were then forced to admit to their crimes on national television. In May 2017, they were convicted for ‘acts of betrayal towards the nation’ (article 56 of the Penal Code), ‘propaganda against the state’ (article 65 of the Penal Code) and ‘gatherings aimed at causing social disorder’ (article 72 of the Penal Code) and given lengthy prison sentences. In September 2017, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared their detention to be arbitrary.
Enforced disappearances still not resolved
In March 2023, Amnesty International noted that it has been ten years since the disappearance of civil society leader Sombath Somphone. Civil society groups continue to call for Lao authorities to determine his fate and whereabouts and deliver justice, truth and reparation to his family members.
The organisation said that the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has reported on six outstanding cases of enforced disappearance in Laos. They included Lao and Thai activists, as well as four members of the minority ChaoFa Hmong ethnic group, including two girls. The UN Secretary-General reported in September 2022 that relatives of the disappeared from the ChaoFa Hmong community faced intimidation by the Lao army after reporting the disappearances to the UN in 2020.
In September 2022, the UN Secretary-General published details of the disappearance of Od Sayavong, a Laotian refugee living in Thailand who was last seen on 26th August 2019 after he engaged with the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Thai authorities closed the investigation into his disappearance, citing a lack of evidence.
Lao Christians continue to face persecution
Lao Christians - who account for around two percent of the seven million population - consistently face discrimination, particularly in rural areas. Some have been arrested for holding prayer services and have faced harassment from the authorities.
On 23rd January 2023, local authorities brought two tribal Christian families from northern Laos to a meeting. According to Open Doors, the families were forced to sign a written order forbidding them from practising their faith and to stop holding Christian activities and ceremonies that they said were illegal and violate local Lao traditions.
On 29th January 2023, five Christian families in Laos' south-central region had their homes demolished for the second time by villagers. The families had returned from another location where they were meeting for a fellowship to find their homes destroyed. These were temporary houses or small buildings in a rice field just outside the village, as their permanent houses were destroyed in November 2022 by villagers who later forced the families to relocate to a different area.
In February 2023, RFA reported that rural villagers in northwestern Laos had driven 15 families and a pastor out of their village because of their Christian beliefs. Mai village in Luang Namtha province is home to many members of the Ahka minority, which has its own spiritual beliefs. But when 15 families in the village converted to Christianity, their neighbours banded together and chased them and their pastor out of town.
Displacement due to dams and mining
Lao villagers worry that compensation for Pak Beng Dam will be too low - Radio Free Asia https://t.co/n07sW7Spab #damnews #dam— Dam News (@damnews_en) March 14, 2023
According to news reports, communities in Laos affected by dam development projects or mining have raised concerns about inadequate compensation and disruption to their lives and the environment.
In February 2023, RFA reported that villagers in northern Laos who will be displaced by the massive Luang Prabang Dam project were demanding five times higher compensation than the government is offering, saying flooding from the dam will wipe out their farmland. Residents of 12 villages in Oudomxay Province’s Nga District have also complained to local officials about the location of the new homes and resettlement villages that would be built for them. Village relocations will begin in either 2024 or 2025, and construction on access roads, bridges and workers’ camps has already begun at the dam site.
In March 2023, villagers who will be affected by the Pak Beng Dam project said that the government’s compensation offer is too low. According to the project’s environmental impact assessment report, the dam will impact a total of 26 villages in three provinces, 17 of which are in Bokeo province. A total of 923 families, or about 4,700 people will have to be relocated. The dam, located in northwestern Laos’ Bokeo province on the Mekong River, is an integral part of Laos’ ambitious, controversial goal to become the “battery of Southeast Asia” by using the river to generate electricity and selling it to neighbouring countries.
Residents in southern Laos’ Attapeu province are also concerned that more than a quarter of the province has been granted to 10 companies in a concession that would allow them to mine for minerals. People living within the concession told RFA that a mining project on such a large scale will disrupt their lives and ruin the environment.
Civic Space Developments