Laos Human Rights Abuses 'Serious,' But Mostly Hidden From View

Radio Free Asia: 19 February 2014

Rice farmers blocking a bulldozer from entering their land in a screen grab from an RFA video, Jan. 17, 2014. RFA
Rice farmers blocking a bulldozer from entering their land in a screen grab from an RFA video, Jan. 17, 2014. RFA

The one-party Communist government of Laos is committing “serious” human rights abuses which go largely unreported due to tight political controls, rights groups say, following a report that the country has become the most repressive state in the region.

Laos has been under sharper focus by rights groups since popular civil society leader Sombath Somphone vanished after being stopped in his vehicle at a police checkpoint in the capital Vientiane on Dec. 15, 2012.

The rights groups say there have been many abuses apart from the case of Sombath, who they suspect may have been abducted by government-linked organizations

“The situation in Laos is very serious,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of New York-based Human Rights Watch, told RFA’s Lao Service.

“The Lao government uses its power as a one-party state to effectively control political expression in the country in a way that clearly violates various international human rights treaties.”

“It is still a very dictatorial, rights-repressing government,” Robertson said.

Economic opening

Despite an accelerated economic opening following Laos’s accession last year to membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Lao government still tightly controls the country’s “political space,” said Sarah Cook, Freedom House senior research associate for East Asia.

“The examples of China and Vietnam demonstrate how once countries join the WTO, or host big international events for which they have loosened controls slightly, the authoritarian regimes actually act more aggressively—especially in terms of crushing dissent.”

“So we’ll have to see what happens in Laos next year,” Cook said.

All media in Laos are controlled by the state, Robertson said, adding,“You don’t hear so much about the abuses that take place in Laos. Many things are hidden.”

Lao citizens are now “very scared” following Sombath’s disappearance, Robertson said.

“People we speak to in Laos feel intimidated. They feel that with the disappearance of such a prominent member of Lao civil society, that means the government could take anyone.”

“They could act against anyone,” he added.

“People can’t discuss politics in Laos,” a Lao citizen said, speaking recently to RFA on condition of anonymity.

“For example, if the government issues regulations, we can’t talk about it. If we don’t like something we can’t protest. If you hold a conference without permission, you will be arrested.”

“You can’t hold a rally. If you do, you will be accused of causing civil unrest, and they will arrest you,” he said.’

‘Most repressive’?

Laos has now replaced formerly military-ruled Myanmar, also known as Burma, as “the most repressive [regime] in the region,” the Bangkok Post said in a Jan. 29 editorial.

The Lao government has failed to address the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, the Post said, adding, “His disappearance is an obvious warning to anyone who might think of challenging the Vientiane regime.”

Concerns over which regime may be “worst” or “second-worst” mean little to victims of government abuse, though, Robertson said.

“A human-rights abuse is a human-rights abuse.”

“This government, when it is displeased with someone, when it is going after a particular human-rights defender, can be as vicious and as rights-abusing as any government in the region,” though, he said.

“And that certainly includes even the Burmese military government of the recent past,” which was accused of blatant rights abuses during its nearly five-decade rule.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Bounchanh Mouangkham. Written in English with additional reporting by Richard Finney.