FIDH: 07 March 2019
(Paris) The European Union (EU) must demand the Lao government release detained government critics, investigate all cases of enforced disappearances, and provide adequate compensation to victims of land confiscation and survivors of a recent dam disaster, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said today. FIDH and LMHR made the call on the occasion of the 9th EU-Laos human rights dialogue, which is held in Vientiane today. In conjunction with their call, the two organizations released a briefing paper that provides an update on the human rights situation in Laos since the previous dialogue, held in March 2018 in Vientiane, Laos. The briefing paper documents developments on the following issues: 1) arbitrary detentions; 2) enforced disappearances; 3) violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief; 4) the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam disaster; and 5) land rights
The consistent lack of progress on human rights in Laos should compel Brussels to be more vocal in its interactions with the government. The EU should obtain concrete commitments from the Lao government, such as the immediate and unconditional release of all those subjected to politically-motivated detentions. The EU should not fall into the trap of allowing the Lao government to downgrade the dialogue into an empty ritual.” Debbie Stothard, FIDH Secretary-General
At least 14 political prisoners remain incarcerated across the country. They include: Somphone Phimmasone, Soukan Chaithad, and Lodkham Thammavong, who are serving prison sentences of up to 20 years for their peaceful criticism of the government in relation to alleged corruption, deforestation, and human rights violations; pro-democracy activist Bounthanh Thammavong, a Laos-born Polish citizen, who is serving a four-year-and-nine-month prison sentence for a Facebook post in which he criticized the government’s policies and actions; and 10 villagers in Ban Yeup, Thateng District, Sekong Province, detained without trial since July 2017 for cutting down rubber trees to protest land confiscation. With regard to enforced disappearances, the fate or whereabouts of at least 14 individuals remain unknown. The 14 include: civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who disappeared in Vientiane in December 2012; two women, Kingkeo Phongsely and Somchit, and seven men, Soubinh, Souane, Sinpasong, Khamsone, Nou, Somkhit, and Sourigna, who were detained by security forces In November 2009; Somphone Khantisouk, the owner of an eco-tourism business, who was abducted in Luang Namtha Province in January 2017; and Ittiphon Sukpaen, Wuthipong Kachathamakul, and Surachai Danwattananusorn, three Thai monarchy critics living in exile in Laos who disappeared in June 2016, July 2017, and December 2018 respectively. Lao authorities have failed to conduct effective and impartial investigations into all of these cases.
The collapse of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam in Attapeu Province in July 2018 exposed the government’s slow, inadequate, and non-transparent response to the disaster. Despite the apparent severity and magnitude of the disaster, the government immediately sought to downplay the death toll and tried to block independent reporting about the disaster. In late January 2019, authorities eventually revealed that 49 people had been confirmed dead and 22 were still missing. However, activists and local villagers believe the death toll could be significantly higher, as the fate of hundreds of residents remains undetermined. Compensation and assistance awarded to survivors and families of the victims of the dam collapse has been thoroughly inadequate. In addition, despite the formation of two government-appointed investigation committees, no accountability for the disaster has yet been established. Reports also emerged of a lack of transparency and potential corruption on the part of the authorities in connection with the relief effort, particularly in relation to the procurement and construction of ‘temporary houses’ for survivors.
“The Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam collapse shows that investment and infrastructure projects in Laos can often have disastrous consequences for local communities because of the government’s lack of transparency and accountability. Until Vientiane takes bold steps towards key institutional and legal reforms, the EU and its member states should carefully reconsider their economic involvement in Laos.” Vanida Thephsouvanh, LMHR President
Concerns also remain over the ongoing lack of compensation for communities whose land has been confiscated by the authorities to make way for the construction of the 417km high-speed railway connecting the Laos-China border town of Boten to Vientiane. In November 2018, it was reported that 94% of the land required for the railway had been acquired and that the project was more than 40% complete. However, as of January 2019 – more than two years after the start of the project – many of the 4,400 families affected by the railway construction had not received compensation for their loss of land, livelihood, and income.