Rights Groups Condemn Harsh Prison Sentence Against Lao Worker

VOA: 18 May 2017

FILE – Laos’ President Bounnhang Vorachith speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping (not pictured) during a bilateral meeting at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China.

Human rights groups have condemned harsh prison sentences and called for the release of three Lao migrant workers who posted critical comments on social media and joined a protest outside the Lao Embassy in Thailand.

The workers, Somphone Phimmasone, 30, Soukan Chaithad, 33, and Ms Lodkham Thammavong, were sentenced in early April to prison terms of between 12 and 20 years.

A harsh message on human rights

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said the sentences sent a “chilling message across Lao civil society that the government is determined to crush the slightest sign of activism and opposition to its authoritarian rule.”

While in Thailand, the migrant workers posted messages on social media critical of the government, alleging corruption, deforestation, and human rights violations.

They also participated in a protest against the government outside the Lao Embassy in December, 2015.

They were arrested in March 2016 after returning to Laos to reapply for official documents before planning a return to Thailand.

Government accuses the 3 of ‘threatening national security’

Lao state-run television showed Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham, being held in custody at the police headquarters in Vientiane. Official reports accused the three of threatening national security and tarnishing the government’s reputation.

Andrea Giorgetta, FIDH Asia Desk director, said the arrests highlighted the government’s close monitoring of citizens abroad.

“The government of Laos went out of its way to persecute these three dissidents actually based in Thailand. It shows that the government is also stepping up on-line monitoring of its citizens because these three have expressed their opinions and criticisms of the government policy,” Giorgetta told VOA.

Laos classified as ‘not free’

The U.S.-based non-governmental organization Freedom House, in its assessment of the civil liberties and media rights, classifies Laos as ‘not free’, with low or zero ratings on political right and liberties.

In 2016, Freedom House noted Lao authorities were increasingly attentive to criticism on social media, detaining citizens for “contentious posts” ahead of Laos chairing meetings of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Thailand freedoms

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the migrant workers had taken “advantage of the relative freedom” they experienced in Thailand to criticize the Lao authorities.

“The criticisms should not be a crime,” he said, adding the three were held for several months in pre-trial detention. The sentencing highlighted the “shortcomings in the Lao judicial system,” he said. “There is a complete lack of transparency and accountability within the Lao judicial system, which you see when people don’t have access to lawyers, trials are conducted in secret, families are only informed well afterward of proceedings against their loved ones.”

No tolerance for criticism

The verdicts add to a list of arrests and forced disappearances of activists and protesters who have been critical of issues ranging from land disputes to allegations of corruption and abuse of power.

The high profile disappearance in December 2012 of well known civil society leader Sombath Somphone, after he was seen being arrested at a police checkpoint, remains unresolved amid calls for transparency in the case.

Shalmali Guttal, a spokesperson for “The Sombath Initiative”, said harsh sentencing by authorities in Lao has been on-going over several years as regional governments also look to tighten controls over social media.

A long history

“This is a trend in Lao for sure. It’s been going for a very long time of course because there is no critical discussion publicly about policy, about governance, about how the affairs of the state and society is conducted. So yes, that’s been going on. It is also part of this trend in the region,” Guttal said.

Other cases include the 2009 detention of a group of men and women planning to participate in pro-democracy demonstrations in Laos, while in 2007 an outspoken critic of Chinese sponsored agricultural projects also disappeared.

FIDH’s Giorgetta said with the existing media outlets tightly controlled, increasingly people and Lao civil society have turned to social media to express grievances.

“We have seen arbitrary arrests of activists who have exposed cases of corruption and bad governance,” he said.

Huge construction projects underway

Of key concern are major infrastructure projects, especially by Chinese and Vietnamese investors, including the China-led $6.0 billion, 415 kilometer rail line from northern Laos to the capital Vientiane.

“The infrastructure and development projects being implemented in Laos – but that merely results in massive human rights violations – like the case of the Lao China railway that just started [in construction],” he said.

Robertson’s Human Rights Watch says a major concern for the three migrant workers will be to survive the harsh prison conditions.

He said the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party has applied its “full force to basically ruin these people’s lives and throw them behind bars for long sentences, which given the very poor conditions in Lao prisons, for some of them could be a death sentence.”

Three government critics jailed for up to 20 years

FIDH: 16 May 2017

The harsh prison sentences handed down to three Lao government critics are a shocking reminder of Vientiane’s intolerance for any form of peaceful dissent, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said today. FIDH and LMHR reiterate their call on the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the three.

“By locking up dissidents for up to two decades, the Lao government has abandoned any pretense of compliance with the country’s international human rights obligations. It’s time for the international community to drop the diplomatic niceties and condemn the Lao government’s latest attack on civil society in the strongest possible terms.” Dimitris Christopoulos, FIDH President

According to information received by LMHR, in early April, Messrs. Somphone Phimmasone, 30, and Soukan Chaithad, 33, were sentenced to 20 and 18 years in prison respectively. Ms. Lodkham Thammavong, in her early 30s, received a 12-year prison sentence. The three are currently detained in Samkhe prison, on the eastern outskirts of Vientiane.

Due to the difficulty of obtaining and verifying information in Laos, it was not immediately clear on what exact day Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham had been sentenced and the charges for which they had been found guilty.

“The imprisonment of Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham sends a chilling message across Lao civil society that the government is determined to crush the slightest sign of activism and opposition to its authoritarian rule.” Vanida Thephsouvanh, LMHR President

The arrest of Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham was due to their repeated criticism of the Lao government while they were working in Thailand. The three had posted numerous messages on Facebook that criticized the government in relation to alleged corruption, deforestation, and human rights violations. On 2 December 2015, Lodkham, Somphone, and Soukan were among a group of about 30 people who protested against their government in front of the Lao embassy in Bangkok.

Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham were arrested in March 2016 after returning to Laos from Thailand on 18 February 2016 to apply for passports in order to re-enter Thailand and obtain the necessary documents to work legally. On 4 March 2016, police arrested Lodkham and Somphone at Lodkham’s family home in Ban Vang Tay Village, Nong Bok District, Khammuan Province. Soukan was arrested on 22 March 2016 at the Lao Ministry of Public Security head office (‘’Ko Po So“) in Savannakhet City.

On 25 May 2016, state-run TV showed Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham in custody at police headquarters in Vientiane. The news report said the three had been arrested for threatening national security by using social media to tarnish the government’s reputation.

“NGOs generally exercised self-censorship…”

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally exercised self-censorship, which civil society considered was a direct result of Sombath Somphone’s disappearance. The chilling effect of the disappearance of an internationally respected civil society advocate caused lesser-known local activists to believe they had little hope of avoiding a similar fate if they were too outspoken.

From US State Department 2016 Human Rights Report on Laos.

Face à l’impunité du régime laotien, ne nous taisons pas !

Libération: 15 Décembre 2016

Anne-Sophie Gindroz, ancienne directrice de Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation au Laos

Sombath Somphone en 2005. Il avait fondé l’ONG Padetc. Photo Bullit Marquez. AP

Fondateur d’une ONG de soutien aux paysans, le leader communautaire Sombath Somphone est porté disparu depuis quatre ans. Les autorités du Laos sont pointées du doigt pour leur autoritarisme et leur politique répressive.

Il y a quatre ans, le leader communautaire Sombath Somphone était enlevé devant un poste de police à Vientiane au Laos. C’était le 15 décembre 2012. Dans d’autres pays, la police lance généralement un appel au public pour rechercher la personne disparue. Pas au Laos où l’on vous intime de ne pas poser de questions. Dans d’autres pays, la police accueille favorablement toute aide. Pas au Laos où les offres d’assistance ont été systématiquement refusées. Dans d’autres pays, la population et les médias sont encouragés à diffuser l’information. Pas au Laos où les avis de recherche affichés ont été déchirés et la publication dans les journaux est soumise à autorisation spéciale. Continue reading “Face à l’impunité du régime laotien, ne nous taisons pas !”

What is…Civil Society in Laos?

Logo-What isBriefing paper prepared by the Sombath Initiative

  • Historically, the Lao PDR is a country of remarkable ethnic, linguistic and geographic diversity. Until recently, most communities, particularly in rural areas, were largely self- sustaining and locally-governed. A strong, traditional civil society still exists.
  • Substantially supported through development aid, state-building is quickly replacing these traditional codes and customs. Most often, local populations have less understanding of, and reduced access to the newer, more centralised laws and mechanisms.
  • Logo-Sombath InitiativeMass organisations, including the National Front for Reconstruction, the Federation of Trade Unions, and the Women’s and Youth Unions, are often portrayed by the Lao government as civil society organisations, although they exist primarily to represent the state to the population. Non-Profit Associations (NPAs) are seen in a similar vein, as mechanisms to extend governmental agenda, policies and programmes.

Continue reading “What is…Civil Society in Laos?”

The questions Laos doesn’t want to answer

Amnesty International: 06 September 2016

Der südafrikanische Erzbischof Desmond Tutu bei einem Treffen mit Sombath Somphone (re.).

Nestled in the Mekong region, with mighty China to its north, is landlocked Laos. Famed for its sedate surroundings, and tragically the country where the U.S. dropped more than 260 million bombs during its war in Indochina, it rarely receives the attention received by its more prominent neighbours.

This week, Barack Obama will become the first U.S. President to ever visit the country for the ASEAN summit. In advance of the visit, US officials have spoken of an emerging partnership on development between the two countries, which focuses on health, nutrition and basic education.

As visitors frequently note, the pace of life is slow in Laos, remarkably so. But beneath the tranquil surface that President Obama will encounter, there lurk endemic human rights problems. Continue reading “The questions Laos doesn’t want to answer”

Can Laos stand the spotlight?

Manila Times: 06 September 2016

Laos has adopted the efficient practice of hosting two Asean summits at one go. Why bother organising two events months apart? We already have a lot of domestic homework and who wants to meet world leaders that often, especially if all they’re going to do is nag us about democracy and human rights?

Photo-ops and friendly handshakes are what many Asean leaders prefer — either to silence noisy critics at home or to confer legitimacy if, for instance, they took power after a coup.

So bravo to Malaysia, the 2015 host which lived up to the gentlemen’s agreement for more talking-shops. The dual summits made their debut during Thailand’s chairmanship of Asean in 2009. A decade earlier, leaders were content to meet every two or three years. Continue reading “Can Laos stand the spotlight?”

ขบวนการหนุ่มสาวลาวร้องหน้า UN ปล่อย 3 คนลาวที่ถูกจับเพราะวิจารณ์รัฐ

ประชาไทย: 31 สิงหา 2016

Prachathai-UN-2016

ขบวนการหนุ่มสาวเพื่อประชาธิปไตยแอคชั่นหน้า UN ในไทย เรียกร้องรัฐบาลลาวหยุดละเมิดสิทธิ ปล่อยตัวสามคนลาวที่ถูกจับเพราะวิพากษ์รัฐผ่านอินเทอร์เน็ต

หน้าองค์กรสหประชาชาติ (UN) ขบวนการหนุ่มสาวลาวเพื่อประชาธิปไตย จำนวน 4 คน นำโดย ตามใจ ไคยะวงศ์ (Tamchay Khayavowg) ยื่นหนังสือต่อสหประชาชาติและจัดกิจกรรมชูป้ายเพื่อเรียกร้องให้รัฐบาลลาวปล่อยตัวสามคนลาวที่ถูกจับเมื่อวันที่ 5 มี.ค. 2559 ในคดีวิพากษ์วิจารณ์รัฐบาลลาวบนสื่อสังคมออนไลน์ โดยแผ่นป้ายมีข้อความเรียกร้องให้คืนเสรีภาพและหยุดการละเมิดสิทธิมนุษยชนในลาว “Please return to freedom” “Stop! Human Rights violations in Laos, FREE LAO” Continue reading “ขบวนการหนุ่มสาวลาวร้องหน้า UN ปล่อย 3 คนลาวที่ถูกจับเพราะวิจารณ์รัฐ”