Laos | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2009

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Construction of a hydroelectric power plant, gold and copper mining, tourism, and Chinese investments helped to spur strong economic growth in 2008. However, public anxiety and resentment toward the Chinese also increased, and the government was perceived as favoring Chinese investors in granting access to land and business licenses.

Laos, a landlocked and mountainous country, won independence in 1953 after six decades of French rule and Japanese occupation during World War II. The new constitutional monarchy soon entered into a civil war with Communist Pathet Lao (Land of Lao) guerrillas, who were backed by the Vietnamese Communist Party. As the civil conflict raged on, Laos was drawn into the Vietnam War in 1964, when the United States began bombing North Vietnamese forces operating inside Laos. The Pathet Lao seized power in 1975 and set up a one-party state under Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane’s Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP).

By the 1980s, the Laotian economy was in tatters after years of civil war and the inept economic policies of the LPRP. Noting the success of China’s economic opening, the party began to relax controls on prices, encouraged foreign investment, and privatized farms and some state-owned enterprises. These actions spurred much-needed economic growth, but the government rejected deeper economic reform for fear of losing power.

General Khamtay Siphandone took over leadership of the LPRP in 1992 and the presidency in 1998. He stepped down in March 2006, leaving the party in the hands of Choummaly Sayasone, a 70-year-old former vice president and defense minister. In April 2006 elections, LPRP candidates won 113 of the 115 National Assembly seats, while the remaining two went to independent candidates. The Assembly endorsed Choummaly as the new president in June of that year. He was expected to follow the policies set by Khamtay.

Also in 2006, officials pressed ahead with construction of the Nam Theun 2 hydroelectric dam. Sales of hydroelectric power to neighboring Thailand were a key source of foreign revenue for the government, and in 2005 the country had formally begun work on Nam Theun 2, an expansion of the existing Nam Theun hydroelectric dam. Thailand committed to buying 95 percent of the 1,070 megawatts the new dam was expected to generate beginning in 2010. Cambodia and Malaysia would also be buyers. Critics argued that the project would threaten wildlife and displace thousands of subsistence farmers and hill-tribe communities.

In 2007 and 2008, the dam project, gold and copper mining, tourism, and Chinese investment spurred strong economic growth in a country that still depended heavily on subsistence agriculture and an outflow of migrant labor to neighboring Thailand. However, the rapid arrival of Chinese businesses and workers began to stir public resentment and concerns over access to land and economic opportunities. In June 2008, the government approved plans to allow Chinese developers to build shops, hotels, factories, and housing in Vientiane’s That Luang marsh area. More than 50,000 Chinese migrants were expected to settle in the area, adding to the 30,000 who had already come to Laos in recent years. In July, in Luang Nam Tha province, the government ordered two nongovernmental groups to leave, and the owner of a resort was abducted by men believed to be police officers, after they mobilized local villagers to protest the construction of a Chinese-backed rubber plantation in the area.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Laos is not an electoral democracy. The 1991 constitution makes the LPRP the sole legal political party and grants it a leading role at all levels of government. The LPRP vets all candidates for election to the rubber-stamp National Assembly, whose 115 members elect the president. Elections are held every five years. General Khamtay Siphandone succeeded Kaysone Phomvihane as head of the LPRP in 1992 and assumed the presidency from Nouhak Phoumsavanh in 1998. The National Assembly reelected Khamtay as president in March 2001. Choummaly Sayasone took over as head of LPRP in March 2006 and assumed the presidency in June of that year.

Corruption and abuses by government officials are widespread. Official announcements and new laws aimed at curbing corruption are rarely enforced. Government regulation of virtually every facet of life provides corrupt officials with many opportunities to demand bribes. High-level personnel in government and the military are also frequently involved in commercial logging, mining, and other enterprises aimed at exploiting Laotian natural resources. The country was ranked 151 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of the press is severely restricted. Any journalist who criticizes the government or discusses controversial political topics faces legal punishment. The state owns all media, including three newspapers with extremely low circulations, Lao National Television, Laos Television 3 (a joint venture with a Thai company), and the country’s only radio station. Residents within frequency range of Radio Free Asia and other foreign broadcasts from Thailand can access these alternative media sources. Internet access is heavily restricted, and content is censored. Mobile telephone use is spreading rapidly: there were an estimated 638,000 users in 2006, up from just 29,500 in 2001.

Religious freedom is tightly restricted. Dozens of Christians have been detained on religious grounds, and several have been jailed for proselytizing or conducting other religious activities. The government forces Christians to renounce their faith, confiscates their property, and bars them from celebrating Christian holidays. The majority Buddhist population is restricted through LPRP control of clergy training and oversight of temples and other religious sites.

Academic freedom is not respected. University professors cannot teach or write about democracy, human rights, and other politically sensitive topics. A small number of young people have been allowed to travel overseas, including to the United States, for university and graduate-level training. However, they are carefully screened by the government and are generally children of senior officials and military leaders.

Government surveillance of the population has been scaled back in recent years, but searches without warrants still occur.

The government severely restricts freedom of assembly. Laws prohibit participation in organizations that engage in demonstrations or public protests, or that in any other way cause “turmoil or social instability.” Those found guilty of violating these laws can receive sentences of up to five years in prison. Laos has some nongovernmental welfare and professional groups, but they are prohibited from pursuing political agendas and are subject to strict state control. All unions must belong to the official Federation of Lao Trade Unions. Strikes are not expressly prohibited, but workers rarely stage walkouts, and they do not have the right to bargain collectively.

The courts are corrupt and controlled by the LPRP. Long delays in court hearings are common, particularly for cases dealing with public grievances and complaints against government abuses. Security forces often illegally detain suspects, and some Laotians have allegedly spent more than a decade in jail without trial. Hundreds of political activists have also been held for months or years without trial. Prisoners are often tortured and must bribe prison officials to obtain better food, medicine, visits from family, and more humane treatment.

Discrimination against members of minority tribes is common at many levels. In 2005, four members of the Fact Finding Commission, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, were detained and three were deported for “illegally liaising” with members of the Hmong ethnic minority, which allied with U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. Thousands of Hmong refugees in Thailand were forced by the Thai government to return to Laos in 2005, despite international warnings that they could face political persecution. Laotian government actions to destroy the remnant Hmong guerrilla army and alleged rebel elements have created significant hardships for these mountain people, and thousands have been forced off their land to make way for the exploitation of timber and other natural resources. In December 2006, a group of more than 400 Hmong, mostly children, surrendered to government forces. It was the latest of several bands to do so, according to the Fact Finding Commission.

Members of hill tribes and subsistence farmers who rely on the illegal growth and sale of opium poppies for their economic livelihood have suffered from the government’s antidrug campaign, which has been conducted with rigor to secure aid from Europe and the United States. Pushed into extreme poverty, some are forced to leave their land to find legitimate work elsewhere or go deeper into the mountains to continue their illegal trade.

All land is owned by the state. Lao citizens have rights to use land, but there is no robust system in place to protect their rights as users or to bargain for redress when government authorities take over land. The influx of foreign investment in mining and large-scale agribusiness in recent years has fueled land grabs by the state and contributes to poverty, dispossession, and conflicts for many subsistence farming and tribal communities.

Although women are guaranteed many of the same rights as men under Laotian laws, gender-based discrimination and abuse are widespread. Tradition and religious practices have contributed to women’s inferior position with respect to access to education, equal employment opportunities, and worker benefits. Poverty exacerbates these hardships and puts many women at greater risk of exploitation and abuse by the state and society at large. Domestic violence is a major cause of divorce, and abortion is allowed only to save the life of the mother. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Laotian women and girls, including many lowland Laotians and an increasing number of highland ethnic minorities, are trafficked each year for prostitution. The United Nations has reported that Laos is a source, transit, and destination country for human-smuggling rings.