Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
The Laotian government continued to encourage large-scale foreign investment and development projects in 2009, often at the expense of small farmers and tribal communities. The United States lifted trade restrictions on the country in June despite objections from human rights activists. Also during the year, Laos reached a deal with Britain to repatriate two British citizens facing life in prison for drug smuggling. However, human rights advocates in December voiced concern over the fate of some 4,000 Hmong migrants to be deported by Thai authorities at the request of the Laotian government.
Laos won independence in 1953 after six decades of French rule and Japanese occupation during World War II. The new constitutional monarchy soon fell into a civil war with Pathet Lao guerrillas, who were backed by the Vietnamese Communist Party. As the conflict raged on, Laos was also drawn into the Vietnam War in 1964. The Pathet Lao seized power in 1975, and the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) has ruled the country ever since. By the 1980s, the economy was in tatters after years of civil war and state mismanagement. Noting the success of China’s economic opening, the LPRP began to relax controls on prices, encouraged foreign investment, and privatized farms and some state-owned enterprises.
The party’s policy of maintaining tight political control while spurring economic development continued over subsequent decades, but the rapid expansion of extractive industries and an influx of thousands of Chinese businesses and workers increasingly drew public resentment. The seizure of land from subsistence farmers and tribal communities for leasing to foreign-owned agribusinesses proved especially problematic, sometimes triggering protests and violence. The government ordered a halt to land grants in 2007, but local and provincial authorities largely ignored the move. Given rampant corruption and the lack of a reliable land inventory or management system, critics have estimated that two to three million hectares have been transferred or fenced off for lease to foreign investors since the 2007 government order was issued.
In June 2009, the United States removed Laos from a trade blacklist that had prevented U.S. businesses operating in the country from receiving government-backed loans. The decision was based on Laos’s shift toward open markets, but critics said it ignored human rights concerns.
Also in 2009, Laos and Britain reached an agreement that allowed two Britons serving life sentences for drug offenses in Laos to be transferred to Britain. The two cases drew international attention to Laos’s harsh penalties for nonviolent drug crimes. Smuggling 500 or more grams of heroin carries the death penalty, and one of the Britons was arrested with 680 grams, but she was spared a death sentence after she became pregnant in custody under unclear circumstances.
In December, some 400 Hmong migrants were sent back to Laos by the Thai government, 158 of whom are officially recognized as United Nations refugees. The group was the first of 4,000 Hmong to be deported by Thai authorities at the request of the Laotian government. Human rights advocates have voiced concern over the welfare of the migrants, as it was not clear at year’s end what the Laotian government planned to do with them.
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, most recently in 2006, when former vice president and defense minister Choummaly Sayasone became head of the LPRP and state president.
Corruption and abuses by government officials are widespread. Official announcements and new laws aimed at curbing corruption are rarely enforced, and government regulation of virtually every facet of life provides many opportunities for bribery. Senior officials in government and the military are frequently involved in commercial logging, mining, and other enterprises aimed at exploiting Laotian natural resources. The country was ranked 158 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 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. 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.
Religious freedom is tightly constrained. 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 religious practice of the majority Buddhist population is restricted through the LPRP’s control of clergy training and supervision 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. Although some young people now go overseas for university and graduate-level education, they are selected 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 is home to 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 procedural delays are common, particularly for cases dealing with public grievances and complaints about 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 ethnic minority tribes is common. The Hmong, who fielded a guerrilla army allied with U.S. forces during the Vietnam War, are particularly distrusted by the government and face harsh treatment. Thousands have been forced off their land to make way for the exploitation of timber and other natural resources.
All land is owned by the state, though citizens have rights to use it. With no fair or robust system to protect land rights or ensure compensation for displacement, development projects often spur public resentment and sometimes violent protests.
Although laws guarantee women many of the same rights as men, gender-based discrimination and abuse are widespread. Tradition and religious practices have contributed to women’s inferior 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. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Laotian women and girls, including many tribal peoples, are trafficked each year for prostitution. In May 2009, amid growing concern about the spread of HIV/AIDS, the government initiated a program targeting “katheoys,” or transgender men, who typically turn to prostitution to make a living because of severe discrimination. The campaign included special clinics to provide testing and treatment.