Laos | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2011

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Human rights advocates continued to voice concern over the fate of some 4,000 Hmong migrants who were forcibly returned to Laos by the Thai government in late 2009 and early 2010. Nine of the 300 Lao farmers arrested in 2009 for their plans to protest government land seizures remained in custody at the end of 2010.

Laos won independence in 1953 after six decades of French rule and Japanese occupation during World War II. The 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 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. 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, and Laos now reports high annual growth. However, the rapid expansion of extractive industries and the influx of thousands of Chinese businesses have increased economic inequality. The seizure of land from subsistence farmers and tribal communities for leasing to foreign-owned agribusinesses has also triggered occasional protests and violence.In late 2009, some 300 Lao farmers planning to travel to the capital to petition the government over the loss of their land were arrested by security forces. Nine remained in custody at the end of 2010.
Approximately 400 Hmong migrants were forcibly returned to Laos by the Thai government in late 2009 and early 2010, 150 of whom were deemed to be persons of concern by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Thai and Lao governments initially told international observers that the persons of concern would be resettled in third countries, but the Lao government claimed that the migrants declined resettlement after arriving in Laos. In March 2010, a group of reporters and diplomats were invited to visit the Hmong returnees in Laos. After the migrants asked the group for assistance in fleeing the country, the foreigners were removed and the Hmong were reportedly put under curfew and heavy guard. Efforts to secure their release by members of the U.S. Congress visiting Laos during the summer, as well as subsequent appeals to the government of Laos, were unsuccessful.
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 by government officials is widespread. 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 Lao natural resources. The country was ranked 154 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 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. Residents within frequency range of Radio Free Asia and other foreign broadcasts from Thailand can access these alternative media sources. While very few Lao have access to the internet, its content is not heavily censored. The government does not respect internet freedom, but lacks the capabilities to monitor and block most web traffic. Many educated Lao use the internet to read news about Laos through Thai online newspapers.
Religious freedom is constrained. Lao officials reportedly continue to jail Christians or expel them from their villages for proselytizing. The religious practice of the majority Buddhist population is somewhat restricted through the LPRP’s control of clergy training and supervision of temples. In late 2010, police in the province of Khammouan reportedly detained several pastors and worshippers.
Academic freedom is not respected. University professors cannot teach or write about democracy or other politically sensitive topics, although Laos has started inviting select foreign academics to teach courses in the country. While some young people now go overseas for university education, they are generally selected by the government or are children of senior officials or wealthy families.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. Groups of demonstrators have vanished on occasion, including the nine farmers arrested in 2009 for protesting against government land seizures. After signing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2009, Laos created a legal framework for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), allowing such groups to be licensed; this development has affected primarily foreign NGOs, which have proliferated in the country in recent years. Laos is home to some domestic 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. 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. On some occasions, the government has awarded land to certain citizens with government connections, money, or links to foreign companies. Traditional land rights still exist in some areas of the country, adding to confusion and conflict over land access.With no fair or robust system to protect land rights or ensure compensation for displacement, development projects often spur public resentment.
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. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 women and girls from the Mekong region, including Laos, are trafficked each year for prostitution. However, the Lao government has made some improvement in combating trafficking over the last five years, including cooperating more closely with other governments to fight trafficking. The construction of new highways through Laos linking China to Thailand and Vietnam has raised concerns over likely increases in prostitution, drug trafficking, and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Visitors to the highway already noted spikes in prostitution along the road during the past year.