Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
The Lao government in 2013 continued to pursue economic opening while maintaining tight control over political space. The government drew international criticism throughout the year for failing to investigate the December 2012 disappearance of international anti-poverty activist Sombath Somphone, who remained missing at year’s end.
Having won 128 of 132 seats in 2011 elections, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP), the only party allowed under the constitution, maintained its control over the National Assembly. Though the Assembly is largely a rubber-stamp legislature, it has undertaken a more active and ambitious legislative agenda in recent years. The LPRP’s economic aspirations for the country have fostered tangible improvements in Laos’ legal framework in recent years.
Laos was formally approved for entry to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in October 2012 and joined the organization in February 2013. In order to accede to the WTO, the government adopted dozens of legal reforms to meet international standards in areas ranging from intellectual property rights to environmental protection. Such reforms are not expected to foster significant political opening, but may lay a foundation for increasing rule of law and good governance in the coming years.
Preparations for the controversial Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams on the Mekong River continue despite major concerns over their impact on the livelihoods of thousands of Lao and on the environment. The Lao government in 2013 also furthered controversial Chinese-backed infrastructure projects amid continued strong bilateral relations with China. The Lao government’s decision in 2013 to construct a $7.2-billion rail line through a loan from China, whose costs some estimates showed totaling more than 80 percent of the country’s GDP, drew criticism as a fiscally irresponsible venture that demonstrated authorities’ lack of attention to the country’s needs.
Political Rights: 1 / 40 (+1) [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 0 / 12
The 1991 constitution makes the LPRP the sole legal political party and grants it a leading role at all levels of government. The party’s 61-member Central Committee and 11-member Politburo make all major decisions. Legislative elections are held every five years but elections are not considered free and fair. The LPRP vets all candidates for election to the National Assembly, whose members elect the president. In 2011 the legislature increased in size from 115 members to 132. International observers have not been permitted to monitor elections.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 0 / 16
The constitution prohibits political parties other than the LPRP. National Assembly candidates are not required to be members of the LPRP, but all candidates have to be approved by Assembly-appointed committees and in practice almost all are members of the party.
Ethnic minorities and women are represented in the Politburo, Central Committee, and National Assembly. However, village-level leadership is responsible for many of the decisions affecting daily life and fewer than 3 percent of village chiefs are women.
C. Functioning of Government: 1 / 12 (+1)
The National Assembly has grown more robust and responsive in recent years. It had reportedly produced 90 pieces of updated or new legislation in recent years in order to meet international legal standards required for WTO accession. In 2012, the Assembly passed the Law on Making Legislation, which increases legislative transparency by requiring proposed bills at the central and provincial levels to be published for comment for 60 days and, once passed, to be posted for 15 days before coming into force. The government is increasingly using laws, rather than decrees, to govern, though there is still little room for the public to influence policy.
Corruption by government officials is widespread. Laws aimed at curbing graft are rarely enforced, and government regulation of virtually every facet of life provides many opportunities for bribery. Displacement of villagers for dams and other government projects without proper compensation is common, though some in the government have begun to talk seriously about a strategy to address the country’s land issues. Senior officials in government and the military are sometimes involved in commercial logging, mining, and other extractive enterprises. Laos was ranked 140 out of 177 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Civil Liberties: 11 / 40
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 4 / 16
Self-censorship is extremely high, and authorities use legal and intimidation tactics against critics of the state. The state owns nearly all media, though some non-government outlets, primarily Chinese entertainment magazines, have cropped up in recent years. A few independent local-interest radio shows have emerged. Journalists who criticize the government or discuss controversial issues risk punishment under the criminal code. Some Lao can access Radio Free Asia and other foreign broadcasts from Thailand. The Ministry of Information, Communication, and Technology in January 2012 ordered off the air the country’s first call-in radio show, “Wao Kao,” for discussing land grabs and other sensitive issues. While few Lao have access to the internet, online content is not heavily censored owing to a lack of government capacity to monitor and block access.
Religious freedom is constrained. The religious practice of the majority Buddhist population is somewhat restricted through the LPRP’s control of clergy training and supervision of temples. Discrimination against animists and other non-Buddhists does occur. Christians enjoy somewhat more freedom to worship, though the government has arrested practitioners for proselytizing.
Academic freedom is not respected. University professors cannot teach or write about politically sensitive topics, though Laos has invited select foreign academics to teach courses in the country, and some young people go overseas for university education. Government surveillance of the population has been scaled back in recent years, but searches without warrants still occur.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 0 / 12
The government severely restricts freedom of assembly, prohibiting participation in organizations that engage in demonstrations or public protests, or that in any other way cause “turmoil or social instability.” Protests are rare and violators can receive sentences of up to five years in prison. Two activists arrested in 1999 for participating in a peaceful protest remain behind bars on charges of treason. 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 law has affected primarily foreign NGOs, which have proliferated in the country in recent years. There are some domestic nongovernmental welfare and professional groups, but they are prohibited from pursuing political agendas and are subject to strict state control. Reports of the government prohibiting NGOs to meet with villagers relocated to make way for a power plant surfaced in 2013. Despite significant international pressure, the disappearance of development activist Sombath Somphone, last seen taken by police in December 2012, remains unsolved.
All unions must belong to the official Lao Federation of Trade Unions. Strikes are not expressly prohibited, but workers rarely stage walkouts, and they do not have the right to bargain collectively.
F. Rule of Law: 2 / 16
The courts are corrupt and controlled by the LPRP. The U.S. Embassy in March accused the Lao government of blocking a U.S. investigation into the whereabouts of three missing Lao-Americans. Long procedural delays are common, particularly for cases dealing with public grievances. Security forces often illegally detain suspects. Torture of prisoners is occasionally reported and prisoners must bribe officials to obtain better food, medicine, family visits, 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. Although some Hmong who are loyal to the LPRP have been elected to the national legislature, poorer and more rural Hmong have been forced off their land to make way for extractive industries. The government restricts the activity of over 4,000 Hmong who were forcibly repatriated from Thailand in 2009 and living in camps in Borikhamxay province.
Refugees who arrive in Laos are often mistreated and deported. Despite international opposition, authorities in May deported nine young North Korean defectors for repatriation.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 5 / 16
All land is owned by the state, though citizens have rights to use it. On some occasions, the government has awarded land to citizens with government connections, money, or links to foreign companies. Traditional land rights still exist in some areas, adding to confusion and conflict over access. With no fair or robust system to protect land rights or ensure compensation for displacement, development projects often spur public resentment. The Xayaburi dam, a $3.5-billion venture that would be used primarily to sell electricity to Thailand, has displaced over 900 people and activists say it will negatively affect the livelihoods of 200,000 more. Plans for another major dam downstream, the Don Sahong dam, are underway.
Marriage to foreign citizens requires approval by the government.
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, employment opportunities, and worker benefits. Trafficking in persons, especially to Thailand, is high. The Lao government adopted in 2012 a national action plan to combat trafficking, though little substantive action has followed and, according to the U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report 2013, rates of prosecution and conviction of accused traffickers declined in 2012.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year