Author: U.S. Department of State March 1996 LAOS

The Lao People's Democratic Republic is an authoritarian, one-party state ruled by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The Ministry of Interior (MOI) is the main instrument of state control. MOI police maintain order and monitor Lao society and foreign nationals, including foreign officials and diplomats. The degree of surveillance varies by locality, but overall has diminished in recent years. Laos is an extremely poor country. After the LPRP came to power in 1975, at least 350,000 people fled the country to escape the Government's harsh political and economic policies. Since 1986 the Government has largely abandoned its Socialist economic agenda. Economic reforms have moved the country from a moribund, centrally planned system to a growing market-oriented economy open to foreign investment. There has been a general trend away from the harsh conditions that existed after the LPRP assumed power in 1975, but serious problems remain. Citizens do not have the right to change their government. Even with ongoing economic liberalization, the adoption of a Constitution in 1991, and National Assembly elections in 1993, the Government only slowly eased restrictions on basic freedoms. Many of the rights stipulated in the Constitution have not been codified with implementing legislation. In practice, the Government restricts the freedoms of speech, assembly, and, to a lesser extent, religion, even though they are provided for in the Constitution. Citizens do not have the right to privacy and do not enjoy a free press, although most Lao have ready access to a variety of foreign media. Prison conditions remain harsh, and some societal discrimination against minorities persists. RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from: a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing There continued to be occasional killings in the course of the long- running, low-level insurgency in some areas north of Vientiane, where the Hmong ethnic group predominates. The road ambush is the most common manifestation of the insurgency. In 1995 there were approximately 20 reports of killings as a result of ambushes of vehicles, trucks, or buses. For example, in February 8 Lao were killed when a passenger truck was attacked by a group of about 10 persons armed with rifles. It is often unclear whether the ambushers are politically or economically motivated. During 1995 the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) completed its investigation of the murder in Khammouane province of a Hmong from Bolikhamxay province. Family members in the United States had accused the Government of complicity in the murder. The UNHCR report concluded that there was no evidence of government involvement in what appeared to be a private incident involving smuggling goods across the Mekong river to Thailand. b. Disappearance There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances. In September 1993, Vue Mai, a Hmong leader who in November 1992 returned voluntarily to Laos from a refugee camp in Thailand, disappeared in Vientiane. No new information relevant to the case came to light in 1995. c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment The Penal Code prohibits torture or mistreatment of prisoners, and the Government generally observed this principle in practice. Prison conditions are harsh, but not life threatening. Prison authorities deny some prisoners regular family visits, and medical care ranges from inadequate to nonexistent. Inmates sometimes resort to bribing their guards to obtain food and medicines. There is no independent monitoring of prison conditions. Prison conditions for women are fundamentally similar to those for men. The extent of sexual harassment in prison is unknown but is not believed to be a serious problem. d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile The Constitution and Penal Code provide some protections for those accused of crimes, such as a statute of limitations, but the Government does not fully respect these provisions. Those accused of hostility toward the regime are subject to arrest and confinement for long periods. There continued to be allegations that the Government has detained three Hmong males since 1992 because of their association with the United States prior to 1975. The Lao Government has thus far not responded directly to repeated inquiries about these allegations. Citizens do not have the protection of due process and may be arrested based on unsupported accusations without being informed of the charges or of the accusers' identities. The Government appears to resort to detention without due process relatively infrequently in cases involving social crimes such as prostitution, drug abuse, and gambling. Some jurisdictions are stricter than others in this regard. The Government does not use forced exile as a means of political control. e. Denial of Fair Public Trial The Constitution provides for the independence of judges and prosecutors and protects their decisions from outside scrutiny. In practice, however, the courts, which are understaffed and poorly trained, appear to accept recommendations of other government agencies, especially the MOI, in making its decisions. The judiciary is composed of district courts, provincial courts, and the Supreme Court. Although regulations provide for public trial, this sometimes amounts to public announcement of the sentence and not a true public trial. Politically sensitive trials have not been open to the public, although common criminal trials appear to be, and they increasingly are publicized in the media. There is provision for appeal to the provincial courts and the Supreme Court. Senior government and party officials reportedly may also review sensitive political cases. The Constitution provides that all accused persons have the right to defend themselves and that the Board of Legal Counselors has the right to provide legal assistance to the accused. The Government suspended the Board in late 1992, pending the introduction of rules regarding the fees and activities of private lawyers. The few private lawyers in Laos may still provide informal legal counsel, at least for civil cases, but they may not establish themselves as attorneys-at-law. According to the Criminal Code, defendants in criminal cases are entitled, at their own expense, to representation by a "rights protector" who may be any Lao citizen. In practice, few defendants exercise this right. Arrests are usually unannounced, and trials and convictions are not always publicized, thus complicating efforts to estimate accurately the number of political prisoners. However, anecdotal reporting suggests that their ranks, reduced substantially by the closure of reeducation camps in the 1980's, continued to decrease in recent years. The exact number of political prisoners held is unknown but is not thought to be large. It likely is no more than several hundred, and quite probably substantially less. Three former government officials are serving 14-year sentences handed down in 1992 for advocating a multiparty system and criticizing restrictions on political liberties. Also in 1992, three men detained since 1975 were sentenced to life terms for crimes allegedly committed during their tenure as officials under the previous regime. The Government claims that three other officials of the former government released in 1992 have chosen to remain in the same remote province where they and the six prisoners mentioned above were held. f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence Concomitant with economic liberalization, the Government relaxed some elements of state control, including its rigorous police monitoring of personal and business activities and enforcement of the nighttime curfew. However, while the Constitution prohibits arrests or searches in homes without a warrant or authorization, the security bureaus may authorize search and seizure by themselves rather than by judicial authority. The Government and the party continue to monitor the citizenry sporadically through a system of neighborhood and workplace committees. The neighborhood committees also have responsibility for maintaining public order and reporting "bad elements" to the police. These committees usually concern themselves more with street crime and instances of moral turpitude than with political activism. The degree of surveillance and control varies from province to province, but overall has diminished in recent years. The Penal Code forbids telephone monitoring without proper authorization, but the security bureaus are believed to authorize such monitoring themselves. The Government continued to monitor international mail and telephone calls, probably including some faxes, although the increasing number of such calls limited the scope of such surveillance. The 1991 Constitution stipulates that the "national community" owns all land. Private "ownership" is in the form of land use certificates, which can be bought, sold, and transferred to heirs. Many Lao who fled the country after 1975 have regained confiscated property after demonstrating their intent to repatriate. Contact between ordinary Lao and foreigners has increased in recent years as restrictions, such as the requirement for government approval of invitations to most foreigners' homes, are no longer enforced. The Government has eased the prohibition against foreigners staying with Lao families in urban areas, and allows Lao citizens to marry foreigners but only with prior government approval. Marriages without government approval may be annulled, with the foreign spouse subject to fine or arrest. Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including: a. Freedom of Speech and Press Despite the Constitutional provisions for freedom of speech and the press, the Government exerts broad control over the exercise of these freedoms and has reacted harshly to expressions of political dissent. Three persons arrested in 1990 after persisting in public criticism of party policies and calling for fundamental political and economic change each received 14-year sentences (see Section 1.e.). The Penal Code forbids slandering the State, distorting party or state policies, and spreading false rumors conducive to disorder. It also prohibits disseminating books and other materials that authorities deem indecent or that assail the national culture. All domestically produced newspapers and radio and television are controlled by the Government. Local news in all media reflect government policy; however, foreign news reports, including those from Western sources, are usually translated without bias. In recent years the Government has relaxed efforts to control the flow of information from abroad, and Thai and Western newspapers and magazines have been sold in the towns where there is demand for them. The Government temporarily halted the import of Thai newspapers for several months in mid-1995. The Government makes no effort to discourage reception of Thai radio or television broadcasts, which are widely listened to and watched in the Mekong river valley, where the majority of the Lao population lives. However, the Lao-language television station, a Thai company inaugurated in Vientiane in 1994, was quietly merged into the Lao State Broadcast Corporation following disputes concerning management control and content. The Government requires registration of television satellite receiving dishes and payment of a one-time licensing fee on their installation, but otherwise makes no effort to restrict their use. In 1995 the number of such dishes continued to increase, both in major urban areas and in remote provincial and district towns. Cable News Network, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and several Thai stations are among the many channels available to satellite dish owners. The Government prohibits pornographic or politically inflammatory video cassettes. In late 1994, the Vientiane municipality imposed restrictions governing the content of music played in nightclubs and outlawed karaoke in order to strengthen Lao culture against perceived erosion by foreign influences. Enforcement of these restrictions has been lax. The Government restricts academic freedom. Lao academicians have in the past sometimes been denied permission to travel abroad for conferences or training. Invitations to visit and collaborate with foreign colleagues must be approved by the Lao employer and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry of Education must approve grants, including those for research and study abroad. The Government also monitors and may restrict the activities of Western scholars doing research in Laos. b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association The Government controls and organizes most large public gatherings except for religious, athletic, and communal events. The Penal Code prohibits demonstrations or protest marches aimed at causing turmoil and social instability, prescribing penalties of from 1 to 5 years' imprisonment. The Government also bans undefined "destabilizing subversive activities." Although the Constitution provides citizens with the right to organize and join associations, all associations are party-controlled and disseminate official policy. Foreigners are not allowed to engage in political activity. c. Freedom of Religion The Constitution contains provisions for religious freedom. In practice the Government continues to restrict freedom of religion, especially for some Christian denominations. Links with coreligionists and religious associations in other countries require government approval. Although the Government permits foreign nongovernmental organizations with religious affiliations to work in Laos, it prohibits foreigners from proselytizing. The Government also restricts the import of religious publications. The enforcement of these regulations varies by province. For example, the Catholic Church is unable to operate in the highlands and much of the north, but Catholics can openly attend churches and chapels in central and southern Laos. Several Protestant denominations operate over 100 churches throughout the country. There continued to be credible reports that local authorities sometimes detained clergy for allegedly criticizing other religions and harassed, arrested, and jailed other active clergy. The persistence of such reports underscores the continuing suspicion on the part of authorities toward some sections of the Lao Christian community. There were also unconfirmed reports that Lao Christians were sometimes barred from the party or government employment, and that some rural Lao were not allowed to convert to the Baha'i faith. By comparison, the Government openly encourages Buddhism and supports Buddhist organizations. High-ranking government officials routinely attend religious functions, and Buddhist clergy are prominently featured at important state and party functions. The Government permits Buddhist festivals without hindrance. Two mosques and a Bahai center operate openly in Vientiane. d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation There are no domestic travel restrictions for citizens and private foreign visitors except in unspecified prohibited or insecure areas. Most citizens can easily obtain passports and exit permits from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for personal travel abroad. Border crossing permits for citizens to visit Thailand are routinely available from local village committees for a modest issuance fee, and the Government does not appear to interfere with persons desiring to emigrate. Except for around 30 persons convicted in absentia in 1975 for antigovernment activities, citizens have the right of return. The stated government policy since 1977 is to welcome back the approximately 10 percent of the population which fled after the change of government in 1975. In recent years an increasing number of Lao living abroad returned to visit; several remained to operate businesses. Laos, Thailand, and the UNHCR are cooperating on the return of the Lao asylum seekers in Thai camps who volunteer to return to Laos. This program includes provisions for monitoring returnees to ensure that they are given the same rights and treatment as resident Lao. According to the UNHCR and voluntary agencies, returnees are not subject to discrimination or persecution, and returnees are allowed back with all the belongings they accumulated while outside Laos. There were no forcible repatriations to Laos in 1995; however, approximately 3,000 Lao were voluntarily repatriated to Laos by the UNHCR during the year. No new Lao asylum seekers arrived in Thailand. Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government Citizens do not have the ability to change their government, despite constitutional provisions for the public election of National Assembly members. While the 1991 Constitution does not explicitly exclude the emergence of multiple political parties, it assigns to the ruling LPRP the leading role in the Lao political system. All candidates had to have the approval of the LPRP before they could stand for the December 1992 National Assembly elections, no other parties were allowed, and voting was mandatory. However, not all candidates were LPRP members and a few nonparty candidates won seats. Despite constitutional provisions for equality, women do not play a significant role in government. Only 8 of the 85 members of the National Assembly are women, the 52-member LPRP Central Committee includes only 2 women, and there are no women in the Politburo or the Council of Ministers. Lowland Lao males dominate the upper echelons of the party and the Government. Nonetheless, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of the Interior and 23 members of the National Assembly are believed to be members of ethnic minority groups. Members of these minorities often adopt lowland Lao names as they are increasingly assimilated into mainstream Lao society, thus making it difficult to ascertain accurately the number of ethnic minorities in any organization. Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights There are no domestic human rights groups. Any organization wishing to investigate and publicly criticize the Government's human rights policies would face serious obstacles, if it were permitted to operate at all. Laos generally does not cooperate with international human rights organizations. The Government has, however, permitted visits by officials of international humanitarian organizations and responded to inquiries about specific human rights issues. Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status The Constitution provides for equal treatment under the law for all Lao citizens without regard to sex, social status, education, faith, or ethnicity. Although the Government appears willing to take action when cases of discrimination come to the attention of high-level officials, the legal mechanism whereby a citizen may bring charges of discrimination against an individual or organization is neither widely developed nor widely understood among the general population. Women Although not widespread, domestic violence against women occurs. Sexual harassment and rape are reportedly rare. In cases of rape that do go to court, rapists are generally convicted. The Government relies on the Lao Women's Union, a party-sanctioned organization, and youth organizations to educate girls and young women