Freedom in the World
Laos held elections in 2011 for its one-party legislature, which reelected Choummaly Sayasone for a second term as the country’s president. Popular anger over plans for a major dam on the Mekong River in Laos led a four-country regional body to postpone approval for the project, but construction activity reportedly continued during the year. Meanwhile, a group of ethnic Hmong refugees who were repatriated from Thailand in 2009 and 2010 remained missing despite inquiries by foreign diplomats.
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 relaxed 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 the subsequent decades, and the country consistently reported high macroeconomic growth rates. However, the rapid expansion of extractive industries and the influx of thousands of Chinese businesses, particularly in northern Laos, increased economic inequality and fostered greater corruption. The seizure of land from subsistence farmers and tribal communities for leasing to foreign-owned agribusinesses also triggered occasional protests and violence, and resulted in environmental destruction.
In April 2011, the four-country Mekong River Commission delayed a decision on whether to approve Laos’s plans for a major dam near the town of Xayaburi. The project had raised environmental and resettlement concerns and stirred popular anger in Laos and downstream countries. The commission postponed its decision again in December, citing the need for further environmental studies, but construction at the site reportedly continued during the year.
Also in April, elections were held for the rubber-stamp National Assembly. The LPRP took 128 of the 132 seats, with the remainder going to nominal independents. All but five of the candidates belonged to the ruling party. The highly circumscribed vote resulted in an infusion of somewhat younger members, though the senior leadership remained in place. The new legislature reelected LPRP general secretary Choummaly Sayasone for a second term as the country’s president. Thongsing Thammavong, the prime minister since late 2010, was similarly confirmed in office.
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 party’s Central Committee and Politburo dominate decision making. The LPRP vets all candidates for election to the National Assembly, whose members elect the president. In 2011, the legislature was increased in size from 115 members to 132, supposedly to make it more inclusive. Although the system’s opacity left much to speculation, some analysts argued that the National Assembly elected in April reflected a shift in influence from the military to the party. Observers also suggested that many new legislators were more technocratic and focused on development rather than political matters. The assembly featured somewhat more open debate than in previous years, but it continued to hold little real power.
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. Senior officials in government and the military are frequently involved in commercial logging, mining, and other extractive enterprises. Laos was ranked 154 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index. Both Vietnam and China have significant influence in Laos, and their militaries have allegedly participated in widespread smuggling of Lao resources. In 2011, the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency reported that Vietnam’s army plays a central role in timber smuggling in Laos. Lao activists also claim that Chinese companies involved in the rubber business have bribed many local officials for access to land.
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, partly because the government lacks the capability to monitor and block most web traffic. Many educated Lao obtain news about Laos through Thai online newspapers.
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. Lao officials reportedly continue to jail Christians or expel them from their villages for proselytizing. Several Christian pastors were arrested in Khammouan Province in early 2011; their whereabouts were unknown at the end of the year. In April, advocacy groups claimed that Lao and Vietnamese troops had killed four ethnic Hmong Christians living near the border.
Academic freedom is not respected. University professors cannot teach or write about democracy or other 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.
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.” Violators can receive sentences of up to five years in prison. Groups of demonstrators have sometimes disappeared. 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 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.
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. Security forces often illegally detain suspects. Prisoners are frequently tortured and 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. Some Hmong refugees who returned to the country from Thailand in late 2009 and early 2010 appear to have vanished, and efforts by their families, foreign diplomats, and members of the U.S. Congress to obtain information on their whereabouts in 2011 were largely unsuccessful. Separately, Hmong NGOs claim that three Hmong Americans have been imprisoned in Laos since visiting the country in 2007.
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. In May, an unidentified gunman fired on the security vehicles of an Australian-owned mining operation. The 2011 decision to delay approval for the Xayaburi dam was considered a milestone for environmental protection and resettlement rights in Laos, but it had little practical effect as work reportedly continued on the project.
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. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 women and girls from the Mekong region, including Laos, are trafficked each year for prostitution, and the construction of new highways linking China to Thailand and Vietnam via Laos has raised concerns over likely increases in prostitution, drug trafficking, and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. However, the government has made some improvements in combating trafficking over the last five years, including closer cooperation with neighboring governments. A record 33 women were elected to the National Assembly in 2011.