Last Updated: Friday, 11 July 2014, 13:14 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1998 - Laos

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 26 February 1999
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1998 - Laos, 26 February 1999, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa621c.html [accessed 13 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
The Lao People's Democratic Republic is an authoritarian, one-party state ruled by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). Although the 1991 Constitution outlines a system composed of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, in practice the LPRP continued to influence governance and the choice of leaders through its constitutional "leading role" at all levels. The 99-member National Assembly, elected in December 1997 under a system of universal suffrage, selected the President and Prime Minister in February. The judiciary is subject to executive influence.

The Ministry of Interior (MOI) maintains internal security but now shares the function of state control with party and mass front organizations. The control function has shifted from being the sole responsibility of the MOI and the police to a shared role with the Party. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is responsible for the monitoring and oversight of foreigners working in Laos. The MOI includes local police, security police (including border police), communication police, and other armed police units. The armed forces are responsible for external security, but also have some domestic security responsibilities that include counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency activities. Civilian authorities generally maintain effective control over the security forces. There continue to be credible reports that some members of the security forces occasionally committed human rights abuses.

Laos is an extremely poor country. After the LPRP came to power in 1975, 10 percent of the population (at least 360,000 persons) fled the country to escape the Government's harsh political and economic policies. The economy is principally agricultural; 85 percent of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture. Per capita Gross National Product is estimated at $300 per year. Since 1986 the Government largely has abandoned its Socialist economic policies. Economic reforms have moved the country from a moribund, centrally-planned system to a market-oriented economy open to foreign investment with a growing legal framework, including laws to protect property rights.

The Governmentâs human rights record deteriorated in the first half of the year, and serious problems remain. Citizens do not have the right to change their government. Prison conditions remain harsh, and police used arbitrary arrest and detention. Lengthy pretrial detention is a problem. The judiciary is subject to executive influence, suffers from corruption, and does not ensure citizens due process. The Government infringed on citizensâ privacy rights. The Government restricts freedom of speech, assembly, and association. The Government closely monitors the press. The Government restricts freedom of religion and arrested and detained at least 40 Christians and animists. Some societal discrimination against women and minorities persists. The Government restricts some worker rights. However, it permitted increased access to the foreign press and the Internet, and actively supported a policy of encouraging greater rights for women and minorities. There was increased participation by women in government. The Government has begun to focus on the problem of trafficking in women and children.

An organized Hmong insurgent group was responsible for the killing of 16 civilians in three incidents in Vientiane and Xieng Khouang provinces. These incidents appeared to be acts of deliberate terror against those not supporting resistance to the Government.

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of politically motivated or other extrajudicial killings by government officials during the year. However, one political prisoner imprisoned under harsh conditions died in custody due to a chronic disease; the Government had ignored pleas that he be moved to a prison with better medical facilities (see Section 1.c.). Isolated reports of deaths at the hands of security forces in remote areas, usually in connection with personal disputes and the personal abuse of authority, could not be substantiated.

Attacks by armed bands on official and civilian travelers continued in the central and north central regions. The attacks apparently involved a mixture of factors including insurgency, clan rivalry, robbery, and reaction to encroaching development. The Government remained concerned about the safety of foreigners in remote areas, although there were no attacks on foreigners during the year. In January a Hmong resistance group carried out a terrorist attack on an army truck carrying civilians in Vientiane province, near the Saysomboun Special Zone, killing nine persons, including five Hmong civilians. In October a Hmong resistance force attacked the district capital of Phaxay, Xieng Khouang province, killed two civilians and a militiaman, looted the village, and burned down 44 houses. In November Hmong resistance forces attacked a truck on the road from Phaxay and killed nine persons.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution and the Penal Code prohibit torture, and the Government generally respected these provisions in practice; however, on occasion, members of the security forces subjected detainees to abusive treatment. For example, in March Lao authorities, some wearing police uniforms, detained a foreign citizen and three family members in an unofficial detention center for 4 days. The Government did not file charges against the four persons. The officials reportedly kept the four persons in locked, windowless rooms and subjected them to long and arduous interrogation before releasing them. The Government offered no explanation for this treatment. There is no evidence to suggest that the Government is investigating the incident seriously.

The Government chose not to address numerous reports that were made by groups outside the country of massive human rights abuses by government authorities. Most of these reports could not be confirmed through independent sources. However, there continue to be credible reports that, on occasion some members of the security forces committed human rights abuses, including arbitrary detention and intimidation. There were unconfirmed reports that some security forces were responsible for beatings.

Prison conditions generally are harsh. Food rations are minimal, and most prisoners rely on their families for their subsistence. The Government discriminates in its treatment of prisoners, restricting the family visits of some and prohibiting visits to a few. There are unsubstantiated reports that a few jails place prisoners in wooden stocks for extended periods. Medical facilities range from poor to nonexistent. Unlike the case in 1997, there were no reports that inmates sometimes resorted to bribing guards to obtain food and medicines. Prison conditions for women are similar to those for men. In February political prisoner Thongsouk Sasanghi died of complications from diabetes while in official custody under harsh conditions in a remote prison. His death led several international human rights groups to note their longstanding requests to the Government to move him and two other political prisoners to a prison with better conditions, including more modern medical facilities. At year's end, the Government continued to ignore these humanitarian pleas.

The Government does not permit independent monitoring of prison conditions. In September the Government pardoned 144 prisoners on humanitarian grounds.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The law provides for arrest warrants issued by the prosecutor, and the Constitution provides for due process procedures; however, in practice, the Government does not respect these provisions fully. Police exercise wide latitude in making arrests, relying on exceptions to the requirement for arrest warrants for those in the act of committing a crime or for "urgent" cases. Length of detention without pretrial hearing or charges is unpredictable, and access to family or a lawyer is not assured. There is a functioning bail system, but its implementation is arbitrary. A statute of limitations applies to most crimes. Alleged violations of security laws have led to lengthy pretrial detentions without charge and minimal due process protection of those detained. There were no reports of pretrial detention for expressions of hostility to the regime.

On January 30, authorities without warrants arrested 44 persons allegedly while in the act of committing a crime: Gathering in a group to create social turmoil (see Section 2.d.).

In March authorities detained members of a foreign family without charge for 4 days (see Section 1.c.).

In June 1997, 13 members of a group of returnees were detained without charges, with 10 being released in December after they were held in excess of the 1-year limit for detention while under investigation (see Section 2.d.).

Government authorities arrested and detain at least 40 religious believers and their spiritual leaders, at times holding them in custody for months (see Section 2.c.).

Three former government officials detained in 1990 for advocating a multiparty system and criticizing restrictions on political liberties were not tried until 1992. That same year, the court finally tried and handed down life sentences to three men detained since 1975 for crimes allegedly committed during their tenure as officials under the previous regime (see Section 1.e.).

The Government does not use forced exile.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for the independence of the judiciary; however, senior government and party officials wield influence over the courts, although likely to a lesser degree than in the past. Some corrupt members of the judiciary appear to act with impunity. The National Assembly Standing Committee appoints judges; the executive had appointed the Standing Committee through 1998.

The Lao People's Courts have three levels: District; municipal and provincial; and a Supreme Court. Decisions of both the lower courts and separate military courts are subject to review by the Supreme Court.

The Constitution provides for open trials in which defendants have the right to defend themselves with the assistance of a lawyer. The Constitution requires authorities to inform persons of their rights. The law states that defendants may have anybody represent them in preparing a written case and accompanying them at their trial and only the defendant may present oral arguments at a criminal trial; however due to lack of funds, most defendants do not have lawyers. Defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence; however, in practice, lawyers face severe restrictions in criminal cases. Most trials are little more than direct examinations of the accused; however, apparently judges no longer hold preconceived views of a trialâs outcome. Trials for alleged violations of some security laws and trials that involve state secrets, children under the age of 16, or certain types of family law are closed.

There are five known political prisoners. Three prisoners from the pre-1975 regime are serving life sentences after their trials that did not appear to be conducted according to international standards. Two former government officials detained in 1990 for advocating a multiparty system and criticizing restrictions on political liberties were not tried until 1992; they are serving 14-year sentences based on their 1992 convictions (see Section 1.a.).

Because some political prisoners may have been arrested, tried, and convicted under security laws that prevent public court trials, there is no reliable method to ascertain accurately their total number. There have been no reports of other political prisoners in the last few years.

f. Arbitrary Interference With Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The Government imposes some limits on these rights. Security laws allow the Government to monitor individuals' private communications and movements; however, the Government continued to relax many elements of state control during the year, and the use of these practices appears to be on the decline. The spectrum of personal freedoms accorded to citizens has expanded over the past few years in tandem with liberalization of the economy.

The Constitution prohibits unlawful searches and seizures; however, police at times disregarded constitutional provisions to safeguard citizens' privacy, especially in rural areas. Security police may not authorize their own searches; they must have approval from a prosecutor or court. However, in practice they did not always obtain prior approval. The Penal Code generally protects privacy, including mail, telephone, and electronic correspondence.

Political groups other than mass front organizations approved by the LPRP are forbidden. Ministry of Interior forces no longer routinely monitor citizens' activities; in their place, a loose militia has responsibility for maintaining public order and reporting "bad elements" to the police. Militia usually concern themselves more with street crime and instances of moral turpitude than with political activism. A sporadically active system of neighborhood and workplace committees play a similar monitoring role on an informal and irregular basis.

The Government does not permit the public sale of some leading foreign magazines and newspapers. However, minimal restrictions on publications mailed from overseas are loosely enforced (see Section 2.a.).The Government allows citizens to marry foreigners, but only with its prior approval. Although the Government routinely grants permission, the process is burdensome. Marriages to foreigners without government approval may be annulled, with both parties subject to fine.

The Government displaced internally hundreds of persons during the year, mainly as a result of organized infrastructure development programs. The Government provides compensation to displaced persons in the form of land and household supplies. In May the Government announced that it no longer supported the single policy of resettlement to solve the problem of highland "slash-and-burn" methods that destroyed forest areas and resulted in habitat damage. By yearâs end, nongovernmental organizations (NGOâs) working in this area noted more flexibility by the Government toward the disposition of infrastructure-related and other government-planned resettlements. However, some local administrators forced highlander groups to resettle in lowland areas to control their use of farming methods that destroy forest areas in the pursuit of increased food security.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press; however, the Government severely restricts political speech and writing in practice. The Government also prohibits most criticism that it deems harmful to its reputation. The Penal Code forbids slandering the State, distorting party or state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the State. The Government has shown more tolerance of general criticisms aimed at good governance or improved public service, and citizens who lodge legitimate complaints with government departments generally do not suffer reprisals. A greater variety of critical articles and broadcasts in the media reflects this attitude.

All print and electronic media are state-owned and controlled. Local news in all media reflects government policy, and only rarely hints at differences of opinion. Television talk shows and opinion articles refer only to several differences in administrative approach. Translations of foreign press reports generally are without bias, and access to Thai press, radio, and television is unhindered. Other Asian and many Western newspapers and magazines are available through private outlets that have government permission to sell them.

Authorities also prohibited the dissemination of materials deemed to be indecent, to undermine the national culture, or to be politically sensitive. Films and music recordings produced in government studios must be submitted for official censorship. However, in practice, most foreign media are easily available. Government enforcement of restrictions on nightclub entertainment, which had been tightened in 1997, relaxed during the year.

Citizens have 24-hour access to Cable News Network and the British Broadcasting Corporation, among other international stations accessible via television satellite receiving dish. The Government requires registration of satellite dishes and a one-time licensing fee for their use, largely as a revenue-generating scheme, but otherwise makes no effort to restrict their use.

Foreign journalists must apply for special visas; increasingly the Government allows foreign journalists wider access to sources and permits them freer domestic travel.

The Constitution provides for academic freedom; however, the Government restricts it, although it has relaxed its restrictions in certain areas. Lao and Western academic professionals conducting research in Laos may be subject to restrictions on travel and access to information and Penal Code restrictions on publication. As the sole employer of virtually all academic professionals, the Government exercises some control over their ability to travel on research or study grants. However, the Government, which once limited foreign travel by professors, actively seeks out these opportunities worldwide and approves virtually all such proposals. On rare occasions, the Government did not permit government employees who were not party members to accept certain research or study grants, apparently because they had chosen not to join the LPRP.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly, but the Government continues to restrict this right in practice. The Penal Code prohibits participation in an organization for the purpose of demonstrations, protest marches, or other acts that cause turmoil or social instability. Such acts are punishable by a prison term of from 1 to 5 years.

In February a group of 150 Hmong farmers from Pha Thao village assembled in Vientiane to protest unresolved land problems without government reprisal. Central government officials agreed to appoint a committee to review the problems; the committee resolved most of the farmers' grievances by yearâs end. This demonstration was one of the largest since 1975.

On January 30, authorities arrested 44 persons gathered at a Christian Bible study session in a private home in Phonekheng Village, Vientiane Municipality. It charged 13 of those arrested with participating in a group assembly for the purpose of creating social turmoil, asked the foreigners in the group to five persons to leave the country, and released 26 other persons. The 13 Christians were tried and convicted in March for violating the Penal Code, and three were released for time served. The Vientiane Municipal Court record indicates that the judge considered one statement made by a member of the group to be critical of the Government. The Government also stated in court and elsewhere that the group was using religion as a guise for its real purpose: Creating social turmoil. At year's end, eight of the Christians remained in jail, with sentences of from 2 to two-and-one-half years (see Section 2.c.).

Although the Constitution provides citizens with the right to organize and join associations, the Government restricts this right in practice. The Government registers and controls all associations and prohibits associations that criticize it. Although the Government restricts many types of formal professional and social associations, in practice, informal nonpolitical groups can meet without hindrance. Individuals who had formed the Foundation for Promoting Education, a private voluntary organization in Vientiane Municipality in 1997, were active during the year and awarded prizes for educational achievement and scholarships to needy students. The group is supported by private contributions and operates independently under its own charter, but reports to the Ministry of Education. In April the Lao Buddhist Fellowship Association, which reports to the National Front, formed the Buddhist Promotion Foundation.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, in practice the Government restricts freedom it. The Constitution prohibits "all acts of creating division of religion or creating division among the people." The Party and Government appear to interpret this section narrowly, thus inhibiting religious practice by all persons, including the Buddhist majority and a large population of animists. Although official pronouncements accepted the existence of religion, they emphasized its potential to divide, distract, or destabilize.

The Constitution notes that the state "mobilizes and encourages" monks, novices, and priests of other religions to participate in activities "beneficial to the nation and the people." The LPRP Lao National Front for Reconstruction is responsible for overseeing all religions.

The Governmentâs tolerance of religion varied by region. In general central government authorities appeared unable to control or mitigate harsh measures that were taken by local or provincial authorities against the practices of members of minority religious denominations. Although there was almost complete freedom to worship among unregistered groups in a few areas, particularly in the largest cities, government authorities in many regions allowed properly registered religious groups to practice their faith only under circumscribed conditions. In other areas, such as Luang Prabang, Bokeo, and Attapeu, the authorities arrested and detained religious believers and their spiritual leaders without charges. In more isolated cases, provincial authorities instructed their officials to monitor and arrest persons who professed belief in Christianity, Islam, or the Bahaâi faith. For example sources reported that, in Luang Prabang province, the authorities forced some Christians to sign renunciations of their faith. In a southern province, police refused to release a Lao Christian who was arrested for proselytizing until the detainee had pledged not to proselytize again. Although authorities tolerate diverse religious practices in the southern Laos panhandle, a pattern of petty local harassment persists. Converts must pass a gauntlet of harsh government interviews. Groups of coreligionists seeking to assemble in a new location are thwarted in attempts to meet, practice, or celebrate major religious festivals.

In March the Vientiane municipal court convicted 13 Christians and sentenced them to prison terms of from 2 months to 3 years for exercising their rights of peaceful assembly and free speech in a Bible study session. Police in January initially arrested 44 persons for simply assembling without permission in an unregistered meeting place; they eventually released 31 persons. The prosecutor later convicted the remaining 13 persons of the more serious criminal code violation of gathering in an assembly to create social turmoil (see Section 2.b.). By yearâs end, there was some small improvement. Authorities made fewer arrests related to religious activities, and resolved a few longstanding cases. They also released at least nine detainees.

The Catholic Church is unable to operate effectively in the highlands and much of the north. It has, however, an established presence in five of the most populous central and southern provinces, where Catholics are able to worship openly. There are three bishops in Vientiane, Thakhek, and Pakse. The status of the Catholic Church in Luang Prabang center remains in doubt; there appears to be a congregation there but, due to local obstructionism, worship services may not always be conducted readily.

Over 100 Protestant congregations conduct services throughout the country. The Lao National Front has recognized two Protestant groups, the Lao Evangelical Church, the umbrella Protestant church, and the Seventh Day Adventist Church. The Front strongly encourages all other Protestant groups to become a part of the Lao Evangelical Church. The Government has granted permission to four Protestant congregations from the approved denominations to have church buildings in the Vientiane area.

The Party controls the Buddhist clergy (Sangha) in an attempt to direct national culture. After 1975 the Government attempted to "reform" Buddhism and ceased to consider it the state religion, causing thousands of monks to flee abroad, where most still remain. The Government has only one semireligious holiday÷Boun That Luang÷also a major political and cultural celebration. However, it recognizes the popularity and cultural significance of Buddhist festivals, and many senior officials openly attend them. Buddhist clergy are featured prominently at important state and party functions. The Lao National Front directs the Lao Buddhist Fellowship Association, which adopted a new Charter in April. The Front continues to require monks to study Marxism-Leninism, to attend certain party meetings, and to combine with their teachings of Buddhism the party-state policies. In recent years, some individual temples have been able to receive support from Theraveda Buddhist temples abroad, to expand the training of monks, and to focus more on traditional teachings.

There remains a continuing suspicion on the part of authorities toward some parts of the Lao religious community other than Buddhism, including some Christian groups, in part because they do not share a similar high degree of direction and incorporation into the government structure. Authorities especially appear to suspect those religious groups that gain support from foreign sources, aggressively proselytize among the poor or uneducated, or give targeted assistance to converts. The Government permits major religious festivals of all established congregations without hindrance. Two mosques and a Baha'i center operate openly in Vientiane.

The Government prohibits foreigners from proselytizing, although it permits foreign nongovernmental organizations with religious affiliations to work in the country. Although there is no prohibition against proselytizing by citizens, there has been increased local government investigation and harassment of citizens who do so under the constitutional provision against creating division of religion. The Government restricts the import of foreign religious texts and artifacts. The Government requires its permission for formal links with coreligionists in other countries; however, in practice, the line between formal and informal links is blurred, and relations generally are established without much difficulty.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel,

Emigration, and Repatriation

The Constitution provides for these rights; however, the Government restricted some of these rights in practice. Citizens who travel across provincial borders are required to report to authorities upon their departure and arrival. Citizens who seek to travel abroad are required to apply for an exit visa; however, the Government grants these routinely. Foreigners are restricted from traveling to certain areas, such as Saysomboun Special Zone, an administrative area operated by the military forces, for safety and security reasons.

Hmong insurgent group attacks on civilians in vehicles traveling in the north-central areas impede travel, especially along parts of Route 13, Route 7, and Route 1. Bandits operate in the same area (see Section 1.a.). The Government attempts to ensure safety on these roads.

Citizens are free to emigrate; exit visas are required, and the Government grants these routinely.

More than 27,800 citizens who sought refugee status in Thailand, China, and other countries have returned to Laos during the last decade for permanent resettlement under monitoring by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). There were no new returnees during the year. The Government cooperates with the UNHCR in assisting the groups' reintegration into society. These returnees generally have been treated the same as other citizens.

The Constitution provides for asylum and the protection of stateless persons under the law, which has included first asylum.

There were no known cases during the year of asylum seekers being returned to a country where they feared persecution.

The Government has a longstanding policy of welcoming back virtually all those among the 10 percent of the population who fled after the change in government in 1975. Many have visited relatives, some have stayed and gained foreign resident status, and some have reclaimed Lao citizenship successfully. A small group tried in absentia in 1975 for antigovernment activities does not have the right of return. The Government announced in November that it would accept the return of asylum seekers now in Thailand only on a voluntary basis. The Government has insisted on reviewing the backgrounds of any person being repatriated formally.

One group of 177 refugee returnees who had entered Laos on an irregular basis in 1997 rather than wait for organized repatriation have not been allowed to change their residence and are for the time being restricted to movement within 1 day's journey of their settlement inside Houaphan province. At yearâs end, eight men among the group remained in detention without charges.

Some refugee returnees carry identification cards with distinctive markings, ostensibly for use by authorities. These distinctive identification cards tend to reinforce a pattern of societal discrimination against them.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens do not have the ability to change their government. The Constitution legitimizes only a single party, the Lao People's Revolutionary Party, which must approve all candidates for local and national elections. Candidates need not be LPRP members.

The Constitution provides for a 99-member National Assembly elected every 5 years in open, multiple-candidate, fairly tabulated elections, with voting by secret ballot and universal adult suffrage. The National Assembly chooses a standing committee and, upon the committee's recommendation, elects or removes the President and Vice President. The standing committee also has powers over elections (including approval of candidates), supervision of administrative and judicial organizations, and the sole power to recommend presidential decrees. Activities of the standing committee are not fully transparent.

The National Assembly, upon the President's recommendation, elects the Prime Minister and ministers of the Government. The Government carried out this constitutional process in a transparent manner in February, following National Assembly elections in December 1997. In that election, 159 candidates competed for 99 seats. Four candidates had not been nominated by the LPRP; one winning candidate, among these four, was not an LPRP or front organization member.

The National Assembly may consider and amend draft legislation, but may not propose new laws. The Constitution gives the right to submit draft legislation to the National Assembly standing committee and the ruling executive structure.

Women increased their representation in the National Assembly in 1997 from 9 percent to 20 percent, as 20 of the 27 female candidates won seats. Four members of the 49-member LPRP Central Committee are women, 2 of whom are also members of the 7-member Standing Committee in the National Assembly. There are no women in the Politburo or the Council of Ministers.

The number of ethnic minority members in the National Assembly -- 9 Lao Soung (highland tribes) and 26 Lao Theung (mid-slope dwelling tribes)--matches their proportions in the general population. Men of lowland Lao origin dominate the upper echelons of the Party and the Government. Nonetheless, the President, two Deputy Prime Ministers, three ministers, and 35 members of the National Assembly are believed to be members of ethnic minority groups.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

There are no domestic nongovernmental human rights organizations, and the Government does not have a formal procedure for registration. 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. The Government cooperates on an uneven basis with international human rights organizations.

A human rights unit in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Department of International Treaties and Legal Affairs has responsibility for inquiry into allegations of human rights violations. This government unit occasionally responds to inquiries regarding individual cases and makes recommendations regarding human rights initiatives such as training of government officials.

A government committee formed in June, chaired by a Deputy Prime Minister and representing five ministries, organized a range of public activities to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In September at the invitation of the Government, a special U.N. Rapporteur on trafficking in children visited various locations and made inquiries into possible incidents of child prostitution and child pornography.

The Government maintains contacts with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and government officials received ICRC training on human rights law in October. The Government has permitted U.N. human rights observers to monitor the treatment of returning refugees in all parts of the country without interference.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution provides for equal treatment under the law for all citizens without regard to sex, social status, education, faith, or ethnicity. Children are similarly protected. Although the Government took action when cases of discrimination came 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

There are reports that domestic violence against women occurs, although it is not widespread. Sexual harassment and rape are reportedly rare. In cases of rape that are tried in court, defendants generally are convicted.

The Government only recently has focused on the trafficking of women and children across its borders. Although there are no reliable data available on the scope and severity of the problem, there are indications that the numbers are considerable. The Government has increased monitoring and educational programs provided by the Lao Women's Union and the Youth Union, both party-sanctioned organizations, designed to educate girls and young women about the schemes of recruiters for brothels and sweatshops in Thailand and elsewhere. In the past, the Government has prosecuted some persons for involvement in such recruiting activities. During the year, law enforcement agencies conducted raids of entertainment establishments accused of fostering prostitution.

The Constitution provides for equal rights for women, and the Lao Women's Union operates nationally to promote the position of women in society. In July the Women's Union began a special program on gender and the law in an effort to both broaden public understanding of human rights and provide legal counseling for women in distress. Discrimination against women is not generalized; however, varying degrees of traditional culturally based discrimination persist, with greater discrimination practiced among some hill tribes. Many women occupy responsible positions in the civil service and private business, and in urban areas their incomes are often higher than those of men. The Family Code prohibits legal discrimination in marriage and inheritance.

The Government has increased support for the position of women in society in development programs, some of which are designed to increase the participation of women in the political system.

Children

Government resources are inadequate to provide fully for children's basic health and educational needs. Education is compulsory through the fifth grade, but children from rural areas and poor urban families rarely comply with this requirement. Violence against children is prohibited by law, and subject to stiff punishments. Reports of the physical abuse of children are rare.

The Government is increasingly concerned about Lao children being lured for sexual exploitation and slave labor in other countries and has established a National Commission on Mothers and Children, chaired by the Foreign Minister (see Section 6.c.). The Commission, working with the Lao Women's Union, Youth Union, Justice Ministry, and Labor Ministry, has conducted workshops around the country designed to make parents and teenagers aware of the dangers. At the Government's invitation, a special U.N. Rapporteur on Trafficking in Children visited in September (see Section 4).

People With Disabilities

With donor assistance, the Government is implementing limited programs for the disabled, especially amputees. The law does not mandate accessibility to buildings or government services for disabled persons.

Religious MinoritiesThe enhanced status given to Buddhism in Luang Prabang--famed for its centuries-old Buddhist tradition and numerous temples-÷apparently led some local officials there to act more harshly toward minority religious sects, particularly toward Christian and Bahaâi, than in other areas of the country (see Section 2.c.).

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The Constitution provides for equal rights for citizens of all minorities, and there is no legal discrimination against them. However, societal discrimination persists.

Approximately half the population is ethnic Lao, also called "lowland Lao." Most of the remainder is a mosaic of diverse upland hill tribes whose members, if born in Laos, are Lao citizens. There are also ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese minorities, particularly in the towns. There is a small community of South Asian origin. The implementation in 1994 of the 1990 Law on Nationality provided a means for Vietnamese and Chinese minorities to regularize their Lao citizenship. The Government encourages the preservation of minority cultures and traditions; however, due to remote location and difficult access, minority tribes have little voice in government decisions affecting their lands and the allocation of natural resources.

The Hmong are one of the largest and most prominent highland minority groups. Societal discrimination against the Hmong continues, although there are a number of Hmong officials in the senior ranks of the Government. In recent years, the Government has focused assistance projects in Hmong areas in order to overcome disparities in income along regional and ethnic lines. Some international observers claim that governmental policies aimed at assimilating the Hmong into larger society--such as regional boarding schools--are not respectful of Hmong native culture; others see this approach as an avenue out of centuries of poverty.

A group of 150 Hmong farmers assembled in Vientiane in February to petition the Government regarding land problems (see Section 2.b.).

During the year, the Government continued to assist citizens, largely members of ethnic minorities, who returned to Laos after having fled in 1975. Central and local government officials worked with organizations such as the UNHCR to provide land and a sustainable level of economic security. Repatriated Hmong generally face no greater discrimination than those Hmong who remained. Two U.N. observers who monitored repatriation efforts reported no serious incidents of abuse or discrimination during the year.

Under the Constitution, aliens and stateless foreign citizens are protected by "provisions of the laws," but do not in fact enjoy rights provided for by the Constitution. During the year, there were isolated cases of persons of Lao ethnic background who, as citizens of other nations suffered discrimination when arrested or detained, and were denied due process, apparently on the basis of their Lao ethnic background.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Under the 1990 Labor Code and a 1995 prime ministerial decree, labor unions can be formed in private enterprises as long as they operate within the framework of the officially sanctioned Federation of Lao Trade Unions (FLTU), which in turn is controlled by the LPRP. Most of the FLTU's 78,000 members work in the public sector, overwhelmingly as public servants.

The State employs the majority of salaried workers, although this situation is changing as the Government reduces the number of its employees and privatizes state enterprises, and as foreign investors open new factories and businesses. Subsistence farmers comprise an estimated 85 percent of the work force.

Strikes are not prohibited by law, but the Government's ban on subversive activities or destabilizing demonstrations makes a strike unlikely (see Section 2.b.), and none were reported during the year. However, the Labor Code does not prevent temporary work stoppages, and a few such incidents involving small groups of workers occurred.

With advice from the International Labor Organization (ILO), including a foreign expert provided by the ILO to work with the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, the Government has revised the Labor Code in an effort to clarify the rights and obligations of workers and employers.

The FLTU is free to engage in contacts with foreign labor organizations, which during the year included the ASEAN Trade Union and the Asia-Pacific American Labor Alliance. The FLTU is a member of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU).

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

There is no right to organize and bargain collectively. The Labor Code stipulates that disputes be resolved through workplace committees composed of employers, representatives of the local labor union, and representatives of the FLTU, with final authority residing in the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare. Labor disputes are infrequent. The Government sets wages and salaries for government employees, while management sets wages and salaries for private business employees.

The Labor Code stipulates that employers may not fire employees for conducting trade union activities, for lodging complaints against employers about labor law implementation, or for cooperating with officials on labor law implementation and labor disputes. Workplace committees are one mechanism used for resolving complaints.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Labor Code prohibits forced labor except in time of war or national disaster, when the State may conscript laborers. The code also applies to children under age 15, and generally is enforced effectively. However, reports that children are being lured into other countries for sexual exploitation and slave labor continued, although there were fewer such reports than in 1997 (see Section 5).

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for

Employment

Under the Labor Code, children under the age of 15 may not be recruited for employment. However, many children help their families on farms or in shops. The Labor Code accordingly provides that children may work for their families, provided that such children are not engaged in dangerous or difficult work. Such employment of children is common in urban shops, but rare in industrial enterprises. The Ministries of Interior and Justice are responsible for enforcing these provisions, but enforcement is ineffective due to a lack of inspectors and other resources. Education is compulsory through the fifth grade, but this requirement rarely is observed in the rural areas or among the urban poor. The Labor Code prohibits forced and bonded labor performed by children under age 15, and the law generally is enforced effectively; however, there were reports that children were lured into sexual exploitation and slavery abroad (see Sections 5 and 6.c.).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Labor Code provides for a broad range of worker entitlements, including a workweek limited to 48 hours (36 hours for employment in dangerous activities), safe working conditions, and higher compensation for dangerous work. The code also provides for at least 1 day of rest per week. Employers are responsible for all expenses for a worker injured or killed on the job, a requirement generally fulfilled by employers in the formal economic sector. The daily minimum wage is $0.35 (1,400 kip), which is insufficient to provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. Most civil servants receive inadequate pay. However, few families in the wage economy depend on only one breadwinner. Some piecework employees, especially on construction sites, earn less than the minimum wage. Many are illegal immigrants, particularly from Vietnam, and are more vulnerable to exploitation by employers. Although workplace inspections reportedly have increased, the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare lacks the personnel and budgetary resources to enforce the Labor Code effectively. The Labor Code has no specific provision allowing workers to remove themselves from a dangerous situation without jeopardizing their employment.

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