United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Laos, 30 January 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa45c.html [accessed 30 November 2015]
This 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.
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997 The Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) is an authoritarian one-party state ruled by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The Ministry of Interior (MOI) remains 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 considerably 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 has only slowly eased restrictions on basic freedoms and begun codification of implementing legislation for rights stipulated in the Constitution. Many of the rights provided for 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 citizens have ready access to a variety of foreign media. Prison conditions remain harsh, and some societal discrimination against women and 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 were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings. While there continued to be occasional killings by armed bands, who ambushed and robbed persons in vehicles north of Vientiane, it remains unclear whether these killings were politically motivated. There were three such incidents reported in September. Similar attacks occurred in this area prior to the formation of the current Government. However, since passengers are assaulted as well as robbed, this may indicate that a vestige of the low level insurgency of the 1980's remains. The Government does not ordinarily publicize lethal incidents. In September, however, following an attack on passengers in a tour agency's minivan which resulted in the deaths of a well-known expatriate businessman and four others, the media not only reported the incident but included a warning that the area in which the attack occurred is not considered safe.
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 during the year.
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 these principles 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 guards to obtain food and medicines. Prison conditions for women are similar to those for men. The extent of sexual harassment in prison is unknown, but it is not believed to be a serious problem. There is no independent monitoring of prison conditions.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention or Exile
The Constitution and Penal Code provide some protection, including a statute of limitations for those accused of crimes, 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 have been no reports of this type of arrest in the past 4 years. There continued to be allegations that the Government has detained three Hmong males since 1992 because of their association with the United States Government prior to 1975. The Lao Government has thus far not responded directly to repeated inquiries about these allegations. While citizens have the protection of due process, authorities have reportedly arrested some persons based on unsupported accusations and without informing them of the charges, the accusers' identities, or their legal rights. Due process rights are unevenly upheld across the country. The Government does not use forced exile.
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 Ministry of Interior, in making their decisions. The judiciary is composed of district courts, provincial courts, and the Supreme Court. Although regulations provide for public trial, widespread ignorance of constitutional rights among both citizens and law enforcement authorities often results in trials that are little more than public announcements of predetermined verdicts. Politically sensitive trials have not been open to the public, although trials of civil crimes appeared to be open; these are increasingly 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 politically sensitive cases. The Constitution provides that all accused persons have the right to defend themselves in court. A board of legal advisors formed in 1991 was suspended in 1992, pending enactment of a legally clarified body of governing regulations. The Government strengthened the legal profession and individual rights to counsel in August by establishing a formal bar association. According to the Criminal Code, defendants in criminal cases are entitled, at their own expense, to representation by a "rights protector" who may be a practicing attorney. However, because citizens are largely unaware of their rights and legal authorities are not required by law to enlighten them, few defendants seek or have legal representation. Arrests, trials and convictions are usually unannounced, thereby complicating efforts to estimate accurately the number of political prisoners. 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 of 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. There have been no reports of other political prisoners in the last few years.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
At the same time that it sought to liberalize the economy, 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 citizens 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 considerably 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 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 citizens who fled the country after 1975 have regained confiscated land and property after demonstrating their intent to repatriate. Contact between ordinary citizens 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 citizens to marry foreigners but only with prior government approval. Marriages without government approval may be annulled, with both partners subject to fine and 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 in 1992 (see Section l.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 would 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 its control of 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 makes no effort to discourage reception of Thai radio or television broadcasts. These are widely received in the Mekong River valley, where the majority of the population lives. The Government requires registration of satellite television receiving dishes and payment of a one-time licensing fee for their installation, but otherwise makes no effort to restrict their use. In 1996 the number of such dishes continued to increase, both in major urban areas and in remote provincial and district towns. The Cable News Network (CNN), the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and several stations in Thailand are among the many channels available to satellite dish owners. The Government prohibits pornographic or politically inflammatory videocassettes. In late 1994 the Vientiane Municipality imposed restrictions governing the content of music played in night clubs and outlawed karaoke in order to strengthen Lao culture against its perceived erosion by foreign influences. Enforcement of these restrictions has been lax. The Government restricts academic freedom. The Government has at times in the past denied permission to Lao academicians 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 Penal Code prohibits demonstrations or protest marches aimed at causing turmoil and social instability, prescribing penalties of from 1 to 5 years' imprisonment. Although the Constitution provides citizens with the right to organize and join associations, all associations are party-controlled, and their products reflect 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 the country, it prohibits foreigners from proselytizing. The Government also restricts the import of foreign religious publications and artifacts. 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 more than 100 churches throughout the country. There continued to be credible reports that local authorities detained some clergy for allegedly criticizing other religions and harassed, arrested, and jailed other religiously active clergy. The persistence of such reports underscores the continuing suspicion on the part of authorities toward some parts of the Lao Christian community. There were also unconfirmed reports that Lao Christians were sometimes barred from the Party or from 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 Baha'i 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 areas considered unsafe. Most citizens can easily obtain passports and exit permits from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for personal travel abroad. Border crossing permits 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 that fled after the change of government in 1975. In recent years, an increasing number of ethnic Lao living abroad returned to visit; several remained to operate businesses. Laos, Thailand, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are cooperating on the return of the Lao asylum seekers in camps in Thailand 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 to return with all the belongings they accumulated while outside the country. There were no forcible repatriations to Laos in 1996; however, nine 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 Constitution does not explicitly exclude formation of multiple political parties, it assigns to the ruling LPRP the leading role in the political system. All candidates needed 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. Women are underrepresented in government and politics. Of the 85 members of the National Assembly 8 are women. While three members of the 49-member LPRP Central Committee are women, there are no women in the Politburo or the Council of Ministers. Men of lowland Lao origin dominate the upper echelons of the party and the Government. Nonetheless, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of 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 society, thus making it difficult to ascertain accurately the number of ethnic minority members 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. The Government generally does not cooperate with international human rights organizations. It has, however, permitted U.N. human rights observers to monitor the treatment of returning refugees without interference and responded to inquiries about specific human rights problems.
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. 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.
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 are generally convicted. The Government relies on the Women's Union, a party-sanctioned organization, and youth organizations 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 several 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 Lao society. However, traditional culturally based discrimination persists, especially among lowland Lao and 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.
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. Reports of the physical abuse of children are rare.
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.
The Constitution provides for equal rights for 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 these Vietnamese and Chinese minorities to regularize their Lao citizenship. While the Government encourages the preservation of minority cultures and traditions, minority tribes have little voice in government decisions affecting their lands and the allocation of natural resources. Hill tribe interaction with the Government is limited by poor transportation and communication links and a shortage of government resources. The Hmong are one of the largest and most prominent highland minority groups. They split along clan lines during the U.S. war with Vietnam; many were strongly anti-Communist while others sided with the Lao and Vietnamese Communists. The Government repressed many who had fought against it, especially those still perceive to be resisting its authority. In recent years, the Government has initiated projects designed to integrate the Hmong into the general society, and an increasing number of those who fled the country after 1975 have repatriated to Laos without suffering persecution. Two U.N. observers who monitored repatriation efforts reported no incidents of abuse or discrimination during the year.
Section 6 Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
Although the Constitution provides citizens with the right to organize and join associations, the party controls all associations, and all conform to official party policy (see Section 2.b.). Subsistence farmers comprise an estimated 85 percent of the work force. 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. Under the 1990 Labor Code, 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 80,000 members work in the public sector, overwhelmingly as public servants. Strikes are not prohibited under the law, but the Government's ban on "destabilizing subversive activities" makes a strike unlikely, and none was reported this year (see Section 2.a.). 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 rights and obligations of workers and employers. The extent to which the FLTU is free to engage in contacts and affiliate with foreign labor organizations is unknown.
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.
d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children
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 is rarely observed in the rural areas or among the urban poor.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The Labor Code provides for a broad range of worker entitlements, including a workweek limited to 48 hours (36 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 $1.09 (1,000 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 have reportedly 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.