Last Updated: Friday, 19 September 2014, 12:53 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Laos

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 28 June 2012
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Laos, 28 June 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4fedb3f8c.html [accessed 19 September 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 ninth Party Congress of Laos People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) was held in 2011. But there were few new faces to be seen. Elections for the National Assembly were held shortly after, with the LPRP winning all but four of the 132 seats in this one-party state. Ethnic minority parliamentarians won 38.6 per cent of the seats in the National Assembly. However, party members secured their positions through patronage, rather than by campaigning for the rights of minority communities.

There are at least 240 ethnic groups in the country, but the Lao government only officially recognizes 49. Most minorities live in the mountainous highland areas, whereas the Lao majority has traditionally been in the lowlands, dominating political and economic life. Ethnic minority villages have been subjected to government relocation programmes since the 1970s, increasing in scope in the 1990s, ostensibly aimed at ending swidden agriculture and opium production.

The Lao government aims to transform the country into the 'battery of South East Asia' by exporting the power generated by numerous hydroelectric projects. In June, the National Assembly announced plans to complete ten large-scale dam projects between 2011 and 2015; five are already under construction. The proposed 1,200-megawatt Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River has attracted the most controversy. It will displace an estimated 2,100 people, the majority of whom are ethnic minorities (including Khmu, Leu and Hmong), and threaten the livelihoods and food security of another 200,000 people. The Xayaburi project is backed by Thai companies, and Thailand is expected to be one of the main beneficiaries of the power generated.

The Mekong Rivers Commission, a regional river basin organization, twice delayed a decision on whether to approve the Xayaburi dam in 2011, under strong pressure from Laos's neighbours, pending further environmental studies. However, with the tacit approval from Lao authorities, the Thai dam building-company is proceeding with construction work, without consulting affected minorities.

In 2011, a national survey carried out by the Lao government estimated that 5 million hectares – about 21 per cent of the country's total territory – has been granted as concessions to either domestic or foreign parties, mainly for mining exploration (85 per cent). Many land concessions in Laos have also been granted to foreign companies from Vietnam, Thailand and China, for large-scale agribusiness plantations, such as bio-fuels, rubber and eucalyptus, as well as mining and hydro-electric projects.

Though all land is state-owned in Laos, communal land use rights are recognized under the Constitution and various national laws. But land and forest concessions have been granted without proper documentation or implementation of legal processes, leaving local livelihoods unprotected, according to a 2011 report by the NGO Forest Trends. Such concessions are often facilitated through bribe-taking by local and central officials. Affected groups are left without access to their traditional livelihoods or adequate compensation, despite a government decree guaranteeing it.

Displacement and government attempts to eliminate swidden agriculture have had a disproportionate impact on minority and indigenous women from communities such as the Khmou and Phone, where their status derives from their role in such agricultural activities.

In November 2011, the Laos government issued its first set of communal forest land titles, acknowledging the community rights of four villages to bamboo forests in Sangthong district near Vientiane. It is hoped that communal titles will now be issued in other areas of the country where minority and indigenous groups are at a high risk of being displaced from their land.

In one positive development, the Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines proposed amendments to the Minerals Law in 2011 in order to address loopholes that were thought to be giving free rein to mining companies, for example to use sites for purposes for which they were not granted, such as logging and plantations. Other proposed changes include stricter environmental standards and increased compensation for affected communities.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed in the Lao Constitution, but in practice some laws are used to suppress unsanctioned religious activities. Many ethnic minorities in Laos practice animism/ancestor worship or have converted to Christianity. In 2011, rights groups continued to report incidents of local authorities harassing and illegally detaining members of Christian communities.

In 2011, the group of over 4,000 Hmong that were forcibly repatriated to Laos from Thailand in 2009 are reportedly still facing 'severe restrictions' on their freedom of movement and are unable to make a living.

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