Status: Not Free
Freedom Rating: 6.5
Civil Liberties: 6
Political Rights: 7
Construction of the Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River continued in 2012 despite protests and studies showing its potentially devastating environmental impact. In December, prominent anti-poverty activist Sombath Somphone disappeared; video footage appeared two days later showing him being abducted by police. Also that month, the government expelled the country head of the international development agency Helvetas, who had recently criticized the government. Laos was approved for entry to the World Trade Organization in October.
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 elections held in 2011, the LPRP maintained its dominance of the rubber-stamp National Assembly, winning 128 of 132 seats.
In July 2012, Hillary Clinton visited Laos, marking the first time in decades that a U.S. secretary of state had visited the country. In October, Laos was formally approved for entry to the World Trade Organization.
Construction on the controversial Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River formally began in November 2012. The project had raised concerns over its impact on the environment and local residents and stirred popular anger in Laos, as well as criticism from Vietnam and Cambodia, which could be negatively impacted by the dam. The Lao government had supposedly suspended work on the dam, though preparatory work had taken place throughout 2012, even before the formal announcement.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
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. The assembly featured somewhat more open debate than in previous years, but it continued to hold little real power. Laos launched a process of greater devolution of limited powers to provinces in 2012.
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. Both Vietnam and China have significant influence in Laos, and their militaries have allegedly participated in the widespread smuggling of Lao resources. Vietnam's army reportedly 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. Laos was ranked 160 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
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. In 2012, authorities took off the air a popular radio show, "Talk of the News", that had focused on land grabs and other political stories; the government publicly rebuked journalists, including "Talk of the News" host Ounkeo Souksavanh, for not heeding state guidance on stories, particularly related to dams on the Mekong.
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. In 2012, Christian activist groups reported more than twice as many cases of persecution against Lao Christians as in 2011.
Academic freedom is not respected. University professors cannot teach or write about 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. In December 2012, the Lao government expelled Anne-Sophie Gindroz, the country director of the Swiss-based development agency Helvetas, after Gindroz penned a letter to international donors that criticized the limited freedoms allowed by the Lao regime. In December, internationally acclaimed antipoverty activist Sombath Somphone disappeared; video footage surfaced days later that showed police stopping and abducting him, and his whereabouts remained unknown at year's end.
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 have been largely unsuccessful.
Refugees who arrive in Laos often are deported; in 2012, 20 refugees from North Korea were arrested in Laos and expected to be deported.
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 2012, villagers in the coffee-growing region of Paksong launched public protests against an agreement the government made with a Singaporean company to plant coffee on land that local farmers claimed was illegally taken from them. Also in 2012, the Lao government rejected a proposal for a Chinese rare earth mineral plant in Laos on the grounds that it might have had a negative environmental impact.
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. However, the government has made some improvements in combating trafficking over the last five years, including closer cooperation with neighboring governments.
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