Laos, one of the world's few remaining communist states, is one of South East Asia's poorest countries. In a bid to boost development, the government is tapping the resources of Laos' vast river network and developing a billion-dollar dam scheme, intended to generate electricity for export to Thailand.

The country's largest and most controversial hydro project under construction, Nam Theun 2, will be fully operating by the end of 2009 and affects around 130,000 indigenous people dependent on fishing and farming for their livelihoods. In June 2008 NGO International Rivers reported flooding of a 450 sq km reservoir on the Nakai Plateau, affecting some 6,200 people from a variety of ethnic groups. They were moved to what will be the reservoir shores so they can remain on their ancestral lands. However, although villagers have improved services such as electricity, water pumps and better roads, soils are poor and land and forest resources are scarce.

An August 2008 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, said that those who have lost their land as a result of the dam construction have not been compensated or informed of their right to be compensated. The report particularly highlighted the plight of the Lao Tai, who have inhabited the Nakai Plateau for hundreds of years.

There are further concerns for indigenous communities living downstream on the Xe Bang Fai River, who are expected to suffer frequent floods when the Nam Theun 2 project becomes fully operational.

H'mong, the country's third largest, mainly Christian, ethnic group, continued to suffer persecution throughout the year. In March 2008, Compass Direct News, a Christian news service, reported that Laotian officials arrested some 15 H'mong Christian families in Bokeo district in February. The Lao Human Rights Council and others accused Lao security forces of targeting thousands of Laotian and H'mong Christians and animist believers for arrest, persecution, torture and execution, and 'brutal ethnic cleansing operations'. The US Congress passed a bipartisan resolution in June 2008 calling on Laos to cease its attacks on the H'mong people. (See also Thailand.)

According to Freedom House, gender-based discrimination and abuse are widespread. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Laotian women and girls, including many lowland Laotians and an increasing number of highland ethnic minorities, are trafficked each year for prostitution.

UNESCO's 2009 Education for All global monitoring report found that, although Laos is progressing towards Universal Primary Education for all, teacher shortages in remote areas are holding back efforts to expand access for ethnic minorities. A government policy of salary supplements proved insufficient to outweigh teacher preference for urban postings. A new programme aims at recruiting ethnic minorities into teacher training. However, UNESCO notes that serious administrative problems have been identified: some students recruited do not actually come from targeted villages but enrol to receive the benefits offered; language problems in teacher training have resulted in high dropout levels for indigenous minorities; and many of the students who graduate do not go back to teach in their home areas.

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.