Rights groups, UN officials and diplomats spent the beginning of 2010 dealing with the aftermath of Thailand's sudden deportation of more than 4,000 Hmong asylum-seekers back to Laos in late December 2009. Critics warned that the Hmong would face persecution once returned to Laos. Historically, the Hmong supported the United States in its operations against the Pathet Laos, which took command of the country in the mid-1970s. Since 2005, the forced return of Hmong minorities from Thailand has resulted in 'enforced disappearances, torture and arbitrary detention', according to Amnesty International.
After initially denying journalists and UN officials access to the Hmong returnees, in March the government allowed a heavily stage-managed visit of foreign dignitaries and media to a relocation camp in Phonkham village, a newly built settlement in the Bolikhamsay province of central Laos. Some resettled Hmong interviewed by journalists during the visit expressed fear over their situations, with one woman telling a reporter with Radio Free Asia (RFA), 'I feel scared and do not want to stay in Laos'. While reports suggested there was no immediate evidence the resettled Hmong had been abused, the event was also clearly tightly controlled. Indeed, reports suggested that Lao authorities cut the meeting short when the resettled Hmong approached diplomats and journalists.
One US-based group, the Hmong International Human Rights Watch, suggested that Lao officials had warned the Hmong returnees before the meeting to say 'good things about the Lao government and how well they were being treated'. The group also warned that the resettled Hmong faced resistance from a group of ethnic Khmu already living in the resettlement area. Group co-founder Joe Davy said in a statement, 'The Khmu feel that this is their land and are very upset with the central government's decision to resettle so many Hmong here, especially when there's not enough resources available.'
Also in March, RFA reported that Lao authorities had deported seven Muslim Uighurs, all members of the same family, back to China, from where the group had fled in 2009. Gulbahar Sadiq told RFA that she, husband Mernet Eli Rozi and the couple's five children were arrested and deported in March. She said she and her children spent 32 days in captivity following their arrival back in China, before they were freed and returned to her hometown. However, her husband remained in captivity in western Kashgar as of December. Gulbahar Sadiq told RFA that her husband had been one of 22 Uighurs who originally sought asylum in neighbouring Cambodia. But he had fled to Laos as the Cambodian government expelled 20 of the asylum-seekers to China in late 2009.
The Lao government recognizes Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Bahá'í as official religions, though tolerance of religion appeared to vary by region, according to the US State Department's annual human rights report on Laos released in 2010. The report noted that Lao authorities have begun to step in when local governments are seen to have mistreated religious practitioners and have also become 'more proactive' in training local officials in the rights of believers.
That said, religious persecution continued to be an issue in Laos throughout 2010. The group Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom claimed that authorities in Savannakhet province refused to allow 10 children, whose parents are Christian, to attend school. The group also reported that leaders of a village in Saravan province had evicted seven Christian families at gunpoint after the families refused to renounce their faiths. They join another 11 families who had previously been ejected from the village. And in January 2011, the group reported that 11 Christians, including a church pastor, were arrested while eating a meal. They were accused of staging a meeting in secret without official approval.
In September, Laos officially announced its intention to build a 1,260-megawatt hydropower dam along the Mekong River in Xayaboury province. This would be the first project to dam the main branch of the vital Lower Mekong River. The proposal has caused much controversy among environmentalists and other observers, who are concerned by the dam's possible effects on regional fisheries and livelihoods. More than 2,000 people in 10 villages – comprising a variety of ethnicities, including communities from the indigenous Lao Teung – around the dam site would be resettled as part of the project's construction, according to the advocacy group International Rivers.
Critics say previous examples have shown that dams can threaten the livelihoods of communities living around such sites, particularly for women, who are often put in the position of having to work harder to meet their families' needs when confronted with food shortages or drops in income. The Nam Theun 2 Dam, built on a tributary of the Mekong, began operations in March. The project saw 6,200 indigenous people living in the area resettled; these communities still lack the means to earn a living, according to International Rivers. In addition, a further 110,000 people downstream have experienced the negative impacts of poor water quality and diminished fisheries, the group claims. Overall, the Lao government has at least 55 dam projects in the pipeline as part of its plan to turn the nation into 'the battery of Southeast Asia'.
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