U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Laos

  The Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) is a Communist, one-party state. The Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) is the primary source of political authority in the country. The party's leadership imposes broad controls on Laos' 4.5 million people. The Ministry of the Interior (MOI) remains the main instrument of state control. MOI police monitor Lao society and foreign nationals in Laos, and the LPRP uses informants in workplaces and residential communities. Laos is one of the world's poorest and least developed countries. In the first few years after the LPDR came to power in 1975, at least 350,000 Lao fled the country to escape the Government's harsh political and economic policies. Since then, 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. Even with the ongoing economic liberalization, the adoption of a Constitution in 1991, the death of the LPRP's longtime leader in November 1992, National Assembly elections the following month, and a government reorganization in February 1993, restrictions on basic freedoms have eased only a little in recent years. The right to privacy and the right of citizens to change their government are absent. The Constitution is the supreme legal document, but in many instances there is no or inadequate implementing legislation. Freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion are restricted in practice even though provided for in the Constitution. At the same time, however, the Government has been working to develop a legal system with a codified body of laws consistent with the Constitution and its economic and legal reform policies.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political killing by the Government in 1993, although police were involved in one confirmed extrajudicial killing. In April police in Vientiane shot and killed an unarmed teenager at a roadblock set up to check for vehicle registrations. The policemen involved are in prison but have not yet been tried. Extrajudicial killings have also occurred in the context of the continuin insurgency. Drawing primarily from Hmong tribesmen supported by their brethren in Thailand and abroad, the low-level insurgency that has existed since 1975 continued in 1993 in spite of the December 1992 closing of a refugee camp near the Laos border in Thailand and enhanced Thai efforts to prevent use of that country as a base for insurgent attacks into Laos. In 1993 there were reports of insurgent attacks to the east and the west of their traditional area of operations north of Vientiane and south of Luang Prabang. Both sides have reportedly used brutal tactics on occasion, with the insurgents occasionally assassinating military and local officials, ambushing vehicles, and attacking villages. They reportedly killed about 15 persons in a road ambush in April and 7 Lao road construction workers in May. The insurgents, in turn, have claimed repeatedly that the Government employs chemical weapons against them, but extensive investigation of these allegations have produced no conclusive evidence to support these claims.

b. Disappearance

In September Vue Mai, a Hmong leader who in November 1992 had returned voluntarily to Laos from a refugee camp in Thailand to seek a settlement site for his family and adherents, disappeared in Vientiane. The Government said its investigation produced no solid leads, and there was no evidence to implicate LPDR officials in Vue Mai's disappearance. In 1991 Vue Mai had been evacuated from a refugee camp in Thailand. A grenade was thrown at his house in the camp after he spoke out in favor of voluntary repatriation, which the Lao insurgents have opposed.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Penal Code prohibits torture or mistreatment of prisoners, and the police do not appear to use torture or abuse during arrest and detention. Jail conditions, however, are harsh, and prisoners are routinely denied family visitations and proper medical care. Prisoners in some jails reportedly must resort to bribing their guards to obtain food and medicines.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Those accused of hostility to the regime are subject to arrest and confinement for long periods. Three former government officials continued to serve their 14-year sentences for advocating a multiparty system and criticizing restrictions on political liberties. Three men who had been detained since 1975 were serving life sentences handed down in 1992 for various crimes allegedly committed during their tenure as officials under the previous regime. Three other officials of the former government continued to remain in the remote province where they had been detained, raising questions about their freedom of movement. Reportedly in December 1992 a Lao student was detained by the Lao Embassy in Moscow for his alleged opposition to the LPRP and then flown against his will under official escort to Laos, where he was detained for 7 days and then released. The Constitution and Penal Code contain some protection for those accused of crimes, such as a statute of limitations; however, these protections have not been effectively implemented. Arrests, trials, and convictions are frequently not announced, making it impossible to obtain exact figures of the number of political prisoners. People may be arrested on unsupported accusations and without being informed of the charges or of the accusers' identities. Those accused of what the Government calls "socially undesirable habits" such as prostitution, drug abuse, and vagrancy are subject to arrest and detention in "rehabilitation centers," usually without public trial. Most of those sent to rehabilitation centers are allowed to return home after a confinement that typically includes forced labor, political indoctrination, and admission of guilt.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although regulations call for judgment to be given in public, this amounts to public announcement of the sentence and not a true public trial. There is some provision for appeal, and the Council of Ministers must approve death sentences. Reportedly there is also high-level review of other important political cases. Under the Constitution, judges and prosecutors are supposed to be independent and their decisions not subject to outside scrutiny. In practice, the courts appear to accept recommendations of other government agencies, especially the MOI, in making their decisions. While in theory government-provided legal counsel is available to the accused, in fact persons accused of crimes must defend themselves without outside legal assistance. The Government suspended the bar in late 1992, pending the introduction of rules regarding the fees and activities of private lawyers. The few private lawyers in Laos may still provide legal counsel, at least on civil cases, but they may not set themselves up as attorneys-at-law. In civil and commercial matters, the Government is promoting the rule of law, often with technical support from Western donors. As indicated above, the Government has been developing a legal system with a codified body of laws dealing with contracts, companies, foreign investment, private property, civil procedure, inheritance, labor, and family, and a Penal Code. In 1993 the Government began publishing an official gazette, which for the first time provides a systematic means for disseminating laws, decrees, and regulations. Recently the Ministry of Justice added a fourth year of studies to the law program that trains the nation's future magistrates and judges. Courts are being established at the district level, often for the first time.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

Concomitant with liberalization of the economy, the Government has relaxed some elements of state control, including police monitoring of personal and business activities and enforcement of the nighttime curfew. However, while the Constitution prohibits arrests or searches in homes without warrants or authorization, search and seizure continue to be authorized by the security bureaus themselves rather than by judicial authority. The Government and the party continue to monitor some aspects of family life through a system of neighborhood and workplace committees. The neighborhood committees have responsibility for maintaining public order in their neighborhood and reporting "bad elements" to the police. These committees usually concern themselves more with street crime and instances of moral turpitude rather than with political activism. In 1992 the MOI began making late-night inspections of households to insure that all those in the house were registered with the police. Those found unregistered were often detained for several days. The Government also began reinstating workers' committees among Lao employees of embassies and international organizations. The committees are charged with conducting political training and maintaining discipline among employees. The Penal Code outlaws listening to telephone calls without proper authorization, but the security bureaus themselves probably have the right to make such authorization. As far as is known, monitoring of international mail and telephone calls continues. Under the new land decree, the "national community" owns all land. Private "ownership" is in the form of land use certificates. The Government has lifted restrictions on the sale of such certificates and has implemented a decree to return property confiscated after 1975 to those original owners who repatriate to Laos. However, in cases where the property is now used as housing by government officials, the petitions to have property returned remain in litigation, and the 30-some officials of the former government who were convicted in absentia in 1975 are not eligible. A 1990 decree confiscated their property.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Despite the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the exercise of these freedoms is broadly controlled by the Government. The Government reacts harshly to expressions of political dissent. As noted above, three persons arrested in 1990 for reportedly advocating a multiparty system each received 14-year sentences. The Penal Code bars slandering the State, including distorting party or state policies, and spreading false rumors conducive to disorder. It also bars disseminating books and other materials that are deemed indecent or that would infringe on the national culture. In January the Government released from jail and expelled from the country two Americans who had been separately arrested the previous fall, allegedly for having imported politically sensitive and pornographic materials and for taking pictures in off-limits areas and bearing false documents. Newspapers, radio, and television are instruments of the Government, reflecting its views. The Government has traditionally sought to control the flow of information from abroad, and there are limitations on the importation of foreign publications, though some Thai and Western newspapers and magazines are sold. The Government makes no effort to discourage reception of Thai radio or television broadcasts, which are widely listened to and watched in the Mekong river valley. In Vientiane, the capital, satellite television receiving dishes have proliferated in the yards of foreign residents and others who can afford them. Video rental stores operate largely without restrictions in most Lao cities, although such stores are prohibited from carrying pornographic or politically inflammatory material. Academic freedom remains tightly controlled. Lao academicians are sometimes denied permission to travel abroad for conferences or training. The Government also restricts and monitors the activities of Western scholars doing research in Laos.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Government controls and organizes most large public gatherings except for religious, athletic, and communal events. The Penal Code expressly prohibits demonstrations or protest marches aimed at causing turmoil and social instability, prescribing penalties of from 1 to 5 years' imprisonment. Unspecified "destabilizing subversive activities" are also banned. Although the Constitution specifies the right of Lao citizens to organize and join associations, all associations are party controlled and disseminate official policy. Contact between ordinary Lao and foreigners have increased in recent years as restrictions, such as the requirement for government approval of invitations to most foreigners' homes, are no longer enforced. The prohibition against foreigners staying with Lao families has also been eased in urban areas, and the Government allows Lao citizens to marry foreigners as long as government approval of the marriage is obtained first. Marriages conducted without government approval may be annulled and the foreign spouse subject to fine or arrest. Other restrictions on association with foreigners still apply. Government officials require government approval to travel in other countries. The Government sometimes requires that diplomats hire domestic help only from a list provided by the Government. Restrictions on foreigners traveling upcountry appear aimed in part at forestalling contact with insurgent groups or at preventing religious proselytizing.

c. Freedom of Religion

In official statements the Government has recognized the right to freedom of religion as well as the contributions religion can make to the development of the nation, and the Constitution contains provisions for religious freedom. However, the Government continues to restrict freedom of religion, especially for non-Buddhists. Links with coreligionists and religious associations in other countries require government approval. The Government does not formally ban missionaries from entering Laos to proselytize but almost always denies them permission to enter. Many resident foreigners are active in Lao churches and provide assistance in setting up new churches. The Government welcomes nongovernmental organizations with religious affiliations as long as they contribute to national development and do not proselytize openly. All Christian seminaries were closed by the new Government in 1975, and they have not reopened. Those wishing to enter the priesthood must study privately with priests or ministers. Almost all Protestant ministers are lay preachers. Even so, Roman Catholics and Protestants are permitted to worship openly, and new churches have opened since 1990. About a dozen Catholic and Protestant churches are active in Vientiane, with many other churches scattered throughout the country. Although many highland Lao are animists, and there are Christian and Moslem minorities, nearly all lowland Lao are Buddhists. Having restructured the Buddhist organizations after coming to power in 1975, the Government now tolerates and encourages the open practice of Buddhism, and it has openly supported Buddhist organizations in the last few years. High-ranking government officials routinely attend Buddhist functions, and Buddhist clergy are prominently featured at important state and party functions. The Government permits religious festivals without hindrance. Many temples are being repaired and restored, and the number of Buddhist monks has increased in recent years; about 30,000 are now practicing in Laos.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Government retains the right to require citizens to obtain official permission for internal travel, and foreign residents in Vientiane must obtain permission to travel outside the prefecture. Similar restrictions apply to foreign tourists except when their travel in Laos is with an officially sanctioned tour group. In contrast, most Lao may easily obtain passports and exit permits from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for travel abroad. Border-crossing permits for Lao to visit Thailand are routinely available from local village committees for a modest issuance fee. Travel to the United States and other Western countries has risen dramatically in the past several years. In recent years the number of Lao emigrating to live with relatives abroad has increased sharply, and the Government does not appear to interfere with persons desiring to emigrate. The stated government policy since 1977 has been to welcome back the approximately 10 percent of the population who fled after the change of governments in 1975 (except for the 30-some persons convicted in absentia; see Section l.f.). Since 1988 thousands of Lao living abroad have returned to visit family and friends. A number of Lao have returned to investigate business possibilities, and several have remained to operate businesses. Almost 19,000 Lao have voluntarily returned to Laos since 1980 under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), including some 4,200 in 1993. Perhaps another 30,000 have repatriated without official involvement. About 30,000 Lao refugees and asylum seekers remain in Thailand; and another 1,700 in China. Laos, Thailand, and the UNHCR are cooperating on a phased return of the hilltribe Lao remaining in Thailand who wish to return to Laos. This program includes provisions for the careful monitoring of returnees to ensure they are given the same rights and treatment as resident Lao. According to the UNHCR and voluntary agencies that work with it, returnees have not been the subject of discrimination or persecution and are allowed back with all the belongings they accumulated while outside of Laos.

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 secret ballots and universal suffrage in the public election of National Assembly members. The Assembly elects the President, and it is beginning to assert itself on matters that do not affect the fundamentals of the political system. However, because the LPRP continues to dominate government and politics, there is no structured way in which citizens could remove the LPRP from power. Its primacy is set forth in the Constitution. All candidates for the National Assembly election in December 1992 had to be approved by the party, no other parties were permitted to organize, and voting was mandatory. Nevertheless, the Assembly does include a number of non-LPRP members.

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 to be permitted to operate at all. Laos generally does not cooperate with international human rights organizations. The Government has, however, permitted visits by officials of international humanitarian organizations and has communicated with them by letter.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status


There is no pattern of widespread domestic or culturally approved violence against women, and reports of sexual harassment are rare. But lowland Lao and especially some hilltribes tend to hold women in lower esteem than men. Traditionally, women in Lao society have been subservient to men and have often been discouraged from obtaining an education, in part because some families tend to keep school-age daughters at home to tend to domestic duties. The Government claims a higher percentage of girls are in school now than before 1975 and that women are being encouraged to assume a greater role in economic and political activity. The Government relies on the Women's Union and youth organizations to educate girls and young women against the schemes of recruiters for brothels and sweatshops in Bangkok and elsewhere. Many women occupy responsible positions in government and private business, and in urban areas their income is often higher than that of their husbands. Yet only 7 of the 78 members of the National Assembly are women, the 53-member Central Committee has only 2 women on it, and there are no women on the Politburo or Council of Ministers.


Physical abuse of children is rare, although many drop out of school at an early age, and children commonly work on their families' farms and shops. The Government is concerned about the welfare of Lao children, but in light of many pressing demands on very limited resources, it has not committed the funding or personnel needed to implement its good intentions effectively.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Approximately one-half of the population is ethnic Lao, also called "lowland Lao," and most of the other half is a mosaic of upland hilltribes. There are also ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese, particularly in the towns. Their rights to Lao citizenship are uncertain as long as the law on nationality, which would convey that right, remains unimplemented. The Constitution provides for equal rights for all minorities, and there is no legal discrimination against them. The Government attempts to integrate the hilltribes through voluntary programs and to overcome traditional antagonisms and prejudice between lowland Lao and minority groups. While the Government encourages the preservation of minority cultures and traditions, minority tribes have virtually no voice in government decisions affecting their lands and the allocation of natural resources. The party and the Government continue to be dominated by lowland Lao males, though efforts have been made to include minorities in the political and governmental elites. The Minister of the Interior is a member of an ethnic minority, but there are no minorities represented on the Politburo and only five on the Central Committee. The Hmong, the largest highland tribe, are split along clan lines. During the Vietnam war, many were strongly anti-Communist while others sided with the Lao and Vietnamese Communists. The Government has repressed many of those who fought against it, especially those perceived to be still resisting its authority. On the other hand, many Hmong who supported the Lao Communists before 1975 today occupy important positions in the Government, and an increasing number of Hmong who fled the country after 1975 have repatriated back to Laos without suffering persecution by the Government.

People with Disabilities

There is no outright discrimination against people with disabilities. Neither is there any government assistance, save for casualties of the revolutionary war that brought the Government to power. Typically, the family and the community take responsibility for the disabled. Unless severely disabled, such children attend public schools despite the absence of special facilities for them. Provision of accessibility for disabled persons has not been mandated legislatively or otherwise.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Although the Constitution provides citizens the right to organize and join associations, all associations are party controlled and disseminate official policy (see Section 2.b.). An estimated 85 percent of Lao are subsistence farmers. Among salaried workers, the majority are employed by the State, though this has been changing as the Government privatizes state enterprises and encourages private investors to open new factories. In response to the emerging private sector, the Government in 1990 adopted a Labor Code that permits labor unions to be formed in the private enterprises so 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. The extent to which the FLTU is free to engage in contacts and activities with foreign labor organizations is unknown.

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

There is no right to organize and bargain collectively. Wages and salaries for government employees are set by the Government, while wages and salaries for private business employees are set by management. The Labor Code stipulates that disputes should be resolved through workplace committees composed of employers, representatives of the local labor union, and representatives of the FLTU, with final authority at the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare. The incidence of labor disputes has risen with the increase in foreign investment. 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. In practice, however, prisoners in work camps must do manual labor, including growing their own food. They are routinely required to work on nearby state and private enterprises without wages.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Under the Labor Code, children under 15 may not be recruited for employment. Because many children help their families on farms or in shops, the Labor Code allows younger children to work for their families, provided they do not engage in dangerous or difficult work. Employment of children in industry is not widespread, although it is common in urban shops. The MOI and Ministry of Justice are responsible for enforcing these provisions, but enforcement is ineffective owing 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 has provisions for a broad range of worker entitlements, including a workweek limited to 48 hours (36 in dangerous activities) and safe working conditions. The Labor Code requires employers to provide a safe work environment and offers special compensation for dangerous work. Employers are supposed to provide all expenses for a worker injured or killed on the job. The government-stipulated daily minimum wage is $1.39 (1,000 kip), effective December 1992, which is insufficient to provide a decent standard of living for a worker and his family. However, almost no families in the monetized economy depend only on one breadwinner. Some piecework employees, especially on construction sites, make less than the minimum wage. In April the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare announced that employers would have 30 days to comply with Labor Code provisions on minimum wage, overtime, leave, social security, and health care, and that it would periodically inspect workplaces to ensure compliance. Despite its intentions, the understaffed Ministry lacks effective enforcement mechanisms, and the Labor Code is not effectively enforced.

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