U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Laos

    The Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) is an authoritarian, one-party state ruled by the Communist Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The Ministry of the Interior (MOI) remains the main instrument of state control. MOI police maintain order and monitor Lao society and foreign nationals, including foreign officials and diplomats. The degree of surveillance varies from province to province. Laos is an extremely poor country. After the LPRP came to power in 1975, at least 350,000 people fled the country to escape the Government's harsh political and economic policies. Since 1986 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. Citizens do not have the right to change their government. Even with ongoing economic liberalization, the adoption of a Constitution in 1991, and National Assembly elections in 1993, the Government only slowly eased restrictions on basic freedoms. Many of the rights stipulated in the Constitution have not been codified with implementing legislation. In practice, the Government restricts the freedoms of speech, assembly, and, to a lesser extent, religion, even though they are provided for in the Constitution. In 1994 the Government eased domestic travel restrictions. Laotians do not have the right to privacy and do not enjoy a free press.


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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There continued to be occasional killings in the course of a long-running, low-level insurgency north of Vientiane where the Hmong ethnic group predominates. Antigovernment groups abroad have claimed repeatedly that the Lao Government employs chemical weapons against those who oppose it. Extensive investigation of these allegations has produced no conclusive evidence to substantiate the claims. The road ambush is a common manifestation of the insurgency. In May an Australian hydrologist and five Lao civilians were killed when their vehicles were attacked. In June four Lao civilians were reportedly taken from their vehicles in an ambush on Route 13 north and killed. In October two Lao soldiers shot two Hmong males when the latter strayed into a restricted military zone. The Government arrested the soldiers, who at last report remained in detention. In November the resistance reportedly killed two villagers for collaborating with the army. In December unknown assailants killed four Lao civilian employees of the U.N. Drug Control Program after their vehicle was stopped in an ambush. It is often unclear whether the ambushers are politically motivated insurgents or economically motivated bandits.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances. In September 1993, Vue Mai, a Hmong leader who in November 1992 returned voluntarily to Laos from a refugee camp in Thailand, disappeared in Vientiane. There is no clear explanation for his disappearance, and the Government has stated its investigation is continuing.

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

The Penal Code prohibits torture or mistreatment of prisoners, and the Government generally observed this principle in practice. However, there were at least two incidents in which police may have used excessive force during arrest. Jail conditions are harsh, but not life threatening. Prison authorities deny some prisoners regular family visits, and medical care ranges from inadequate to nonexistent. Inmates sometimes resort to bribing their guards to obtain food and medicines. There is no independent monitoring of prison conditions. Prison conditions for women are fundamentally similar to those for men. The extent of sexual harassment in prison is unknown but is not believed to be a serious problem.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution and Penal Code provide some protections for those accused of crimes, such as a statute of limitations, but the Government does not fully respect these provisions. Those accused of hostility toward the regime are subject to arrest and confinement for long periods. Three former government officials are serving 14-year sentences handed down in 1992 for advocating a multiparty system and criticizing restrictions on political liberties. The same year, three men detained since 1975 were sentenced to life terms for crimes allegedly committed during their tenure as officials under the previous regime. The Government claims that three other officials of the former government released in 1992 have chosen to remain in the same remote province where they and the six prisoners mentioned above were held. Citizens do not have the protection of due process and may be arrested based on unsupported accusations, without being informed of the charges or of the accusers' identities. The Government resorts less frequently to detention without due process for those accused of social crimes such as prostitution, drug abuse, and gambling. Some jurisdictions are stricter than others in this regard. The Government does not use forced exile as a means of political control.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although regulations provide for public trial, this usually amounts to public announcement of the sentence and not a true public trial. The trial of the three former government officials now serving 14-year sentences was not open to the public and the court's verdict was announced ex post facto, raising serious questions about both the nature of their alleged crime and the apparent lack of due process (see Section 1.d.). In 1994 there was at least one instance of a public trial of four persons accused of various common crimes. Politically sensitive trials have not been open to the public. There is provision for appeal to the provincial courts and the Supreme Court. Senior government and party officials reportedly also review sensitive political cases. The Constitution provides for the independence of judges and prosecutors and protects their decisions from outside scrutiny. In practice, however, the courts appear to accept recommendations of other government agencies, especially the MOI, in making their decisions. The Constitution provides that all accused persons have the right to defend themselves and that the Board of Legal Counselors has the right to provide legal assistance to the accused. The Government suspended the Board 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 for civil cases, but they may not establish themselves as attorneys-at-law. Arrests, trials, and convictions are usually unannounced, making it impossible to obtain exact figures of the number of political prisoners. However, anecdotal reporting suggests that their ranks, reduced substantially by the closure of reeducation camps in the 1980's, continued to decrease in recent years. The exact number of political prisoners at year's end was unknown but might total several hundred.

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

Concomitant with economic liberalization, the Government relaxed some elements of state control, including its rigorous police monitoring of personal and business activities and enforcement of the nighttime curfew. However, while the Constitution prohibits arrests or searches in homes without possessing a warrant or authorization, the security bureaus authorize search and seizure by themselves rather than by judicial authority. The Government and the party continue to monitor the citizenry sporadically through a system of neighborhood and workplace committees. The neighborhood committees also have responsibility for maintaining public order and reporting "bad elements" to the police. These committees usually concern themselves more with street crime and instances of moral turpitude than with political activism. The degree of surveillance and control varies from province to province. The Penal Code forbids telephone monitoring without proper authorization, but the security bureaus are believed to authorize such monitoring themselves. Monitoring of international mail and telephone calls continued, although the increasing number of such calls limited its extent. The 1991 Constitution stipulates that the "national community" owns all land. Private "ownership" is in the form of land use certificates, which can be bought, sold, and transferred to heirs. Many Lao who fled the country after 1975 regained confiscated property after demonstrating their intent to repatriate.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Despite the constitutional provisions for freedom of speech and the press, the Government exerts broad control over the exercise of these freedoms and has reacted harshly to expressions of political dissent. As noted in Section 1.d., three persons arrested in 1990 after persisting in public criticism of party policies and calling for fundamental political and economic change each received 14-year sentences in 1992. The Penal Code forbids slandering the State, distorting party or state policies, and spreading false rumors conducive to disorder. It also prohibits disseminating books and other materials that authorities deem indecent or that would assail the national culture. All domestically produced newspapers and radio and television are controlled by the Government. Local news in all media reflect government policy; however, foreign news reports, including those from Western sources, are usually translated without bias. In recent years the Government has relaxed efforts to control the flow of information from abroad, and Thai and Western newspapers and magazines are sold in the towns where there is demand for them. 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, where the majority of the Lao population lives. In 1994 a Thai company inaugurated a new Lao-language television station in Vientiane, but the Government prescreens its programming. The Government requires registration of television satellite receiving dishes and payment of a one-time licensing fee on their installation, but otherwise makes no effort to restrict their use. In 1994 the Government announced restrictions on videocassette imports and exports and the opening of new video shops. The Government prohibits pornographic or politically inflammatory videocassettes. In November the Vientiane municipal party committee imposed restrictions governing the content of music played in night clubs and outlawed karaoke. It took these steps to strengthen Lao culture against erosion by foreign influences, but was lax enforcing these restrictions. The Government restricts academic freedom. Lao academicians are sometimes denied permission to travel abroad for conferences or training. Invitations to visit and collaborate with foreign colleagues must be approved by the Lao employer and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Government also restricts 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 prohibits demonstrations or protest marches aimed at causing turmoil and social instability, prescribing penalties of from 1 to 5 years' imprisonment. The Government also bans undefined "destabilizing subversive activities." Although the Constitution provides citizens with the right to organize and join associations, all associations are party controlled and disseminate official policy. Foreigners are not allowed to engage in political activity or religious proselytizing. However, contact between ordinary Lao and foreigners has increased in recent years as restrictions, such as the requirement for government approval of invitations to most foreigners' homes, are no longer enforced. The Government has eased the prohibition against foreigners staying with Lao families in urban areas, and allows Lao citizens to marry foreigners but only with prior government approval. Marriages without government approval may be annulled, with the foreign spouse subject to fine or arrest.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution contains provisions for religious freedom. In practice the Government continues to restrict freedom of religion, especially for Christians. Links with coreligionists and religious associations in other countries require government approval. Although the Government permits foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) with religious affiliations to work in Laos, it prohibits proselytizing. The Government also restricts the import of foreign religious publications. The enforcement of these regulations vary by province. For example, the Catholic Church is unable to operate in the highlands and much of the north, but Catholics can openly attend churches and chapels in southern Laos. Protestants operate over 100 churches throughout the country. There were unconfirmed reports that local authorities detained some clergy for allegedly criticizing other religions and harassed, arrested, and jailed other clergy merely because they were Christians. The persistence of such reports underscores the continuing suspicion on the part of authorities toward the local Christian community. By comparison, the Government openly encourages Buddhism and supports Buddhist organizations. High-ranking government officials routinely attend religious functions, and Buddhist clergy are prominently featured at important state and party functions. The Government permits Buddhist festivals without hindrance.

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

In 1994 the Government lifted domestic travel restrictions for citizens and foreign visitors except in unspecified prohibited or insecure areas. Most Lao can easily obtain passports and exit permits from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for personal travel abroad. Border crossing permits for Lao to visit Thailand are routinely available from local village committees for a modest issuance fee, and the Government does not appear to interfere with persons desiring to emigrate. Except for around 30 persons convicted in absentia in 1975 for antigovernment activities, citizens have the right of return. The stated government policy since 1977 is to welcome back the approximately 10 percent of the population which fled after the change of government in 1975. In recent years an increasing number of Lao living abroad returned to visit; several remained to operate businesses. Laos, Thailand, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are cooperating on the return of the Lao asylum seekers in Thai camps who volunteer to return to Laos. This program includes provisions for monitoring returnees to ensure they are given the same rights and treatment as resident Lao. According to the UNHCR and voluntary agencies, returnees are not subject to discrimination or persecution, and are allowed back with all the belongings they accumulated while outside Laos. There were no forcible repatriations from Laos in 1994; however, more than 5,000 Lao voluntarily repatriated to Laos. No new Lao asylum seekers arrived in Thailand.

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 the public election of National Assembly members. All candidates had to have the approval of the LPRP before they could stand for the December 1992 National Assembly elections, no other parties were allowed, and voting was mandatory. However, not all candidates were LPRP members and a few non-party candidates won seats. Despite constitutional provisions for equality, women do not play a significant role in government. Only 8 of the 85 members of the National Assembly are women, the 52-member LPRP Central Committee includes only 2 women, and there are no women in the Politburo or the Council of Ministers. Lowland Lao males dominate the upper echelons of the party and Government. Nonetheless, the Prime Minister, a deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of the Interior, and 23 members of the National Assembly are believed to be members of ethnic minority groups. Members of these minorities often adopt lowland Lao names as they are increasingly assimilated into mainstream Lao society, thus making it difficult to ascertain accurately the number of ethnic minorities in any organization.

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 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 exchanged correspondence with them.

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

The Constitution provides for equal treatment under the law for all Lao citizens without regard to sex, social status, education, faith, or ethnicity.


There is no pattern of widespread domestic violence against women, and reportedly sexual harassment and rape are rare. In cases of rape that do go to court, rapists are generally prosecuted. The Constitution provides for equal rights for women, and the Lao Women's Union, a party-sanctioned organization, operates nationally to promote the position of women in Lao society. However, traditional culturally-based discrimination persists, especially among lowland Lao and some hill tribes. 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 Thailand and elsewhere. The Government has prosecuted some persons for involvement in such recruiting activities and appears willing to take action against organized prostitution. Many women occupy responsible positions in the civil service and private business, and in urban areas their income is often higher than that of men. The Family Code prohibits legal discrimination in marriage and inheritance.


Violence against other persons, including children, is prohibited by law. Reportedly physical abuse of children is rare. Government expenditures are inadequate for children's basic health and educational needs, and Laos' limited resources do not suggest any rapid expansion of funds to meet those needs.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The Constitution provides for equal rights for all minorities, and there is no legal discrimination against them. However, societal discrimination persists. Approximately half the population is ethnic Lao, also called "lowland Lao," and most of the remainder is a mosaic of diverse upland hill tribes who are Lao citizens if born in Laos. There are also ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese minorities, particularly in the towns. The implementation in 1994 of the 1990 Law on Nationality provided a means for these Vietnamese and Chinese minorities to regularize Lao citizenship. While the Government encourages the preservation of minority cultures and traditions, minority tribes have little voice in government decisions affecting their lands and the allocation of natural resources. Hill tribe interaction with the Government is limited by poor transportation and communication links and a shortage of government resources. The Hmong are the largest and most prominent highland tribe. They split along clan lines during the Vietnam war: many were strongly anti-Communist while others sided with the Lao and Vietnamese Communists. The Government repressed many of those who fought against it, especially those perceived to be still resisting its authority. Reports of abuse, discrimination, and heavy-handed tactics continue to emanate from Hmong who live in or near areas of armed resistance. Nevertheless, an increasing number of Hmong who fled the country after 1975 have repatriated to Laos without suffering persecution.

People with Disabilities

With donor assistance, the Government is implementing limited programs for the disabled. The law does not mandate accessibility to buildings or government services for disabled persons.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Although the Constitution provides citizens with the right to organize and join associations, the party controls all associations and all conform to official party policy (see Section 2.b.). Subsistence farmers comprise an estimated 85 percent of the work force. The State employs the majority of salaried workers, although this is changing as the Government reduces the number of its employees and privatizes state enterprises, and as foreign investors open new factories. Under the 1990 Labor Code, labor unions can be formed in private enterprises as 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. Most of the FLTU's 80,000 members work in the public sector, overwhelmingly as public servants. Strikes are effectively, but not categorically, forbidden and none occurred in 1994. With advice from the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Government revised its Labor Code in an effort to clarify rights and obligations of workers and employers. The Government agreed to the posting by the ILO of a foreign expert to work with the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare. The extent to which the FLTU is free to engage in contacts and affiliate with foreign labor organizations is unknown.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

There is no right to organize and bargain collectively. The Labor Code stipulates that disputes be resolved through workplace committees composed of employers, representatives of the local labor union, and representatives of the FLTU, with final authority residing in the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare. The incidence of labor disputes is low. The Government sets wages and salaries for government employees, while management sets wages and salaries for private business employees. The Labor Code stipulates that employers may not fire employees for conducting trade union activities or for lodging complaints against employers about labor law implementation or for cooperating with officials on labor law implementation and labor disputes. Workplace committees are one mechanism used for resolving complaints. 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.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Under the Labor Code, children under 15 may not be recruited for employment. However, many children help their families on farms or in shops. The Labor Code accordingly provides that younger children may work for their families, provided they are not engaged in dangerous or difficult work. Such employment of children is common in urban shops, but rare in industrial enterprises. 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), safe working conditions, and higher compensation for dangerous work. The Code also provides for at least 1 day of rest per week for employees. Employers are supposed to cover all expenses for a worker injured or killed on the job, a requirement generally fulfilled by employers in the formal economic sector. The daily minimum wage is $1.39 (1,000 kip), which is insufficient to provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. Most civil servants face the problem of inadequate pay. However, few families in the monetized economy depend on only one breadwinner. Some piecework employees, especially on construction sites, make less than the minimum wage. Although workplace inspections reportedly increased, the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare lacks the personnel and budgetary resources to enforce the Labor Code effectively. The Labor Code has no specific provision allowing workers to remove themselves from a dangerous situation without jeopardizing their employment.

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