Pha That Luang temple in Vientiane. (Photo: Wikipedia)
A prominent rights activist has called on the communist government of Laos to release political activists who were detained last year for allegedly planning to participate in a pro-democracy rally in capital Vientiane.
“Lao authorities should without delay release all the activists being detained for planning a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration and permit the rally to take place,” Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a newly released statement.
“These wrongful arrests are just the latest example of the government’s phony pledges to donor agencies and foreign governments that it will respect fundamental liberties.”
At least seven activists of the pro-democracy grassroots movement Lao National Unity were arrested on Nov. 12 last year by the authorities over their alleged plan to stage a rally in Vientiane.
The event had by then been canceled by the group because of increased surveillance and harassment of activists by police.
The seven activists have since been held at undisclosed locations, which has raised fears that they might have been subjected to so-called enforced disappearances whereby authorities dispose of political opponents and rights activists via extrajudicial means.
Many other pro-democracy activists in Laos could also have been seized without the knowledge of rights activists abroad, according to Human Rights Watch.
“The actual number of people being detained might be much higher,” the rights group says. “Dozens of people who planned to participate in the rally have been reported missing since November 11, and their families have not yet located them.”
Although Laos is a party to the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, authorities routinely arrest anyone who calls for democratic freedoms or so much as criticizes the country’s autocratic government.
Laos has no free press and any form of dissent is labeled a threat to national security. The country also severely curtails religions freedoms, and local Christians, who account for around 3 percent of the population and half of whom are Catholic, face routine harassment from authorities.
Christianity is widely portrayed as an alien religion that was introduced into the landlocked nation of seven million by foreign colonizers via French and American missionaries who operated in the country before the communist Pathet Lao (Lao Nation” movement seized power in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War.
In recent years numerous Christians have been arrested merely for practicing their religion, especially during prominent holidays such as Christmas, according to foreign rights groups.
The villagers were seized and later released by authorities on grounds that they had assembled without official permits or violated other laws.
However, constant discrimination and social ostracism have not stopped Christians from continuing to adhere to their faith and practice religious rites, often in secret, foreign observers say.
“The communist regime tightly controls every aspect of religious life in Laos. The government has passed laws that make it difficult to build churches or conduct religious activities,” stated Open Doors USA, a global network dedicated to raising awareness of the plight of persecuted Christians worldwide.
“Even 75 percent of all government-approved Lao Evangelical Church congregations do not have permanent church structures and are forced to conduct worship services in homes.”
Yet despite such routine rights violations as the arrest of pro-democracy campaigners and religious believers, Laos escapes censure internationally, with little attention being paid by foreign governments to goings-on inside the repressive communist nation.
“Laos should not be seen as a postcard country whose serious rights abuses the world can simply ignore,” stressed Adams of Human Rights Watch.
“Governments and international agencies should press Lao authorities to immediately release all detained activists and end the persecution of the government’s critics.”