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Laos arrests rights activist for ‘political campaign’

Laos deals severely with dissidents who call for democracy and human rights
Savang Phaleuth, a human rights activist and member of the Free Laos group, is seen in this June 2022 photo

Savang Phaleuth, a human rights activist and member of the Free Laos group, is seen in this June 2022 photo. (Photo Radio Free Asia)

Published: May 11, 2023 11:50 AM GMT
Updated: May 11, 2023 12:14 PM GMT

Police in Laos have arrested a Thailand-based rights activist on the charge of ‘political campaign work’ while visiting his hometown, which critics allege is part of a series of arrests aimed at silencing dissenting voices in the communist state.

Activist Savang Phaleuth was detained while visiting his family at Done Sart village in Song Khone district on April 20 and was later taken to Savannakhet city, Radio Free Asia reported on May 9.

It quoted an unnamed source saying that Phaleuth was warned to not go into his hometown as Laos officials were on the lookout for him.

“Friends had reminded him not to go home because Lao officials have identified him,” the source said further adding that “he insisted on going.”

Phaleuth had posted content related to the pro-democracy rights group Free Laos on his social media pages.

Free Laos was established by Lao workers and residents in Thailand to promote human rights and democracy in their home country.

The details of the exact location where Phaleuth is detained or the charges against him are not known to the public, said a second unnamed source related to a high-ranking police officer in Savannakhet province.

“The police took Savang away, but I don’t know where he is detained,” the source said pointing out that the police would be questioning him for more details.

According to multiple media reports, Laos deals severely with dissidents who call for democracy and human rights. Many of the dissidents abroad are harshly punished and often forced by authorities to return to Laos.

Khoukham Keomanivong, co-founder of the Free Laos group decried the arrests of dissidents and urged the government to not treat them as traitors.

“We don’t like that the government treats people with different opinions as enemies,” Keomanivong said.

“It’s a severe abuse of human rights when people who express opinions different from the government are arrested and then disappear,” he further added.

Keomanivong was convicted last year in a closed-door trial of overstaying his visa in Thailand and was held pending deportation to Laos. He later migrated to Canada rather than Laos fearing retaliation from the Lao government.

Phaleuth’s arrest is like that of other activists who were caught by border security forces when they returned to Laos to renew their passports or were missing after detention.

In 2019, Od Sayavong a pro-democracy activist went missing under mysterious circumstances in Bangkok after posting a video clip online criticizing the government.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had listed him as a “person of concern” because of his advocacy for democracy and human rights, and to date, his whereabouts remain unknown, RFA reported.

He was 34 at the time he went missing.

In March 2016, Somphone Pimmasone, 29, Lodkham Thammavong, 30, and Soukane Chaithad, 32, were arrested after entering Laos from Thailand to renew their passports. All three were working at various locations in Thailand.

The charges leveled against the activists are criticizing the Lao government online while working abroad and taking part in a protest outside the Lao embassy in Thailand.

Rights groups have also alleged that the Laos government is downplaying attacks against pro-democracy and rights activists.

Vientiane police on Monday had stated that the April 29 shooting of a Lao political activist Jack Anousa, 25, was related to either a business or romantic dispute.

Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch and other rights groups alleged that the Lao police statement reeked of a government cover-up.

“Coming to such a quick, convenient conclusion without doing a thorough investigation is just the sort of pathetically poor performance we’ve come to expect from the Lao police,” Robertson said.

“This looks like the start of the Lao government cover-up rather than the sort of thorough and impartial investigation that is truly needed to find the shooter and anyone else connected with him,” he further added.

Anousa was the administrator of a Facebook rights group that uncovered and made public various rights abuses in the country and called on the government to end the one-party rule in Laos.

Fake news about Anousa’s death was refuted by his family with photographic evidence.

The identity of the gunman who shot Anousa remains unknown, and no arrest has been made by the police.

Bounthone Chanthalavong-Weiser, president of the Germany-based Alliance for Democracy in Laos pointed out that the shooting was politically motivated with potential government involvement.

“He was shot because he was fighting for democracy and human rights in Laos. The Lao government just doesn’t like these people,” Bounthone said.

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