Sombath Somphone remains missing after being forced into a car in Vientiane in 2012. (Photo: YouTube)
On a December day in 2012, Sombath Somphone, an internationally renowned community development worker, was traveling in his car when he was stopped by police at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
Sombath, a critic of certain government policies and alleged corruption, was forced into another car and driven away, based on CCTV footage at the scene. Eight years later, he remains missing. Laotian authorities have professed to know nothing about his whereabouts.
Sombath’s case has garnered plenty of attention internationally over the years, yet the human rights record of the communist holdout has got even worse since his disappearance, rights activists say. Rights violations remain commonplace with citizens facing harassment and arrest over even trivial matters.
“Human rights conditions in Laos have not improved; in fact, they have gotten worse,” said Bounthone Chanthalavong-Weiser, president of the Germany-based rights group Alliance for Democracy in Laos.
Citizens of Laos, one of Asia’s poorest countries, are at risk of being imprisoned for years or made to disappear altogether if they voice criticisms of local authorities who seek to suppress all forms of public dissent, activists say.
“The Lao people have no freedom to speak out against the government or against its wrongdoing,” Bounthone told Radio Free Asia last week. “Those who dare [speak out] are arrested and severely punished.”
Rights activists say that rights violations in the mountainous country of 7.2 million people are so routine that the country’s record is abysmal even by the low standards that pertain around Southeast Asia.
Freedom of speech is essentially non-existent and the local press is heavily censored. Citizens have taken to social media for more reliable news, yet they can land in trouble for making even relatively innocuous statements online, according to rights advocates.
In one high-profile case, Houayheuang Xayabouly, a young woman who worked as a tour guide, was arrested in September 2018 for making critical comments in a Facebook Live video about the government’s response to a severe flood that ensued when a shoddily constructed dam collapsed, devastating several villages in the southern region.
After seeing the devastation wrought in the villages and learning from villagers that the government had offered them no meaningful recompense, Houayheuang decided to speak out on their behalf on social media.
“I cannot be silent as we have been in the past. The era of the regime keeping the eyes and mouths of the people closed has come to an end,” she said in the broadcast on Facebook.
In response, the Laotian woman, 32, who is the mother of a five-year-old child, was sentenced to five years in prison for defamation. She was also slapped with a fine of 20 million Laotian kip (US$2,200), a fortune for most Laotian citizens in a nation where most salaries are under 1 million kip.
Enforced disappearances also continue with impunity. In August last year, for instance, Od Sayavong, 34, a political refugee who was a prominent critic of the Lao government and fled to Thailand to avoid arrest, disappeared in Bangkok without a trace. His whereabouts remain unknown.
Rights activists say that Od was likely kidnapped and possibly murdered by agents of the Laotian government over his activism as he was a member of a loose network of Laotian migrant workers and activists living in exile who call themselves the Free Lao group.
“The Lao government has arbitrarily arrested and detained activists and those deemed critical of the government,” Human Rights Watch says. “The penal code effectively gives the authorities sweeping powers to prosecute dissidents. Harsh prison sentences range from up to five years for anti-government propaganda to 15 years for journalists who fail to file ‘constructive reports’ or who seek to ‘obstruct’ the work of the government,” the rights group adds.
Nor are religious freedoms guaranteed in the communist country.
Christians in Laos, who comprise a small minority in the predominantly Buddhist nation, have routinely been targeted because of their faith, which Lao authorities have long portrayed as an alien creed imported by European colonizers.
Christians have been arrested and subjected to “re-education” sessions simply for holding or participating in religious services. As a result, many of them seek to hide their faith for fear of being harassed or detained. “Religious freedom is viewed as a threat to the [communist] regime in power,” the European Parliament has noted.
Open Doors, a non-profit group that monitors the persecution of Christians worldwide, concurs.
“In Laos, Christianity is branded as a harmful Western influence which challenges the nation’s communist values. Government officials use society’s hostile attitude towards Christians to justify monitoring believers,” says Open Doors.
“Believers in rural areas deviate from Buddhist and tribal customs and are therefore viewed as a potential danger to the community. Converts are rejected from their families and are often arrested, punished or marginalized by local authorities. Hostility has even extended to visiting Christians who risk being detained and deported for sharing their faith.”