Laos: Rights And Freedoms

2002

Dr Nick Enfield

In the last month, the issue of human rights in Laos has come under the spotlight. In early March, the United States Department of State issued a damning Country Report on Human Rights Practices in Laos for 2001, with a number of recurring themes. Freedom of speech and religion have been highly restricted in Laos since the current government came to power, and both religious activity and political activism have been clamped down upon recently. Some 60 members of Christian churches were arrested during 2001, amid forced renunciations and closure of churches. Anti-government protests are normally unheard of, but some peaceful actions have recently taken place, and have suffered decisive suppression. One protest held in Vientiane last October by foreigners belonging to the ‘Transnational Radical Party’ resulted in arrests and jail sentences. Since then, general elections were held (on February 24), which were characteristically uneventful, given that only the ruling political party is represented.

The legal and corrective system has also come under heavy criticism, as Australians have recently been reminded, with the widespread coverage of the story of Kerry and Kay Danes’ 10 month incarceration in a Vientiane jail. The Danes reported terrifying conditions, all the more disturbing when one considers the situation of Lao prisoners who lack access to the kind of high-level assistance the Danes were able to rely on. Prison conditions in Laos are, as the Report on Human Rights describes them, ‘life threatening’. A final theme in the report is endemic corruption, which shows no signs of lessening. The official Lao press reported in March that ‘many wives of state employees, including police and soldiers, were involved in drug trafficking’, and that arrests had been for trafficking of amphetamines, heroin and currency. Despite major international assistance aimed at reduction of opium production, Laos has become the second highest opium-producing country in the world, with the second highest rate of opium addiction.

The Report on Human Rights drew a response of complete denial from the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A spokesman ‘utterly refuted’ the document, calling it ‘fabricated, unacceptable, and an interference’, and countered by reminding the United States government of the atrocities it has committed in Laos in recent history.

Of 28 suspects in the July 2000 siege on the Vang Tao immigration post at the Thai/Lao border, 26 will go free within the coming weeks. On March 19, a Thai court found the suspects guilty only of minor breaches in immigration law, convicting two defendants of the more serious charges of illegally importing weapons. The Lao suspects have applied for refugee status, while the Lao government has declared that it will pursue its request to extradite them to face more serious charges in Laos.

WATCHPOINT: The Lao authorities’ human rights performance will be further tested in their pursuit of extradition cases.

 

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