Laos

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government severely restricted political speech and writing and prohibited most public criticism it deemed harmful to its reputation.

Freedom of Expression: The law provides citizens the right to criticize the government but forbids slandering the state, distorting party or state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally exercised self-censorship, particularly after the 2012 disappearance of an internationally respected civil society advocate.

In 2015 police arrested Bounthanh Thammavong, a Polish citizen of Lao heritage, for a posting on Facebook an article he published in 1997 critical of the government. The Vientiane Supreme Court found Bounthanh guilty of “disseminating propaganda against the government with the intention of undermining the state” and sentenced him to four years and nine months in prison for “complaining about and carrying out activities against the regime.”

Press and Media Freedom: The state owned and controlled most domestic print and electronic media. Local news reflected government policy. The government permitted publication of several privately owned periodicals of a nonpolitical nature, including ones specializing in business, society, and trade. By law foreign media must submit articles to the government before publication; however, authorities did not enforce these controls.

Although the government closely controlled domestic television and radio broadcasts, it did not interfere with broadcasts from abroad. Citizens had 24-hour access to international stations via satellite and cable television. The government required owners of satellite receivers to register them and pay a one-time licensing fee, largely as a revenue-generating measure, but otherwise made no effort to restrict their use.

Violence and Harassment: The government required foreign journalists to apply for special visas and restricted their activities. Authorities continued to deny journalists free access to information sources but often permitted them to travel without official escorts. When the government required escorts, they reportedly were at journalists’ expense.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Officials reviewed all articles in privately owned periodicals after publication and could penalize those whose articles did not meet government approval. Publishers and journalists were generally aware of what content the government would approve for publication and practiced self-censorship. The Ministry of Information and Culture’s Mass Media Department did not confirm if the government disapproved any publication during the year.

Authorities prohibited dissemination of materials deemed indecent, subversive of national culture, or politically sensitive. Any person found guilty of importing a publication considered offensive to national culture was subject to a fine of one to three times the value of the item or a maximum imprisonment of one year.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government controlled domestic internet servers and sporadically monitored internet usage but did not block access to websites. The government maintained infrastructure to route all internet traffic through a single gateway, thereby enabling it to monitor and restrict content. The National Internet Committee under the Prime Minister’s Office administers the internet system. The office requires internet service providers to submit quarterly reports and link their gateways to facilitate monitoring.

The cybercrime law criminalizes dissent and puts user privacy at risk. In 2015 authorities arrested persons for online activities, including one who posted photos of alleged police extortion on Facebook and another who alleged a governor granted a controversial land concession to a developer (see section 2.a.).

The government convicted several activists based on their use of Facebook to criticize the government while living in Thailand. (see Section 1.e.).

The law prohibits certain types of content on the internet, including deceptive statements, and statements against the government and party. The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications has authority to direct internet service providers to terminate internet services of users found violating the decree.

Many poor and rural citizens lacked access to the internet. According to the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 22 percent of the population had access to the internet in 2016.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The law provides for academic freedom, but the government imposed restrictions. The Ministry of Education tightly controlled curricula, including in private schools and colleges.

Both citizen and noncitizen academic professionals conducting research in the country may be subject to restrictions on travel, access to information, and publication. The government required exit stamps and other mechanisms for state-employed academic professionals to travel for research or to obtain study grants.

The government requires producers to submit films and music recordings produced in government studios for official review. The Ministry of Information and Culture attempted to limit the influence of Thai culture on local music and entertainment, but these attempts had little effect.

The law places restrictions on the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association and the government continued to restrict these rights.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

The law prohibits participation in demonstrations, protest marches, or other acts that cause turmoil or social instability. Participation in such acts is punishable by a maximum five years’ imprisonment; however, this is not strictly enforced. For example, in October a crowd of almost 2,000 persons gathered to protest outside the office of a financial company that had allegedly defrauded investors; police intervened by detaining the company’s executives but did not detain any protesters.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The government used laws that restrict citizens’ right to organize and join associations. For example, political groups other than mass organizations approved by the LPRP are prohibited. Moreover, the government occasionally influenced board membership of civil society organizations and forced some organizations to change their names to remove words it deemed sensitive, such as “rights.”

The registration process was generally burdensome, and authorities restricted NGOs’ ability to disseminate information and conduct activities without interference. By law the government regulates the registration of nonprofit civil society organizations, including economic, social welfare, professional, technical, and creative associations at the district, provincial, or national level, depending on their scope of work and membership. The government did not approve any new non-profit registration at the national level during the year, and there has been no change in the number of registered associations since 2015: 147 national-level associations were fully registered, 22 had temporary registration, and 32 others had pending applications. Taxation of civil society organizations varied from organization to organization. Taxation requirements for international and local nonprofit organizations that receive foreign funding could be cumbersome and lacked uniformity, relying heavily on prenegotiated memorandums of understanding.

On August 11, the prime minister signed Decree 238 on Non-Profit Associations, which revised and replaced the prior legislation.

Some ministries appeared more open to engagement with civil society organizations, illustrated by an increase in invitations to attend meetings at ministries. The government also invited NGOs to the National Assembly’s intersession and plenary. Despite some positive steps, civil society organizations still faced many challenges for effective civil engagement and participation.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

The government used the law to restrict freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government cooperated in some cases with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

In-country Movement: Citizens traveling for religious purposes including to minister, give advice, or visit other churches, with the exception of animist groups, are required to seek permission from central or provincial authorities. Authorities arrested and detained five Christian pastors for several weeks after crossing the border into Vietnam and re-entering the country to visit a remote community. Religious materials were found in their possession and they did not have permission to proselytize outside of their approved area. Vietnamese officials detained the group and transferred them to Lao custody because they did not have travel documents.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)

The absence of comprehensive and timely monitoring by international organizations and independent observers made it difficult to verify the number and condition of IDPs; their situation, protection, and reintegration; government restrictions on them; and their access to basic services and assistance.

The government continued to relocate some villagers to accommodate land concessions given to development projects and highland farmers, mostly from ethnic minority groups, to lowland areas under its plan to provide better access to roads and health and education services, and to end opium production and slash-and-burn agriculture. Families frequently reported that the government displaced them for government projects.

Although resettlement plans called for compensating farmers for lost land and providing resettlement assistance, in many cases villagers considered the assistance insufficient. Moreover, in some areas farmland allotted to relocated villagers was poor and unsuited for intensive rice farming. The government relied on assistance from NGOs, bilateral donors, and international organizations to cover the needs of those it resettled, but such aid was not available in all areas.

Authorities reportedly also forced a few non-Buddhist minority religious groups from their villages due to local restrictions on religious practices (see section 2.c.).

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government did not routinely grant refugee or asylum status, but it dealt pragmatically with individual cases.

The government continued to refuse UNHCR’s request to re-establish an in-country presence to monitor the reintegration of Hmong returnees from Thailand. The government maintained that UNHCR’s mandate expired in 2001 and all former refugees had successfully reintegrated. The government provided the international community access, albeit controlled, to resettlement villages.

Authorities reportedly detained refugees recognized by UNHCR, such as Kha Yang after his deportation from Thailand in 2011. Authorities did not acknowledge UNHCR requests for access to him at that time. Kha Yang’s whereabouts remained unknown.

The government’s policy, both for Hmong surrendering internally and for those returned from Thailand, was to return them to their community of origin whenever possible.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future