Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The law provides for freedom of speech and press, but the government severely restricted political speech and writing and prohibited most public criticism it deemed harmful to its reputation.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: The law provides citizens the right to criticize the government but also 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, which civil society considered was a direct result of Sombath Somphone’s disappearance. The chilling effect of the disappearance of an internationally respected civil society advocate caused lesser-known local activists to believe they had little hope of avoiding a similar fate if they were too outspoken.
In 2015 police arrested Bounthanh Thammavong, a Polish citizen of Lao heritage, for a posting on Facebook and 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”‘ under Article 65 of the penal code and sentenced him to four years and nine months in prison for “‘complaining about and carrying out activities against the regime.”‘
Press and Media Freedoms: The state owned and controlled most domestic print and electronic media. Local news in all the media reflected government policy. The government permitted publication of several privately owned periodicals of a nonpolitical nature, including ones specializing in business, society, and trade. A few foreign newspapers and magazines were available through private outlets that had government permission to sell them. In November 2015 the government issued a decree providing a legal framework to require foreign media to submit articles to the government before publication. Authorities did not indicate how the government would enforce these new controls and made no effort to enforce them.
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 (not in advance) 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 therefore tended to practice self-censorship. The Ministry of Information and Culture’s Mass Media Department did not confirm if the government disapproved any publication during the year. The Mass Media Department punishes violations through warnings, fines, and prosecution. The only punishment used during the year was in the form of warnings.
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 faced a fine of one to three times the value of the item or a maximum imprisonment of one year.
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.
In 2015 the government passed a cybercrime law designed to protect databases, server systems, and computerized information. The law criminalizes dissent and puts user privacy at risk. In 2015 authorities also arrested persons for online activities, including one who posted on Facebook photos of alleged police extortion and another who alleged a governor granted a controversial land concession to a developer (see section 2.a.).
On May 30, the Ministry of Public Security newspaper reported the results of investigations of Somphone Phimmasone and Lodkham Thammavong, who was arrested on February 22, and Soukane Chaithad, who was arrested on March 4. According to a government official, authorities charged all three for violating the 2012 Penal Code, but the government did not specify which provisions of the law. The three remained under detention in Phonthan Prison at year’s end.
A 2014 decree prohibits certain types of content on the internet, including deceptive statements, pornography, 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. A government newspaper quoted Prime Minister Thongloun as encouraging “‘young people to use the internet carefully.”‘
Many poor and rural citizens lacked access to the internet. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 20 percent of the population had access to the internet in 2015.
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. In 2014 the government initiated a policy permitting only government-run universities to award degrees, but it allowed private universities whose curricula met the standards of state schools to resume awarding degrees. The government allows citizen students to study abroad.
Both citizen and noncitizen academic professionals conducting research in the country may be subject to restrictions on travel, access to information, and publication. Although the government exercised control through requirements for exit stamps and other mechanisms affecting the ability of state-employed academic professionals to travel for research or obtain study grants, the government actively encouraged research and study opportunities worldwide and approved virtually all such proposals.
The government requires producers to submit films and music recordings produced in government studios for official review. Uncensored foreign films and music were available in video and compact disc formats. 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.
FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY
The law provides for freedom of assembly, but the government continued to restrict this right. 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. Although only charged with cybercrimes (see section 2.a.), Somphone Phimmasone, Lodkham Thammavong, and Soukane Chaithad also led a demonstration of Lao democracy advocates in Thailand in front of the Lao Embassy in Bangkok in December 2015.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The law provides citizens the right to organize and join associations, but the government continued to restrict this right. For example, political groups other than mass organizations approved by the LPRP remained prohibited. Moreover, the government occasionally tried to influence 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 decree 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 registration process continued to be time consuming. Since 2015 there has been no change in the number of registered associations: 147 national-level associations were fully registered, 22 had temporary registration, and 32 others had pending applications, while authorities approved 43 associations in the capital, and 96 associations had registration at the provincial level. During the 2015 UN universal periodic review (UPR) process, the government accepted the recommendation to reconsider decrees and guidelines that were overly burdensome on domestic and international nonprofit organizations due to lengthy and opaque registration requirements, taxation, and other problems. 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. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs Department of Treaties and Law held a meeting in September with line ministries to work on a National Action Plan to comply with the UPR.
In 2015 the Ministry of Home Affairs submitted two decrees to the Prime Minister’s Office that provide additional clarity to the registration of civil society organizations but also require the organizations to report donations to the government. Although the National Assembly and the former prime minister indicated they would approve the decrees, the vote was postponed twice during the year; however, the ministry began taking steps to ensure organizations met their annual financial reporting obligations. Prime Minister Thongloun issued Decree 315 on Management and Protection of Religious Activities in the Lao PDR dated August 16, replacing the previous Decree 92, which had been undergoing a lengthy amendment process. The decree on management of civil society organizations remained pending.
Some ministries appeared more open to engagement with civil society organizations, illustrated by an increase in invitations to attend meetings at ministries and UPR information sessions. 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/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government imposed some restrictions. 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 Buddhist or animist groups, are required to seek permission from central or provincial authorities. In 2015 authorities arrested at least two dozen citizens for traveling from one province to another while promoting Christian beliefs.
Foreign Travel: Citizens seeking to travel to contiguous areas of neighboring countries generally obtained the required permits easily from district offices. Those wishing to travel farther abroad must apply for passports.
Emigration and Repatriation: The government continued to refuse UNHCR’s request to re-establish an in-country presence, which it had in the 1990s, to monitor the reintegration of Hmong returnees from Thailand. The government maintained, however, 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. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UNHCR plans to send an inspection team to visit the country in 2017, because they were unable to schedule a visit during the year due to other obligations.
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.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS
The absence of comprehensive and timely monitoring by international organizations and independent observers made it difficult to verify the number and condition of internally displaced persons; 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 continued to relocate 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. There were no reports the government forcibly relocated villagers for development purposes; however, there were frequent reports of families displaced by 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 and the protection of stateless persons. The government did not routinely grant refugee or asylum status, but it dealt pragmatically with individual cases.