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 Speech: 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.
In late August, Champasak provincial police arrested Sangkhane Phachanthavong for criticizing the government in his Facebook posts; he was held in jail for a month. There were reports that during his confinement, he was “re-educated” and instructed to stop posting critical content.
As of November, Houayheuang (“Muay”) Xayabouly remained in prison. She was arrested in September 2019 on charges of defaming the country when she criticized on Facebook the government’s response to flooding in Champasak and Salavan Provinces, after previously using social media to criticize graft and greed among government officials. She pled guilty and in November 2019 was sentenced to five years in prison and a 20 million kip ($2,260) fine.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally exercised self-censorship, particularly after the 2012 disappearance of an internationally respected civil society advocate (see section 1.b.). NGOs said they also tried to avoid saying anything that might further delay government approval of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) needed to carry out their work. NGOs reported that citizens are taught at an early age not to criticize the government.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: 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. The government did not allow foreign news organizations to set up bureaus in the country, except those from neighboring communist states China and Vietnam. In September the army started a new television channel, reportedly funded by the Chinese government.
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.
In August, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith urged media and publishing officials to continue “defeating the fake, deceptive, and harmful news” found in social media. International media reports interpreted the prime minister’s speech as an instruction to the press not to report negatively on the government.
One domestic news outlet reported that they were told by government officials to stop investigating a controversial land use dispute.
In September the Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism (Ministry of Information) reiterated a warning to social media outlets that had not yet complied with a 2019 order to register with the government. The order required any “individual, legal entity, state or private sector” that posts news stories on social media platforms to register or face legal consequences.
The government restricted the activities of foreign journalists. Authorities denied journalists free access to information sources and at times required them to travel with official escorts.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Officials reviewed all articles in privately owned periodicals after publication and by law 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’s Mass Media Department did not confirm whether the government disapproved any publication during the year.
Authorities prohibited dissemination of materials deemed 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 imprisonment of up to one year.
In August the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications issued instructions reiterating that social media users must not post content or comments that contain criticism of the government. Observers noted that articles or comments on articles critical of the government suddenly disappeared from social media sites.
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, although the government’s technical ability to monitor internet usage was limited. 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 by requiring individuals to register on social media sites with their full names, making it difficult to share news articles or other information anonymously. Authorities continued to detain or arrest persons who criticized the government.
Authorities individually warned social media bloggers to stop posting stories they perceived to be critical of government policies, including posts on the government’s response to flooding and corruption.
The law prohibits certain content on the internet, including deceptive statements and statements against the government and the LPRP. The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications has authority to direct internet service providers to terminate internet services of users found violating the law.
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 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 attempted to limit the influence of Thai culture on local music and entertainment, but these attempts had little effect.
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The law does not provide for the right of freedom of peaceful assembly and prohibits participation in demonstrations, protest marches, or other acts that “cause turmoil or social instability,” without explicit government permission. Participation in such activities is punishable by a maximum five years’ imprisonment; however, this was infrequently enforced. In 2018 police in Savannakhet shut down a benefit concert at which performers and attendees wore T-shirts with the slogan “No bribes for jobs”; observers said this continued to have a chilling effect on protests.
The law tightly restricts the right of freedom of association. For example, political groups other than 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.”
Government registration regulations apply to 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 for NGOs was burdensome, in practice often taking more than two years, and authorities restricted NGOs’ ability to disseminate information and conduct activities without interference. NGOs are also required to obtain Ministry of Foreign Affairs approval to receive foreign funding greater than $60,000. NGOs also must accept “advice and assistance” from the government to ensure their operations are in line with party policy and the law.
Taxation of NGOs, including nonprofit organizations, varied from organization to organization. Taxation requirements for international and local NGOs that receive foreign funding could be cumbersome and varied, depending heavily on prenegotiated MOUs.
Some ministries appeared open to regular engagement with civil society organizations, illustrated by continued invitations to attend meetings at ministries, continued government participation in donor working-group meetings, and ministries actively seeking input from NGOs as they draft legislation. As in recent years, the government invited NGOs to the National Assembly’s intersession and plenary. Civil society observers commented the NGOs with whom the government engaged were not necessarily representative of civil society as a whole. Despite some positive steps, civil society organizations faced many challenges to carrying out their societal roles.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The government restricted freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation.
In-country Movement: Citizens traveling for religious purposes, including to minister, give advice, or visit other churches, are required to seek permission from central and provincial authorities. This process can take several weeks. Christian groups reported problems obtaining permission to travel within the country, although many chose to ignore this requirement.
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. These difficulties were greatly exacerbated by travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of the pandemic, between March 24 and May 30, an estimated 79,200 Lao migrant workers returned from Thailand, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). These workers were required to spend 14 days in one of 46 government-run quarantine centers; many then returned to their home villages.
The collapse of a dam under construction in Attapeu Province in 2018 displaced an estimated 6,000 persons. International and national media reported there were still displaced individuals from this dam collapse as of November, but no numbers were available. In 2019 up to 40,000 persons were displaced in southern provinces due to heavy flooding during the monsoon season; as of November numbers on how many remained displaced were unavailable. The government continued working with international partners to provide housing or land for those displaced by the 2018 dam collapse and 2019 monsoon season flooding, but there were reports that progress was slow and possibly hampered by corruption.
The government continued to relocate some villagers to accommodate land concessions given to development projects and relocated 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 the government displaced them for government projects, for example a railway linking Vientiane with China. Others were forced to move away from productive agricultural land and lost their access to land and livelihoods in the process.
Ongoing hydropower projects also caused many families to relocate. In many cases the government moved families to higher (and less productive) ground. In one case 100 families were relocated to a hilly area to allow for construction of a dam and reportedly rehoused in homes in danger from landslides. A UN special rapporteur in March 2019 issued a report criticizing the government for focusing on “large-scale initiatives including infrastructure projects and industrial plantations that have separated persons from their land, often resulting in hardship and debt.”
The government relied on assistance from NGOs, bilateral donors, and international organizations to cover the needs of those it resettled, but aid was not available in all areas.
The government cooperated in some cases with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugee 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.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Thai political activists living in the country disappeared in recent years (see section 1.b.).
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, but the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The Ministry of Public Security did not routinely grant refugee or asylum status but dealt with individuals on a case-by-case basis.