The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is an authoritarian centralized one-party state ruled by its only constitutionally authorized party, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The National Assembly elections, held February 21, were not free and fair. The ruling party selected all candidates and voting was mandatory for all citizens. On March 22, the National Assembly approved Phankham Viphavan as prime minister.
The Ministry of Public Security maintains internal security and is responsible for law enforcement; the ministry oversees local, traffic, immigration, and security police, village police auxiliaries, and other armed police units. The armed forces, under the Ministry of Defense, also have some domestic security responsibilities, including counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and border security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: arbitrary killings by government soldiers; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including censorship and criminal defamation laws; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; serious restrictions on political participation; and serious government corruption.
While the government prosecuted and punished officials for corruption, there were no prosecutions or punishments for officials who committed other abuses, and police and security forces committed human rights abuses with impunity.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, 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.
In late July according to international media, Savannakhet provincial police arrested Ther Una for singing songs criticizing official corruption; he was reportedly jailed and questioned for a few days.
As of December, Houayheuang (“Muay”) Xayabouly remained in prison serving a five-year sentence. She was arrested in 2019 and pleaded guilty to charges of defaming the country when on Facebook she criticized the government’s response to flooding in Champasak and Salavan Provinces, after previously using social media to criticize graft and greed among government officials.
NGOs generally exercised self-censorship, particularly after the 2012 disappearance of an internationally respected civil society advocate (see section 1.b.). NGOs stated 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 Expression for Members of the Press and Other 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 2020 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 onetime licensing fee, largely as a revenue-generating measure, but otherwise made no effort to restrict their use.
In August 2020 then 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.
The Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism 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.
Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications instructions warn 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.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation is a criminal offense, and the laws were used.
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
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. All residents must receive approval from the government to change their residence.
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 exacerbated by continued travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 400,000 Lao migrant workers have returned from Thailand since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. These workers were required to spend 14 days in one of 106 government-run quarantine centers, and some were required to spend an additional 14 days in a village- or district-level quarantine center in their home province. Many observers expressed concerns about the conditions in government-run quarantine centers, including reports of food shortages, lack of hygienic facilities, lack of privacy, and lack of adequate separation between new arrivals and those finishing quarantine, which in many cases led to further extended quarantine periods. The government worked with several UN agencies and a variety of donors to augment food and personal protective equipment supplies and to improve quarantine center conditions.
The 2018 collapse of a dam under construction in Attapeu Province displaced an estimated 6,000 persons. As of September, international and national media reported more than 4,000 of these individuals remained displaced. The government continued working with international partners to provide housing or land for those displaced, but reports indicated that progress was slow and possibly hampered by corruption.
The government cooperated in some cases with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.
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.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government made some progress in addressing corruption. Many officials continued to engage in corrupt practices with impunity, and there were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.
Corruption: Official corruption was widespread and found at all levels of government, and it was acknowledged by government-controlled media. During the year local media reported that investigating agencies uncovered more than 1.5 trillion kip ($323,000) in losses due to corruption and had investigated 24 persons, 16 of whom were government employees. The government anticorruption hotline reportedly was used often, and members of the public frequently raised awareness of government officials’ inappropriate or suspicious activities on social media; such postings were not censored or removed.
Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
Domestic and international human rights groups operated only under government oversight, and the government limited their ability to investigate or publish findings on human rights abuses.
The government intermittently responded in writing to requests for information on the human rights situation from international human rights organizations. The government maintained human rights dialogues with some foreign governments and continued to receive training in UN human rights conventions from international donors. In 2020 civil society representatives were, for the first time, included in the country’s delegation to its Universal Periodic Review.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The government continued to support a National Committee on Human Rights, chaired by the foreign minister to the Prime Minister’s Office and composed of representatives from the government, National Assembly, the judiciary, and LPRP-affiliated organizations. The Department of Treaties and Legal Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs acts as the secretariat for the National Human Rights Steering Committee and has authority to review and highlight challenges in the protection of human rights.
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of “a person” and provides for penalties of four to six years’ imprisonment; there is no law against spousal rape. Sentences are significantly longer and may include life imprisonment if the victim is younger than age 18 or is seriously injured or killed. Rape cases tried in court generally resulted in convictions with sentences ranging from three years’ to life imprisonment.
Domestic violence is illegal but often went unreported due to social stigma. In September an advocate for women’s rights said gender-based violence had increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Enforcement of the domestic violence law varied, and observers reported that violence against women in rural areas was rarely investigated. Penalties for domestic violence, including battery, torture, and detention of persons against their will, may include both fines and imprisonment. The law grants exemption from penal liabilities in cases of physical violence without serious injury.
The Lao Women’s Union and the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, in cooperation with NGOs and the Counseling and Protection Center for Women and Children in Vientiane, assisted victims of domestic violence by operating shelters, providing a hotline telephone number, and employing counselors.
Sexual Harassment: The law does not criminalize sexual harassment, but indecent sexual behavior toward another person is illegal and may be punished by six months to three years in prison. Victims rarely reported sexual harassment, and its prevalence remained difficult to assess.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
UNFPA reported that information on and access to sexual and reproductive health services were limited, especially for unmarried youth. Social and cultural barriers restricted access to contraception. Contraceptive commodities were not widely available in rural areas and were often unaffordable.
The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services to survivors of sexual violence, including access to emergency contraceptives, where available.
According to 2017 UN estimates, the maternal mortality rate was 185 deaths per 100,000 live births, and the lifetime risk of maternal death was one in 150. Pregnancy and childbirth remained a leading cause of death among women of reproductive age due to limited prenatal and obstetric care and services as well as high rates of adolescent pregnancy, especially in rural areas. According to UNFPA, very few medical centers were equipped to deal with obstetric emergencies, especially in small or ethnic minority villages. The adolescent birth rate remained high at 83 births per 1,000 girls between ages 15 and 19.
Discrimination: The law provides equal rights for women and men and equal pay for equal work, but in some regions traditional attitudes about gender roles kept women and girls in subordinate positions and prevented them from equally accessing education, employment, and business opportunities. The law also prohibits discrimination in marriage and inheritance, although varying degrees of culture-based discrimination against women persisted, with greater discrimination practiced by some ethnic minority groups in remote areas.
The Lao Women’s Union operated countrywide to promote the position of women in society, including by conducting programs to strengthen the role of women; programs were most effective in urban areas. Many women occupied decision-making positions in the civil service and private business, and in urban areas their incomes were frequently higher than those of men. Poverty continued to affect women disproportionately, especially in rural and ethnic minority communities.
The law provides for equal rights for all members of national, racial, and ethnic groups and bars discrimination against them, including in employment and occupation. The government did not enforce these laws effectively; societal and governmental discrimination persisted against minority ethnic groups.
The country is home to many different ethnic groups; most do not consider themselves indigenous. The Hmong are one of the largest and most prominent of the 50 officially recognized ethnic groups in the country. Several Hmong officials have served in senior ranks of government and the LPRP. Amnestied former Hmong insurgents were subject to official suspicion and scrutiny, and government leadership remained suspicious of the political objectives of some Hmong.
According to international and local sources, in March government troops launched a new campaign of attacks against groups of Hmong living in the forests near Phou Bia Mountain – an area long associated with alleged insurgent activity – to remove the Hmong from areas targeted for development and foreign investment projects.
Critics continued to charge that the government’s resettlement program for ending slash-and-burn agriculture adversely affected ethnic minority groups, particularly in the north. Some minority groups not involved in resettlement, notably those in remote locations, maintained they had little voice in government decisions affecting their lands and the allocation of natural resources from their areas.
Birth Registration: Children acquire citizenship if both parents are citizens, regardless of where they are born. Children born of one citizen parent acquire citizenship if born in the country or, when born outside the country’s territory, if one parent has a permanent in-country address. Parents did not register all births immediately. The village chief registers children born in remote areas, and then the local authority adds the name and date of birth of the child in the family registration book. Every family must have a family registration book. If parents fail to register a child at birth, they may request to add the child to the family registration book later.
Children born in the country to parents who are unable to certify their citizenship but who are integrated into society may request citizenship. This requires multiple levels of government approval, including the National Assembly. Not all children born in the country who would otherwise be stateless are able to acquire citizenship.
Education: Education is compulsory, free, and universal through fifth grade, but a shortage of teachers and the societal expectation that children would help their parents with farming in rural areas prevented some children from attending school. For some families, fees for books and school clothes are prohibitively expensive. There were significant differences among ethnic groups in educational opportunities available to children. According to a 2020 UNICEF study, access to early childhood education is slightly higher for girls than boys, and dropout rates slightly lower for girls than boys in primary school. Instruction was not offered in any language other than Lao, which discouraged ethnic minority children from attending school. To increase elementary school attendance by ethnic minority children, the government continued to support the establishment of boarding schools in rural areas countrywide.
Child Abuse: The law prohibits violence against children, and offenders are subject to re-education programs and unspecified penal measures in more serious cases. There were no reports of cases brought to court under this law.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage for boys and girls is 18, but the law allows marriage as young as 15 with parental consent. According to UNICEF data from 2017, approximately 35 percent of girls married before they reached 18, and 9 percent married before they were 15, a practice particularly common among certain ethnic groups and impoverished rural families.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: There is no legal age of consent for minors engaging in consensual sex. In cases involving minors, the law distinguishes between possible consensual sex and rape and poses varying penalties between three and 20 years’ imprisonment depending on the age of the victim and perpetrator. The penalty for possession of child pornography is three months to one year’s imprisonment; the penalty for the dissemination of such material is one to three years.
The country was a destination for child sex tourism. The government continued efforts to reduce demand for commercial sex through periodic raids and training workshops. The government and NGOs hosted seminars in 2020 to train tourism-sector employees how to identify signs of child trafficking and how to report them to authorities but held no such sessions during the year due to COVID-19 lockdowns.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
There was no significant Jewish community in the country, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Although constitutional protections against discrimination do not apply specifically to persons with disabilities, the law spells out the rights of persons with disabilities to education, health care, and public transportation, while also providing tax exemptions for small businesses owned by persons with disabilities. It includes a provision for persons with disabilities to receive an identification card as part of an effort to collect data on disabilities so the government can provide better and more comprehensive services for persons with disabilities. Advocates for persons with disabilities said the law broadly defined the rights of such persons but did not indicate how outcomes, such as accessible facilities or increased employment opportunities, would be achieved. Little information was available regarding discrimination in the workplace, although persons with disabilities reported it was difficult sometimes to access basic services and obtain employment.
The Ministry of Labor has primary responsibility for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. The Ministry of Health is also involved in addressing health-related needs of persons with disabilities and continued to coordinate with international NGOs.
The law requires construction projects begun after 2009 to provide accessibility for persons with disabilities, particularly buildings and public transportation services. The law does not mandate accessibility to buildings built before 2009, but Ministry of Labor regulations resulted in construction of additional sidewalk ramps during the year.
The government continued to implement its strategic plan to protect the rights of children with disabilities and enable them to study alongside other children in schools countrywide. The nongovernmental Lao Disabled People’s Association noted that in many cases students with disabilities lacked access to appropriate educational resources.
No law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in housing, employment, or government services. There were no official reports of discrimination, but observers said societal stigma and concern about repercussions led some to withhold reporting incidents of abuse.
There were no legal impediments to organized lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) groups or activities, but local activists reported they did not attempt to hold activities they believed the government would deem sensitive or controversial.
Some societal discrimination in employment and housing reportedly persisted; there were no government efforts to address it. Local activists explained that most openly LGBTQI+ persons did not attempt to apply for government or high-level private-sector jobs because there was tacit recognition that employers would not hire them. LGBTQI+ advocates said that while the country still had a conservative and traditional society, gay and lesbian persons were becoming more integrated, although the transgender population continued to face high levels of societal stigma and discrimination.