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Title:  Laos Human Rights Practices, 1995   
Author:  U.S. Department of State    
Date:  March 1996    
 
 
 
 
                              LAOS 
 
 
The Lao People's Democratic Republic is an authoritarian, one-party 
state ruled by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP).   
 
The Ministry of Interior (MOI) is the main instrument of state control.  
MOI police maintain order and monitor Lao society and foreign nationals, 
including foreign officials and diplomats.  The degree of surveillance 
varies by locality, but overall has diminished in recent years. 
 
Laos is an extremely poor country.  After the LPRP came to power in 
1975, at least 350,000 people fled the country to escape the 
Government's harsh political and economic policies.  Since 1986 the 
Government has largely abandoned its Socialist economic agenda.  
Economic reforms have moved the country from a moribund, centrally 
planned system to a growing market-oriented economy open to foreign 
investment. 
 
There has been a general trend away from the harsh conditions that 
existed after the LPRP assumed power in 1975, but serious problems 
remain. 
 
Citizens do not have the right to change their government.  Even with 
ongoing economic liberalization, the adoption of a Constitution in 1991, 
and National Assembly elections in 1993, the Government only slowly 
eased restrictions on basic freedoms.  Many of the rights stipulated in 
the Constitution have not been codified with implementing legislation.  
In practice, the Government restricts the freedoms of speech, assembly, 
and, to a lesser extent, religion, even though they are provided for in 
the Constitution.  Citizens do not have the right to privacy and do not 
enjoy a free press, although most Lao have ready access to a variety of 
foreign media.  Prison conditions remain harsh, and some societal 
discrimination against minorities persists.   
 
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS 
 
Section 1   Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom 
from: 
 
   a.   Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing 
 
There continued to be occasional killings in the course of the long-
running, low-level insurgency in some areas north of Vientiane, where 
the Hmong ethnic group predominates. 
 
The road ambush is the most common manifestation of the insurgency.  In 
1995 there were approximately 20 reports of killings as a result of 
ambushes of vehicles, trucks, or buses.  For example, in February 8 Lao 
were killed when a passenger truck was attacked by a group of about 10 
persons armed with rifles.  It is often unclear whether the ambushers 
are politically or economically motivated. 
 
During 1995 the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) completed 
its investigation of the murder in Khammouane province of a Hmong from 
Bolikhamxay province.  Family members in the United States had accused 
the Government of complicity in the murder.  The UNHCR report concluded 
that there was no evidence of government involvement in what appeared to 
be a private incident involving smuggling goods across the Mekong river 
to Thailand. 
 
   b.   Disappearance 
 
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.   
 
In September 1993, Vue Mai, a Hmong leader who in November 1992 returned 
voluntarily to Laos from a refugee camp in Thailand, disappeared in 
Vientiane.  No new information relevant to the case came to light in 
1995. 
 
   c.   Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or 
Punishment 
 
The Penal Code prohibits torture or mistreatment of prisoners, and the 
Government generally observed this principle in practice.   
 
Prison conditions are harsh, but not life threatening.  Prison 
authorities deny some prisoners regular family visits, and medical care 
ranges from inadequate to nonexistent.  Inmates sometimes resort to 
bribing their guards to obtain food and medicines.  There is no 
independent monitoring of prison conditions.  Prison conditions for 
women are fundamentally similar to those for men.  The extent of sexual 
harassment in prison is unknown but is not believed to be a serious 
problem. 
 
   d.   Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile 
 
The Constitution and Penal Code provide some protections for those 
accused of crimes, such as a statute of limitations, but the Government 
does not fully respect these provisions.  Those accused of hostility 
toward the regime are subject to arrest and confinement for long 
periods.   
 
There continued to be allegations that the Government has detained three 
Hmong males since 1992 because of their association with the United 
States prior to 1975.  The Lao Government has thus far not responded 
directly to repeated inquiries about these allegations.   
 
Citizens do not have the protection of due process and may be arrested 
based on unsupported accusations without being informed of the charges 
or of the accusers' identities.  The Government appears to resort to 
detention without due process relatively infrequently in cases involving 
social crimes such as prostitution, drug abuse, and gambling.  Some 
jurisdictions are stricter than others in this regard. 
 
The Government does not use forced exile as a means of political 
control. 
 
   e.   Denial of Fair Public Trial 
 
The Constitution provides for the independence of judges and prosecutors 
and protects their decisions from outside scrutiny.  In practice, 
however, the courts, which are understaffed and poorly trained, appear 
to accept recommendations of other government agencies, especially the 
MOI, in making its decisions. 
 
The judiciary is composed of district courts, provincial courts, and the 
Supreme Court. 
 
Although regulations provide for public trial, this sometimes amounts to 
public announcement of the sentence and not a true public trial.  
Politically sensitive trials have not been open to the public, although 
common criminal trials appear to be, and they increasingly are 
publicized in the media. 
 
There is provision for appeal to the provincial courts and the Supreme 
Court.  Senior government and party officials reportedly may also review 
sensitive political cases.   
 
The Constitution provides that all accused persons have the right to 
defend themselves and that the Board of Legal Counselors has the right 
to provide legal assistance to the accused.  The Government suspended 
the Board in late 1992, pending the introduction of rules regarding the 
fees and activities of private lawyers.  The few private lawyers in Laos 
may still provide informal legal counsel, at least for civil cases, but 
they may not establish themselves as attorneys-at-law.  According to the 
Criminal Code, defendants in criminal cases are entitled, at their own 
expense, to representation by a "rights protector" who may be any Lao 
citizen.  In practice, few defendants exercise this right. 
 
Arrests are usually unannounced, and trials and convictions are not 
always publicized, thus complicating efforts to estimate accurately the 
number of political prisoners.  However, anecdotal reporting suggests 
that their ranks, reduced substantially by the closure of reeducation 
camps in the 1980's, continued to decrease in recent years.  The exact 
number of political prisoners held is unknown but is not thought to be 
large.  It likely is no more than several hundred, and quite probably 
substantially less.   
 
Three former government officials are serving 14-year sentences handed 
down in 1992 for advocating a multiparty system and criticizing 
restrictions on political liberties.  Also in 1992, three men detained 
since 1975 were sentenced to life terms for crimes allegedly committed 
during their tenure as officials under the previous regime.  The 
Government claims that three other officials of the former government 
released in 1992 have chosen to remain in the same remote province where 
they and the six prisoners mentioned above were held. 
 
   f.   Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or 
Correspondence 
 
Concomitant with economic liberalization, the Government relaxed some 
elements of state control, including its rigorous police monitoring of 
personal and business activities and enforcement of the nighttime 
curfew.  However, while the Constitution prohibits arrests or searches 
in homes without a warrant or authorization, the security bureaus may 
authorize search and seizure by themselves rather than by judicial 
authority.  The Government and the party continue to monitor the 
citizenry sporadically through a system of neighborhood and workplace 
committees.  The neighborhood committees also have responsibility for 
maintaining public order and reporting "bad elements" to the police.  
These committees usually concern themselves more with street crime and 
instances of moral turpitude than with political activism.  The degree 
of surveillance and control varies from province to province, but 
overall has diminished in recent years. 
 
The Penal Code forbids telephone monitoring without proper 
authorization, but the security bureaus are believed to authorize such 
monitoring themselves.  The Government continued to monitor 
international mail and telephone calls, probably including some faxes, 
although the increasing number of such calls limited the scope of such 
surveillance. 
 
The 1991 Constitution stipulates that the "national community" owns all 
land.  Private "ownership" is in the form of land use certificates, 
which can be bought, sold, and transferred to heirs.  Many Lao who fled 
the country after 1975 have regained confiscated property after 
demonstrating their intent to repatriate. 
 
Contact between ordinary Lao and foreigners has increased in recent 
years as restrictions, such as the requirement for government approval 
of invitations to most foreigners' homes, are no longer enforced.  The 
Government has eased the prohibition against foreigners staying with Lao 
families in urban areas, and allows Lao citizens to marry foreigners but 
only with prior government approval.  Marriages without government 
approval may be annulled, with the foreign spouse subject to fine or 
arrest. 
 
Section 2   Respect for Civil Liberties, Including: 
 
   a.   Freedom of Speech and Press 
 
Despite the Constitutional provisions for freedom of speech and the 
press, the Government exerts broad control over the exercise of these 
freedoms and has reacted harshly to expressions of political dissent.  
Three persons arrested in 1990 after persisting in public criticism of 
party policies and calling for fundamental political and economic change 
each received 14-year sentences (see Section 1.e.).  The Penal Code 
forbids slandering the State, distorting party or state policies, and 
spreading false rumors conducive to disorder.  It also prohibits 
disseminating books and other materials that authorities deem indecent 
or that assail the national culture. 
 
All domestically produced newspapers and radio and television are 
controlled by the Government.  Local news in all media reflect 
government policy; however, foreign news reports, including those from 
Western sources, are usually translated without bias.  In recent years 
the Government has relaxed efforts to control the flow of information 
from abroad, and Thai and Western newspapers and magazines have been 
sold in the towns where there is demand for them.  The Government 
temporarily halted the import of Thai newspapers for several months in 
mid-1995.  The Government makes no effort to discourage reception of 
Thai radio or television broadcasts, which are widely listened to and 
watched in the Mekong river valley, where the majority of the Lao 
population lives.  However, the Lao-language television station, a Thai 
company inaugurated in Vientiane in 1994, was quietly merged into the 
Lao State Broadcast Corporation following disputes concerning management 
control and content. 
 
The Government requires registration of television satellite receiving 
dishes and payment of a one-time licensing fee on their installation, 
but otherwise makes no effort to restrict their use.  In 1995 the number 
of such dishes continued to increase, both in major urban areas and in 
remote provincial and district towns.  Cable News Network, the British 
Broadcasting Corporation, and several Thai stations are among the many 
channels available to satellite dish owners. 
 
The Government prohibits pornographic or politically inflammatory video 
cassettes.  In late 1994, the Vientiane municipality imposed 
restrictions governing the content of music played in nightclubs and 
outlawed karaoke in order to strengthen Lao culture against perceived 
erosion by foreign influences.  Enforcement of these restrictions has 
been lax. 
 
The Government restricts academic freedom.  Lao academicians have in the 
past sometimes been denied permission to travel abroad for conferences 
or training.  Invitations to visit and collaborate with foreign 
colleagues must be approved by the Lao employer and the Ministry of 
Foreign Affairs.  The Ministry of Education must approve grants, 
including those for research and study abroad.  The Government also 
monitors and may restrict the activities of Western scholars doing 
research in Laos. 
 
   b.   Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association 
 
The Government controls and organizes most large public gatherings 
except for religious, athletic, and communal events.  The Penal Code 
prohibits demonstrations or protest marches aimed at causing turmoil and 
social instability, prescribing penalties of from 1 to 5 years' 
imprisonment.  The Government also bans undefined "destabilizing 
subversive activities."  Although the Constitution provides citizens 
with the right to organize and join associations, all associations are 
party-controlled and disseminate official policy.  Foreigners are not 
allowed to engage in political activity.  
 
   c.   Freedom of Religion 
 
The Constitution contains provisions for religious freedom.  In practice 
the Government continues to restrict freedom of religion, especially for 
some Christian denominations. 
 
Links with coreligionists and religious associations in other countries 
require government approval.  Although the Government permits foreign 
nongovernmental organizations with religious affiliations to work in 
Laos, it prohibits foreigners from proselytizing.  The Government also 
restricts the import of religious publications. 
 
The enforcement of these regulations varies by province.  For example, 
the Catholic Church is unable to operate in the highlands and much of 
the north, but Catholics can openly attend churches and chapels in 
central and southern Laos.  Several Protestant denominations operate 
over 100 churches throughout the country.  There continued to be 
credible  reports that local authorities sometimes detained clergy for 
allegedly criticizing other religions and harassed, arrested, and jailed 
other active clergy.  The persistence of such reports underscores the 
continuing suspicion on the part of authorities toward some sections of 
the Lao Christian community.  There were also unconfirmed reports that 
Lao Christians were sometimes barred from the party or government 
employment, and that some rural Lao were not allowed to convert to the 
Baha'i faith. 
 
By comparison, the Government openly encourages Buddhism and supports 
Buddhist organizations.  High-ranking government officials routinely 
attend religious functions, and Buddhist clergy are prominently featured 
at important state and party  
 
functions.  The Government permits Buddhist festivals without hindrance. 
 
Two mosques and a Bahai center operate openly in Vientiane. 
 
   d.   Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, 
Emigration, and Repatriation 
 
There are no domestic travel restrictions for citizens and private 
foreign visitors except in unspecified prohibited or insecure areas.  
Most citizens can easily obtain passports and exit permits from the 
Ministry of Foreign Affairs for personal travel abroad.  Border crossing 
permits for citizens to visit Thailand are routinely available from 
local village committees for a modest issuance fee, and the Government 
does not appear to interfere with persons desiring to emigrate.  Except 
for around 30 persons convicted in absentia in 1975 for antigovernment 
activities, citizens have the right of return. 
 
The stated government policy since 1977 is to welcome back the 
approximately 10 percent of the population which fled after the change 
of government in 1975.  In recent years an increasing number of Lao 
living abroad returned to visit; several remained to operate businesses. 
 
Laos, Thailand, and the UNHCR are cooperating on the return of the Lao 
asylum seekers in Thai camps who volunteer to return to Laos.  This 
program includes provisions for monitoring returnees to ensure that they 
are given the same rights and treatment as resident Lao.  According to 
the UNHCR and voluntary agencies, returnees are not subject to 
discrimination or persecution, and returnees are allowed back with all 
the belongings they accumulated while outside Laos.  There were no 
forcible repatriations to Laos in 1995; however, approximately 3,000 Lao 
were voluntarily repatriated to Laos by the UNHCR during the year.  No 
new Lao asylum seekers arrived in Thailand. 
 
Section 3   Respect for Political Rights:  The Right of Citizens to 
Change Their Government 
 
Citizens do not have the ability to change their government, despite 
constitutional provisions for the public election of National Assembly 
members.  While the 1991 Constitution does not explicitly exclude the 
emergence of multiple political parties, it assigns to the ruling LPRP 
the leading role in the Lao political system.  All candidates had to 
have the approval of the LPRP before they could stand for the December 
1992 National Assembly elections, no other parties were allowed, and 
voting was mandatory.  However, not all candidates were LPRP members and 
a few nonparty candidates won seats. 
 
Despite constitutional provisions for equality, women do not play a 
significant role in government.  Only 8 of the 85 members of the 
National Assembly are women, the 52-member LPRP Central Committee 
includes only 2 women, and there are no women in the Politburo or the 
Council of Ministers. 
 
Lowland Lao males dominate the upper echelons of the party and the 
Government.  Nonetheless, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, 
the Minister of the Interior and 23 members of the National Assembly are 
believed to be members of ethnic minority groups.  Members of these 
minorities often adopt lowland Lao names as they are increasingly 
assimilated into mainstream Lao society, thus making it difficult to 
ascertain accurately the number of ethnic minorities in any 
organization. 
 
Section 4   Governmental Attitude Regarding International and 
Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights 
 
There are no domestic human rights groups.  Any organization wishing to 
investigate and publicly criticize the Government's human rights 
policies would face serious obstacles, if it were permitted to operate 
at all.  Laos generally does not cooperate with international human 
rights organizations.  The Government has, however, permitted visits by 
officials of international humanitarian organizations and responded to 
inquiries about specific human rights issues. 
 
Section 5   Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, 
Language, or Social Status 
 
The Constitution provides for equal treatment under the law for all Lao 
citizens without regard to sex, social status, education, faith, or 
ethnicity.  Although the Government appears willing to take action when 
cases of discrimination come to the attention of high-level officials, 
the legal mechanism whereby a citizen may bring charges of 
discrimination against an individual or organization is neither widely 
developed nor widely understood among the general population. 
 
   Women 
 
Although not widespread, domestic violence against women occurs.  Sexual 
harassment and rape are reportedly rare.  In cases of rape that do go to 
court, rapists are generally convicted.   
 
The Government relies on the Lao Women's Union, a party-sanctioned 
organization, and youth organizations to educate girls and young women 
against the schemes of recruiters for brothels and sweatshops in 
Thailand and elsewhere.  In the past, the Government has prosecuted some 
persons for involvement in such recruiting activities and appears 
willing to take action against organized prostitution.   
 
The Constitution provides for equal rights for women, and the Lao 
Women's Union operates nationally to promote the position of women in 
society.  However, traditional culturally based discrimination persists, 
especially among lowland Lao and some hill tribes. 
 
Many women occupy responsible positions in the civil service and private 
business, and in urban areas their income is often higher than that of 
men.  The Family Code prohibits legal discrimination in marriage and 
inheritance. 
 
   Children 
 
Government expenditures are inadequate for children's basic health and 
educational needs, and Laos' limited resources do not suggest any rapid 
expansion of funds to meet those needs.  Violence against other persons, 
including children, is prohibited by law.  Physical abuse of children is 
reportedly rare.   
 
   People with Disabilities 
 
With donor assistance, the Government is implementing limited programs 
for the disabled, especially amputees.  The law does not mandate 
accessibility to buildings or government services for disabled persons. 
 
   National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities 
 
The Constitution provides for equal rights for all minorities, and there 
is no legal discrimination against them.  However, some societal 
discrimination persists. 
 
Approximately half the population is ethnic Lao, also called "lowland 
Lao," and most of the remainder is a mosaic of diverse upland hill 
tribes who are Lao citizens if born in Laos.  There are also ethnic 
Vietnamese and Chinese minorities, particularly in the towns, and a 
small community of South Asian origin.  The implementation in 1994 of 
the 1990 Law on Nationality provided a means for these Vietnamese and 
Chinese minorities to regularize Lao citizenship.  While the Government 
encourages the preservation of minority cultures and traditions, 
minority tribes have little voice in government decisions affecting 
their lands and the allocation of natural resources.  Hill tribe 
interaction with the Government is limited by poor transportation and 
communication links and a shortage of government resources. 
 
The Hmong are one of the largest and most prominent highland minority 
groups.  They split along clan lines during the Vietnam War; many were 
strongly anti-Communist while others sided with the Lao and Vietnamese 
Communists.  The Government repressed many of those who fought against 
it, especially those still perceived to be resisting its authority.  
There continued to be some reports of abuse, discrimination, and 
harassment of Hmong who live in or near areas where insurgent attacks 
have occurred.  Nevertheless, an increasing number of Hmong who fled the 
country after 1975 have repatriated to Laos without suffering 
persecution. 
 
Section 6   Worker Rights 
 
   a.   The Right of Association 
 
Although the Constitution provides citizens with the right to organize 
and join associations, the party controls all associations and all 
conform to official party policy (see Section 2.b.). 
 
Subsistence farmers comprise an estimated 85 percent of the work force.  
The State employs the majority of salaried workers, although this is 
changing as the Government reduces the number of its employees and 
privatizes state enterprises, and as foreign investors open new 
factories and businesses.  Under the 1990 Labor Code, labor unions can 
be formed in private enterprises as long as they operate within the 
framework of the officially sanctioned Federation of Lao Trade Unions 
(FLTU), which in turn is controlled by the LPRP.  Most of the FLTU's 
80,000 members work in the public sector, overwhelmingly as public 
servants. 
 
Strikes are effectively, but not categorically, forbidden and none 
occurred in 1995. 
 
With advice from the International Labor Organization (ILO), including 
from a foreign expert posted by the ILO to work with the Ministry of 
Labor and Social Welfare, the Government has revised its Labor Code in 
an effort to clarify rights and obligations of workers and employers.  
The extent to which the FLTU is free to engage in contacts and affiliate 
with foreign labor organizations is unknown. 
 
   b.   The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively 
 
There is no right to organize and bargain collectively.  The Labor Code 
stipulates that disputes be resolved through workplace committees 
composed of employers, representatives of the local labor union, and 
representatives of the FLTU, with final authority residing in the 
Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare.  The incidence of labor disputes 
is low.  The Government sets wages and salaries for government 
employees, while management sets wages and salaries for private business 
employees. 
 
The Labor Code stipulates that employers may not fire employees for 
conducting trade union activities or for lodging complaints against 
employers about labor law implementation or for cooperating with 
officials on labor law implementation and labor disputes.  Workplace 
committees are one mechanism used for resolving complaints. 
 
There are no export processing zones. 
 
   c.   Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor 
 
The Labor Code prohibits forced labor except in time of war or national 
disaster, when the State may conscript laborers. 
 
   d.   Minimum Age for Employment of Children 
 
Under the Labor Code, children under age 15 may not be recruited for 
employment.  However, many children help their families on farms or in 
shops.  The Labor Code accordingly provides that younger children may 
work for their families, provided they are not engaged in dangerous or 
difficult work.  Such employment of children is common in urban shops, 
but rare in industrial enterprises.  The MOI and Ministry of Justice are 
responsible for enforcing these provisions, but enforcement is 
ineffective owing to a lack of inspectors and other resources.  
Education is compulsory through the fifth grade, but this requirement is 
rarely observed in the rural areas or among the urban poor. 
 
   e.   Acceptable Conditions of Work 
 
The Labor Code has provisions for a broad range of worker entitlements, 
including a workweek limited to 48 hours (36 in dangerous activities), 
safe working conditions, and higher compensation for dangerous work.  
The Code also provides for at least 1 day of rest per week for 
employees.  Employers are responsible for all expenses for a worker 
injured or killed on the job, a requirement generally fulfilled by 
employers in the formal economic sector.  The daily minimum wage is 
$1.09 (1,000 kip), which is insufficient to provide a decent standard of 
living for a worker and family.  Most civil servants also face the 
problem of inadequate pay.  However, few families in the monetized 
economy depend on only one breadwinner.  Some piecework employees, 
especially on construction sites, earn less than the minimum wage.  Many 
of these workers are illegal immigrants, particularly from Vietnam, and 
thus more vulnerable to exploitation by employers.  Although workplace 
inspections have reportedly increased, the Ministry of Labor and Social 
Welfare lacks the personnel and budgetary resources to enforce the Labor 
Code effectively. 
 
The Labor Code has no specific provision allowing workers to remove 
themselves from a dangerous situation without jeopardizing their 
employment. 
 
(###)

[end of document]

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