In March the Eighth Congress of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) adopted the new five-year Socio-Economic Development Plan for 2006-2010, outlining the government's policy direction. Choummaly Sayasone was elected as new party leader. In June he was formally appointed President and Bouasone Bouphavanh became the new Prime Minister.
The government's controversial resettlement policy continued, ostensibly to reduce poverty. People in the rural highlands, largely ethnic minorities, were moved to more accessible areas in or closer to the lowlands, while their traditional slash and burn cultivation methods were targeted for eradication. The policy, partly implemented by force, threats and intimidation, had devastating consequences for certain communities, who experienced loss of livelihoods, increased food insecurity and health problems.
Criticism surrounding the Nam Theun 2 hydropower dam continued, as around 600 families living within the future dam perimeter were resettled in new villages. The Nam Theun 2 Power Company, as well as the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and other lenders to the project, described arrangements as satisfactory while critics warned that compensation to those affected was erratic and insufficient.
In February, the government declared Laos free of opium poppies after a six-year eradication campaign. Although the statement was welcomed by the international community, caution was raised over the risk of increased poverty for former opium farmers unless they were sufficiently supported to develop alternative sources of income.
The government failed to ratify the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which were signed in December 2000.
Hmong in hiding
Groups of ethnic Hmong living in jungle areas continued to be at risk of attacks, hardship and disease. These were remnants of an anti-communist resistance from the 1960s and were living in extreme poverty while hiding from the authorities, particularly the military.
Throughout the year violent onslaughts were reported from the provinces of Bolikhamsai, Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Xieng Khouang as government troops intensified operations.
• On 6 April, government troops launched an attack against a Hmong group foraging for food some 20 kilometres from the tourist town of Vang Vieng, killing at least 26 people, mostly women and children. Government authorities denied the attack.
Hundreds of people hiding in the same area emerged from the jungle in late October seeking to reintegrate into mainstream society. A small group fled to neighbouring Thailand to seek protection against alleged persecution. Their fate was unknown.
In August, the government publicly conceded for the first time in many years that there was a refugee flow of ethnic Hmong Laotians into Thailand, where some 7,000 Lao Hmong lived in an informal refugee camp in Phetchabun province. Some 400 recognized refugees and asylum-seekers, including children, were arrested and detained under Thai migration legislation, and were at risk of deportation. In November a group of 53 was forcibly returned from Thailand to Laos.
• A group of 27 Hmong, including 22 children, who were forcibly returned to Laos from Thailand in December 2005, remained in incommunicado detention at the end of the year. There was no official confirmation of their whereabouts.
The number of political prisoners remained unknown as access to prisons by independent monitors was limited and there was no source of independent information about prisoners in general. Prison conditions were commonly reported to be harsh.
• Thao Moua and Pa Fue Khang, ethnic Hmong men who assisted two European journalists attempting a clandestine visit to Hmong groups in hiding in 2003, remained imprisoned. The two men, who had acted as guides and porters, were sentenced to prison terms of 12 and 15 years in June 2003 for obstructing justice and possession of weapons and drugs after an unfair trial.
Four prisoners of conscience remained in Samkhe prison. They included Thongpaseuth Keuakoun and Seng-aloun Phengphanh, members of the Lao Students' Movement for Democracy who were arrested in October 1999 after attempting to hold a peaceful demonstration in Vientiane.
Laos retained the death penalty for a wide range of offences and sentenced at least two people to death, both for drugs-related offences. There were no reports of executions.
AI country reports/visits
• Laos: Massacre of unarmed Hmong women and children (AI Index: ASA 26/002/2006)
• Laos: Fear for safety/torture/ill-treatment/arbitrary detention (AI Index: ASA 26/005/2006)