A minor government reshuffle took place in July, including a new Minister of Finance, following public calls by the Prime Minister for a crackdown on corruption.
Laos ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in February. It has yet to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it signed in December 2000.
The death penalty in law remained, although no death sentences were reported throughout the year. The last known executions took place in 1989.
In June, General Vang Pao, the former leader of the CIA-backed “secret army” which fought against Communist Pathet Lao in the 1960s, and 11 others were arrested in the USA and charged with conspiring to buy weaponry and planning the violent overthrow of the Lao government. Following the arrests, there were unconfirmed reports of a crackdown on ethnic Hmong in northern Bokeo province, including killings and mass arrests. In July, five ethnic Hmong in Bokeo were charged with planning to plant bombs at seven strategic locations.
Large-scale projects, including mines and dams, continued to draw criticism for their reported impact on livelihoods and the environment. Environmental groups concluded that although regulatory frameworks on environmental and social standards were satisfactory, their implementation, including public dissemination of impact assessments, was inadequate. Lao government officials announced in September that nine new dams would be constructed over the next eight years.
The International Rivers Network and Norwegian FIVAS criticized the proposed expansion of the Theun-Hinboun hydropower project in central Laos. The groups claimed that 25,000 people had been affected already through the loss of fertile land, declining fish stocks and increased flooding.
Members of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) held a workshop in Vientiane in April on reporting under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in relation to Laos’ 16th and 17th periodic report, due in the first part of 2007. The report had not been submitted by the end of the year.
An unknown number of Hmong people continued to live in destitution, hiding from the authorities, particularly the military, which for decades have carried out attacks, killing and injuring scores of people. The number of reported attacks declined in the second half of the year compared to previous years.
Most frequently, attacks took place against people foraging for food. Reports and photographs from six clandestine visits by foreign journalists in recent years have provided evidence of large numbers of injured and scarred people, including children, living in destitution and hardship. These groups have no access to medical services, and must rely on traditional medicine.
The fate and whereabouts of hundreds of ethnic Hmong who have attempted to come out of the jungle to join mainstream society remained unknown.
Refugees and asylum-seekers
Thousands of Lao Hmong asylum-seekers in Thailand, including over 8,000 in a camp in northern Phetchabun province, lived at risk of being forcibly returned to Laos following negotiations between the two governments. Hundreds were forcibly returned without having had access to any assessment of their protection needs. The fate of the majority of those returned remained unknown.
In September, the two governments further agreed that all Lao Hmong in the Phetchabun camp would be returned to Laos by the end of 2008, without being given access to an independent screening process. Lao authorities insisted that third party monitoring in Laos of returnees would not be allowed.
- In March, Lao authorities publicly claimed to have “found” 21 girls out of a group of 27 Lao Hmong people missing since being forcibly returned from Thailand in December 2005. The 27 had been held in detention since their forcible return. The other six of the group remained unaccounted for. The 21 were not allowed to reunite with their parents in Thailand, but were placed with other family members or unknown clan members inside Laos. At least 12 of the girls subsequently escaped to their families in Thailand. They confirmed their detention and one claimed to have been beaten and raped repeatedly.
During the year the Lao authorities arranged two visits by diplomats and journalists to some Lao Hmong victims of forcible returns. According to observers the individuals who were presented before them had gone through “re-education”, but appeared in good health.
Lack of access by independent human rights monitors prevented an accurate assessment of the number of political prisoners and prison conditions, but reports continued of ill-treatment, lack of food, overcrowding and inadequate medical care.
Several political prisoners sentenced after unfair trials remained imprisoned at Samkhe prison in Vientiane. These included Thao Moua and Pa Fue Khang, ethnic Hmong men, arrested in 2003 after assisting two journalists to visit Hmong in the jungle. Also in Samkhe prison were four prisoners of conscience – Thongpaseuth Keuakoun, Seng-Aloun Phengphanh, Bouavanh Chanhmanivong and Keochay – arrested in October 1999 for attempting to hold a peaceful demonstration.
The fate of Sing Chanthakoummane, detained since 1975 and last reported to be very ill in the remote Prison Camp 7 in Houa Phanh province, was not known.
A study by the World Food Program launched in November showed that half of the children under the age of five in rural Laos suffered from chronic malnutrition. This demonstrated that the high economic growth rate experienced by Laos during the past decade had no discernible impact on lessening child malnutrition.