Freedom in the World 2017 - Laos

Freedom Status: 
Not Free
Political Rights: 
Civil Liberties: 
Aggregate Score: 
Freedom Rating: 

Laos is a one-party state in which the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) dominates all aspects of politics and government and harshly restricts civil liberties. There is no organized opposition and no truly independent civil society. News coverage of the country is limited by the remoteness of some areas, repression of domestic media, and the opaque nature of the regime. Economic development has led to a rising tide of disputes over land and environmental issues, as well as corruption and the growth of an illegal economy. Such disputes frequently lead to violence, including by the security forces. 

Key Developments in 2016: 
  • Tightly controlled legislative elections in March resulted in a new National Assembly, which chose incumbent vice president Bounnhang Vorachith as the new president in April. He had been named LPRP general secretary at a party congress in January.
  • In February and March, security forces arrested three Laotian citizens who had used social media to criticize the state while working in Thailand. They were detained upon returning to Laos to renew their passports and reportedly remained in custody at year’s end.
  • Laos hosted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in September, but it refused to host a related civil society gathering, which was held in Timor-Leste instead.
  • Violence increased in central and northern Laos during the year, particularly in areas with a history of conflict between security forces and ethnic Hmong militants.
Executive Summary: 

The LPRP selected new leaders through an opaque process at a party congress in January. Vice President Bounnhang Vorachith, who became general secretary of the party, was then elected as state president by the National Assembly in April following legislative elections in March. Thongloun Sisoulith, previously the deputy prime minister and foreign minister, was promoted to prime minister. The LPRP won 144 of 149 seats in the legislative elections, with the remainder going to carefully vetted independents.

The Laotian government continued to tighten its control over domestic dissent in 2016, partly by monitoring citizens’ activity on social media. In at least three cases, individuals were apparently arrested for comments they posted while working abroad. The authorities also suppressed independent civil society activity. Although Laos hosted the annual ASEAN summit in September, it would not host the parallel ASEAN People’s Forum, a gathering of regional civil society groups. The forum was held in Timor-Leste instead, and participants reported that the Laotian delegation was hand-picked and pressured by the Laotian government to minimize criticism of its record.

Political and ethnic violence surged during the year. There were a series of attacks on buses and trucks in areas of central and northern Laos that have been plagued by banditry and violent Hmong opposition groups. There were also numerous attacks on Chinese nationals in Vientiane, Xaisomboun, and other parts of the country. The government remained largely silent about the violence, including the possible identities and motives of the perpetrators. Some observers suggested that local anger at the environmental destruction caused by foreign-owned mining, logging, and farming concessions contributed to the attacks on Chinese nationals.

Political Rights

Political Rights 1 / 40

A. Electoral Process 0 / 12

A1. Is the head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
A2. Are the national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair?


B. Political Pluralism and Participation 0 / 16

B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system open to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
B2. Is there a significant opposition vote and a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, totalitarian parties, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group?
B4. Do cultural, ethnic, religious, or other minority groups have full political rights and electoral opportunities?


C. Functioning of Government 1 / 12

C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
C2. Is the government free from pervasive corruption?
C3. Is the government accountable to the electorate between elections, and does it operate with openness and transparency?


Civil Liberties

Civil Liberties 11 / 40

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief 4 / 16

D1. Are there free and independent media and other forms of cultural expression?
D2. Are religious institutions and communities free to practice their faith and express themselves in public and private?
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free of extensive political indoctrination?
D4. Is there open and free private discussion?


E. Associational and Organizational Rights 0 / 12

E1. Is there freedom of assembly, demonstration, and open public discussion?
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations?
E3. Are there free trade unions and peasant organizations or equivalents, and is there effective collective bargaining? Are there free professional and other private organizations?


F. Rule of Law 2 / 16

F1. Is there an independent judiciary?
F2. Does the rule of law prevail in civil and criminal matters? Are police under direct civilian control?
F3. Is there protection from political terror, unjustified imprisonment, exile, or torture, whether by groups that support or oppose the system? Is there freedom from war and insurgencies?
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights 5 / 16

G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of travel or choice of residence, employment, or institution of higher education?
G2. Do individuals have the right to own property and establish private businesses? Is private business activity unduly influenced by government officials, the security forces, political parties/organizations, or organized crime?
G3. Are there personal social freedoms, including gender equality, choice of marriage partners, and size of family?
G4. Is there equality of opportunity and the absence of economic exploitation?


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year

Full Methodology

Explanatory Note: 

This country report has been abridged for Freedom in the World 2017. For background information on political rights and civil liberties in Laos, see Freedom in the World 2016.