Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1990

The Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) is an
authoritarian, one-party state. The Lao People's
Revolutionary Party (LPRP) is the primary source of political
authority in the country, and the party's leadership imposes
broad and arbitrary controls on Laos' 4 million people.
Although the draft constitution now under consideration
declares that power is exercised through the Supreme People's
Assembly and the Local People's Councils, the document makes
the LPRP ' s supremacy clear.
In 1990 the Supreme People's Assembly took a more active role
in political affairs, voting on a new constitution that would
confer substantial powers on that body, including the right to
remove the head of state. The Government has made developing
"rule by law" a major goal, and the new constitution will set
up a system of public courts. A new penal code enacted in
November 1989 provides new protections for some categories of
rights while restricting others.
The LPDR was established in 1975, but a draft constitution was
presented only in mid-1990. The document, which is expected
to enter into force in the first quarter of 1991, was written
by a committee of the Supreme People's Assembly, which was
elected in 1989. The LPRP approved all candidates in that
election, though a number of victorious candidates were not
party members. New elections are expected in 1991 under the
constitution, which provides for secret ballot and universal
suffrage and imposes few restrictions on who may run for
office. The Government is also developing a system of
published laws for the first time. Laws on contracts, private
property, and inheritance are in various stages of development.
The Ministry of Interior (MOD is the main instrument of state
control. Although little is known by outsiders about the
MOI ' s police, they are believed to be active in monitoring Lao
society and expatriates who live in Laos. The LPRP also has
its own system of informants, in workplaces and residential
communities, who monitor and control events.
Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world. The
Government's harsh policies, particularly in its first 5
years, combined with difficult economic conditions in general,
drove some 350,000 Lao into exile. Among those refugees were
most of the educated elite. Since 1985 the Government has
instituted a series of ambitious economic reforms, known as
the "New Economic Mechanism," that have shifted the country
from a centrally planned system to a more market-oriented
economy. The economic reform program has improved the economy
and allowed many people to participate in the emerging private
or mixed state/private sector, but the average standard of
living remains extremely low.
The human rights situation in Laos, which showed some
improvement in 1989, was mixed in 1990. There was progress
in some areas, such as increased freedom of religion, somewhat
broader opportunities for political discourse, and
presentation of a draft constitution embodying human rights
guarantees. Severe limitations remained, however, on freedom
of speech and press, freedom of assembly, and the right of
citizens to change their government. In addition, the
Government reportedly tightened some forms of internal control
in 1990, as developments in Eastern Europe and a liberalizing
economy sparked concern over its ability to control the pace
and scope of political reforms.
The Government closed most reeducation camps and released most
camp inmates before 1990. However, an unknown number of
inmates, believed to be at least 33, are entering their 15th
year of detention without benefit of judicial trial or legal
review. Many former camp prisoners have been able to obtain
work, some in responsible positions with government or
international organizations. Others have gone into private
business. Some, however, appear to be blacklisted and able to
find only menial positions. In general, those released from
the camps are able to obtain passports and exit visas freely
and have been able to travel overseas. Some have decided to
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
      a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
Following the announcement by antigovernment insurgents of the
formation of a provisional government in exile in December
1989, reports of shooting incidents involving armed groups
leaving or entering Laos illegally increased significantly.
Most of these insurgents appear to be former Royal Lao Army
soldiers and Hmong tribesmen. A group of insurgents
reportedly set up a temporary base area in Laos in December
1989, leading to increased fighting as government forces
ejected the insurgents. The increased fighting was
accompanied by a greater number of people reported killed in
military operations against insurgent forces. There have been
reliable reports of the use of aircraft for ground attack,
causing civilian deaths, and of insurgent attacks on
progovernment villages. Insurgents have claimed repeatedly
that the Lao military used chemical weapons against them in
early 1990. Despite considerable investigation, no credible
evidence has been found to support these claims.
Both sides are reported to have used brutal tactics on
occasion, with the insurgents attempting assassination and
ambush of civil and military officials as well as private
citizens. The insurgents reportedly ambushed a convoy of
government vehicles and burned several civilian buses in early
1990, resulting in dozens of deaths. Insurgents have also
reportedly burned down uncooperative villages. There have
been recurrent reports of attacks by bandit groups in isolated
areas. Official policy calls for the execution of insurgent
leaders, but no such executions were reported in 1990.
      b. Disappearance
No disappearances were reported in 1990.
      c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
At least 33 "reeducation" prisoners continue to be held in
harsh conditions, but details are not available. One former
detainee reported that there was no physical torture but that
detainees were subjected to psychological abuse. The penal
code prohibits torture or mistreatment of accused persons or
prisoners, and the police do not appear to use torture or
degrading or cruel treatment during arrest or detention,
although, prison conditions are stark. There have been claims
from refugees of torture and other abuse, but it is unknown to
what extent this may have occurred in 1990.
      d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
The Government continues to maintain reeducation camps, or
"seminar camps," in which people who served the Royal Lao
government or who have offended the current Government are
imprisoned. Even rough estimates for the population of these
camps are difficult to make, but they range from a minimum of
33 political detainees, left from the original population of
Royal Lao government officials, to several hundred. The
higher number reportedly includes the original 33 plus many
who were imprisoned during the late 1970 's and the 1980 's.
Many of the remaining detainees live in a kind of internal
exile in isolated provincial areas with severe restrictions on
their freedom of movement. Some reportedly have been assigned
to collective farms or construction units near their former
camps in individual "reeducation" assignments and have had
their travel restricted. Others who have lost property and
families are reported to have remained in areas near the camps
out of necessity.
Government officials continue to claim that all soldiers and
officials sent to the camps in 1975-76 have been released and
that those who remain in remote areas do so of their own free
will. The accuracy of these statements cannot be verified
because the Government refuses to allow independent observers
access to such persons. It is more reasonable to assume that
some degree of coercion plays a significant role in most if
not all of these cases. There are reliable reports that some
prisoners in Houaphanh Province are forbidden to return to
Vientiane, though they can move about relatively freely in
that province and receive mail and financial assistance from
friends and family. There were reports of releases of groups
of up to 300 persons in 1988 and of additional releases in
1989, but firm numbers are not available. Since 1979,
conditions in the remaining camps reportedly have improved.
Those accused of hostility to the regime or of what the
Government calls "socially undesirable habits," such as
prostitution, drug abuse, idleness, and "wrong thought," are
arbitrarily arrested and sent to "rehabilitation" centers,
usually without public trial. Most of these people have been
allowed to return to their homes after periods, ranging from a
few months to several years, of forced labor, political
indoctrination, and admission of guilt.
The penal code enacted in November 1989 contains some
protections for those accused of crimes, such as a statute of
limitations and provisions for public trials. The Government
is trying to strengthen the rule of law and is setting up a
system of courts to administer justice publicly for the first
time since the change of government in 1975. It remains to be
seen, however, how these provisions will be implemented.
      e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The Supreme People's Assembly enacted a criminal code and laws
establishing a judiciary in November 1989, but these steps
have not yet made a significant difference in the
administration of justice. It is not known what changes these
laws may make in Lao legal procedures. At present the courts
are not independent, and there is no guarantee of due
process. Prior to the recently passed penal code, the
Government had promulgated interim rules and regulations for
the arrest and trial of those accused of specific crimes,
including armed resistance to the Government. Although the
regulations allow an accused person to make a statement
presenting his side of the case, they provide no real
opportunity for the accused to defend himself and do not
permit bail or use of a freely chosen attorney. Rather, the
Government has issued instructions on how to investigate,
prosecute, and punish wrongdoers. These instructions are
applied capriciously and inconsistently.
People can be arrested on unsupported accusations and without
being informed of the charges or of the accusers' identities.
Government officials and their families can often influence
judgments. Regulations call for judgment to be given in
public, however, this is only a public announcement of the
sentence and not a true public trial. There is some provision
for appeal, although important political cases tried by
"people's courts" reportedly may not be appealed. The Council
of Ministers must approve death sentences, but there were no
reports of capital sentences in 1990.
      f . Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
As the economy has undergone considerable liberalization,
there appears to have been a significant relaxation of some
elements of state control, including police monitoring of
personal and business activities and enforcement of the
nighttime curfew. However, in 1990 there were credible
reports that the Government tightened restrictions in some
areas, perhaps in response to increased insurgent activity,
anxiety over developments in the former Communist bloc, and
concern about its declining control over the economy. Search
and seizure continue to be authorized by the security bureaus
rather than by judicial authority, and government regulations,
which are not always followed, provide little protection. The
draft constitution and the 1989 penal code address these
issues, but changes have not yet been observed in practice.
The draft constitution specifically requires search warrants.
At present, there is probably some monitoring of international
and domestic mail and telephone calls, although the new penal
code outlaws listening to telephone calls or secretly
examining documents without proper authorization. The
Government is lifting restrictions on the sale of privately
owned land and instituting a procedure for the return of land
confiscated after the change of government to the original
owners. It is too early to judge the effectiveness of this
process .
The Government and party continue to monitor some aspects of
family and work life through a system of neighborhood and
workplace informants. There have been reports that an
undetermined number of people, including suspected prostitutes
and some returned students from Eastern Europe, were rounded
up and sent for political and social reeducation for a month
or more.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
      a. Freedom of Speech and Press
Public expression of opposition to the party and State is not
permitted, and participants in such activity have been
jailed. In October three people, including one current and
one former senior government official, were arrested for
violating Articles 52 and 59 of the penal code, which ban acts
of rebellion and sedition. The three reportedly wrote an
article advocating political reform, including multiparty
elections. There have been demonstrations by Lao students in
Eastern European countries calling for a democratic,
multiparty system. Private criticisms of official policies
are heard more frequently. The new penal code bars slandering
the State, including distorting party or state policies, and
spreading false rumors conducive to disorder, prescribing 1 to
5 years' imprisonment for such offenses. The penal code also
bars dissemination of books and other materials deemed
indecent or "infringing" on the national culture.
Newspapers and the state radio and television are instruments
of the Government, reflecting only its views. There are
limitations on which foreign publications can be imported,
though some Thai newspapers are sold. The Government makes no
effort to discourage reception of Thai radio or television,
which are widely watched and heard in Vientiane and other
parts of the country. Academic freedom does not exist, but
the content of many courses has been expanded to include a
wider variety of materials, including many previously
      b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The Government controls most large public gatherings and,
except for religious, athletic, and communal events, organizes
them. The new penal code expressly forbids demonstrations or
protest marches aimed at causing turmoil and social
instability, prescribing penalties of 1 to 5 years'
imprisonment. Unspecified "destabilizing subversive
activities" are also banned, with penalties ranging from house
arrest to death. All associations—such as those for youth,
women, workers, and a "peace organization"—are party
controlled and disseminate official policy. The LPRP
organizes all professional groups, and their leadership is
often drawn from party ranks.
Associations are permitted to maintain relations with
like-minded, politically acceptable organizations in other
countries, though the definition of what organizations are
politically acceptable has been relaxed in some cases.
Contact between ordinary Lao citizens and foreigners is
increasing as restrictions, such as the requirement that the
Government approve invitations to most foreigners' homes, are
no longer consistently enforced and appear to be changing.
      c. Freedom of Religion
Nearly all lowland Lao are Buddhists and most highland Lao are
animists. In official statements, the Government has
recognized the right to free exercise of religious belief as
well as the contributions religion can make to the development
of the country. The draft constitution contains explicit
guarantees of religious freedom, though this is limited to
"legitimate activities," excluding "divisive acts."
While the new penal code prohibits entrance into the clergy
without government approval, and the Government still monitors
and tries to control the clergy to some extent, its policy
with regard to Buddhist organizations has improved
substantially in recent years. The Government is no longer
actively engaged in a long-term effort to subvert religion.
The open practice of Buddhism is now tolerated, and many
Buddhist temples are being repaired and reopened. Monks
remain the only social group still entitled to special
honorific terms of address, which even high party and
government officials use. Buddhist clergy are prominently
featured at important state and party functions, and most high
party officials now participate in religious ceremonies.
The Government permits religious festivals without hindrance.
Links with coreligionists and religious associations in other
countries, usually other Communist countries, require
government approval. The Government does not formally ban
missionaries from entering Laos to proselytize but in practice
almost always denies them permission to enter.
Roman Catholics and Protestants are permitted to worship, and
new churches were permitted to open in 1990, but the
activities of these churches are probably monitored. The
Government tries through the news media and other means to
persuade highland minority groups to abandon their
"old-fashioned" animist beliefs.
      d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
Although it has relaxed requirements, the Government retains
the right to require citizens to obtain permission from the
authorities for internal travel. Non-Lao residents in
Vientiane must obtain permission to travel outside the city,
though this requirement has also been eased. Government
officials have cited threats of "disorders" created by
"reactionary elements" as the reason for the restrictions.
Foreign travel is increasingly permitted for officials,
students, and those who have family abroad. Passports and
exit visas are widely available. Travel to the United States
and other Western countries has increased sharply in the past
several years. Border crossing permits are available for
those with business in Thailand. The permits are not,
however, granted automatically and may be denied arbitrarily.
Legal emigration is rarely authorized for ethnic Lao, but in
the past year or so Laos appears to have adopted a de facto
policy of free emigration. Most Lao, even those who have been
released from reeducation camps or have otherwise run afoul of
the Government, appear to be able to obtain passports and exit
visas. In addition, many young people are able to obtain exit
permission even though many of their predecessors had decided
to stay in the United States. Nevertheless, the new penal
code considers "misleading people to depart illegally from
Laos" a crime. In recent years, the Government reportedly has
imprisoned some people seeking to leave the country
The Government has announced a policy of welcoming back the
approximately 10 percent of the population that fled after the
1975 change of government. A number of organized groups of
expatriate Lao have returned temporarily to investigate
business possibilities, and some have petitioned for the
return of properties expropriated in the 1970 's. Laos has
also agreed to take back, on a case-by-case basis, its
citizens who had crossed into Thailand but now wish to return
home, and also to return properties that were confiscated.
Since May 1980, when the Lao Government reached agreement on a
repatriation program with Thailand and the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) , over 5,800 Lao have
voluntarily returned to Laos under UNHCR auspices. Lowland
Lao have made up the majority of returnees, though about 1,000
hill tribe Lao had applications for voluntary repatriation
pending as of August. In June 1989 at Geneva, the Lao
Government was one of 56 governments that agreed to the
Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) . Since then, Lao asylum
seekers in Thailand have been processed in accord with the
CPA, both for repatriation and for determination of status
under UNHCR auspices.
Those who return receive several days of political
indoctrination and then are released, generally to return to
their home areas. The UNHCR provides them basic necessities
and is given regular access to them to monitor their treatment
and living conditions. According to the UNHCR, returnees are
generally not the subject of discrimination, official or
otherwise, and are allowed back into Laos with all the
belongings they accumulated in Thailand or third countries.
In addition to those repatriated under the UNHCR program, an
estimated 20,000 people have repatriated themselves without
official involvement.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens
to Change Their Government
Citizens do not have the right to change their government.
The LPRP is run by a relatively small elite who also occupy
most of the principal government posts. Although changes in
the new national assembly have broadened and publicized
political discourse, there is still little freedom to
participate in politics outside the party and no popular
choice of policies.
The Supreme People's Assembly elected by secret ballot in 1989
includes a number of legislators who are not members of the
LPRP, although all candidacies were approved by the party.
Some 121 candidates ran for a total of 79 seats, and each
multimember electoral district had more candidates than
seats. This election followed similar elections for district
and provincial officials in 1988. No other parties were
permitted to organize and voting was mandatory.
The Supreme People's Assembly has drafted a constitution that
is expected to be approved in the first guarter of 1991. The
draft constitution contains guarantees of the primary human
rights, including freedom of religion, private property, and
elections by secreat ballot of most important officials,
including judicial officials. The draft constitution
stipulates the primacy of the LPRP but does not specifically
forbid other parties.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and
Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations
of Human Rights
Laos generally does not cooperate with international human
rights organizations. It has, however, permitted visits by
officials of international humanitarian organizations and has
communicated with them by letter. No domestic human rights
groups are allowed.
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion,
Language, or Social Status
Approximately one-half of the population of Laos is ethnic
Lao, also called "lowland Lao," and the other half is a mosaic
of upland hill tribes. The Government is attempting to
integrate these groups through voluntary programs and to
overcome traditional antagonisms between lowland Lao and
minority groups. Women and minority groups have explicitly
guaranteed voting rights, and there is little legal
discrimination against them. The LPRP and the Government
continue, however, to be dominated by lowland Lao males.
Efforts have been made to include minorities in the political
and governmental elites. For instance, 43 of the 121
candidates for the Supreme People's Assembly were from
minority groups.
The Hmong, a significant upland group, are split along clan
lines. During the years of insurgency, many were strongly
anti-Communist; others sided with the Lao Communists and the
Vietnamese. The Government has repressed many of those groups
that fought against it, especially those continuing to resist
its authority by force. The Hmong tried to defend some of
their tribal areas after 1975, and some reportedly continue to
support insurgent groups. Lao armed forces conduct operations
against armed insurgents, most of whom are Hmong. There were
also credible reports of bombing, aimed at insurgent groups,
that may have caused unnecessary civilian casualties.
Local ethnic Chinese encountered government suspicion and
surveillance after 1979, when Sino-Lao relations deteriorated
seriously. This has abated, however, since relations between
Laos and China improved greatly in 1988. A majority of the
Chinese community left in the post-1975 period. Those who
remain have maintained government-approved Chinese schools in
Vientiane and Savannakhet as well as Chinese associations in
several provincial capitals.
Traditionally, women in Lao society have been subservient to
men and often have been discouraged from obtaining an
education. Today, the active but government-controlled Lao
Women's Federation has as one of its stated goals the
achievement of equal rights for women. The Government claims
that a higher percentage of women make up the school
population now than before 1975 and that women are being
encouraged to assume a greater role in economic and
state-controlled political activity. Women, though absent
from top party and state ranks, occupy responsible positions
in government and private business. There is no pattern of
widespread domestic or culturally approved violence against
women, but both lowland Lao and hill tribes tend to hold women
in lower esteem than men.
Section 6 Worker Rights
      a. The Right of Association
An estimated 80-85 percent of Lao are subsistence farmers.
Among salaried workers, the overwhelming majority are employed
by the State. There is no cogent set of labor laws and no
minimum wage. The Supreme People's Assembly has enacted a
labor law but its text has not yet been publicly released.
While some labor unions exist, they have no right to strike
and are controlled by the Federation of Lao Trade Unions,
which in turn is controlled by the LPRP.
Laos is a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO)
but has not ratified ILO Convention 87 on freedom of
association. Convention 98 on the right to organize and
bargain collectively, or any other ILO convention related to
the worker rights covered in this report.
      b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
There is no right to organize and bargain collectively. In
addition, unions play no discernible role in ameliorating the
low wages of public employees, the largest single category of
employment in the cash economy. The foreign investment code
published in 1988, however, guarantees some worker rights,
such as the right to have job responsibilities defined, to be
paid for that job and not another, and to be paid more for
overtime. There is no prohibition of employer discrimination
against unions, but, given the controlled nature of union
activity, this would play a very limited role in expanding
worker rights. There are no export processing zones.
      c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
There is no general pattern of forced labor in Laos, though
there is no law prohibiting it. Prisoners in reeducation
camps or in prison camps (the former for "ideological" crimes,
the latter for "economic" or "social" offenses) are expected
to do manual labor, including growing their own food. In
addition, there are reports that some of these prisoners, when
released, are restricted to the general area of the camp
(often in mountainous terrain) and expected to work there on
state enterprises.
      d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children
There is no minimum age for employment of children. In
practice, children in this rural economy commonly assist in
the work of their families. Employment of children in Laos'
small but growing industrial sector is not widespread,
although it is common in urban shops.
- e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Laos is a very poor country that suffers from many difficult
circumstances. Workplace conditions are not systematically
exploitative but often fail to protect workers adequately
against sickness or accident. There is no specific system of
worker safety laws or regulations. There is also no law
regulating the workweek, but working hours do not normally
exceed 48 hours a week. Wages are extremely low, particularly
in the large state sector. In fact, they are barely
sufficient to live on unless supplemented by other sources of
income. Some workers receive paid vacations.