Laos traces its first recorded history and its origins as a unified state to the emergence of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (literally, "million elephants") in 1353. Under the rule of King Fa Ngum, the wealthy and mighty kingdom covered much of what today is Thailand and Laos. His successors, especially King Setthathirat in the 16th century, helped establish Buddhism as the predominant religion of the country. By the 17th century, the kingdom of Lan Xang entered a period of decline marked by dynastic struggle and conflicts with its neighbors. In the late 18th century, the Siamese (Thai) established hegemony over much of what is now Laos. The region was divided into principalities centered on Luang Prabang in the north, Vientiane in the center, and Champassak in the south. Following its colonization of Vietnam, the French supplanted the Siamese and began to integrate all of Laos into the French empire. The Franco-Siamese treaty of 1907 defined the present Lao boundary with Thailand.
During World War II, the Japanese occupied French Indochina, including Laos. King Sisavang Vong of Luang Prabang was induced to declare independence from France in 1945, just prior to Japan's surrender. During this period, nationalist sentiment grew. In September 1945, Vientiane and Champassak united with Luang Prabang to form an independent government under the Free Laos (Lao Issara) banner. The movement, however, was shortlived. By early 1946, French troops reoccupied the country and conferred limited autonomy on Laos following elections for a constituent assembly. Amidst the first Indochina war between France and the communist movement in Vietnam, Prince Souphanouvong formed the Pathet Lao (Land of Laos) resistance organization committed to the communist struggle against colonialism. Laos was not granted full sovereignty until the French defeat by the Vietnamese and the subsequent Geneva peace conference in 1954. Elections were held in 1955, and the first coalition government, led by Prince Souvanna Phouma, was formed in 1957. The coalition government collapsed in 1958, amidst increased polarization of the political process. Rightist forces took over the government.
In 1960, Kong Le, a paratroop captain, seized Vientiane in a coup and demanded formation of a neutralist government to end the fighting. The neutralist government, once again led by Souvanna Phouma, was not successful in holding power. Rightist forces under Gen. Phoumi Nosavan drove out the neutralist government from power later that same year. Subsequently, the neutralists allied themselves with the communist insurgents and began to receive support from the Soviet Union. Phoumi Nosavan's rightist regime received support from the U.S.
A second Geneva conference, held in 1961-62, provided for the independence and neutrality of Laos. Soon after accord was reached, the signatories accused each other of violating the terms of the agreement, and with superpower support on both sides, the civil war soon resumed. Although the country was to be neutral, a growing American and North Vietnamese military presence in the country increasingly drew Laos into the second Indochina war (1954-75). For nearly a decade, Laos was subjected to extremely heavy bombing as the U.S. sought to destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail that passed through eastern Laos.
In 1972, the communist People's Party renamed itself the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). It joined a new coalition government in Laos soon after the Vientiane cease-fire agreement in 1973. Nonetheless, the political struggle between communists, neutralists, and rightists continued. The fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh to communist forces in April 1975 hastened the decline of the coalition in Laos. Months after these communist victories, the Pathet Lao entered Vientiane. On December 2, 1975, the king abdicated his throne in the constitutional monarchy, and the communist Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) was established.
The new communist government imposed centralized economic decisionmaking and broad security measures, including control of the media and the arrest and incarceration of many members of the previous government and military in "re-education camps". These draconian policies and deteriorating economic conditions, along with government efforts to enforce political control, prompted an exodus of lowland Lao and ethnic Hmong from Laos. About 10% of the Lao population sought refugee status after 1975. Many have since been resettled in third countries, including more than 250,000 who have come to the United States.
Over time, the Lao Government closed the re-education camps and released most political prisoners. From 1975 to 1996, the U.S. resettled some 250,000 Lao refugees from Thailand, including 130,000 Hmong. By the end of 1999, more than 28,900 Hmong and lowland Lao had repatriated to Laos--3,500 from China, the rest from Thailand. Through the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and non-governmental organizations, the U.S. has supported a variety of reintegration assistance programs throughout Laos. UNHCR monitored returnees for a number of years and reported no evidence of systemic persecution or discrimination against returnees per se. UNHCR closed its Laos office at the end of 2001.
The only legal political party is the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The head of state is President Khamtay Siphandone. The head of government is Prime Minister Boungnang Volachit. Government policies are determined by the party through the all-powerful nine-member Politburo and the 49-member Central Committee. Important government decisions are vetted by the Council of Ministers.
Laos adopted a constitution in 1991. The following year, elections were held for a new 85-seat National Assembly with members elected by secret ballot to 5-year terms. This National Assembly, expanded in 1997 elections to 99 members, approves all new laws, although the executive branch retains authority to issue binding decrees. The most recent elections took place in February 2002 when the assembly was expanded to 104 members.
Today, the Lao People's Democratic Republic is an authoritarian, Communist, one-party state ruled by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). Although the 1991 Constitution outlines a system composed of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, in practice the LPRP continued to control governance and the choice of leaders through its constitutional "leading role" at all levels. The 99-member National Assembly, elected in 1997 under a system of universal suffrage, approved the LPRP's selection of the President in 1998, and ratified the President's selection of a new Prime Minister in March. The judiciary is subject to executive influence.
A small-scale insurgency that has existed since 1975 continues in the early 1990s, although at a much lower level than in previous years. This insurgency has never seriously threatened the regime, but it is troublesome because the insurgents commit sabotage, blow up bridges, and threaten transport and communications. The great majority of insurgents are Hmong, led by ex-soldiers from United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-supported units who fought against Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese troops in the 1960s. Hmong groups, most of them formerly associated with the RLG, draw recruits and support from Hmong refugee camps and operate from bases in Thailand with the cooperation of local Thai military officers. As relations between Thailand and Laos continued to improve in the 1990s, support for this insurgent activity declined. Resistance spokesmen claim that their principal source of funds for weapons and supplies comes from Laotian expatriate communities overseas, including the 180,000 Laotians in the United States.
Even though the government lacks widespread public support, insurgency is less a measure of discontent than evidence of a serious ethnic problem. The LPDR, like the RLG that preceded it, has been dominated by lowland Lao. The two governments exemplify the traditional Lao disdain for upland peoples, in spite of Pathet Lao rhetoric in favor of ethnic equality. On the one hand, because many Hmong fought on the side of the "American imperialists," government leaders feel additionally suspicious of them. On the other hand, Hmong and other upland minorities who served with the United States-supported forces have been suspicious and uncomfortable under their former enemies. Thus, a core of insurgents, composed largely of ethnic minorities, continues to fight against the authorities. It will be extremely difficult-- perhaps impossible--for the government to pacify them, especially without help from Vietnamese military units, if the insurgents enjoy access to sanctuary in Thailand along the easily crossed 1,000 kilometer Mekong River border.
In the early 1980s, Hmong insurgents claimed that the Lao People's Army was using lethal chemical agents against them. The Hmong refugees in Thailand often referred to the chemical agents as "poisons from above;" foreign journalists used the term "yellow rain." The government vehemently denied these charges. The United States Department of State noted in 1992 that "considerable investigative efforts in recent years have revealed no evidence of chemical weapons use" in the post-1983 period. The LPDR again denied these charges. The United States Department of State noted in 1992 that "considerable investigative efforts in recent years have revealed no evidence of chemical weapons use."
Laos is an extremely poor country with a population of 5.2 million. The economy is principally agricultural, with 85 percent of the population engaged in subsistence agriculture. Laos is a landlocked country with an inadequate infrastructure and a largely unskilled work force. The country's per capita income in 1999 was estimated to be $241. Agriculture, mostly subsistence rice farming, dominates the economy, employing an estimated 85% of the population and producing 51% of GDP. Domestic savings are low, forcing Laos to rely heavily on foreign assistance and concessional loans as investment sources for economic development. In FY 1999, for example, foreign grants and loans accounted for more than 20% of GDP and more than 75% of public investment. In 1998, the country's foreign debt was estimated at $1.9 billion.
Following its accession to power in 1975, the communist government imposed a harsh, Soviet-style command economy system, replacing the private sector with state enterprises and cooperatives; centralizing investment, production, trade, and pricing; and creating barriers to internal and foreign trade.
Within a few years, the Lao Government realized these types of economic policies were preventing, rather than stimulating, growth and development. No substantive reform was introduced, however, until 1986 when the government announced its "new economic mechanism" (NEM). Initially timid, the NEM was expanded to include a range of reforms designed to create conditions conducive to private sector activity. Prices set by market forces replaced government-determined prices. Farmers were permitted to own land and sell crops on the open market. State firms were granted increased decisionmaking authority and lost most of their subsidies and pricing advantages. The government set the exchange rate close to real market levels, lifted trade barriers, replaced import barriers with tariffs, and gave private sector firms direct access to imports and credit.
In 1989, the Lao Government reached agreement with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund on additional reforms. The government agreed to expand fiscal and monetary reform, promote private enterprise and foreign investment, privatize or close state firms, and strengthen banking. In addition, it also agreed to maintain a market exchange rate, reduce tariffs, and eliminate unneeded trade regulations. A liberal foreign investment code was enacted and appears to be slowly making a positive impact in the market. The pace of reforms has slowed since the onset of the Asian Financial crisis.
These reforms led to economic growth and an increased availability of goods. However, the Asian financial crisis, coupled with the Lao Government's own mismanagement of the economy, resulted in spiraling inflation and a steep depreciation of the kip, which lost 87% of its value from June 1997 to June 1999. Tighter monetary policies brought about greater macroeconomic stability in FY 2000,dropped to less than 1% per month.. The economy continues to be dominated by an unproductive agricultural sector operating largely outside the money economy and in which the public sector continues to play a dominant role.
Buddhism was the state religion of the Kingdom of Laos, and the organization of the Buddhist community of monks and novices, the clergy (sangha), paralleled the political hierarchy. The faith was introduced beginning in the eighth century by Mon Buddhist monks and was widespread by the fourteenth century. A number of Laotian kings were important patrons of Buddhism. Virtually all lowland Lao were Buddhists in the early 1990s, as well as some Lao Theung who have assimilated to lowland culture. Since 1975 the communist government has not opposed Buddhism but rather has attempted to manipulate it to support political goals, and with some success. Increased prosperity and a relaxation of political control stimulated a revival of popular Buddhist practices in the early 1990s.
Lao Buddhists belong to the Theravada tradition, based on the earliest teachings of the Buddha and preserved in Sri Lanka after Mahayana Buddhism branched off in the second century B.C. Theravada Buddhism is also the dominant school in Thailand and Cambodia.
Theravada Buddhism is neither prescriptive, authoritative, nor exclusive in its attitude toward its followers and is tolerant of other religions. It is based on three concepts: dharma, the doctrine of the Buddha, a guide to right action and belief; karma, the retribution of actions, the responsibility of a person for all his or her actions in all past and present incarnations; and sangha, within which a man can improve the sum of his actions. There is no promise of heaven or life after death but rather salvation in the form of a final extinction of one's being and release from the cycle of births and deaths and the inevitable suffering while part of that cycle. This state of extinction, nirvana, comes after having achieved enlightenment regarding the illusory nature of existence.
The essence of Buddhism is contained in the Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha: suffering exists; suffering has a cause, which is the thirst or craving for existence; this craving can be stopped; and there is an Eightfold Path by which a permanent state of peace can be attained. Simply stated, the Eightfold Path consists of right understanding, right purpose, right speech, right conduct, right vocation, right effort, right thinking, and right meditation.
The average person cannot hope for nirvana at the end of this life, but by complying with the basic rules of moral conduct, can improve karma and thereby better his or her condition in the next incarnation. The doctrine of karma holds that, through the working of a just and impersonal cosmic law, actions in this life and in all previous incarnations determine which position along the hierarchy of living beings a person will occupy in the next incarnation. Karma can be favorably affected by avoiding these five prohibitions: killing, stealing, forbidden sexual pleasures, lying, and taking intoxicants. The most effective way to improve karma is to earn merit (het boun--literally, to do good--in Lao). Although any act of benevolence or generosity can earn merit, Laotians believe the best opportunities for merit come from support for the sangha and participation in its activities.
Traditionally, all males are expected to spend a period as a monk or novice prior to marriage and possibly in old age, and the majority of Lao Loum men probably did so until the 1970s. Being ordained also brings great merit to one's parents. The period of ordination need not be long--it could last only for the three-month Lenten retreat period--but many men spend years in the sangha gaining both secular and religious knowledge. Study of the Pali language, in which all Theravada texts are written, is a fundamental component of religious training. Ordination as a monk also requires a man to comply with the 227 rules of the monastic order; novices--those under twenty years old--must obey seventy- five rules; and lay persons are expected to observe the five prohibitions. Only a few women, usually elderly, become Buddhist nuns; they live a contemplative and ascetic life but do not lead religious ceremonies as do monks.
Monks are trying to develop detachment from the world and thus, may have no possessions but must rely on the generosity of people for food and clothing. These gifts provide an important opportunity for the giver to earn merit. Women are more active than men in preparing and presenting rice and other food to monks, who make their morning rounds through the town carrying a bowl to receive offerings that are their only nourishment for the day. In villages where there are only a few monks or novices, the women of the village often take turns bringing food to the wat each morning. Attendance at prayers held at the wat on the quarter, full, and new moon of each lunar cycle also provides a regular means of gaining merit.
Major religious festivals occur several times a year. The beginning and end of the Lenten retreat period at the full moon of the eighth and eleventh months are occasions for special offerings of robes and religious articles to the monks. During Buddhist Lent, both monks and laity attempt to observe Buddhist precepts more closely. Monks must sleep at their own wat every night-- rather than being free to travel--and are expected to spend more time in meditation. Offerings to monks and attendance at full-moon prayers are also greater than at other times. Vixakha Bouxa, which celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha at the full moon of the sixth month--usually May--corresponds with the rocket festival (boun bang fai), which heralds the start of the rains. The date of Boun Phavet, which commemorates the charity and detachment of Prince Vessantara, an earlier incarnation of the Buddha, varies within the dry season, and, aside from its religious orientation, serves as an important opportunity for a village to host its neighbors in a twenty-four-hour celebration centering on monks reciting the entire scripture related to Vessantara. That Luang, a Lao-style stupa, is the most sacred Buddhist monument in Laos and the location of the nationally important festival and fair in November.
For the Lao Loum, the wat is one of the two focal points of village life (the other is the school). The wat provides a symbol of village identity as well as a location for ceremonies and festivals. Prior to the establishment of secular schools, village boys received basic education from monks at the wat. Nearly every lowland village has a wat, and some have two. Minimally, a wat must have a residence building for the monks and novices (vihan), and a main building housing the Buddha statues (sim), which is used for secular village meetings as well as for prayer sessions. Depending on the wealth and contributions of the villagers, the buildings vary from simple wood and bamboo structures to large, ornate brick and concrete edifices decorated with colorful murals and tile roofs shaped to mimic the curve of the naga, the mythical snake or water dragon. An administrative committee made up of respected older men manages the financial and organizational affairs of the wat.
Buddhist ceremonies generally do not mark events in a life- cycle, with the exception of death. Funerals may be quite elaborate if the family can afford it but are rather simple in rural settings. The body lies in a coffin at home for several days, during which monks pray, and a continual stream of visitors pay their respects to the family and share food and drink. After this period, the body is taken in the coffin to a cremation ground and burned, again attended by monks. The ashes are then interred in a small shrine on the wat grounds.
Beginning in the late 1950s, the Pathet Lao attempted to convert monks to the leftist cause and to use the status of the sangha to influence the thoughts and attitudes of the populace. The effort was in many ways successful, despite efforts by the RLG to place the sangha under close civil administrative control and to enlist monks in development and refugee assistance programs. Political scientist Stuart-Fox attributed the success of the Pathet Lao to the inability of the Lao Loum elite to integrate the monarchy, government, and sangha into a set of mutually supportive institutions. Popular resentment of the aristocracy, division of the sangha into two antagonistic sects, the low level of its religious education and discipline, and opposition to foreign (i.e., Western) influence all contributed to the receptiveness of many monks to Pathet Lao overtures. The politicization of the sangha by both sides lowered its status in the eyes of many, but its influence at the village level augmented popular support for the Pathet Lao political platform, which paved the way for the change in government in 1975.
The LPDR government's successful efforts to consolidate its authority also continues to influence Buddhism. In political seminars at all levels, the government taught that Marxism and Buddhism were basically compatible because both disciplines stated that all men are equal, and both aimed to end suffering. Political seminars further discouraged "wasteful" expenditures on religious activities of all kinds, because some monks were sent to political reeducation centers and others were forbidden to preach. The renunciation of private property by the monks was seen as approaching the ideal of a future communist society. However, Buddhist principles of detachment and nonmaterialism are clearly at odds with the Marxist doctrine of economic development, and popular expenditures on religious donations for merit making are also seen as depriving the state of resources. Thus, although overtly espousing tolerance of Buddhism, the state undercut the authority and moral standing of the sangha by compelling monks to spread party propaganda and by keeping local monks from their traditional participation in most village decisions and activities. During this period of political consolidation, many monks left the sangha or fled to Thailand. Other pro-Pathet Lao monks joined the newly formed Lao United Buddhists Association, which replaced the former religious hierarchy. The numbers of men and boys being ordained declined abruptly, and many wat fell empty. Participation at weekly and monthly religious ceremonies also dropped off as villagers under the watchful eye of local political cadre were fearful of any behavior not specifically encouraged.
The nadir of Buddhism in Laos occurred around 1979, after which a strategic liberalization of policy occurred. Since that time, the number of monks has gradually increased, although as of 1993, the main concentrations continue to be in Vientiane and other Mekong Valley cities. Buddhist schools in the cities remain but have come to include a significant political component in the curriculum. Party officials are allowed to participate at Buddhist ceremonies and even to be ordained as monks to earn religious merit following the death of close relatives. The level of religious understanding and orthodoxy of the sangha, however, is no higher than it had been before 1975, when it was justly criticized by many as backward and unobservant of the precepts.
From the late 1980s, stimulated as much by economic reform as political relaxation, donations to the wat and participation at Buddhist festivals began to increase sharply. Festivals at the village and neighborhood level became more elaborate, and the That Luang festival and fair, which until 1986 had been restricted to a three-day observance, lasted for seven days. Ordinations also increased, in towns and at the village level, and household ceremonies of blessing, in which monks were central participants, also began to recur. Although the role of Buddhism has been permanently changed by its encounter with the socialist government, it appears that Buddhism's fundamental importance to lowland Lao and to the organization of Lao Loum society has been difficult to erase, has been recognized by the government, and will continue for the foreseeable future.
INCIDENCE OF CRIME
Laos has provided data neither for United Nations nor INTERPOL surveys of crime; however, an estimate of crime is given in the United States State Department's Consular Information Sheet which states that while Laos generally has a low rate of violent crime, it is not immune to crime. There has been a recent increase in thefts and assaults in Vientiane, including bag-snatching and sexual assaults. Incidents of house-breaking have risen sharply in the past year. Expatriates attempting to report burglaries in-progress to the police often find that the police telephones are not answered or are informed that the police are not authorized to respond to criminal activity at night, or that the police have no transportation.
The criminal justice system, like every aspect of life in Laos, is controlled by the party and the government. There are few legal restraints on the often arbitrary actions--including arrests--by the government, and dissent is handled by suppressing basic civil rights. Although the constitution provides for the freedoms of worship, speech, and press, as of the mid-1990s, citizens did not feel free to exercise these rights fully. There are no legal safeguards, and people are frequently arrested on vague charges. Although a penal code and a constitution that guarantee certain civil liberties have been promulgated, implementation is another matter, particularly where freedom of political expression is concerned. And, the media are state-controlled.
Nonetheless, there is a system for prosecuting criminal behavior. Common crimes are evaluated at the local village level. More serious cases, especially politically sensitive ones, are referred to higher authorities. People's tribunals operate at district and provincial levels with judges appointed by the government.
Both Laotian journalists and Western officials are critical of the limitations on personal freedoms. In 1987 a Laotian journalist living in Thailand noted that there was little popular support for the government, but that most Laotians accepted its authority because they had little choice. In 1988 a Laotian journalist protested that open criticism of the government was forbidden and that, as a result, one of his friends was imprisoned after he complained about the continuing lack of a constitution. In 1988 Western diplomats reported that hundreds--perhaps thousands--of individuals were being held in dention centers around the country and that people still were being arrested and held for months without being charged.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the government instituted the New Economic Mechanism, a series of sweeping economic reforms geared toward establishing a market-oriented economy. Along with these economic reforms came a slight opening to the West, which provided some opportunity for scrutiny of human rights violations. However, few foreign journalists are allowed to visit Laos, and travel by diplomats and foreign aid workers is restricted. Both domestic and foreign travel by Laotians also is subject to scrutiny and restriction.
The Ministry of Interior is the main instrument of state control and guardianship over the criminal justice system. Ministry of Interior police monitor both Laotians and foreign nationals who live in Laos, and there is a system of informants in workplace committees and in residential areas. According to the United States Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993, both the party and state monitor various aspects of family and social life through neighborhood and workplace committees. These committees are responsible for maintaining public order and reporting "bad elements" to the police, as well as carrying out political training and disciplining employees.
The criminal justice system is deficient in the area of legal precedent and representation. Trials are not held in public, although trial verdicts are publicly announced. Although there is some provision for appeal, it does not apply to important political cases. Under the constitution, judges and prosecutors are supposed to be independent and their decisions free from outside scrutiny. In practice, however, the courts appear to accept recommendations of other government agencies, especially the Ministry of Interior, in making their decisions. Theoretically, the government provides legal counsel to the accused. In practice, however, defendants represent themselves without outside counsel. The government suspended the bar in late 1992, pending new rules on the activities of private lawyers, thereby paving the way for private lawyers to practice in Laos. Meanwhile, persons accused of crimes have to defend themselves.
In 1992 the government launched a campaign to disseminate the new constitution, adopted by the National Assembly in 1991. The leadership touted its efforts at developing a legal system with a codified body of laws and a penal code. By most Western accounts, however, as of mid-1994, there had been little, if any, progress in implementing the freedoms provided for in the constitution. Although the National Assembly had enacted a criminal code and laws establishing a judiciary in November 1989, as of mid-1994 these codes still had not been implemented. Individuals are still being held without being informed of the charges or their accusers' identities.
One of the first priorities for the LPDR was restructuring defense and security forces and improving effectiveness in these new roles. After the major Mekong River towns were liberated, soldiers were assigned police duties, although they lacked the necessary training. As the pace of political change quickened and the government became increasingly concerned about security, the public expressed dissatisfaction with heavy-handed military controls, Pathet Lao arrogance, and the excesses committed by some guerrillas.
The emphasis on discipline, training, and reorganization reflected the difficulties encountered by the former Pathet Lao cadre in converting from a guerrilla insurgency into a national security force. Men taught to think of urban-dwelling lowland Lao as their bitter enemies found it difficult at first to treat them as liberated brothers. Also, most young Pathet Lao guerrillas brought in to keep order in the Mekong towns were members of upland minorities who had never before been confronted with the temptations of city life. Consequently, there were reports of abuses such as extortion and robbery by drunken Pathet Lao police officers.
By the end of 1976, an effective police force had been established. Its mission was simple: to maintain basic law and order and strictly enforce government policies, often with little regard for human rights. A police academy was established at the former United States-built police school at Ban Donnoun, ten kilometers east of Vientiane, where Vietnamese and Soviet instructors began teaching Laotian cadres basic police procedures. The crime rate reportedly was very low.
The academy also trained a Laotian secret police organization similar to the Vietnamese internal security apparatus. The secret police were to provide internal security for the party and to look for dissidents within the population: those individuals who disagreed with the LPRP's pro-Vietnamese line and who expressed pro-Chinese or Laotian nationalist sentiments that could be construed as anti-Vietnamese. By late 1978, there were reportedly 800 Vietnamese secret police in Laos engaged in military and civilian surveillance activities. By the late 1980s, their presence had been reduced to a few senior advisers.
Today, the Ministry of Interior (MOI) maintains internal security but shares the function of state control with party and popular fronts (broad-based organizations controlled by the LPRP). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is responsible for the monitoring and oversight of foreigners working in the country, although in practice MOI elements conduct the actual monitoring. The MOI includes local police, security police (including border police), and other armed police units. Communication police are responsible for monitoring telephone and electronic communications. The armed forces are responsible for external security but also have some domestic security responsibilities that include counterterrorism and counterinsurgency activities. Civilian authorities generally maintain effective control over the security forces. Some members of the security forces committed serious human rights abuses.
There were no confirmed reports of politically motivated killings by government officials during the year 2001. There continued to be isolated, unconfirmed reports of deaths at the hands of security forces in remote areas, often in connection with private disputes and the personal abuse of authority.
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances during the year 2001. In 1999 two foreign nationals disappeared near the northwest border with Thailand allegedly after entering the country. At year's end 2001, the disappearances remain unresolved.
The Constitution and the Penal Code prohibit torture; however, in practice members of the security forces subjected prisoners to torture and other abuses. Credible sources reported that detainees routinely were subjected to beatings, long-term solitary confinement in completely darkened rooms, and burning from cigarettes. In some cases detainees reportedly are held in leg chains or wooden stocks. Three Hmong religious leaders arrested in May were kept shackled for much of their 2-month incarceration and required medical treatment on release for injuries resulting from their confinement.
The Government did not address the numerous reports made by groups outside the country regarding use of torture and abusive treatment by government authorities.
The Government limits citizens' privacy rights, and the Government's surveillance network is vast. Security laws allow the Government to monitor individuals' private communications (including e-mail) and movements. However, some personal freedoms accorded to citizens expanded along with the liberalization of the economy.
The Constitution prohibits unlawful searches and seizures; however, police at times disregarded constitutional requirements to safeguard citizens' privacy, especially in rural areas. By law security police may not authorize their own searches; they must have approval from a prosecutor or court. However, in practice police did not always obtain prior approval. The Penal Code generally protects privacy, including that of mail, telephone, and electronic correspondence; however, the government violates such legal protections.
MOI forces monitor citizens' activities; in addition an informal militia in both urban and rural areas has responsibility for maintaining public order and reporting "undesirable elements" to the police. Militia usually concern themselves more with petty crime and instances of moral turpitude than with political activism, although some rural militia may be used for security against insurgents. A sporadically active system of neighborhood and workplace committees under the aegis of the popular front organizations plays a similar monitoring role.
The law provides for arrest warrants issued by the prosecutor, and the Constitution provides for procedural safeguards; however, in practice the Government does not respect these provisions, and arbitrary arrest and detention remain problems. Police sometimes use arrest as a means of intimidation or to extract bribes. Police exercise wide latitude in making arrests, relying on exceptions to the requirement for arrest warrants for those in the act of committing a crime or for "urgent" cases. Incommunicado detention is a problem. There is a 1-year statutory limit for detention without trial; the length of detention without a pretrial hearing or formal charges by law also is limited to 1 year. However, these limits often are ignored in practice. The Office of the Prosecutor General must authorize police to hold a suspect pending investigation. Authorization is given in 3-month increments, and, after a maximum of 1 year, a suspect must be released if police do not have sufficient evidence to bring charges. Access to family or a lawyer is not assured. There is a bail system, but its implementation is arbitrary. A statute of limitations applies to most crimes. In practice, alleged violations of security laws have led to lengthy pretrial detentions without charge and minimal due process protection of those detained. Reports indicated that some students, teachers, and their associates who had staged protests in 1999 remained in detention without trial at year's end 2001. These persons peacefully had advocated multiparty democracy and increased political freedom and had expressed hostility to the regime. Their detention without trial, now in its 3rd year, violates the 1-year statutory limit.
During the year 2001, government authorities arrested and detained more than 60 Christians, at times holding them in custody for months. Those detained without trial at year's end 2001 for their religious activities include: One person in Phongsaly; one person in Houaphan; and six persons in Savannakhet. Seven lowland Lao men who returned from China have been detained without trial since 1997. An eighth member of this group was released during the year 2001.
In March government forces detained several villagers in Saysomboune Special District, but subsequently released them on the condition that the villagers not report the security forces shooting of one of the villagers during the incident.
Police in some instances administratively overrule court decisions, at times detaining a defendant exonerated by the court, in violation of the law. There are no known instances of the police being reprimanded or punished for such behavior.
Three former government officials detained in 1990 for advocating a multiparty system and criticizing restrictions on political liberties were not tried until 1992. One died in prison since that time. Also in 1992, the court tried and handed down life sentences to three men detained since 1975 for crimes allegedly committed during their tenure as officials of the previous regime. One of these persons reportedly had died in prison.
An estimated 100 to 200 persons are in detention for suspicion of violations of national security. Most of these detainees are held without trial; one person has been detained since 1992.
The Government does not use forced exile; however, a small group of persons who fled the country at the time of the change in government in 1975, and who were tried in absentia for antigovernment activities, does not have the right of return.
The development of the legal and judicial system did not begin until almost fifteen years after the state was proclaimed. In November 1989, a criminal code and laws establishing a judicial system were adopted. In 1993 the government began publishing an official gazette to disseminate laws, decrees, and regulations.
In 1990 the judicial branch was upgraded. New legislation provided a draft of a criminal code, established procedures for criminal cases, set up a court system, and established a law school. Moreover, the Ministry of Justice added a fourth year of studies to a law program for training magistrates and judges.
Also in 1990, the functions of the Supreme People's Court were separated from those of the office of the public prosecutor general. Until then, the minister of justice served as both president of the court and director of public prosecutions.
Although the implementation of judicial reforms proceeded slowly and had not significantly improved the administration of justice by mid-1994, the new legal framework offers the possibility of moving away from the arbitrary use of power toward the rule of law. In late 1992, however, the government suspended the bar until it formulates regulations for fees and activities of (the few) private lawyers who are able to advise in civil cases. Lawyers are not allowed to promote themselves as attorneys-at-law. Theoretically, the government provides legal counsel to the accused, although in practice persons accused of crimes must defend themselves, without outside legal counsel. However, the assessors (legal advisers)--who are often untrained--and the party functionaries are being increasingly replaced by professional personnel trained at the Institute of Law and Administration.
The constitution empowers the National Assembly to elect or remove the president of the Supreme People's Court and the public prosecutor general on the recommendation of its Standing Committee. The Standing Committee of the National Assembly appoints or removes judges (previously elected) of the provincial, municipal, and district levels.
Further evidence of an attempt to shift toward a professional judicial system is found in the public prosecution institutes provided for at each level of administration. The task of these institutes is to control the uniform observance of laws by all ministries, organizations, state employees, and citizens. They prosecute under the guidance of the public prosecutor general, who appoints and removes deputy public prosecutors at all levels.
As of year 2001, the Constitution provides for the independence of the judiciary and the prosecutor's office; however, senior government and party officials influence the courts, although likely to a lesser degree than in the past. Impunity is a problem, as is corruption. Many observers believe that judges can be bribed. The National Assembly Standing Committee appoints judges for 5-year terms; the executive appoints the Standing Committee. The Assembly may remove judges from office for "impropriety." Since 1991 one judge at the district level has been removed for improper behavior.
The People's Courts have three levels: District; municipal and provincial; and a Supreme Court. Decisions of both the lower courts and separate military courts are subject to review by the Supreme Court. Both defendants and prosecutors have the right to appeal an adverse verdict. There are instances in which civilians may be tried in the military courts, but this reportedly is rare.
The Constitution provides for open trials in which defendants have the right to defend themselves with the assistance of a lawyer or other person. The Constitution requires that the authorities inform persons of their rights. The law states that defendants may have anyone assist them in preparing a written case and accompany them at their trial; however, only the defendant may present oral arguments at a criminal trial. Due to lack of funds, most defendants do not have attorneys or trained representatives. Defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence; however, in practice lawyers face severe restrictions in criminal cases. Most trials are little more than direct examinations of the accused, although judges appear not to hold preconceived views of a trial's outcome. Most criminal trials reportedly end in convictions. Defendants sometimes are not permitted to testify on their own behalf. Trials for alleged violations of some security laws and trials that involve state secrets, children under the age of 16, or certain types of family law, are closed.
In some instances, police administratively overrule court decisions, at times detaining a defendant exonerated by the court, in violation of the law.
In addition to the hundreds of short- and long-term political detainees, there are four known political prisoners. Two prisoners from the pre-1975 regime, Colonel Sing Chanthakoumane and Major Pang Thong Chokbengvoun, are serving life sentences after trials that did not appear to be conducted according to international standards. Two former government officials, Latsami Khamphoui and Feng Sakchittaphong, were detained in 1990 for advocating a multiparty system and criticizing restrictions on political liberties, and were not tried until 1992. They are serving 14-year sentences based on their 1992 convictions.
Other political prisoners may have been arrested, tried, and convicted under security laws that prevent public court trials; however, there is no reliable method to ascertain accurately their total number. There have been no verifiable reports of other political prisoners in the last few years. International humanitarian organizations are not permitted to visit political prisoners, or any other prisoners.
There are four categories of persons held in confinement. Aside from common criminals, there are political, social, and ideological deviants. The crimes of the three latter groups are often vaguely defined, their arrests arbitrary, and their length of confinement ambiguous.
The LPDR established four different types of detention centers: prisons, reeducation centers or seminar camps, rehabilitation camps, and remolding centers. Social deviants or common criminals were considered less threatening to the regime than persons accused of political crimes, who were considered potential counterrevolutionaries. Social deviants were confined in rehabilitation camps. According to MacAlister Brown and Joseph J. Zasloff, prisons were primarily for common criminals, but political prisoners also were held there for short periods, usually six to twelve months. Ideologically suspect persons were sent to remolding centers. Reeducation centers were for those deemed politically risky, usually former RLG officials. Political prisoners usually served three- to five-year terms or longer. As at the prisons, inmates worked hard under rugged conditions and had limited supplies of food. Oddly, there was little political indoctrination. Bribery in order to secure food and medicine was reported.
In 1986 Brown and Zasloff also reported that prisoners were not tried but were incarcerated simply by administrative fiat. Former inmates said that they were arrested, informed by the security officials that they had been charged with crimes, and then sent off to camps for indeterminate periods. Typically, prisoners were told one day prior to their release to prepare for departure.
The status of the detention centers also is vague. In 1984 Vientiane declared that all reeducation centers had been closed. At that time, Amnesty International estimated 6,000 to 7,000 political prisoners held in these centers. The government acknowledged that there were some former inmates in remote areas but claimed that their confinement was voluntary. In the late 1980s, the government closed some of the reeducation centers and released most of the detainees.
In 1989 Laos took steps to reduce the number of political prisoners, many of whom had been held since 1975. Several hundred detainees, including many high-ranking officials and officers from the former United States-backed RLG and Royal Lao Army, were released from reeducation centers in the northeastern province of Houaphan. Released prisoners reported that hundreds of individuals remained in custody in as many as eight camps--including at least six generals and former high-ranking members of the RLG. These individuals reportedly performed manual labor such as log cutting, repairing roads, and building irrigation systems. In 1993 Amnesty International reported human rights violations in the continued detention of three "prisoners of conscience" detained since 1975-- but not sentenced until 1992--as well as those held under restrictions or, according to international standards, the subjects of unfair trials.
As of 1993, reports indicated that some high-ranking officials of the RLG and military remained in state custody. Those accused of hostility to the regime were subject to arrest and confinement for long periods of time. Prison conditions were harsh, and prisoners were routinely denied family visitation and proper medical care.
As of year 2001, prison conditions generally are extremely harsh and life threatening. Food rations are minimal, and most prisoners rely on their families for their subsistence. The Government discriminates in its treatment of prisoners, restricting the family visits of some and prohibiting visits to a few. Credible reports indicate that ethnic minority prisoners and some foreign prisoners are treated particularly harshly. Prison authorities use degrading treatment, solitary confinement, and incommunicado detention against perceived problem prisoners, especially suspected insurgents. On occasion the authorities used incommunicado detention as an interrogation method; in isolated cases, this was life threatening when prisoners were detained in such conditions for lengthy periods. There are confirmed reports that a few jails place prisoners in leg chains, wooden stocks, or fixed hand manacles for extended periods. Medical facilities are extremely poor or nonexistent. Some prisoners have died as a result of abusive treatment and lack of medical care. According to credible reports, at least one inmate in a Vientiane prison died of an apparent heart attack when medical care was intentionally withheld for several hours. Prison conditions for women are similar to those for men. Prisons hold both male and female prisoners, although they are placed in separate cells. Juveniles are housed together with adult prisoners.
Several international human rights groups continued their longstanding requests to the Government to move two political prisoners to a prison with better conditions, including more modern medical facilities. The Government continued to ignore these pleas.
The Government does not permit independent monitoring of prison conditions, and has denied the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its prisons.
There are reports that domestic violence against women occurs, although it is not widespread. Spousal abuse is illegal. Rape reportedly is rare. In cases of rape that are tried in court, defendants generally are convicted with penalties ranging from 3-years imprisonment to execution. Spousal rape is not illegal.
Trafficking in women and girls for prostitution is a problem. Prostitution is illegal with penalties ranging from 3 months to 1 year in prison.
Sexual harassment is rare. Although sexual harassment is not illegal, "indecent sexual behavior" toward another person is illegal and punishable by 6-months to 3-years imprisonment.
Violence against children is prohibited by law, and violators are subject to stiff punishments. Reports of the physical abuse of children are rare. Trafficking in girls for prostitution and forced labor is a problem. Other forms of child labor generally are confined to family farms and enterprises.
TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS
The Penal Code prohibits abduction and trade in persons as well as the constraint, procuring, and prostitution of persons; however, trafficking in persons, particularly women and children, is a problem. Laos is primarily a country of origin for trafficking in persons and to a lesser extent, a transit country. Although there is no reliable data available on the scope and severity of the problem, rough estimates indicate that from 15,000 to 20,000 Lao girls and young women are trafficked annually for purposes of prostitution mostly to Thailand; some are trafficked to China. Some young men are also victims. Additionally, as many as 100,000 citizens annually travel to Thailand to participate in seasonal agricultural labor and some urban labor as well. Many of these citizens are illegally in Thailand and vulnerable to exploitation; some are trafficked only after their arrival in Thailand. A much smaller number of foreign nationals are transited through Laos, including Burmese to China and Thailand, and Vietnamese to Thailand. In recent years, highland minority women from the interior of the country have become the group most vulnerable to traffickers.
Labor recruiters in the country usually are citizens with experience in cross-border labor and, for the most part, with no connection to organized crime, commercial sexual exploitation, or the practice of involuntary servitude. They simply may be assisting fellow villagers.
There are no reports of official involvement in trafficking; however, anecdotal evidence suggests that local officials know of trafficking activities and a very few profit from them. At least one major trafficker in the southern part of the country is said to be acting with impunity.
In the past, the Government has prosecuted some persons for involvement in such recruiting activities. During the year 2001, law enforcement agencies conducted a minimal number of raids on entertainment establishments accused of fostering prostitution.
Some victims are punished for improper documentation or for crossing the border illegally. The victims have no recourse to relief. Some local authorities have ordered trafficking victims into reeducation seminars and subjected them to substantial fines. The Government remains concerned about children being lured into sexual exploitation and slave labor in other countries, but the Government denied that there were any problems in the country that involve child prostitution. The National Commission for Mothers and Children, established in 1992 and chaired by the Foreign Minister, continues an active program with support from the U.N. Children's Fund. At the Government's invitation, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Children visited in 1998.
Laos is the world's third largest producer of opium--primarily in the northern provinces. Narcotics trafficking in Laos is difficult to control because of the remoteness of many border areas, their attendant lack of communications, and the scarcity of resources, all of which which make stationing officials at many of the border crossings difficult. However, several counternarcotics policy initiatives have been undertaken. During the late 1980s, narcotics control became an important United States concern, because Laos is a major producer of opium and marijuana. In 1987 Laos began to cooperate with the United States in drug control efforts when it requested assistance in providing a viable crop alternative to opium farmers. Increased efforts on counternarcotics cooperation have been evident since January 1990 when a memorandum of understanding on the Bilateral Cooperation of Narcotics Issues was signed. This agreement focused on ways for the United States to provide antinarcotics programs. The United States provided narcotics-related training to a number of Laotian officials in June 1990 and again in August 1991. And, in 1992, United States Customs Service officials held a training session in Vientiane for Laotian customs officers and other officials. Since then, Laotian officials have also traveled to Australia, Japan, and Europe for counternarcotics cooperation training.
In late 1992, as part of the continuing counternarcotics effort, the LPDR Customs Department set up an antismuggling unit in Vientiane. The Council of Ministers approved the formation of this counternarcotics police unit operationally under the Ministry of Interior but with policy controlled by the Lao National Committee on Drug Control and Supervision. Progress in the configuration of the unit was negligible. As of mid-1993, however, the United States was working with the LPDR to provide support and training for the unit, and the site for the unit was being renovated.
Estimated opium production has declined annually since 1989, largely through successful crop reduction and replacement programs that target specific areas and are funded and initiated by the United States and the UN Drug Control Program. Laos has facilitated these crop substitution programs--aimed at developing alternative crops and occupations--in Houaphan, Vientiane, and Xiangkhoang provinces. In 1989 there were an estimated 42,130 hectares of land deemed "potentially harvestable" for cultivating opium. By 1993 there were approximately 26,040 hectares. The potential opium yield declined from 380 tons in 1989 to 230 tons in 1992 and to 180 tons in 1993. The United States government estimated that opium production in Laos had declined some 27 percent in 1990 over the previous year, approximately 13 percent from 1991 to 1992, and about 22 percent from 1992 to 1993, the latter mainly as a result of adverse weather because the estimated hectarage under cultivation did not decrease.
Decreased opium cultivation and production are also the result of increased law enforcement efforts, narcotics-related arrests and crop seizures, and a greater effort to disseminate information on the disadvantages of drug trafficking. Although the government tends to deny that it has a domestic drug problem, a public awareness program stressing the dangers of drug use and trafficking has been established, and, as part of the information and education campaign, there has been increased publicity on penalties for offenses.
In April 1993, Laos was certified ("with explanation") for narcotics cooperation in 1992 by the United States Department of State. (Certification is granted for performance in narcotics cooperation in the previous calendar year and is categorized by cooperation or certification, noncooperation or decertification, and national interest waiver.) Certification guarantees Laos increased United States cooperation and funding of counternarcotics programs. Certification (with explanation), however, stipulates that in order to receive full United States support, Laos has to take visible, significant, and continuing action to improve the enforcement of antinarcotics laws, which were first enacted in November 1989. Other reasons for the designation certification with explanation include the slow pace of cooperation with officials from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration and allegations of involvement in drug trafficking by high-level members of the government.
In April 1994, the United States granted Laos a national interest waiver for certification of narcotics cooperation in 1993. It was determined that the waiver was preferable to decertification or certification and was in the United States national interest in order to exact continued cooperation on the POW/MIA issue.
Previous efforts--although modest--to curb the drug trade continue. At the same time, however, corruption among civilian and military personnel and their collusion in narcotics activities reportedly continue as well. In 1993 the prime minister ordered the provinces to organize antidrug committees and cooperate with the Lao National Committee on Drug Control and Supervision. Cooperation is to take the form of publicizing existing laws and regulations and educating the public on the dangers of drugs.
For the foreseeable future, drug production and trafficking will likely remain serious problems. Still, the 27 percent drop in opium cultivation, coupled with the arrests of drug traffickers and the government's stated commitment to take further action on enforcement, are encouraging. Laos has also signed a memorandum of understanding with China and Thailand on strengthening regional cooperation in controlling illicit drugs. In the near term, the United States will probably continue to assist Laos in efforts to decrease opium cultivation and production through crop substitution programs.
This improvement in the narcotics arena is indicative of the overall improvement in the country's national security situation. Since 1988 Laos has experienced a period of relative calm in its turbulent history. It has been at peace with its neighbors, and its internal armed resistance movement has been reduced to a mere annoyance. One of the last holdouts of communist ideology in the world, Laos has slowly opened its doors to the West in order to improve its economic situation. In mid-1994, however, Laos was still a long way from providing its citizens with the basic civil rights fundamental to Western societies. There are few personal freedoms, no freedom of the press or assembly, and harsh prison conditions for citizens who deviate from the party line. It is doubtful that the armed forces will modernize much in the 1990s, unless the country's overall economic situation improves or a new political patron emerges. It is more likely that the military will lag farther and farther behind its stronger neighbors.
Laos remains the world's third largest producer of illicit opium, behind Burma and Afghanistan. For the 1998 growing season, the U.S. estimates Laos' potential opium production at 140 metric tons, down 33 percent from the previous year. Opium cultivation fell only seven percent; however, as most of the fall in production can be attributed to adverse weather conditions which affected opium production in Burma and Thailand as well. Crop substitution project areas funded by foreign donors continued to show only low levels of opium cultivation, none of which was for commercial distribution, but was rather restricted to small amounts for local use. In January 1998, a heroin laboratory was seized in Bokeo province, the first such seizure this decade. In July, the position of Chairman of the Lao National Drug Commission was raised to ministerial rank. A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent was assigned to the U.S. embassy in Vientiane for the first time since 1975. Laos is making a sincere effort to cooperate with international donors in an effort to find alternatives to opium cultivation; Laos is also doing a better job enforcing its own anti-trafficking and drug abuse laws. Laos is not yet a party to the 1988 UN Drug Convention, but the government of Laos' (GOL) stated goal is ratification of the Convention by the year 2000.
Because Lao opium is grown by small-scale subsistence farmers, without fertilizer, irrigation, or other agricultural improvements, yields average less than half those found in neighboring Burma. Yields in Burma are higher because Burma is more tightly integrated into the illicit heroin trafficking system managed by ethnic Chinese gangs, which support growers with agricultural inputs. The USG supports crop control and development programs in Laos in order to help the GOL change farmer practices before an improving economy or organization of opium cultivation by these criminal syndicates boost yields and overall production.
Laos' location next to the world's largest producer of opium and heroin (Burma), and its land borders with countries that combine important opium markets and ports on trade routes to Europe and the U.S. (China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia), make it an important route for drug trafficking. This importance is increasing as Laos' physical and communications infrastructure gradually improve, and is part of the reason why the U.S. is helping Laos to develop judicial and law enforcement institutions, before infrastructure improvements bind Laos more tightly into the illicit trafficking system of the Golden Triangle.
Given Laos' poverty and the very low salaries of Lao government employees, it is assumed that there are officials and military personnel who receive bribes from illicit drug trafficking. These possibly include some officials at relatively senior levels. Several Lao district and provincial officials were arrested in 1998 for involvement in drug trafficking. The Lao government does not encourage or facilitate the production or distribution of illicit drugs as a matter of policy, however.
Opium is still produced in the ten northern provinces of Laos as a cash or barter crop, and as traditional medicine. The extreme isolation of most opium producing communities and the absence of alternatives make opium an important crop for the area's subsistence farmers. USG 1998 crop estimates indicate a seven percent fall in cultivation to 26,100 hectares, and a 33 percent fall in potential production to 140 metric tons. Most of this change can be attributed to unfavorable weather conditions during the opium growing season. Average yields were estimated at only 5.4 kilograms per hectare, compared to an estimated 7.5 kilograms per hectare in 1997. Most of the heaviest production remained in the northwest, where new USG crop control initiatives are targeted.
The GOL's ability to control the flow of narcotics within and across its lengthy, porous borders is severely limited by lack of personnel, resources, expertise, and ready access to many isolated areas of the country.
Effective control over borders with Thailand, Burma, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia exists only in the vicinity of major population areas, along principal land routes, and at established river crossings. As Lao road infrastructure improves, and as interdiction efforts on Burma's borders with China and Thailand become more efficient, Laos likely will be an even more popular route for illicit drug flows. This is borne out by another year of historically high drug seizure levels in 1998.
Opium addiction is still the main drug use problem in Laos, but is overwhelmingly a rural phenomenon and concentrated in the north of the country, especially among hill tribes. Many addicts began using opium for quasi-medical reasons. UNDCP estimates an opium addict population of 59,000 (this figure has not yet been acknowledged by the GOL). UNDCP attributes the dramatic rise from its 1996 estimate of 35,000 addicts to more comprehensive and accurate data gathering, rather than to an actual increase in opium addiction. The GOL is putting great emphasis on detoxification programs for addicts, although implementation details are left to provincial administrations. The location of most addicts in remote, often inaccessible rural areas increases the cost and difficulty of treatment and follow up. Methamphetamine use is now appearing among young urban Lao in a disturbing parallel to drug problems in neighboring Thailand. In July 1998, the USG funded a third drug treatment workshop for Lao health care officials in Vientiane conducted by Daytop International.
Internet research assisted by K. Phiavongsa and Tristan Turk