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Laotians campaign for democracy and the release of political prisoners, 1999-2003
Laos has been a socialist republic governed by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) since December 2, 1975. The government controls the country’s news output and restricts the people’s rights to expression, assembly, and protest. Dissent is not permitted and coercion and torture are still prevalent in the prison system. Laos has not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) or the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). However Laos is a member of the United Nations, which has laws against torture and cruel and unusual punishment.
When Deputy Minister of Science and Technology Thongsouk Saysangkhi resigned in 1990, he called for political reform of the corrupt system. The LPRP took him into custody almost immediately, and he died in 1998 due to torture and inhumane treatment. Seeing the need for action, 39-year-old Thongpaseuth Keuakoun began the Lao Students Movement for Democracy (LSMD). Their goal was to get the government to listen to the people. Living conditions, the state of health care and education were all very poor while taxes remained high. The group was fragmented and unorganized until early 1999 when LSMD solidified and began holding regular meetings to discuss possible actions in secret locations across Vientaine. Most members were former students, unable to graduate due to inadequate funds.
LMSD originally planned for a protest on September 9, 1999, but later postponed it due to a Thai demonstration on the same day and unwanted media division. Laotian society was insular, so ideas of how to stage an effective protest were scattered and few. In mid-1999, people outside of Laos became involved in the cause, broadening LMSD’s support and knowledge. LMSD began actively recruiting from universities, teachers and students alike, as well as co-workers and friends of members. Students were put in charge of creating posters and banners with slogans such as “Freedom for Laos” and “21st Century for Democracy and Peace in the Country.” Some printed leaflets stating LMSD objectives such as the creation of a multi-party democracy and free and fair elections. Others organized mass transport for the protest day, ensuring that all who wanted to participate could.
The plan was for small groups to gather in several locations along a specified route in Vientiane and then join together on the march toward the Patuaxi arch monument. The date of October 26 was strategically chosen for the protest because the Laotian Boat Festival was also held that day. Crowds would be witness to the events, and the extra people on the streets would not be conspicuous to the authorities. The first group of 30 arrived near the river with posters ready to unfurl in preparation of the protest. Within minutes the police arrived, arresting five of the event organizers including Keuakoun. One of the 30 ran to the other groups, warning of the police crackdown. The groups dispersed, and some of the organizers went into hiding. The protest was quelled before LMSD had a chance to share their ideas. Although there were witnesses to the arrests, most bystanders did not know what the demonstrations were about at the time. The authorities denied that the protest occurred at all.
Police arrested over 100 demonstrators. The detained were kept without formal charges and denied basic rights. Some were tortured and access to proper medical care and legal counsel were not granted. One of the original five arrested, Khamphouvieng Sisa-At, died in prison in 2001 due to poor treatment.
In October of 2001, 5 activists from the Transnational Radical Party including Belgian Olivier Dupuis of the European Parliament staged a brief protest commemorating the 2nd anniversary of the 1999 demonstration. All were arrested under the Lao Penal Code, which states that demonstrations against the government warrant a 1-5 year sentencing.
On October 26, 2003, another series of commemorative protests ensued internationally. Activists picketed outside the Laotian Embassies in Brussels, Canberra, Moscow, Paris and Washington. They restated the original goals of the 1999 protest and demanded the release of all political prisoners.
While this campaign ended unsuccessfully, protestors renewed action in 2009. From November 2-4, 346 members of LSMD, the United League for democracy in Laos (ULDL), and other peaceful demonstrators were arrested by the Laotian government. Similarly to the 1999 protest, the idea was to gather at the Patuxay monument. Once again, the protest was interrupted by police before the group was able to fully assemble. 100 people were arrested at Pakkading, 20 at Phon Hong, and another 200 in Vientiane.
The goal of a multiparty democracy has not been achieved, and many political prisoners have yet to be released.