Despite its reputation for placidity, and its popularity as a backpacker tourist destination, Laos remains one of the most repressive and politically opaque countries in the world. It is consistently ranked as “not free” by Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World Index, and unlike neighboring Thailand, Cambodia, or even Myanmar during junta rule, Laos has no organized opposition party. In fact, even small public protests in Laos are quickly suppressed, their leaders going missing for years afterward. The state media is highly uninformative, and there are few other outlets for information. (Radio Free Asia–Laos is an exception.) Strange incidents in Laos often remain unresolved. Last winter, a Canadian traveler was apparently stabbed to death in Vientiane’s international airport; Laos’ government initially insisted he committed suicide, but multiple news reports suggest murder was more likely. The case remains unsolved. In 2007, the co-owner of one of northeast Laos’ best-known guesthouses mysteriously disappeared, an apparent kidnapping. Some aid workers in Laos suggested he had been kidnapped for angering local officials for criticizing their management of land and the environment. His case remains unsolved and he has not returned. Last year, Radio Free Asia reported that several Lao citizens who used social media to document alleged land grabbing and harassment by local officials were detained, sometimes for months at a time.
Laos’ political repression receives little international attention. Only the 2012 disappearance of its best-known civil society activist, Sombath Somphone, has received much global notice. In particular, reported repression of the country’s ethnic minority groups is met with international silence. The country has no charismatic opposition leader, and the somnolent quality of everyday life in much of the country tends to give some outsiders the impression that not much is going on in Laos.
In such a repressive environment where there is no means to express dissent peacefully, violence sometimes flares against Laotian officials and government targets, particularly in Hmong-dominated areas in upcountry Laos. Indeed, for decades after communist forces won the country’s civil war and took over government in 1975, bands of Hmong fighters continued to hold out in parts of Laos, fighting a guerilla war with little food and ancient weapons. (During the Vietnam War, the United States government provided military assistance, training, economic aid, and air support to the Hmong.) Reports of Hmong-government violence were, however, often impossible to confirm, since the areas of attacks are relatively remote and Laos is barely covered by most news organizations. When I worked as a journalist in Southeast Asia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, even alleged bombings that took place in Vientiane itself were frequently hard to confirm.
The Hmong-government violence quieted down in the 2000s, as Laos’ army pursued the remaining guerrilla bands, but in recent months it may have picked up again. Radio Free Asia’s Laos service has reported that there has been a spate of shootings of Laotian government soldiers and other targets since November 2015. Meanwhile, the Associated Press, citing sources close to Hmong activists in Laos, reports that the violence that has occurred since November is due to government attacks on groups of Hmong. The U.S. embassy in Vientiane reportedly in November initiated a ban on its employees traveling to the province of Xaysomboon in central Laos, for fear of violent attacks there.
Then, on Sunday two Chinese citizens were killed in upcountry Laos in what the Associated Press reported was a bomb attack. Another Chinese citizen was injured. Although previous attacks attributed to Hmong militants tended to be against government forces or government targets, Chinese investors and businesspeople are not particularly popular in many communities in central and northern Laos. (To be sure, the motives and details of this bombing remain unclear; it is possible that the two Chinese citizens were killed for reasons having nothing to do with Hmong-government tensions.) Although China is now the biggest investor in the landlocked country, there have been numerous allegations of land grabbing and environmental disasters related to Chinese investment in the rubber industry and mining in northern and central Laos.
In addition, attacks on Chinese nationals may seem like a way to deter investment—particularly in a month when both Secretary of State John Kerry and China’s special envoy to Laos are visiting the country—and potentially undermine the Laotian government, which has promised to deliver enough economic growth to lift Laos out of the ranks of least developed nations by 2020. It is almost certain, however, that the spate of violence in Laos will never be fully explained, or even acknowledged by the government in Vientiane.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. This post appears courtesy of CFR.org.