Is Laos a Criminal State?

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Is Laos a Criminal State?

Last week’s attempted execution of a prominent government critic points to the recent rise of lawlessness and a sharp decline in public safety.

Is Laos a Criminal State?

The Patuxai monument in the center of Vientiane, Laos, by night.

Credit: Depositphotos

On April 29, an unknown assailant attempted to murder Anousa Luangsuphom. The administrator of a Facebook page that served as a platform for public political debate in Laos, Anousa, known by the nickname “Jack,” was shot twice at close range in a Vientiane coffee shop. Following initial reports that Anousa had been killed in the attack, it later emerged that he survived and is recovering at a hospital in the Lao capital.

At just 25 years of age, Anousa represents one of a swelling number of young Lao citizens who are becoming more vocal about their country’s lack of political freedoms. Despite repeated efforts by the government to censor social media, online criticism of the party-state has been increasing, particularly among youth.

Anousa’s attempted murderer has not been apprehended, and there has been no announcement of a police investigation. He and his family must be protected.

This act of violence is just the latest in a growing list of human rights abuses against those who have sought to promote political transparency and freedom in Laos. These include Od Sayavong, Houayheuang Xayabouly, and Sombath Somphone – to name just a few of the more prominent cases. Houayheuang continues to be imprisoned for her criticisms of the government’s abysmal response to support survivors of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower dam collapse, while the whereabouts of Sayavong and Somphone, both victims of enforced disappearance, remain unknown.

Laos has long been an authoritarian state with no tolerance for public criticism. Increasingly, however, it appears to be also becoming a criminal state, where corrupt elites have enmeshed themselves within the state apparatus for the purpose of accumulating wealth.

Take, for example, the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GTSEZ) in the country’s northern province of Bokeo, where reports indicate that victims from more than 20 countries have been trafficked and forced to undertake cybercrime. Reports of torture, debt bondage, murder, and suicides have surrounded the zone, in which the Lao government holds a 20 percent stake. Alongside internationally trafficked victims, many vulnerable citizens of Laos have also been held captive in the zone, with families having to pay extortion fees to free their loved ones from prostitution and other forms of involuntary labor. Drug trafficking through Bokeo province has also accelerated rapidly since the GTSEZ was established.

Yet amid all this criminality, the Lao government recently awarded the zone’s chairman, Zhao Wei, a medal of bravery.

Zhao is an internationally-recognized criminal known to be engaged in drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, bribery, and wildlife trafficking. That he was given an official state award in the midst of wide international media attention on his human trafficking operations speaks to the criminality of the Lao government and the waning of public safety and security.

In December 2022, Phankam Viphavanh retired as prime minister of Laos amid soaring inflation and a ballooning national public debt. The country’s economic woes may have been cause for his departure, but the discovery of a woman’s body in a suitcase in the Mekong River is also believed to have played a role. Like Anousa, this woman had also been shot multiple times, and those responsible for her murder have not been identified. The woman was later identified as a Lao millionaire; while not confirmed, it is rumored that she was the mistress of Phankam. The scandal surrounding her death may have also underscored his hasty, encouraged, retirement.

What is the state of public safety and security when the murderer(s) of a prominent and wealthy Vientiane businessperson, and possibly the prime minister’s mistress, go without arrest?

Concerning threats to international visitors, the mysterious 2015 death of Nara Pech, a 28-year-old Canadian national, should not be forgotten. Many of the details surrounding Pech’s death are unclear, but it is known that he died from stab wounds inflicted at Vientiane’s Wattay International Airport, after he had cleared customs. Shortly before his death, Pech left a harrowing voice message on his fiancée’s parents’ phone, stating, “I’m in Laos and they’re trying to hurt me. I need help… they took my boarding pass…” Surveillance video from the airport was withheld by the Lao government, who made the highly-unconvincing claim that Pech died from a self-inflicted stabbing.

What is the level of public security and safety when an international tourist is subject to a violent death in a country’s primary international airport?

When critics of the government are murdered, disappeared, or imprisoned in Laos, the party-state is sending a message to the population that free speech will not be tolerated.

Ironically, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) has long and repeatedly claimed public peace and stability as a central pillar of its legitimacy. Presented as a sign of good political governance, stability is in reality maintained through state violence and oppression to prevent political opposition and any criticism of the LPRP. As inequality and the harmful effects of elite capture increase, and as people’s lives become more difficult due to macro-economic mismanagement, the party-state is increasing the frequency and severity of its political oppression.

The message to remain silent about land acquisitions and displacements, dam collapses, extractive foreign investment, or any other “sensitive” matter related to elite profiteering at the expense of the poor, is delivered to the people of Laos through violence. It is a message directed at a domestic audience, in order to maintain single party-state rule at all costs. But it is also a message that the international community needs to hear.

Laos was once widely considered as a safe and welcoming country to visit, live, and work. The people of Laos remain as warm and welcoming as ever, but the country is becoming much less safe for citizens and for international tourism and business.

When the state colludes with and rewards international criminals such as Zhao Wei, when it fails to provide any answers as to the whereabouts of an internationally-esteemed community development worker whose abduction at a police-checkpoint in the nation’s capital is recorded on CCTV, and when it doesn’t immediately announce an investigation into the attempted assassination of a prominent social media figure – also captured on CCTV – public safety and security is eroded.

When the alleged mistress of the country’s prime minister is shot, stuffed into a suitcase, and thrown into the Mekong river, or when Vientiane is the last known whereabouts of three Thai political activists whose bodies were also found in the Mekong river, public safety and security erodes further.

When Lao political activists are not even safe in Thailand, when the trafficking of crystal methamphetamine skyrockets so much that the “largest drug bust in Asia’s history” is just one of three major seizures in Laos in a single week, or when a Canadian tourist dies (most likely as a result of murder) near a custom checkpoint at an international airport, Laos can no longer be considered a safe country.

To be sure, state violence remains predominantly targeted at those deemed threatening to the party-state, or at those whose homes or livelihoods happen to stand in the way of elite profiteering. But the message for the international community could not be more clear: come to Laos at your own risk.