Lao Government Critic Shot Dead in ‘Brazen’ Attack, Rights Group Says

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Lao Government Critic Shot Dead in ‘Brazen’ Attack, Rights Group Says

Anousa “Jack” Luangsuphom was shot twice by an unidentified gunman in a Vientiane coffee shop on April 29.

Lao Government Critic Shot Dead in ‘Brazen’ Attack, Rights Group Says

An image of Anousa “Jack” Luangsuphom posted on Facebook by friends and supporters following his killing in Vientiane on April 29, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/Joseph Akaravong

The U.S.-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has raised an alarm about last week’s recent “cold-blooded” killing of a prominent government critic in Laos.

At around 10:39 p.m. on April 29, the rights group said in a statement today, Anousa “Jack” Luangsuphom was shot twice by an unidentified gunman while he was sitting in a coffee shop in Vientiane’s Chanthabouly district.

Footage captured by security cameras shows a gunman in a black cap entering the cafe and firing twice at the 25-year-old, who is seated on the floor, before fleeing. He was hit in the face and chest and died on the way to the hospital.

While Anousa’s killing was reported by local media, HRW claims that the Lao government has not yet announced an investigation into the killing.

“The cold-blooded killing of a prominent young political activist in downtown Vientiane sends a spine-chilling message that no one in Laos who criticizes the government is safe,” Elaine Pearson, HRW’s Asia director, said in the statement. She called on the government to immediately initiate a “credible and impartial investigation.”

Such an investigation is unlikely, if history is anything to go by. According to HRW, Anousa was the administrator of the Kub Kluen Duay Keyboard (Driven By Keyboard) Facebook page, which it described as “a popular platform for people in Laos and abroad to express dissenting views about the Lao government, including corruption, and repression of fundamental freedoms.” The page currently has about 43,000 followers, a significant number in a nation of Laos’ size and relatively low levels of internet penetration.

This is exactly the sort of expression that the Lao authorities have taken an increasingly dim view toward over the past 15 years, as internet access and social media use have spread across the nation of 7.4 million. In the past few years, the country’s one-party government has arrested a number of social media users for posting critical comments on their profiles.

These come on top of the significant number of dissidents who have wound up dead or disappeared in mysterious circumstances, some of them in Thailand. The best known is that of Sombath Somphone, a civil society activist who was stopped at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the Lao capital Vientiane one night in December 2012. He was then transferred to another vehicle, according to a police surveillance video, and was never seen again. For the past decade, rights groups and Western governments have called on the Lao government to launch a proper investigation into Sombath’s disappearance, and those of other dissidents who have disappeared abroad, to no avail.

As HRW noted in today’s statement, “Lao authorities have long failed to prevent or adequately respond to attacks against critics of the government, human rights defenders, and political activists.” While the identity and motive of Anousa’s killer has yet to be determined, a lot will be gleaned from the government’s action – or lack thereof – in the weeks and months ahead.