Vientiane (AsiaNews) - The one-party Communist government of Laos is committing "serious" human rights abuses, which go largely unreported due to tight political controls on media and activists, human rights groups said following a report that said that it was the most repressive state in Southeast Asia.
Rights groups have focused on Laos more sharply since popular civil society leader Sombath Somphone vanished after being stopped in his vehicle at a police checkpoint in the capital Vientiane on 15 December 2012. Government-linked organisations are thought to be responsible for his disappearance.
"The situation in Laos is very serious," Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of New York-based Human Rights Watch, told RFA's Lao Service.
"The Lao government uses its power [. . .] to effectively control political expression in the country in a way that clearly violates various international human rights treaties."
In his view, the Laotian state "is still a very dictatorial, rights-repressing government".
Despite an accelerated economic opening following Laos's accession last year to membership in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the Lao government still tightly controls the country's "political space," said Sarah Cook, Freedom House senior research associate for East Asia.
"The examples of China and Vietnam demonstrate how once countries join the WTO, or host big international events for which they have loosened controls slightly, the authoritarian regimes actually act more aggressively".
"So we'll have to see what happens in Laos next year," Cook noted.
All media in Laos are under state control. "You don't hear so much about the abuses that take place in Laos. Many things are hidden," Robertson explained.
Following Sombath's disappearance, Lao citizens are "very scared", he added, because "They feel that with the disappearance of such a prominent member of Lao civil society, that means the government could take anyone."
"People can't discuss politics in Laos," a Lao national lamented. "For example, if the government issues regulations, we can't talk about it," he said on condition of anonymity. "If we don't like something we can't protest. If you hold a conference without permission, you will be arrested." The same goes for protests. Any participant can be arrested and jailed for causing "civil unrest".
Laos has now replaced formerly military-ruled Myanmar, which now has a semi-civilian government, as "the most repressive [regime] in the region," the Bangkok Post wrote in a recent piece.
Yet, which regime is "worst" or "second-worst" means little because "A human-rights abuse is a human-rights abuse," Robertson said.
Religious believers, especially Christians, have also felt the wrath of the government. After the Communists came to power 1975, foreign missionaries were expelled, and Christian Laotians have been subjected to strict controls and clear limitations to the practice of worship.
Most of Laos's six million people (67 per cent) are Buddhist. Christians are about 2 per cent with Catholics at 0.7 per cent.
Religious persecution touches Protestants more than others. In the recent past, AsiaNews has documented the case of farmers deprived of food because of their faith or clergymen arrested by the authorities.
Since April 2011, repression has intensified following a violent crackdown by the authorities against protests by some groups within the Hmong ethnic minority.