07/22/2016, 10.14
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Laotians arrested, held in isolation for criticizing government on social media

The three were detained for criticizing the government and the ruling Communist Party while working in Thailand. The police detained them earlier this year when they returned home to renew their passports. Increased censorship ahead of ASEAN foreign minister’s summit.

Vientiane (AsiaNews) - Locked in solitary confinement in a Vientiane jail awaiting trial; unable to receive visits from relatives and friends: This is the fate of three Laotian citizens arrested last March for criticizing the government and the ruling [Communist] party on social media while they were in Thailand for work.

Local sources interviewed by Radio Free Asia (RFA) report that Somphone Phimmasone, 29, his girlfriend Lod Thammavong, 30, and the 32 year-old Soukane Chaithad disappeared earlier this year, after returning to Laos to renew their passports.

In May, after months of mystery over their fate, the authorities admitted to having arrested them in a police operation in Khammouane province. Later the three were transferred to a prison in Vientiane.

"We can bring them food," says the father of Soukane, "but we are not allowed to meet them”. Visits will be allowed "only in the coming months," he adds, "after they are convicted and sentenced".

Police and government sources maintain strict confidentiality and do not want to comment on the affair. Even journalists have received threats and warnings.

Meanwhile, security and censorship are being tightened in Laos, in conjunction with the 49th Summit of ASEAN Foreign Ministers (An association that brings together the 10 countries of South-East Asia), to be held in Vientiane July 21 to 26. "There are obvious limits to the freedom of the press," said a source, and "all the news must be based on ministerial press releases”.

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.  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 government has never given information about him.

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