RFA’s Lao Service
Last Updated on Wednesday, 2 November 2011 09:19 Written by RFA15 Friday, 28 October 2011 07:52
Thank you for visiting RFA’s 15th Anniversary site. This month we’re featuring RFA’s service to Laos. Since its beginning, RFA’s Lao service has been successfully breaking stories and providing thorough coverage of news and information important to people in Laos and Lao people living around the world.
Please scroll down to explore the unique features of RFA Lao, including special programming, exclusive coverage, and listener comments.
You can also view major news events and story highlights.
First Broadcast: August 18, 1997
Coverage: 2 hours of programming per day, 7 days a week
Distribution: Radio (FM affiliates in Thailand in addition to shortwave), Internet, and satellite.
English Language Website: http://www.rfa.org/english/news/laos
Special Programming: In addition to news, the Lao service provides listeners with programming devoted to women and children’s health and education; Lao traditional music; Lao history; news analysis and commentary; Lao’s economy; the Lao community overseas and abroad; religion; and regional sports events such as the ASEAN games.
First Broadcast: RFA’s Lao Service was RFA’s sixth service. It began broadcasting on August 18, 1997 from Washington, D.C. to Laos. The first broadcast aired in Laos at 6 o’clock in the evening and lasted a half hour. It was repeated immediately after, and again the next morning. Click here to hear it.
Reaction from Lao government: The Lao government condemned RFA’s Lao service, even before it started broadcasting in 1997. The Lao government set up a special monitoring unit just for RFA’s Lao service news. Daily reports circulated among top party leadership devote a section to RFA’s service’s coverage of news and feature.
Media Environment in Laos
“Laos remains one of the world’s most repressive countries for media freedom, despite the passage of new laws and increased investment in telecommunications infrastructure in recent years,” according to Freedom House’s 2011 Press Freedom Index. With all internal news media under government control, RFA’s Lao service fills a major gap by providing listeners with objective, timely news and information, as well as cultural and historical programming, which would otherwise given little if any attention with in the country. While many in border regions access Thai media, primarily for music and entertainment, unbiased coverage of Lao news is all but non-existent. Voice of America (VOA), the only other international broadcaster in Laos from a democratic country, broadcasts for just a half hour daily with an emphasis on U.S. and international news. Radio France International ended its broadcasts in 2010. However, China Radio International and the Voice of Vietnam have increased their broadcasts into the country.
Freedom House has reported on authorities not allowing media to stray far from the party line, especially on issues of diplomatic concern, such as the repatriation of ethnic Hmong refugees from Thailand. The organization warns that “Under the criminal code, individuals may be jailed for up to one year for reporting news that ‘weakens the state’ or importing a publication that is ‘contrary to national culture.’” International media and rights groups were barred from visiting refugee villages after thousands of ethnic Hmong were forcibly repatriated from Thailand in December 2009, raising concerns that they would face persecution from the government.
The Lao government owns almost all newspapers in the country, with the exception of a few nonpolitical periodicals that cover business and trade. The government owns all internal broadcast media. Like the broadcasting sector, the government-run Lao print media have the responsibility of informing the public about the policies of the Communist Party and the government as well as providing national and international news coverage. Khaosan Pathet Lao is the national news agency.
The 2008 Annual Report on Laos by Reporters Without Borders stated “on many subjects, editorial offices reprint untouched the reports they receive from the official news agency.” Its poor media environment has kept Laos consistently at the bottom of media freedom survey ranking for Freedom House (181st out of 196 countries) and Reporters Without Borders (168th out of 178).
Internet access in Laos is not prevalent as noted by Freedom House: “Language barriers and high monthly connection fees limit regular Internet use to only around 5 percent of the population. All Internet-service providers are controlled by the state, enabling the government to monitor communications and regularly block access to websites operated by Hmong groups abroad.”
RFA Lao Programming
The bulk of the two-hour daily programming comprises news and features, the first half consisting of Lao or Laos-related news exclusively. The second half covers broader news of the region and around the world, framed in terms relevance to the audience.
Topics often explored in RFA’s in-depth coverage include human trafficking, the Hmong, land concessions, the damming of the Mekong river, unrest, and demonstrations and protests.
RFA’s Lao Service website, launched in 2003, provides continuously updated news and features, and contributes a selection of stories to the English language website. The site streams the daily RFA broadcast in Lao and ongoing coverage of events and news in Laos and overseas. The archived audio files can be retrieved on a special page or downloaded via podcast. RSS feeds are also available, making it possible for people to automatically update their news readers or Web pages with RFA news contents.
While Internet use is not widespread in Laos, the Web plays a growing role in the lives of educated young people, who have turned to Thai and even English-language sites to get faster and freer news. According to RFA audience research reports, awareness of RFA is high among this group, who particularly value RFA’s coverage of human trafficking, environmental issues, corruption and foreign investment, particularly from China. Many go to RFA for this type of sensitive domestic reporting.
Since its first broadcast fourteen years ago, RFA’s Lao Service has been making an impact in the lives of its listeners every day. The Lao service has influenced changes in government policies and even pushed some of the official media to report on issues exposed by RFA. With increasing skepticism among the public to the official media, RFA’s audience has grown as an influential, credible source of information. Since 2002, The Lao service staff has been allowed to enter Laos to cover important events and international meetings further enhancing the service’s impact as a reliable news source.
The service’s constant reporting on corruption and illegal logging, rampant in Laos, with the involvement or complicity of high government or party officials led to much publicized debates in the national assembly citing RFA’s coverage. The results from which included the passage of an anti-corruption law and decree to punish illegal loggers.
The Lao service has also been a valued source of information for other news media. This was evidenced in late November 2001, when a bomb exploded in the capital city of Vientiane while the foreign minister of Laos was hosting his European and ASEAN counterparts at an official dinner. RFA’s breaking coverage, which pinpointed the location and the level of damage, became the source story for foreign press covering the ASEAN-EU Summit.
In March 2004, the service broke the news about the surrender to Lao authorities of the Hmong rebels, remnants of the CIA Special Guerilla Units (SGU) during the Vietnam War, encouraged by the promise of amnesty. This news was picked up extensively by the international media. Soon after Hmong groups in the United States gave conflicting reports that the Hmong in the jungle of Laos did not surrender but were instead forcibly captured by the Lao-Vietnamese troops, mistreated, and even in some cases murdered. These reports prompted the U.S. ambassador to Laos to speak out on the issue in the Washington Post.
In recent years, the Lao service reported on the government’s controversial plans to install dams in the lower Mekong River. These dams have been criticized by environmentalists who say it would destroy the Mekong’s ecology and have raised concerns among neighboring countries that rely on the river for commerce and fisheries. Some of the more controversial projects have been halted and delayed.
Throughout 2009, the Lao service reported on Thailand’s plans to forcibly repatriate 5,000 Hmong refugees back to Laos, where they were expected to be persecuted. The coverage prompted international outcry among human rights groups and the global community expressing concern over their plight and treatment.
RFA’s Executive Editor Daniel Southerland recalls the early days of the service and the challenges of getting news from inside Laos:
Q. What were the early challenges in starting a radio service to Laos?
A. We were able to recruit some highly educated Laotians to do the first broadcasts. One was an expert on Buddhism and Lao history. Another was a school principal. Three of them had worked previously for the VOA and one for the Laotian national radio. It was a small team of six broadcasters. But they had never worked together before and they were unfamiliar with digital radio. So one of the first challenges was technical. Kris Keegan, an RFA producer who trained the Laotian broadcasters, said he spent much of his time working with them on pacing. A few were moving from one sentence to another without pause, which created the impression of a “river flowing.”
One of the senior members of the Laotian team was Thao Mo Bounnak, a former diplomat who had defected to the United States. He had been the No. 2 Laotian diplomat at the United Nations.
Q. One of the biggest challenges must have been getting news from inside Laos. How did the service deal with that?
What Listeners Say
“I follow RFA programs all the time. I think the station presents very interesting news and I feel satisfied listening to those programs because the news is useful, informative and helps us to understand the situations around us that we didn’t know about before. … [It] is the best radio station that I have ever listened to.” – Male RFA Lao listener, 58
“They show truths that other media may not dare to present, for example the news of the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia and the news of General Vang Pao.” – Male RFA Lao listener, 26
“I have been listening to RFA regularly. You guys have done a wonderful job. You guys have open ear and eyes for all of Lao people. Doesn’t matter Lao people live inside Laos or live abroad. Please, keep it going.” – Male Lao listener, April 2008
“I would like to congratulate and compliment RFA team for a wonderful job. Your news are very important and give benefit to Laos people abroad but especially to those living in Laos who have no chance to listen to free news, especially in Lao language. Most of the time, the news would be in Thai. That is why I would like to compliment your team which strives to do good for Lao community and country.” – Lao listener from Japan
“I am Lao/Australian. I am your biggest fan in Sydney, Australia. I’ve been listening to your Lao Service program since 2005 both in Vientiane and now most broadcast day in Australia. I was working in Vientiane from 2004-2005, and when I visited the local herbal sauna establishments in Vientiane, they would turned on RFA Lao Service, everyone listened to the program and we would have a very interesting discussion on various topics presented on the program. I am now back in Sydney and download the podcast to my iPhone every day to listen on the train going to work from Fairfield to Town Hall where I work. I love listening to all the Lao documentaries presented on the program, about Lao history, about the war and especially about ‘Number 9 Road’, I would love the RFA Lao Service to produce a CD collection of all the Lao documentaries and its history. Kind regards from your biggest fan from the land of ‘Down Under.” – Female Lao listener in New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
Recent News Events and Service Highlights
Hmong General Dead at 81
Vang Pao, a leader of the Hmong ethnic group of Laos who spearheaded a 15-year CIA-sponsored secret war in the Southeast Asian state during the Vietnam War, died at the age of 81. The outspoken opponent of the Lao government immigrated to the United States after the communists seized power in his country in 1975.
China Raises Stakes in Laos
Another casino building launched in a sprawling Chinese-run special economic zone in Laos under expansion plans which could see a flourishing center housing mostly 200,000 Chinese workers and their families, local officials and tour operators say.
Rescues Underscore Trafficking Troubles
Trafficked Lao children were rescued from factories in Thailand’s Nonthaburi province and in the capital of Bangkok. Some 50 underage girls from Laos and other neighboring countries have been working under dangerous conditions in Thai factories, with some suffering from rotting toes and fingers, according to police. They were rescued in separate raids on two factories and are now undergoing rehabilitation as the Thai authorities prepare to file charges against the errant plant operators.
Raid Frees Teenage Sex Slaves
Police have rescued five Lao teenage girls from a restaurant in central Thailand’s Suphan Buri province where they were forced to work as prostitutes, in the latest human trafficking case involving the two neighboring Southeast Asian nations. The five girls had been forced to work as prostitutes at a restaurant in Dan Chang district of Suphan Buri province. Laos is primarily a source country for women and girls trafficked mostly to Thailand for commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor as domestic or factory workers, government and relief officials say.
Rail Plans Safe from Scandal?
An ongoing corruption scandal in China is unlikely to derail plans to build a high-speed train route in Laos, despite the need for Chinese funding and expertise to initiate the project, according to a Lao official. The Lao government expects to begin construction on the 300-mile (481-kilometer) railway, which would connect the country to neighbors Thailand and China, in April, according to state media.
Resettled Hmong Still Restricted
More than one year after being forcibly repatriated to Laos from Thailand, thousands of Hmong residents still face severe restrictions at home, according to a member of the group. A majority of the 4,371 Hmong who were sent back since the end of 2009 live in a resettlement camp in Phonekham village, Borikhamxay province, with their movements restricted and their livelihood bleak, said the villager, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Reeling from Drought
A drought in mainland Southeast Asia is pushing down water levels of rivers that act as life-lines to farms, drying up wells, degrading the quality of drinking water, and threatening to disrupt power supply driven by hydro-dams. In Vietnam, the dry spell has also led to “intrusion” of salt water from the sea, damaging crops and adding salinity to tap water. The landlocked country’s marine transport also has been affected by languishing levels of the Mekong River, Southeast Asia’s key water artery.
More Time to Study Dam Project
Southeast Asian states have sought greater scrutiny of a plan by Laos to build the first dam on the lower Mekong River following concerns expressed by Vietnam and environmental groups. Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, the lower Mekong basin countries, decided at a meeting to delay a decision on the controversial Xayaburi hydropower dam project. The four countries are members of the Mekong River Commission.
Plans to Build Dam Deferred
Laos will wait to begin construction on the Xayaburi dam amidst regional criticism of the project. Laos said it will defer a decision to construct a controversial dam on the lower Mekong River after the plan met with opposition from neighboring countries who share the river’s resources. Critics say the $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam would destroy the river’s ecology and disrupt the livelihood of riparian communities that rely on it for their livelihood.
High-Speed Railway Delay
Last-minute negotiations hold up construction on a train line that would link Laos with its neighbors. The proposed railway will connect China’s Yunnan province to the Lao capital Vientiane. Construction of a Chinese-built high-speed railway in Laos has been put off at the last minute due to a contract dispute and an incomplete project assessment, according to an official from the country’s Public Works Bureau.
Profile of Dr. Phankham Viphavanh, New Politburo Member
RFA’s Lao service’s news programs focused on the 9th Congress of the Lao Communist Party during which three new politburo members were introduced. They replaced two retiring members and the disgraced former PM, Bouasone Bouphavanh. RFA Lao did a profile of the youngest member of the 11-member politburo, Dr. Phankham Viphavanh, and examined his style of governance when he was the governor of Houaphanh province.
New Impact Study for Dam
Laos will conduct a new environmental study to determine the impact of a controversial dam project on the water levels and wildlife of the Mekong River, according to a Lao energy official. Bountheung Phengthavongsa, director general of the Lao Energy and Mining Ministry, said that construction will begin on the $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam if the study predicts little effect on the river’s ecology. “A government order has been issued that requires related authorities to seek out experts to redo the environmental impact assessment,” he said.
US Reports that Laos Escalated Efforts Against Human Trafficking
The Lao service reported that Thailand’s northeast Udorn province has become a hub for Lao sex workers mainly because of its booming tourist industry and easy land access from Laos. A recent U.S. State Department study finds that Laos has stepped up efforts to investigate trafficking offenses and to prosecute and punish traffickers. But a severe lack of resources, poor training of officials, and ongoing corruption still impede the government’s ability to combat trafficking.
Casino in Business Despite Allegations
A casino in Laos is entertaining Chinese customers amid reports of illegal activities. Wealthy Chinese tourists are being allowed exclusive access to a casino in northern Laos, which was ordered to close more than a month ago due to allegations of illegal activities, according to a source. The source from Boten, where the Chinese-owned casino is located on the border of China’s Yunnan province, told RFA that groups of tourists continue to travel to Golden Boten City Casino with the guarantee that the facility will be open to them.
Bile Trade Rife Despite Ban
Laos is an emerging market in the trade of bear bile, prized for its purported medicinal value.
Bear bile trade is thriving in Laos though the animal is protected under the law, with a foreign-owned bear farm operating with impunity just outside the country’s capital, according to a resident. The resident, who asked to remain anonymous, said local Lao officials have ignored the facility, which is owned by a group of Vietnamese immigrants.
Laos Shuts Down Bear Farm
The move comes a day after the bile-extracting bear farm was exposed by RFA. Authorities in Laos have shut down a farm in the outskirts of the capital where bears had been held captive for extraction of bile, a hotly traded commodity. An unknown number of bears have been seized from the farm but the owner, a Vietnamese, has bolted, officials said, adding that he would have to be prosecuted in court. The authorities raided the farm in Kao Liao village north of the capital Vientiane after RFA reported Lao officials turning a blind eye to the believed-to-be-illegal facility.
Trafficking Victims Await Captors’ Trial
Scores of Lao women are in the care of Thai authorities after being rescued from a human trafficking gang. Nearly 60 Lao women are being housed in a rehabilitation center in southern Thailand while they wait to testify against their alleged captors who lured them across the border to work as prostitutes, according to officials. The case highlights an alarming trend in which a growing number of Lao women have been trafficked for sex to Thailand and other destination countries around Southeast Asia. The 59 Lao women, aged 18 to 30, were sent to the Sri Surat rehabilitation center in Thailand’s Surat Thani province shortly after they were rescued by Thai police.
Series of Attacks on Vietnamese Reported in Saravan Province
RFA’s Lao service reported that several anti-Vietnamese attacks occurred in mid-August. Three Vietnamese hardwood traders and a Lao interpreter were killed during a bomb attack in southern Saravane province. A second attack occurred later that night when two bombs were lobbed into a Vietnamese compound, killing 15 and seriously injuring five. Two days later, in broad daylight, five vendors on bicycles were ambushed, and three were shot dead. During the same period, a group of unidentified men suspected to be Hmong set fire to and destroyed an army ammunitions depot in northern Bokeo province. All of the perpetrators got away. The Lao government had no comment on any of the attacks.
A Firefighter Remembers
A Laotian-American firefighter behind the rescue efforts following the terrorist attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center says that 10 years on, he has learned to approach life with a greater sense of duty. Andrew Rasavongseuk, 37, said his company, Squad 270 based in Brooklyn, was called in to clear the wreckage of the Trade Towers and search for survivors on that fateful morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
Hmong Resettlement Still Possible
The Thai prime minister says Hmong repatriated to Laos could still be resettled to third countries. More than 150 Lao Hmong asylum-seekers recently repatriated from Thailand could still be resettled to third countries, according to the Thai prime minister. “The people who went from Nong Khai—who perhaps would pose more concern—before we sent them back we allowed third countries to interview [them], and they continue to work with the Lao government now on resettlement in third countries,” Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said.
Children Must Go to School
Parents in rural Laos are still keeping their children out of school so they can work to support their families, according to a senior education official. Vice Minister for Education Lytou Buapao said the country’s economic future depends on higher school enrollment for Lao youths, especially in the remote and mountainous northern and southern Lao provinces.
Resettled Hmong Feel Unsafe
Lao Hmong forcibly repatriated from Thailand say they want to be resettled again. In a rare meeting with senior foreign diplomats and journalists, a number of ethnic Hmong recently resettled in Laos said that they feel unsafe and would like to be resettled in a third country. “So far nothing has happened, but we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. We don’t know whether we are going to be alive or dead,” said one resident of the resettlement village. One woman approached an RFA reporter during the March 26 visit and whispered that she wanted to leave Laos. “I feel scared and do not want to stay in Laos. If possible I would like to be helped in order to resettle in a third country,” she said.
Making Laos Safer
The world’s most heavily bombed country is still strewn with unexploded ordnance, or UXO, from the Vietnam War. The United States is spending millions of dollars to clean up unexploded ordnance it dropped on Laos during a secret bombing campaign during the Vietnam War, a senior U.S. official says, but legislators and advocates want it to do even more. Scot Marciel, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told a congressional panel that Washington doesn’t aim to “remove the last bit of unexploded ordnance (UXO) from Laos, any more than Western Europe has removed all of its explosive remnants of war from World War II.”
RFA reported that a number of women from Luang Namtha illegally married to Chinese men have disappeared after being abused. Most are ethnic women from poor families, and because they lack legal documents of marriage, authorities have found it difficult to trace them when their relatives report their disappearance and ask for help.
Dam Debate on Lao Mekong
A number of dams on tributaries of the Mekong River in Laos have had a controversial impact on the local population. Link to multimedia a slide show.
Lao Chinatown Dropped
A Chinese-Lao joint venture drops plans to build a Chinatown near the Lao capital. The firm pulled out of a deal to develop a Suzhou-style “model city” on the outskirts of the Lao capital, Vientiane, according to senior Lao officials. The “New City Development Project,” which involved a 50-year lease for 1,000 hectares of land in and around the That Luang Marsh, required the group to pay roughly 7,000 households a total of $400 million in compensation for relocating their homes.
Remains of Lao Girl, Trafficking Victim, Returned Home
RFA’s Lao service reported that the remains of a Lao girl were handed over to the Lao Embassy in Bangkok. A victim of human trafficking, the Vientiane native was forced into prostitution in a karaoke bar in Thai Lopburi province with scores of other Lao girls. It was determined that she had been tortured before her escape and later died from her injuries.
Community Threatened by Dam
The Don Sahong Dam is one of the projects planned for the lower Mekong River that is most debated by environmentalists because of its expected impact on fisheries. The hydroelectric project will provide power for export to other countries in the region, as Laos seeks to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, the dam will displace the local community in Don Sahong that relies on the river’s rich fisheries.
Trafficking Racket Smashed
Victims of human trafficking were freed from karaoke bars in Thailand’s Lop Buri and Prachinburi provinces. Highlighting the rising human trafficking problem in Southeast Asia, police in Thailand rescued 13 girls from Laos who were forced into prostitution and arrested four suspects involved in a syndicate smuggling underage girls. Another victim, also from Laos, was believed to have been tortured to death, police said. The girl’s body was removed from a hospital morgue and cremated in an attempt by the mastermind of the ring to destroy evidence.
Freeze on Dams Proposed
An intergovernmental study seeks a 10-year moratorium on the building of hydropower dams along the Mekong River. A study authorized by an influential intergovernmental panel has called for a 10-year freeze on the construction of hydropower dams along Southeast Asia’s Mekong River. The report, approved by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), came amid a high level of interest to construct up to 12 mainstream hydropower projects in Cambodia and Laos and on the border of Laos and Thailand.
‘Dress Conservatively, Donate Generously’
The cash-starved Lao government began selling bracelets and pins to raise funds and instructed its citizens to behave for Vientiane’s birthday bash. No short skirts or low-cut dresses for women, no long hair or earrings for men, were among the government-issued social conduct guidelines for celebrations around Vientiane’s 450th anniversary. The government also requested that mandatory cash contributions be part of celebrations hosted by schools and government officials.
Laos Launches Money-Spinning Dam
Investors hail the project, but green groups say displaced residents lack “sustainable livelihoods.” These lines, photographed in October 2010, carry electricity to Thailand, the primary customer of the Nam Theun Power Company which operates the dam in Laos. Landlocked Laos inaugurated a key hydroelectric dam on Thursday that will give critical revenue to the rural-based economy, but was criticized by environmentalists as having denied “sustainable livelihoods” to people relocated for the project.
PM’s Announcement to Resign Surprises Laos
In a sudden, surprise move, Lao Prime Minister Bousone Bouphavanh resigned and was replaced by the President of the National Assembly Thongsing Thammavong. Although the official explanation for Bouasone’s unexpected move was “family reasons,” analysts suspect an internal political rift due to the growing influence of China in Laos. The 56-year-old Bouasone quit about six months before the end of his term and after more than four years of steering the Southeast Asian state.
New PM Faces Chinese Influence
China’s investments in Laos may eclipse those made to its traditional ally of Vietnam. Laos’ newly appointed prime minister is more pro-Vietnam than his predecessor but may have to contend with giant neighbor China’s rapidly rising influence on his country, analysts say. Thongsing Thammavong, the former president of the Lao parliament, was named successor to incumbent Bouasone Bouphavanh in a surprise announcement last week amid speculations of a leadership split between pro-China and pro-Vietnam camps within the dominant communist party.
Lao Officials Slam Corruption
Two senior Lao officials have lashed out at bribery and corruption in Laos, which they say is commonplace in bidding on major construction projects. Both domestic and international companies often bribe officials before bidding begins, one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said in an interview. “When many companies bid, they give bribes to officials behind the scene. ‘I have money, you have projects. Let’s go to have lunch together.’ That’s the way it is in Laos,” the official said. The official said bribes to officials are generally used in construction projects involving major roads, large bridges such as those spanning the Mekong river, and dams.
Pressure Grows on Lao Hmong
Former top Lao government officials have made a personal appeal to a group of minority Hmong asylum-seekers detained in Thailand’s northeast Nongkhai province to return to Laos. But Hmong sources say the effort fell flat. “We would rather stay here—even with these living conditions. We would rather stay here and die in the detention center,” one Hmong source said, referring to the Nongkhai Immigration Detention Center.
Buddha Images Stolen in Laos
Images of the Buddha are considered sacred in Laos. So who’s stealing them? Lao officials are expected to meet to discuss how to address the theft of numerous sacred Buddhist artifacts from temples in the south of the country. More than 200 Buddha statues were stolen over the last year from temples in the southern Lao province of Savannakhet for sale to collectors both inside the country and abroad, according to the deputy head of the Lao Ministry of Information and Culture, Khampong. Officials now withhold information on new discoveries of ancient artifacts because they fear more thefts, he said. And while the value of the stolen statues is unknown, several are more than 100 years old and all are considered sacred.
Hmong Sent Home, Some Flee
Thai officials say a group of ethnic Hmong returned to Laos voluntarily, but a witness contradicted this claim, explaining not all were volunteers. Thai and Lao authorities said they had repatriated 452 ethnic Hmong who had fled to Thailand to seek asylum abroad, but a Hmong witness said 40 others fled to avoid returning home, where advocates fear they will face persecution. A group of 452 Hmong from 112 families was transferred to Lao authorities at the Borikhamsay border checkpoint opposite Thailand’s Nongkhai province, officials said. Khenethong Nouanthasing of the Lao Foreign Ministry said in an interview that all 452 volunteered to return to Laos and would stay in a temporary housing center before returning to their native villages.
Residents of That Luang Marsh Not Ready To Move Out Yet
In an RFA exclusive story, the Lao service reported that Lao authorities are planning to build New Town, also known as China district on That Luang marsh in the capital by year end, but residents in that area refuse to move out, unhappy with the compensation. Government officials say people who don’t want to relocate are those who bought the land in the area and wanted to sell it for profit. The people are demanding higher compensation. This development is very controversial; many Laotians feel that Lao government should not allow China to take over the land and build a China City in the capital near That Luang stupa, the sacred national symbol of Laos.
U.N. Chief Visits Laos
Laos gets a rare visit from the U.N. secretary-general, who urges the country to address widening gaps between haves and have-nots. Ban Ki-moon became the first U.N. chief in decades to pay an official visit to Laos, saying he hoped the country would meet its target of emerging from the ranks of least developed countries by 2020. Laos has made “constant improvements in health, education, standards of living,” Ban said during his visit, according to a speech distributed by the United Nations. “Infant death rates continued to fall and the literacy rates and the elimination of illiteracy have continued to improve,” Ban said, citing increased “macro-economic stability and an increasing integration in the global economy.”
Many Lao Children Still Hungry
Laos is taking steps to address chronic and widespread malnutrition among its youngest citizens. Malnutrition remains a major problem among children in Laos, with those in rural areas suffering most and less likely to attend school as a result, Lao officials and international sources say. In December, Laos adopted its first national nutrition policy in a bid to address chronic hunger, with involvement from 15 government ministries and institutions. Officials held a four-day workshop on nutrition and hunger earlier this month, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad.
U.K. National in Lao Trial
A Nigerian-born British woman, now facing a possible death sentence in Laos for alleged drug-smuggling, has been held for months. The pregnant British national accused of trafficking heroin in Laos won’t face the death penalty because the law bans executing expectant convicts, a government spokesman said Tuesday. The trial for Samantha Orobator, 20, would be delayed so an “appropriate lawyer” could be found to defend her, Foreign Ministry spokesman Khenthong Nuanthasing said.
Doctors Without Borders to Depart from Huay Nam Khao Camp in Thailand
RFA reported that the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced on May 20 that it is pulling out from Huay Nam Khao camp, citing “increasing pressure by the Thai military to force 5,000 Hmong to return to Laos, and the lack of transparency surrounding the ‘voluntary’ repatriation of the Hmong.” MSF has been providing medical aid to several thousands of displaced Hmong from Laos in Thailand’s northern Petchaboun province for more than four years. The only aid group assisting members of a Lao ethnic group living in a Thai refugee camp says it will leave the camp because of policies that severely curtail aid workers’ ability to perform their jobs. The military asked MSF to reconsider but they agreed to reconsider only if there was a major change in policy in terms of transparency. But authorities ignored repeated requests to loosen restrictions and end pressure on the Hmong to return to Laos, prompting MSF’s decision to withdraw. MSF is working with UNICEF to hand over responsibilities of caring for the camp’s nearly 5,000 residents to another NGO.
U.S. Appeals on Behalf of Lao Hmong Detainees
Lao service reported on renewed U.S. appeals on behalf of Lao Hmong detainees in Thailand following Secretary’s Clinton trip to the Asian Regional Forum (ARF) in Thailand in July. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, Samuel Witten, was dispatched to Laos and Thailand to further discussions on a humanitarian solution to the situation. After visiting Hmong detention camps at Huay Nam Khao and Nong Khai, Witten called for the immediate release of the 158 Hmong who have lived in detention in Nong Khai for over two-and-a-half years because they have already been recognized as People of Concern by UNHCR.
Beauty Queen Speaks on Lao Heritage
Amy Chanthaphavong, crowned Miss Asian America in August, discusses her first pageant win and the importance of her Lao cultural ties with RFA.
Champassak Residents Lament Lack of Official Advance Warning About Ketsana Typhoon
RFA reported on Typhoon Ketsana’s impact on Laos. The Lao service interviewed a resident of southern Champassak province, one of the hardest hit by the storm, who complained about the lack of advance warning by the government. The resident said he learned about Ketsana from international media, Thai in particular. A Lao official responded to RFA’s questions by listing the warnings that were printed and broadcast by the government, chastising the resident for ignoring Lao media and focusing on foreign media instead. This statement led to discussions on RFA’s Lao forum programs about the media, and the lack of freedom in Laos.
Laos Detains Nine Planning Protest
Lao authorities are detaining nine people said to have been travelling by road to the Lao capital to stage a pro-democracy protest, according to Lao sources who asked not to be named. On Nov. 2, a convoy set out from the Nam Ngum dam area of Thalat in Vientiane province, heading to Vientiane by taxi when authorities intercepted them in Phone Hong town, some 60 kilometers from Vientiane.
Laos Denies Detentions
The Lao government dismisses reports of authorities detaining a group of pro-democracy protesters, saying the reports were “fabricated” to harm the country’s image ahead of two major events. The Seattle-based Lao Students Movement for Democracy meanwhile reported that authorities had detained more than 300 people Nov. 2 as they tried to converge in the Lao capital, Vientiane, to stage a pro-democracy protest. Most were quickly released, but the nine who remain in custody have now been moved to Samkhe Prison in Vientiane, the group said in a statement, dated Nov. 5 and written in Lao. “RFA’s news does not have any foundation,” Lao Foreign Ministry spokesman Khenethong Nouanthasing said in a statement, referring to Radio Free Asia’s initial report on the detentions.
Lao Group Wanted Help
An ethnic Lao man briefly detained as he and several hundred others tried to converge on the Lao capital to petition the government has said the group was planning to seek help from the authorities rather than stage a political protest.“What have we done that is so wrong, that we had to be detained? All we were doing was asking the government for help. I want to live with dignity even if it costs my life,” the man, 47 and an illegal migrant worker in Thailand, said in an interview.
Slideshow: Hmong Deported to Laos
Thousands of Hmong were forcibly removed from a refugee camp in Thailand and sent back to Laos where some may face persecution at the hands of the government.
Hmong Forced Back to Laos
Thai authorities force members of an ethnic group to return to Laos where some may face persecution. Thai military armed with riot shields and batons have emptied a refugee camp in northern Thailand and have begun forcibly repatriating to Laos thousands of ethnic minority Hmong, despite protests from U.N. refugee officials, international rights groups, and the United States. Col. Thana Charuvat, who is overseeing the deportation of the 4,371 Lao Hmong, who had sought asylum in Thailand, said in an interview that the initial busloads departed peacefully. Neither journalists nor independent observers were permitted to witness the operation at Huay Nam Khao camp.
UN Urges Thailand To Free Lao Hmong
The United Nations’ refugee agency is calling on Thailand to free 149 ethnic Hmong asylum-seekers from Laos whom it has detained at an immigration center for more than a year. UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokeswoman Erika Feller said the group of 149 minority Hmong should be released to third countries. “These 149 Hmong refugees are not criminals. They [have been] detained for 400 days,” she said. “The Thai authorities have no reason to detain them any longer. International organizations recognize their status of refugees,” Feller said. “They should be let go to third countries—many countries have agreed to accept them.”
Lao Troops Told Shoot to Kill Hmong Rebels
Government troops in Laos have been ordered to shoot to kill ethnic Hmong insurgents in the country’s northern jungle regions, with cash rewards offered for every “enemy” killed.
Food Crisis Hits Laos Hard
The unprecedented surge in global food prices is making life even more difficult for residents of impoverished Laos, where one provincial official is calling on the central government to provide food aid and step up irrigation efforts. Consumer prices are escalating, according to statisticians at the Lao Ministry of Planning and Investment, and officials and residents say the landlocked country—one of the world’s poorest—has been hit hard by skyrocketing food costs. The remote, southeastern province of Xekong “faces rice shortages regularly because it is a mountainous region, but now the problem is getting bigger. The central government must consider the issue of irrigation,” provincial investment department director Nouphone Kemmalay said in an interview.
Lao Medics Sent to Burma
Laos has sent an emergency medical team to neighboring Burma to aid relief efforts there, as more than a million people struggle to survive in the aftermath of devastating Cyclone Nargis.
Thailand Sends Lao Hmong Home
Thailand has returned another group of ethnic Hmong sheltering in a refugee camp to neighboring Laos. The Hmong say they chose to return once it became clear that resettlement in third countries wasn’t an option. Authorities in Thailand have repatriated 56 more Hmong migrants from its huge Ban Huay Nam Khao refugee camp to neighboring Laos, the fifth group to be sent home since repatriations began. Up to 8,000 Hmong have lived in the camp since 2004. The Hmong in this group said they volunteered to go, although others remain on hunger strike to protest the repatriations amid calls for a United Nations-administered refugee screening and resettlement program.
Laos Flood Kills, Recedes
Massive rainfall and overflowing rivers have killed more than one hundred people in Laos and Vietnam. Bad weather is expected to persist in the lower Mekong Basin until the end of September. Landslides caused by the worst flooding in decades have killed four people in Laos, but water levels are now declining. Major Lao transportation routes shut down and electricity was cut off in flooded suburban areas, including the popular tourist locale Luang Prabang. While floods around Laos have begun to recede, many communities remain submerged. Along Route 13 from Vientiane south to Paksan, the residents of Hai Village struggle to carry out the tasks of daily life.
Christians Allegedly Persecuted in Laos, Ministry Denies Charges
A French-based Lao exile group is accusing officials in a remote village in central Laos of seeking to evict Christians who refuse to renounce their faith, but the Lao Foreign Ministry denies the charge. The Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) charged March 18 that Nakoon village authorities had stepped up a bid to eliminate Christianity from the remote area, accessible only by an eight-hour boat trip. “Nakoon Christians have been worshiping underground in fear of arrest and imprisonment,” the group said, citing eyewitnesses.
Missing Lao Hmong Girls Back in Thailand, Lao Official Says
A group of ethnic Hmong girls from Laos, forcibly repatriated from Thailand in 2005, has resurfaced in Thailand, deepening a mystery that raised international alarm over their treatment in both countries. “A group of bad elements lured them into going back to Thailand. I don’t know how it happened,” Gen. Bouasiang Champaphanh, the Lao chairman of the Subcommittee on Lao-Thai Border Cooperation, said in an interview.
Illegal Logging Stripping Lao Forests
Timber traders in Laos are still logging through “unofficial” channels despite new government curbs, a well-placed source in Laos has told RFA’s Lao service. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the felling and exporting of black-market timber remained widespread. The source blamed systemic corruption among high-ranking officials of the ruling Communist Party. “At the time that the black-market timber passes through a district, the relevant officials in that district must let it pass right through—if they don’t they will undoubtedly be punished,” the source said.
Laos Concedes Land to China in Vientiane for Luxury Development
Laos has agreed to a major land concession to Chinese investors to develop a Suzhou-style “model city” on the outskirts of the country’s capital, Vientiane, according to a well-placed source in Laos. Under the terms of the agreement, China will hold the site—several hundred hectares around the That Luang Buddhist monument—on a 100-year lease, with permission to develop surrounding marshlands, a Lao government official told RFA’s Lao service.
Princess Calls For Focus on Plight of Lao Women
Lao Princess Savivanh Savang Manivong currently lives in exile in the southern French city of Nice. Educated in Luang Prabang, France and England, the princess served in the court of her father, the king of Laos, until the fall of the monarchy to communist forces in 1975. The rest of the royal family was interned in communist camps and have disappeared.
The Rising Star of Lao Pop
Lao pop star Alexandra Bounxouei, 19, was born in Bulgaria to a Lao father who was studying music in Eastern Europe and a Bulgarian mother. The family moved to Laos in 1988, where she was raised. Her music, which she describes as a combination of traditional Lao and contemporary hip-hop, has earned her glowing reviews in Southeast Asia. She released her second album, titled “Forget It,” in early 2006, and first performed in Laos in 2002 to wide acclaim, and she has now performed worldwide. Currently majoring in English at the Lao American College of Vientiane, Bounxouei records and performs music with a strong anti-drug message.
World Bank Expected To Back Controversial Lao Dam
The World Bank is expected soon to announce backing for the controversial Nam Theun 2 dam project in Laos, which the Lao government hopes will change its fortunes as one of Asia’s least developed countries. “At this stage it would take a surprise or something unexpected to derail it,” Peter Stephens, World Bank chief external officer for East Asia and the Pacific, told RFA.
Activists, Farmers Urge World Bank To Drop Lao Dam
Some 100 environmental activists and villagers have burned an effigy of World Bank President James Wolfensohn in the Thai capital, demanding that the bank scrap a controversial hydro-electric dam project in neighboring Laos. “We are very concerned that the World Bank is now giving active support to another large dam project, Nam Theun 2, which, if built, will have countless negative impacts on both Laos and Thailand,” said a group of Thai farmers from the sites of other much-criticized World Bank-funded dams in Thailand in a statement
World Bank Gives Nod to Controversial Dam in Laos
The World Bank will back the controversial $1.2 billion Nam Theun 2 hydroelectric dam project in Laos but is vowing to pay “utmost attention” to fears about its social and environmental impact. The World Bank’s 24-member board approved the project despite warnings about risks associated with it. It’s the first major hydroelectric power project approved by the bank in a decade. We have spent the best part of a decade studying the project and evaluating the risks… Our decision, after a lot of deliberation, is that the risks can be managed—in fact, one major reason we are involved is to help manage those risks.
Laos Deports 3 U.S. Nationals, Holds 1 for Questioning
A Lao government spokesman has said three of four U.S. nationals held in Laos since Saturday have been deported to Thailand and a fourth remains in custody. The group witnessed the surrender of some 170 people related to ethnic Hmong rebels over the weekend. “In order to maintain good relations between the US and Laos, the Lao government decided to deport three of these bad U.S. elements. As for the fourth, also a U.S. national, licensed to do business in Laos, he is still detained for further investigation,” Lao Foreign Ministry spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy told RFA’s Lao service.
Surrendering Lao Hmong Desperate, U.S. Couple Says
Two Americans detained and expelled by Lao authorities for documenting the surrender of ethnic Hmong related to Hmong rebel fighters say the group included the very young and very old, all “very desperate.” “These very desperate people were waving a white flag, coming down that mountain and trying to surrender and put themselves in the hands of the people who had been tormenting them for years, at a very scary time for them,” Ed Szendrey told RFA’s Lao service. Szendry and his wife, Georgie, helped found the U.S.-based Fact-Finding Commission (FFC), which seeks to publicize the plight of the Hmong.
Thousands of Lao Hmong Face Deportation from Thailand
Thousands of Lao Hmong asylum-seekers are scrambling for shelter in this northern Thai village after landlords began evicting them on orders from the Thai government. The Thai government told landlords this week they had until July 10 to evict the estimated 6,500 would-be refugees from their bamboo shelters. Landlords were threatened with imprisonment or fines up to U.S. $1,200 for sheltering the Hmong, whom Bangkok regards as illegal immigrants. Village leaders reported Friday that authorities had lifted curbs on the sale of food to the Lao Hmong. The group includes children and has been camped out since July 4 along the road near the village of Huay Nam Khao.
Lao Hmong Surrender to Authorities
More than 240 relatives of Hmong rebels fighting a low-level insurgency in northern Laos have surrendered to Lao government authorities, sources in northern Laos say. Some 242 Lao Hmong from Viengthong and Na Yaa hamlets in Bolikhamxay province turned themselves in Oct.6, near the Xang district, a Hmong man who asked to be identified by the surname Lima told RFA’s Lao service. The group comprises 43 different families and numerous women, children, and elderly people, he said. The man said Lao authorities had effectively forced them to come forward by choking off food supplies.
Blast, Injuries Reported in Laos
A small bomb exploded in the Lao capital Vientiane before the opening of the annual That Luang Fair, injuring an unknown number of people, a security official told RFA. One of the injured was in grave condition, the source told RFA’s Lao service. The explosive device was detonated behind the National Assembly building by an inexpensive Chinese-made alarm clock at about 5:30 a.m., within the perimeter of the That Luang temple—one of the holiest sites in Laos. The blast resounded loudly enough to scare passersby and residents, and the area was quickly cleared, the source said. Victims were treated at the Sayasettha Hospital, less that a half-km from the National Assembly, sources said. Authorities have warned witnesses not to talk about the incident, they said.
Thai Police Arrest 29 Lao Hmong, Plan To Deport Them
Police in a northern Thai village have detained 29 Lao Hmong asylum-seekers whom they plan to repatriate to Laos, Lao sources say. The 29 Hmong, arrested on Nov. 28, are among more than 6,000 Lao Hmong asylum-seekers sheltering in Huay Nam Khao, local sources told RFA’s Lao service. They are the first of the group to be arrested, they said. “These Hmong people who were arrested and sent to Nongkhai province are Hmong Lao from Laos,” one Hmong man said on condition of anonymity. “They lived in Huay Nam Khao village. They were arrested Nov. 28. The 29 arrested Hmong were held in Khao Kho district [in Phetchabun province] for about seven days and then sent to Nongkhai province.”
Rebels Surrender to Lao Authorities
Hundreds of anti-government rebels and their relatives in Laos have surrendered to Lao authorities. Many of the rebels belong to the Hmong ethnic minority, the country’s most prominent minority. In late February, Lao troops surrounded several areas in the north of the country where they believed insurgents were active, according to sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. These areas were located in Xieng Khouang Province and Saysomboun Special Zone.
Number of Lao Rebels, Relatives Seeking Amnesty Rises to 1,000
The number of Lao rebels and their relatives surrendering to authorities and seeking amnesty has risen to roughly a thousand since late February, RFA’s Lao service reported. Most of those emerging from the jungle are women, children, and the elderly, a reliable government source said. The source, who asked not to be named, said Lao troops had been actively pressing any remaining anti-government rebels to surrender.
Lao, Thai Villagers Urged to Seek Compensation
Villagers along the Mekong River in Thailand and Laos are being urged to seek Chinese compensation for damage to the environment caused by Chinese reef blasting, RFA’s Lao service reports. A panel of non-governmental experts and environmentalists, convened by the Thai Journalists Association in Bangkok on the drought crisis along the lower Mekong River, agreed that Chinese reef blasting appears to be wreaking environmental havoc.
Lao Christian Forced to Renounce Faith
A minority Hmong Christian from northern Laos says the government required him to renounce his faith before releasing him from three months in detention. Tong Tu Vang, 32, from Samneua district in the northern Lao province of Houaphan, also told RFA’s Lao service his wife was required to pay about $1,000 to government officials before he was set free.
New Bomb Explodes Near Hotel in Lao Capital
A bomb exploded near a fence along a hotel in the Lao capital of Vientiane late Tuesday, RFA’s Lao service reports. No injuries or deaths have been reported. At about 7:40 p.m. a bomb exploded near a concrete fence outside the Lan Xang Hotel opposite the Foreign Trade Bank in downtown Vientiane.
Hmong Voice Relief, Hope on Arriving in U.S.
Several new Hmong asylum-seekers who reached the United States this week say they want other Lao Hmong awaiting resettlement to know they are safe. In interviews with RFA’s Lao service, they urged others not to be afraid.
Lao Deportee’s Wife Fears for Husband’s Life
The wife of one of the 16 men extradited from Thailand to Laos this week, six months after a Thai court ordered them freed, says she fears for her husband’s life now that he is in Lao custody. The Thai government says it has received assurances from Laos that the men will face trial for robbery under Lao laws in connection with a July 2000 raid on a Lao-Thai border checkpoint that the raiders say was politically motivated. But Saythong Homnouane, whose husband Thongdy Homnouane, 47, is among the 16 raiders now back in Laos, said she was heartbroken by news of her husband’s deportation and believes any legal proceedings against the men will be illegitimate. There’s no way they are going to be questioned or investigated, she told RFA’s Lao service. I think all I can do now is wait for the time to make merit [for their souls]. Why were they not deported right at the beginning of the ordeal [in 2000] instead of sending them to their certain death now? Why torture the families like this?
Thailand Cracks Down on Hmong Migrants
Thai authorities have warned some 2,000 ethnic Hmong migrants in its central Saraburi Province that they face arrest unless they have already registered with United Nations and local authorities. “Those who are not registered with the military or U.N. officials are urged to go back to where they came from by Aug. 25,” a spokesman for the Hmong in Thailand told RFA’s Lao service.
Lao Photographer Describes Attack by Troops on Hmong Children
The Lao Hmong refugee who documented an alleged massacre of five Hmong children by Lao troops has described in detail how the children were attacked and raped by Lao troops before he returned and photographed their mutilated bodies. In a lengthy interview with RFA’s Lao service, Va Cha Yang, a merchant who smuggled video footage of the children’s bodies out of Laos, rejected claims by the Lao government that the video was fabricated.
U.S. Warns of Bomb Threat During ASEAN Meeting
The U.S. State Department is warning of possible bombings by anti-government groups during a summit of Southeast Asian leaders in late November. “The U.S. Embassy in Vientiane has received information that during the ASEAN summit conference, persons associated with anti-Lao government groups may be planning to detonate several explosive devices in Vientiane as well as in the following provinces of Laos: Bolikhamxai, Khammouan, Savannakhet, Salavan and Champassak,” the State Department said in a travel advisory dated Oct.22, 2004 and made available on the Web.
U.S. Normalizes Trade Ties With Laos Amid Controversy
U.S. President George W. Bush has signed into law a bill extending normal trade relations (NTR) to Laos despite calls from human rights groups who favor prolonging a U.S. boycott of the Communist Lao regime. NTR status–which ends an era of punitively high tariffs against goods imported from Laos–was embedded in “miscellaneous provisions” of the huge “Miscellaneous Trade and Technical Corrections Act of 2004,” signed into law Dec. 3. The Minnesota-based Lao Human Rights Council has campaigned vigorously against NTR for Laos, collecting more than 2,500 letters and petitions from Hmong and Lao Americans against the move.
Laos Rules Out Early Pardons for Hmong Held With Foreigners
The Lao government says there will be no early release for three Lao Hmong arrested and tried along with three foreigners last month.
Thai Police Crack Down on Sex Slavery
Thai police have launched a crackdown on human-trafficking gangs that run brothels across the country in a bid to break a vicious cycle of poverty, corruption, and under-age sex. Among the teenagers rounded up by police in the Thai capital was a young girl from Laos, who told RFA she was forced by a gang to work as a prostitute.
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