A small demonstration of a few dozen people advocating for human rights was set to take place in the Lao capital of Vientiane on November 11, in what would have been a rare protest in the repressive one-party state.

However, authorities swooped in and arrested eight would-be protesters before they could take to the streets. There are unconfirmed reports that dozens more associated with the thwarted demonstration may be missing.

Demonstrations are highly uncommon in Laos, which has been ruled by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, a repressive communist party, since 1975. Only a handful of pro-democracy protests have ever taken place under communist rule, most lasting only minutes before being broken up by authorities.

The November 11 demonstration was reportedly planned by a mysterious, underground network known as Lao National Unity. It came in apparent response to the arrests of a rising number of activists and protestors in recent months.

“First, people were going to rally for respect of human rights and freedom of speech,” an unnamed organizer of the protests told Radio Free Asia. “Second, they wanted to ask the government to prevent land grabs, dam-building, deforestation and unfair relocation of communities.”

Eight of the would-be protesters were released by authorities on November 18, but there are concerns about dozens of others who travelled to Vientiane to take part in the protest but, according to Human Rights Watch, have not been seen since by their families. Fears are they could join a long list of those “forcibly disappeared” in Laos.

Nine activists who planned to take part in a protest in 2009 were detained that year and haven’t been heard from since. Sombath Somphone, a well-known civil society organizer, is the most famous “forced disappearance” in Laos. He missing in December 2012 after being stopped at a police checkpoint in the capital.

Prominent Lao activist Sombath Somphone has been missing after being disappeared by apparent plain-clothes officials in 2012. Photo: Twitter

Od Sayavong, a pro-democracy activist who lived in Thailand, went missing in Bangkok on August 26 this year. Despite being recognized as a refugee by the UN’s refugee agency, Thai authorities have offered little information about his whereabouts and status.

Some allege that the Thai and Lao governments are now willfully helping each other to track down dissidents who have fled across their respective borders.

Five Thai activists who had been living in Laos since 2014 went missing in December 2018. The mutilated bodies of two – Kraidej Luelert and Chatchan Buphawan – were found shortly afterwards in the Mekong River, their faces disfigured and their stomachs filled with concrete.

September was a particularly bad month for Lao activists. On September 12, Houayheuang Xayabouly was arrested after comments she made on Facebook Live criticizing the government’s handling of a recent flooding disaster in the country’s south.

She was sentenced this month to five years in prison for “campaigning against, defaming and attempting to overthrow the party, state and government,” a Lao official was quoted saying in media reports.

Four days later, 69-year-old landowner Thitphay Thammavong was arrested after he failed to sign a paper giving the government ownership of his land in Bolikhamsai province, where the state is building a health center.

“Wherever land grabbing takes place in Laos, villagers owning land who resist face being jailed, showing yet again how the Lao government abuses the human rights of villagers on lands the government requires,” Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, said at the time.

Land-grabbing remains rife in Laos, largely because the government does not fully respect private property rights. All land constitutionally belongs to the state and therefore the Party, meaning greedy local officials often sell confiscated land to foreign investors, including to make way for Chinese development projects.

Analysts believe the Party will likely intensify its repression ahead of its next National Congress in early 2021, at which the party’s next Central Committee and Politburo members will be decided.

A Lao guard of honor marches at Wattay International airport in Vientiane, Laos, in a file photo. Photo: AFP

There are unlikely to be major changes at the top, as Bounnhang Vorachith has only had one term in the chair as Party general secretary, the communist government’s top spot. His predecessors, analysts note, have stayed in power for at least two terms.

Thongloun Sisoulith, who has launched an anti-corruption drive that has netted top Party members, could be replaced as prime minister, observers say. Any personnel changes, however, are unlikely to change the Party’s repressive tactics.

Odds are stacked against a break-out pro-democracy movement in Laos. The small landlocked country of around seven million is home to a small but growing middle-class, which is concentrated in Vientiane and a handful of other cities. The country’s mountainous geography makes travel and organizing between the cities and countryside difficult.

Lao activists, meanwhile, are typically disconnected by geography and class, unlike their Vietnamese counterparts, who realized in the 2000s that it was necessary to form ties and informal networks between rural land-rights protests, urban republicans and trade unionists.

Vietnamese demonstrators, for instance, are often also motivated by a deep-rooted anti-China nationalism that the country’s ruling Communist Party has struggled to suppress. Nationwide protests are now becoming common in Vietnam, and increasingly turning hostile to the government, forcing the Party to adapt.

But pro-democracy activists in Laos struggle to mobilize a similar unifying nationalism, over which the Party maintains an ideological monopoly. The planned November 11 protests coalesced around a joint banner of human and land rights, popular demands that may one day germinate a credible pro-democracy movement.

Even the overseas Lao pro-democracy movement is splintered between those who want a return of the royalist ancien regime and those who desire liberal democracy.

An annual conference of eleven overseas Lao organizations, which recently changed its name to the Lao Coalition for Peace and Democracy, took place in September in the US.

Lao Crown Prince Soulivong Savang at the 3rd Annual Conference of United Lao Council for Peace, Freedom and Reconstruction, in St. Paul, Minnesota, United States, September 21, 2019. Photo: Facebook

Crown Prince Soulivong Savang, whose Paris-based Fa Ngum association claims he is Laos’ rightful monarch after the disposal of the royal house by the communist Pathet Lao in 1975, gave the opening speech.

Moreover, Laos is seldom on the international community’s radar. In April, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, published a startlingly honest report after spending several weeks in Laos.

“Many interlocutors suggested to me that the UN in [Laos] has largely failed to be a voice for the vulnerable, let alone for human rights, and that it has promoted an overtly optimistic picture of the country’s successes while sidestepping most of the many issues that it and the government deem to be ‘sensitive’,” he wrote.

He noted that international bodies are often severely hampered by the Lao government, which requires them to receive official permission to travel to certain provinces and speak with certain organizations.

“They don’t speak out because they know they will be thrown out,” Alston told Asia Times in an interview earlier this year. “But I think the international community doesn’t do itself any favors by not speaking honestly to the government.”

It isn’t just the UN. The United States is deafening mute on Laos, even while it has stepped up alliances with other authoritarian Southeast Asian states including Vietnam. Laos has barely featured in public comments or strategic plans by US President Donald Trump’s administration, despite his predecessor Barack Obama’s bid to open a new era of bilateral ties.

That’s in part because neither the US nor the European Union have much influence over Vientiane. Trade with the West remains nascent, while the US has almost no military relations with the Lao People’s Armed Forces, the one avenue Washington typically pursues to engage in dialogue with authoritarian regimes. Nor are any major US companies invested in Laos.

Laos' Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith (L) shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping (R) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 1, 2016.Thongloun Sisoulith is on an official visit to China between November 28 to December 1. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Nicolas ASFOURI
Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, December 1, 2016. Photo: AFP/Pool/Nicolas Asfouri

Laos is a beneficiary of the EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, which grants tariff and quota-free access to European markets for exports from least developed countries. The EU is only Laos’ fourth largest trading partner, importing just US$262 million worth of goods from it last year.

The EU is currently threatening to remove Cambodia, arguably a less repressive state than Laos, from the EBA scheme for democratic-backsliding. Yet there is no suggestion that Laos could face similar censure for its anti-democratic tendencies, including its November 11 crackdown.

Instead, Laos’ foreign policy remains dominated by its historic allies and neighbors, namely Vietnam and China, with the latter’s influence increasing at the expense of the former’s in recent years. Beijing is now the largest investor in Laos, not least through a US$6.7 billion railway under construction to connect Vientiane to mainland China.

Corrupt Lao officials have reportedly grown fat off Chinese aid and investment which has recently driven Laos recent fast economic growth. As such, analysts say Laos is now one of the top countries at risk of a sovereignty-eroding China “debt trap,” which in future could limit Vientiane’s fiscal independence and ability to diversify its foreign relations.

Denied the strong international support received by pro-democracy parties and organizations in Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam, those fighting for political freedom and rights in Laos will do so alone and at their rising peril.