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Laos 2023

Human rights defenders were under heightened attack both at home and abroad, targeted in a pattern of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance and killings. Two Chinese dissidents were deported from Laos to China, where they faced threats of torture and other ill-treatment and unfair trials due to their activism. The government intensified its efforts to crack down on online criticism. Government and private sector investment in developing hydropower facilities continued to expand, despite concerns about the environmental, social and economic impacts.


Laos remained mired in a serious economic crisis due to rising inflation and continuous depreciation of the national currency. The International Monetary Fund identified that the country’s gross debt was 121.7% of GDP in 2023 and categorized the country as “in debt distress”. The crisis threatened people’s food security as various basic food products, including wheat, flour, eggs, meat and cooking oil, reached record high prices in June, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

The government continued to invest in power generation projects, including hydropower dams, despite mounting public debts and concerns about inadequate compensation for affected communities.

Human rights defenders

In a September press release, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders raised concerns regarding “a pattern of serious human rights violations targeting human rights defenders” in Laos. Such violations, which have been ongoing for decades, involved arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, violations of the right to a fair trial and intimidation of those engaged in human rights work.

Anousa “Jack” Luangsouphom, a 25-year-old human rights defender, was shot in the face and chest and severely injured by an unidentified man at a coffee shop in the capital, Vientiane, on 29 April. Jack was a vocal critic of the government who ran two Facebook pages, “Driven by the Keyboard” and “Sor Tor Lor – the Republic”, which featured commentaries on social, environmental, economic and political issues in Laos, such as haze pollution, the human rights of schoolchildren and LGBTI rights.1 Lao authorities claimed that the shooting was potentially linked to a love affair or business dispute, but did not provide information about any investigation into the attempted murder.

Attacks against Lao human rights defenders occurred both within Laos and abroad. Bounsuan Kitiyano, a 56-year-old human rights defender and UNHCR-recognized refugee, was shot dead in Thailand’s Ubon Ratchathani province on 17 May. The Lao and Thai governments were urged to undertake a prompt, thorough, effective, impartial and independent investigation into these cases and prevent further violence against human rights defenders.2

Chinese dissidents who came to Laos to flee persecution were targeted for deportation, despite the risk they would face human rights violations upon return, including torture and other ill-treatment and unfair trial. Yang Zewei, the founder of the Ban the Great Firewall group which advocated against online censorship in China, disappeared between 31 May and 2 June in Vientiane where he had been living in exile. Yang Zewei’s whereabouts became known on 7 July when Chinese authorities issued an arrest warrant and detained him at the Hengyang Youth Detention Center in China, for allegedly “inciting subversion of the state power”.

In a similar incident, on 28 July Lao authorities arrested and detained Lu Siwei, renowned human rights lawyer from China, while he was en route to join his family in the USA. UN experts noted that the detention was arbitrary. Lao authorities refused to reveal his fate and whereabouts. On 4 October, Amnesty International received confirmation that Lao authorities had returned Lu Siwei to China, despite calls for his release from human rights organizations.3

Corporate accountability

The government continued to build dams for producing hydroelectric power, with support from foreign investors including Chinese, Thai and South Korean companies. In September, the developers of Pak Beng Dam in Oudomxai province of northern Laos signed a power purchase agreement with the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, despite concerns expressed by human rights groups and others about the lack of information regarding compensation for villagers affected by displacement. The project’s environmental impact assessment report suggested the construction will lead to the resettlement of 4,700 people in 26 villages.

Human trafficking

Hundreds of people continued to be trafficked into and held captive to work in scam centres in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zones (GTSEZ) in north-western Laos. Victims, mostly university graduates, came from numerous countries and included over 100 Sri Lankans and seven Cambodians. They were forced to surrender their passports on arrival and to defraud “customers” with the sale of fake cryptocurrencies and other scams. There were reports of victims being held in travel debt bondage and subjected to harsh working conditions, including physical punishments such as electric shocks.

The situation was exacerbated by the fact that GTSEZs are exempt from national economic and labour laws. Research by the UN indicated that access to this area by law enforcement authorities is restricted, leading to weak governance and challenges in guaranteeing accountability for human rights abuses.

  1. Laos: Brazen shooting of human rights defender ‘Jack’ must be investigated immediately”, 3 May
  2. Thailand/Laos: Investigate the Killing of Lao Refugee and Put an End to Transnational Repression of Human Rights Defenders, 26 May
  3. “China: Human rights lawyer at risk of torture after return from Laos”, 4 October