In Laos, price of free speech a heavy one

In Laos, price of free speech a heavy one

Thailand's former human rights commissioner Angkhana Neelapaijit holds a placard showing the #FreeMuay campaign to raise awareness about the imprisonment of Lao activist Houayheuang 'Muay' Xayabouly. (Photo courtesy of Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal)
Thailand's former human rights commissioner Angkhana Neelapaijit holds a placard showing the #FreeMuay campaign to raise awareness about the imprisonment of Lao activist Houayheuang 'Muay' Xayabouly. (Photo courtesy of Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal)

The imprisonment of Houayheuang "Muay" Xayabouly, a young, female Lao environmentalist turned internet activist who simply asked for help for flood victims, should be a matter of deep concern to the international community.

On Sept 5, 2018, Muay used her 17-minute-long Facebook Live broadcast to counter the official narrative of the government -- and state-run media -- on the 2018 dam collapse in southern Laos.

After speaking up for the flood victims, she found herself arrested and was sent to jail last year.

Her Facebook Live video was viewed 150,000 times and shared 2,244 times.

In the video, she told a story of flood victims living on the roofs of their houses, drawing attention to the government's negligence during the deadly flooding.

"I cannot be silent as we have been in the past. The era of the regime keeping the eyes and mouths of the people closed has come to an end," Radio Free Asia quoted her as saying in the video.

Her scathing live reports evaded Lao censors and got news from communities affected by land confiscation, the loss of natural resources, and the construction of dams along the Mekong River, out to the public before the government was able to ask Facebook to take down her posts.

Her video plea for flood victims was still available on her Facebook page recently.

In Laos, any criticism of the government on social media can land you in trouble.

Muay, 31, is the mother of a four-year-old girl. She worked as a tour guide before being arrested on Sept 12, 2019 and charged under Article 117 of the Lao criminal code, for spreading "anti-state propaganda".

She was sentenced to five years in prison. But this wasn't the first time Muay had gotten into trouble.

Police had previously questioned Muay about her growing influence on social media in Laos. When she challenged the official narrative about the floods caused by the dam collapse, and resulting loss of life and livelihoods for people living in Attapeu province, she hit a nerve.

"Muay had been arrested before but [had always been] released. This time they wanted to make an example of her," said Emilie Pradichit, director of Manushya Foundation -- a rights group based in Bangkok.

"She refused to apologise this time so she was sentenced to jail," Ms Emilie added.

Many Lao political activists fear the government. Seven years ago, community development expert Sombath Somphone was kidnapped at a police checkpoint in downtown Vientiane; he hasn't been seen or heard from since despite an international outcry.

Human rights groups say the Lao government is using enforced disappearance as a weapon to silence dissent.

Last August, Lao refugee Od Sayavong disappeared in Bangkok, where he'd been waiting for resettlement to a third country. The news of Od's disappearance sent shock waves through Thailand's refugee community.

"With social media, Lao people have more channels to express themselves. They don't have to take to the streets to protest and [be] arrested," said Sunai Phasuk, a Thai researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"But the Lao government is intensively surveilling its people online," Mr Sunai added.

Thai and Lao political activists in Bangkok have teamed up to launch the #FreeMuay campaign. They want to raise awareness about missing Lao activists like Od and have called for an immediate investigation into Muay's case in Laos.

The #FreeMuay campaign seeks to inform the world -- as Muay did herself via social media -- about the difficulties faced by the Lao people in raising their voice to demand accountability and transparency inside Laos, or in exile in Thailand.

The Thai group Humanity Beyond Borders is raising funds and awareness through this campaign, to assist Muay and anyone who dares to speak out against repressive regimes anywhere in the world.

People around the world have suffered a great deal from natural disasters like the flooding in the south of Laos in 2018. That calamity may have been less severe and less deadly if the state were held accountable for its responses. It is a cause for dismay that someone like Muay, who wanted to hold the government responsible, ended up in jail. She does not deserve this.

Thailand and the international community must focus on gross human rights abuses in Laos.

The most important thing now is for the United Nations and international organisations to go to Laos to visit Muay in prison and pressure the Lao government to release her. She should never have been jailed in the first place.


Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a student activist at Chulalongkorn University, spearheads the #FreeMuay campaign. Adam Bemma is a writer based in Southeast Asia.


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