They were arbitrarily detained for three months for protesting against a new military camp in their village.
Main photo: Lao soldiers and villagers are shown in a disputed area in Vientiane's Naxaithong district, March 25, 2022.
The Lao military arbitrarily detained five land dispute protesters for three months, then threatened them with further punishment if they were to talk to the media after their release, RFA has learned.
In April, authorities violently detained Nang Boumy, 55, Ngad, 58, Bounthavy, 36, Khamphout, 49, and Tou Oun, 72, as they destroyed signs and argued with military personnel at a newly built camp in their village of Houay Nam Yen in Naxaithong district, north of the capital Vientiane.
The five detainees were sent to a military facility in Nong Kheng, in Vientiane’s Sayathany district, where they remained until late July. The military released them, pending the court’s decision on their case, but told them to keep quiet about it.
“They prohibited us from saying anything or putting anything in the news, otherwise [the five] would be jailed again,” a villager told RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“If they were to read the news, they would be able to ask us who the source is. So we kept silent and said nothing,” the villager said.
The court decided their fate while they were not present, and the military relayed the decision, an eight-month sentence with the final five months suspended, when they returned to the prison on Sept. 22., sources told RFA.
Their absence in court was irregular, a legal consultant, who declined to be named, told RFA.
“The military committed a conflict of interest,” the consultant said. “The prosecution is very weird.”
The dispute between the military and the villagers remains unsettled.
Around 40 families have been living in the 25-hectare (61-acre) disputed area in Houay Nam Yen and nearby Sisawat village since 1989, the year they fled homes damaged by floods at the nearby Nam Houm Reservoir. Soldiers claiming ownership of the land began to build there within the past year.
In April, after the five were detained, Naxaithong district deputy head Phouvone Phong-Latkeo said that local villagers have no right to the disputed land, because the Vientiane Agriculture and Forestry Department had handed it over to the military following the 1989 Nam Houm flood and that it was now property of the state.
Rather than threatening to arrest people living in the disputed area, the military should engage with the community to find a solution, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, told RFA.
“The Lao military should be negotiating with villagers in cases of land disputes, not abusing their rights by detaining them for months just because the villagers asserted their right to farm there,” said Robertson, who called their arbitrary detention a “blatant violation of human rights.”
He called for an impartial investigation into the detention of the five protesters with accountability for those responsible.
“It is totally unacceptable for the military to cover up their rights violations by threatening the villagers with further harm if they reveal what happened to them,” he said.
“Once again, the Lao government's complete failure to protect the land rights of the Lao people are on full display.”
RFA attempted to contact the military for more information on the matter, but received no reply.
Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Eugene Whong.