Challenges to the Regime
Human rights have been gaining a measure of respect in Laos. In the early years of the LPDR, party authorities arbitrarily sent people labeled as social deviants--"prostitutes, addicts, gamblers, hippies, thieves, and lost children"--to seminar camps. Political opponents associated with the former RLG--perhaps as many as 30,000 to 50,000--were also confined to these camps.
By the late 1980s, there was a slight liberalization in the granting of human rights. Many, although not all, of the seminar camps had been closed, and some former inmates were assigned to labor and construction units and collective farms near the camps. It became easier for a citizen to travel within the country and gain permission to cross the Mekong River to Thailand or travel abroad. As of April 1994, any Laotian with an identification card and foreigners with valid visas were permitted to travel anywhere in the country--with specific travel papers--except to a few, unspecified, "restricted areas." Restrictions on Buddhist religious practices became more relaxed, and even high-level government officials routinely attended Buddhist functions. The number of Buddhist monks increased, with some 30,000 reported to be practicing in 1991. The agents of state internal security, principally the police and other cadres of the Ministry of Interior, seemed less oppressive. In 1991 twenty-five detainees who had been held at seminar camps since 1975 were released. The number the government was known to be holding as of 1993 had diminished to fewer than twelve, all former officials or military officers of the RLG. The LPDR claimed that the remaining detainees were free to travel in Houaphan Province, where they are confined.
Nonetheless, many freedoms remain inaccessible. The government controls most large public gatherings, and, except for religious, athletic, and communal events, generally organizes them. Political demonstrations, protest marches, and other "destabilizing subversive activities" are expressly banned by the new penal code. The constitution guarantees the freedoms of speech and the press, but the exercise of these freedoms is subject to a wide range of government controls.
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