LAOS IS USUALLY portrayed in the global media as a peaceful and simple land of Buddhism. One also notes that Laos is also a place that has not been well-researched by international academia. Among the ASEAN countries, compared with studies on Thailand. Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, there are relatively few academic books published about Laos.
The government of Laos claims that the country is a Communist one, a system that was officially adopted in the country since 1975. This may seem contradictory in the eyes of us who were taught that Communist is an atheist religion.
But is there space for religious tolerance in Laotian society? As George Orwell once wrote, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” In Laos, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party is the force that decides what is politically possible and what is not, including as to whether Laotian society is one that allows for freedom of religion.
In the past months, one of us had the chance to meet a Laotian refugee in Thailand. He had the chance to present an article, Laos Dissidents Exiled Under Thailand’s Military Rule. After the article was published, some other Laotian refugees contacted us, giving us the chance to meet many of them, interview them, learn about contemporary stories in Laos we may not see in mainstream news. As Thai activists, we sought to give them as much help as we could (we established “Humanity Beyond Borders”, raising funds from students, the public, and giving earnings from our book sales to help them).
Even though the country’s news is heavily restricted, we know Laotians still have small spaces remaining online. For example, Laotian refugees use YouTube as their channel to express opinions. Following dissident Laotians’ Facebook profiles allows us to know their opinion toward the government and the actual situation. However, such expressions of opinion are still risky. The people who express opinions at odds with the government may be arrested, charged, and sentenced to prison. This has led many Laotians who critical of the Laotian government to seek refuge in Thailand. This has left the fate of some uncertain, with some reports showing that some individuals were captured and sent back to Laos or were disappeared.
“Muay” Houayheuang Xayabouly posing with a group of children. Photo credit: Houayheuang Xayabouly/Facebook
Despite these risks, some Laotians still dedicate their lives to fight inside the country for rights and freedom of the people and the conservation of the environment. One of most famous among them is a woman named “Muay” or Houayheuang Xayabouly, aged 30. She is a social media influencer—or “net idol” as is the term in Laos and Thailand. Tens of thousands follow her, but, last September she was arrested after posting a video criticizing the government’s delayed response to a flood. Her videos regularly have tens of thousands of views.
The officers charged her with defamation, Article 117 of Criminal Law. She was sentenced to five years in prison and given a fine of 20 million Kip (~US$2200). She is currently still in prison, denied bail, leaving her 4-year-old child to her mother’s care. Her imprisonment has led to anger and the hashtag campaign #savemuay circulated on Facebook.
Though Muay’s story was reported in many foreign news outlets, it did not receive much attention. Moreover, the news all portrayed Muay as a victim from criticizing the government, without reporting on the importance of Muay’s environmental activism roles through her criticism of the dams. We might to try to fill in some of the gaps in the international reporting here.
Who is Muay?
HOUAYHEUANG XAYABOULY, nicknamed“Muay”, was born in 1988 in the district of Phonthong, Champasak Province. Her family is quite well-off, her parents have 4 children, and Muay is their third and only daughter.
After earning a degree in tourism, Muay worked as a tour guide in a company. She can speak the tongue of neighboring countries to Laos, including both Thai and Vietnamese. Her parents live in Phonthong, but also own land in Pakse.
Pakse is located in Champasak. Before the formation of Laos, this was the capital city of many kingdoms. This province is near the Mekong river, with rich forest areas, and it shares its borders with Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand. It takes around an hour to travel from Pakse to the Thai border. Because of the geographic proximity of Pakse and Thailand, there is a close-knit trading relationship across the borders.
Even though Muay is not Pakse-born, she spent most of her life there. Muay opened a shop, offering traditional clothes for rent and for sale, along with serving as a tour guide when requested to by the company she worked for. If she had chosen to, Muay could have lived a relaxed life.
But because of the richness of Laos’ national resources, especially the strip of land close to the shore of the Mekong river, Pakse has become an area that the government considers useful for attracting foreign investors. This would not be a bad thing in itself. However, poor governance and an unwillingness to listen to the views of the people in the area, this has led to an enormous impact on locals and the ecosystem. This was what led Muay to take action.
You Can’t Use the Road if You Don’t Pay a Fee
DESPITE LAOS being an ostensibly Communist country, many bridges and roads are owned by private companies that receive concessions from the state. These companies, therefore, have the right to ask for fees from those who cross, creating a heavy burden for the people who utilize the routes.
Muay’s family is one of the families that are forced to take a toll bridge to go home every day. Their home in Phonthong, Champasak is on the opposite side of the Mekong River from Pakse.
The Duangdee Company, which built the bridge, knew that this route would be very busy and highly worth investing in, as there is always trade between Laotians and Thais in the area. People who want to enter Thailand through Chong Mek border crossing (from Ubon Ratchathani to Champasak) have to travel through this route. Even people going to Vat Phou temple also have to travel through this route. As such, the Duangdee Company continuously charged people fees for 20 years on the bridge.
“Free Muay” campaign started on Facebook
Muay used to be just like others who did not have any interest in politics. She grew up in a society where she was taught to trust the government. However, as Muay was one of the people who had to commute through this route often, every time she drove in a four-wheeler through the crossing, she had to pay over 80 baht, equivalent to the cost of multiple meals. Muay and others suffered from the abuse and exploitation of the government-backed international companies.
Muay was beginning to be fed up with this and recorded a video to complain to friends that if international companies took advantage of the people that much, she would rather have the same road back (before Duangdee Company built the bridge, the people could still travel on the original road conveniently).
Without any deliberate intention of doing so, her video made an impact on Laos’ society. Many people shared her video on various pages, creating heated criticisms of the government and international companies that had close ties with the government.
The government was forced to respond, holding a press conference saying that Duangdee Company would refrain from collecting tolls for the time being. However, the company still made their employees collect the tolls just like before, resulting in quarrels with the people, and the company still won out.
Even though she lost, through this incident, Muay had discovered she had a voice. She discovered she had a talent for speaking to make people follow her. She realized that her voice had the power to make an impact, leading her to reflect on many things in Laos that she had found dissatisfying but had to keep quiet about in the past. Muay decided that she would continue to use her voice.
Corruption in Laotian Society
AFTER THE incident, Muay began to be publicly known. At the same time, the Laotian government started to keep tabs on her. They sent officials to reprimand her, asking her to stop criticizing the government. However, Muay thought that she did not do anything wrong, just she simply presented an existing problem, so she did not stop with her critiques (though she knew very well that she could not criticize the Communist party directly).
Muay did not focus only on local issues. She started to criticize the corruption of buying and selling government positions, something which is widely known but no one dared to speak out against.
The story that she revealed was nothing but her own little brother’s, who had paid to become a police officer. Muay herself did not agree with her brother’s actions and she told this to her brother. However, to rise in any work positions in Laotian society, bribery is normal.
Her brother received an offer that if he wanted to become a police officer, he had to pay a sum of money, then he would be accepted. But if he did not get the job, his money would be returned to him.
However, when paying a million Kip (~US$1100), he was ripped off; he paid and waited for years without getting either the job or the money back. Muay’s brother felt anxious and started to feel that his sister’s words were right. He then asked Muay to talk about his story to show the Laotian bureaucracy system’s corruption. She then published a video criticizing the buying of positions, to warn others in the society about this problem, because she believed this kind of thing did not only happen to her family, and people who pay such money have to accept the risk of being scammed.
“If you’re not really a genius, you have to pay for positions”, one of the Laotian refugees who graduated from a top university in Laos told us.
Muay spoke sarcastically on this issue, saying that, “People with money party before the exam, during the exam they just sit crossed-legged and shake their legs. The exam will probably be done by someone else after they leave the room.”
“A country can develop after the development of the people. If the people cannot develop, don’t build a road made of concrete, put knowledge in people’s heads first,” she said.
Muay’s video garnered tens of thousands of views, and many supported what she said. But this time, the government stop with a warning. Instead, the tour guide company Muay was working for was pressured by the government to fire her. Muay became unemployed overnight.
“I don’t blame the company, because my company is a subsidiary company. Of course, the person who fired me had to be from above,” Muay said in the video.
Holding a Concert to Build a School
BY THEN, Muay had a lot of followers, and they waited to see what Muay will do next. For Muay, she did not have the intention of bringing down the government. Muay’s refugee friend told us that:
“If Muay wanted to bring down the government, she wouldn’t have spoken Laotian at all. She would have spoken English, a language she could speak, so that the world would know.”
Muay simply wanted to speak the truth so that the government would see the problems and solve the problems that had arisen from not listening to the people. She and a few friends met, contemplating that, apart from criticizing corruption, how could she help the Laotian people would realize that they could be a part of something that could benefit society.
Muay and her friends concluded that they would sell t-shirts with a text saying “#ຂ້ອຍບໍ່ຢາກໃຫ້ມີການໄດ້ຊື້ຈ້າງເຂົາເຮັດວຽກ” (I don’t want the buying of job positions), and organize a fund-raising concert for the construction of a school. Muay’s refugee friend told us that “It was a small step that we took to show the government that the people were dissatisfied with the corruption and bribery, so they expressed through the construction of a school. It was an indirect way to tell them that if there were not issues of corruption, Laos’ education system would be better.” (Laos was ranked 140th of 189 countries worldwide in UNDP’s index for quality of education.)
Muay launched the sale online. Within a few hours, thousands of t-shirts were ordered by Laotian people all across Laos. A few days after, Muay invited her friends who were also famous Internet personalities up the stage to sing, bringing thousands to the concert, and raising a huge amount of money to build the school.
However, Muay and her friends’ good intentions were not taken well by the government. For the Laotian government, what Muay did was a threat to stability. Officers called off the concert after only a few songs were performed. Muay’s friend who was there told us that “The government was worried by any assembly of people that wasn’t ordered by the government itself.”
Even though the concert was called off, Muay saw the support of Laotian people, which indicated that they wanted to improve their society, and that, along with Muay, they hoped to eradicate corruption. Muay did not feel that she could turn away from her role as a speaker of truth.
Muay’s Critique of Laotian Environmental Policy and International Companies
IN THE PAST, the country that most heavily invested in Laos was Thailand, but now China has surpassed Thailand in investment in Laos. The Chinese government and Chinese companies are investing in dams, railways, special economic projects, mining concessions, and have forced land concessions to build banana farms, among other things. The influx of investments from Chinese companies and the embrace of them by the Laotian government has brought about countless problems for the Laotian people.
“The Chinese came with a huge amount of money. No doubt that our lands that the government had promised to give to us were stolen away for their sakes,” one man told us. Small business owners in Laos do not have the ability to compete with the large resources possessed by Chinese companies, so they close their businesses or they are bought by Chinese.
The concession of banana plantations to Chinese capital, as given by the Laotian government, has caused environmental problems, as they heavily use Prochloraz and other chemicals. The creeks are contaminated with chemicals, and fish in the river float, dead. Laotian workers, Chinese bosses, and people nearby have all been among those to become sick.
Muay and her friends tried to help by sharing the information from locals to allow Laotian citizens to become aware of these problems. Muay published a video asking for compassion from people with power to help solve these environmental issues, for the well-being of Laotian citizens.
However, this time, her voice didn’t lead to any of the authorities contacting her. The critique of the Chinese who caused problems for Laotian people did not yield any response, but such companies and those with power started to lose their tolerance with her. They looked at Muay and friends and people affected by the problems as troublemakers. High-ranking Laotian officials issued a press release through the government’s state-run media outlets. They asked the people to be careful when using social media. If they were found guilty of spreading untrue information, they would be criminally charged and could end up in prison.
The Collapse of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namno Dam
LAOS’ PEOPLE have less freedom than many other ASEAN countries. Laos has only 12 out of 100 points in Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” rankings. Nowadays, dissidents are forcibly disappeared and killed. The most notorious case was Sombath Somphone, a Laotian community development worker and winner of the Magsaysay Award who was abducted and disappeared in Vientiane. The Laotian government claimed they did not know anything about the incident.
Picture of chemicals from a Chinese banana plantation washed onto a creek in Ton Pheung district, Bokeo province, leading to fish deaths
Even though Laos has limited political freedoms, the country has plentiful natural resources. The country currently has over 50 dams and is planning to build more. This is for the selling of electricity, which contributes to ⅔ of Laos’ total export value.
As for whom the benefits fall to, this is still a question. For over 7 million people of Laos, the country is highly unequal, given its low income, and high rate of corruption.
In 2013, the government gave a concession to a South Korean company and a Thai company to invest in the “Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy” dam, in order to produce hydropower electricity and sell it to Thailand. The dam was situated between Paksong, Champasak province and Sanamxai, Attapeu province.
This project was well-advertised by the Thai government’s official media channels: “It is a chance for Thai investors to ensure the growth of ASEAN.” However, in 2018, only a year before the dam would be finished, a large storm came, with heavy rain causing the dam to overflow. One of the saddle dams collapsed, leading to a major flood that destroyed villages, displacing over 5,000 people from their homes. There were hundreds of people who died or were never found.
Even with aid offered from other countries, including from Thai rescuer organizations that wished to provide assistance, the Laotian government came up with measures to discourage those who wanted to help. Organizations had to be strictly approved by the Laotian government. Organizations were prohibited from sending things directly to the victims. Taking pictures while participating in aid efforts was also prohibited.
During the flood, Muay went to the affected area to help locals in trouble. She asked Laotians in various areas to donate. Many Thai people kept track of the situation through her, leading to many contributions. Nevertheless, Muay was disappointed that the government was slow to respond to rescue organizations and that the government itself was slow to help the affected people when the construction of the dam was already ruining the lives of these people. She published a video complaining about the government’s actions.
Her video drew tens of thousands of viewers and thousands of comments. We could call her a citizen-journalist regarding this. This proved yet another time the Laotian government sought to silence her, as the dissatisfaction with the government was brewing among the people, and this might have scared away investors. Muay was called in for a second warning.
The Laotian Government’s Inefficiency in Helping the Affected People
“THEY SAY that we cannot have new rescue equipment because our country is not too poor to afford it. Meanwhile, government employees do not have high salaries, yet they could afford luxury cars, houses, lands, and safety equipment. Well! They have so little salary, so how come they could afford that?”
“Eventually the government officials who went to help the people will probably die before the people. I want this to be an experience that will teach them that officials should be trained in case flooding like this happen again,” said Muay.
A year after the tragic event had passed, the Podul-Kajiki storm came, bringing days of continuous rain which caused severe flooding in many areas including the northeast of Thailand (Ubonratchathani) and the south of Laos (Pakse). The water level in the Mekong river rose, and Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam quickly overflowed.
The water must be released or otherwise, the dam would be damaged, which would affect the decisions of investors. As such, water was released and flooded the town once again. Hundreds of families were affected. Once again, the people had to be evacuated to plateaus. This time, Muay criticized the lack of lessons learned from the previous collapse of the dam and the continued slow response from the government.
Muay did not know that this would be the last time she could freely express her views. The Laotian government wouldn’t risk letting her point out its flaws again. A few days after she went live on her Facebook, officers arrested her and put her in detention. After they forced her to confess, the Champasak court sentenced Muay to five years in prison on charges under Article 117 of the Criminal Code, “Propaganda activities against, slandering, or undermining the party (Lao People’s Revolutionary Party), the state, or the government.” When relatives requested bail, this was denied by the court.
Nevertheless, Muay had always said that by criticizing the government, she didn’t intend to oppose it. Her intention was to fight against corruption. Muay stated that she believed that out of 100 workers, there are 90 good people and only 10 bad people. If the charges Muay received were because of criticizing bad things in the government, why would this be constructed as an act against the government?
“I had already told Muay that she could criticize anything, but if she touched the dam, it would be a matter of life and death, as the government received all the money there,” Jon, a refugee who is a close friend of Muay told us.
From now on, Laos’ construction of dams which harm the ecosystem, contribute to climate change, and displace people and communities, continue without opposition.
THAT STORIES about Laos are little known on a global level might be due partly to the government’s success in vanquishing its media and frightening the people into silence. This might partially be attributed to the failure of Laotians to establish their own civil society organizations in the country.
However, one notes that Laos citizens living in a country with no guarantee of the political freedoms to think differently outside of the government’s official line.
The environmental effects of the construction of dams in China and Laos made the Mekong river dry up, affecting millions of farmers and fishers across the ASEAN region. This has gone almost unnoticed by the world writ large. People in countries with democracy, freedom, and human rights, or in ASEAN countries which may not actually be fully democratic or free, all have a part to play here. The Laotian government’s environmental destruction affects people across the world and it is punishing those people who have stood up and tried to make society realize this danger.
This dark time in Laos makes us realize that young people in Laos who grew up in a time when information is not that easily controlled are challenging the long obstruction of freedom and human rights which has lasted for over 40 years in Laos. Muay was one of their most important inspirations.
Muay is a regular person who loves her country, her community, her land, and the forests there. She was not afraid to speak out, speak up for the people, for the trees which are being destroyed to build dams, against corruption in Lao and against Chinese companies.
Muay bravely stood up to protect the environment. She was acting on behalf of Laos and the world in doing so. Muay does not deserve to be let alone imprisoned from taking this stand. We, as members of the international community, should be demanding that governments all over the world and various international organizations act to help her, demand Laos’ government to release her immediately.
* The authors would like to thank Sirin Mungcharoen and Peera Songkünnatham for their translation advice and aid