VIENTIANE: With their heads hung low, three Laos nationals quietly apologise on state TV for betraying the country through anti-government Facebook posts, a striking parade of apparent confessions in the communist regime’s latest crackdown on dissent.
The ominous broadcast in late May was the first news of the trio for families desperate to know their whereabouts since they were arrested in March.
“From now on I will behave well, change my attitude and stop all activities that betray the nation,” said 29-year-old Somphone Phimmasone on Lao National TV.
He sat between the two co-accused: his girlfriend, Lodkham Thammavong, 30, and another man, 32-year-old Soukan Chaithad, each wearing the trademark royal blue uniforms of prisoners.
Flanked by a row of straight-backed police officers, beneath a banner proclaiming “peace, independence, unity, prosperity” in Laos, Soukan stressed their confessions weren’t forced by the authorities.
Their grave crime, explained an unidentified narrator, was to threaten national security. He claimed they did this by protesting against the government while working in neighbouring Thailand, and posting critical content on Facebook, the social media site that has gained most traction in the tiny landlocked nation.
Laos, one of the last single-party communist states in the world, tolerates zero opposition. But the “arbitrary, incommunicado detentions” reveal a worrying new clampdown, said Andrea Giorgetta of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
“The most troubling aspect of this case is that the Laotian government has gone to great lengths to monitor its critics beyond the country’s borders, and has significantly stepped up repression of online dissent,” he said.
The nation of only seven million people routinely falls at the bottom end of press freedom lists, with its media tightly controlled by the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. Laos ranked 173rd of 180 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders index.
To beat the censors, Laotians are increasingly turning to social media for their news, even though the government introduced stiff jail terms for critical internet users in late 2014.
Last month’s broadcast carried a clear message: “Everyone who uses social media such as Facebook should be careful. Don’t believe untrue propaganda, it only slows down the country’s development,” said the voice-over during the video. A uniformed police officer then warned that anyone “who derogates the country will be prosecuted”.
The three Laotians were undocumented workers in Thailand, arrested after they returned home to apply for passports to re-enter Bangkok with proper permits. Somphone worked as a factory security guard, Lodkham as a domestic helper, and Soukan as a delivery driver. Through their now-closed Facebook accounts they accused the government of corruption, deforestation, and human rights violations, said Giorgetta.
Despite boasting one of the world’s fastest growing economies, hundreds of thousands of Laotians leave the still vastly poor country in search of jobs. Most, like these detainees, take up low-paid positions in Thailand.
Alongside employment, they also found an unlikely opportunity in December to protest against their government outside the Laos embassy in the military-ruled kingdom, which has itself severely curbed free speech since a 2014 coup.
Few would dare stage such a protest in Vientiane. Glimmering new malls are sprouting up in Laos’ capital, whose laid-back charm is increasingly interspersed with the dust and din of construction. But beneath this rapidly transforming landscape, much of the country’s political system remains unchanged. Last year Laos refused to accept key UN-backed recommendations on protecting freedom of expression and human rights defenders.
Social media offers a small yet still guarded space to articulate views unimaginable in public life. One woman in her 20s, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal, told Al Jazeera people were sharing reports of the recent arrests on Facebook.
“Rich kids here don’t get in trouble for running over a person on the road. But these guys did for protesting. I just wondered why. It’s not fair,” she said.
In January, Laos’ secretive communist party appointed a new president and prime minister, the same year it assumed chairmanship of ASEAN, the powerful bloc of 10 Southeast Asian nations. Later this year, it also expects to welcome Barack Obama, the first sitting US president to visit Laos, in a trip intended to boost warming ties between the former foes.
Yet like their predecessors, the new Laos leaders show no sign of opening up political debate, said a Western diplomat in Vientiane, who also asked to remain anonymous to avoid repercussions.
“The regime doesn’t take any criticism directed at it. It’s a direct threat to their survival,” he said, adding the recent broadcast was “a message to all the young people in Laos”.
It’s unclear what charges or sentences the three detainees face but last year a Polish national of Laos heritage was jailed for nearly five years for alleged anti-government criticism online.
Previous attempts at protests have also been vigorously quashed. Two pro-democracy student leaders still languish in jail more than 16 years after they were arrested for planning peaceful rallies calling for democratic freedoms.
The Paris-based Lao Movement for Human Rights said the government has refused to reveal the whereabouts of two other students detained over the same event and claims that a fifth member died in police custody.
Laos government officials did not respond to numerous requests for comment by phone and email.
In Vientiane, there’s one case that still hangs heavy in the air. The disappearance of civil society leader Sombath Somphone, internationally renowned for his non-confrontational approach to environmental issues, has cast a palpable fear about speaking out in Laos.
CCTV footage shows Sombath being pulled over by police at a checkpoint in Vientiane on the night he vanished in December 2012. His jeep is then driven away by someone else before he gets into an unknown vehicle.
High-profile figures from US Secretary of State John Kerry to Desmond Tutu, as well as the UN and EU, have urged the government to investigate Sombath’s disappearance. But it has provided his family with no updates on the probe since mid-2013. Calls to Laos’ police about the case also went unanswered.
Rights groups say hundreds of people have been “disappeared” in Southeast Asia in the past few decades, going missing at the hands of state or state-affiliated agents to settle scores and root out opposition.
The exact numbers are unknown but it’s become a worrisome scourge in a region where authoritarian regimes – including Laos, Vietnam and Thailand – are ramping up their surveillance of online dissent.
Sombath’s Singaporean wife Ng Shui-Meng, who still lives in Vientiane, has devoted her life to finding her husband. Speaking from a trip to visit relatives in Singapore, she said many Laos families “keep quiet for fear” after an arrest or disappearance.
“If keeping quiet would lead to a return, that would be a strategy. Keeping quiet yields nothing. Being active yields nothing. But what I hope is that his case is never forgotten, until we get the truth. I have to continue to pursue it.”
This article was published on 6 June 2016 on Al Jazeera