Od Sayavong, a political activist from Laos is feared missing in Thailand and was last seen on August 26, nearly two weeks ago. Savayong had fled to Thailand and was seeking refugee status with the United Nations. He feared for his safety in Laos – a one-party communist state with a dim view of dissent – owing to his role in campaigning for democracy and the expansion of migrant worker rights in the country. Laos has a poor human rights record with severe restrictions on freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. The state also exercises strict control over media and civil society.
According to the latest U.S. State Department annual report on human rights worldwide, issues of concern in Laos include, “arbitrary detention; political prisoners; censorship; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; corruption; and trafficking in persons.”
At a recent conference in Australia Human Rights Watch deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said,
“Laos has a horrific human rights record, which is often overlooked.”
He continued, “Australia is one of the few countries that has a human rights dialogue with Laos and so should make the most of this opportunity to press for change,”
A member of the “Free Lao” movement, an informal group of Lao migrant workers and activists based in Bangkok, Sayavong was registered as a “person of concern” by the UNHCR in 2017. He had been waiting for resettlement in a third country for the last two years.
“The Thai authorities should waste no time in investigating the disappearance of Od Sayavong. The declining safety of political refugees in Southeast Asia is of great concern and governments in the region should be doing all they can to prove they are meeting their international obligations.” – Louise Pyne-Jones, Head of Research at the International Observatory of Human Rights
Speaking to Reuters, Krisana Pattanacharoen, a deputy spokesman for the Thai police, said “The police are ready to investigate the disappearance of Od Sayavong,” but had not yet been informed by “relatives or related persons about his disappearance”.
Sayavong’s disappearance has sparked concern amongst human rights groups that he is just the latest example of a worrying trend in Southeast Asia, whereby the regional governments collude to return each other’s exiled dissidents.
“The international community should strongly condemn this seemingly coordinated form of repression that leads to further shrinking space for civil society in the region,” Vanida Thephsouvanh, President of the Lao Movement for Human Rights, said.
Kongcheep Tantravanich, a spokesperson for the Thai Defence Ministry denied knowledge of Sayavong’s case and exclaimed that Thailand does not have a policy to “suppress political refugees” from another country.
Southeast Asian governments have been accused of either officially arresting, or cooperating in the abduction of, political refugees in the region at least nine times in the past year alone.
“Od may be the latest casualty of increased cooperation between the government of Thailand and its regional counterparts to crack down on their respective dissidents in exile” — Vanida Thephsouvanh, President of the Lao Movement for Human Rights
Five Thai democracy activists who had sought refuge in Laos have disappeared from their homes since 2016. Two were later found dead in the Mekong River, their stomachs having been stuffed with concrete.
Rights groups believe that the remaining three have been deported from Vietnam to Thailand – although both governments deny this.
In January, Duy Nhat, a Vietnemese blogger who had applied for U.N. refugee status in Bangkok, went missing and is suspected to have been abducted and arbitrarily detained – with reports in March suggesting he is now in a Hanoi jail.
Thai immigration authorities said at the time that was no record of Nhat entering Thailand, but they were investigating the matter.