A map showing the location of Salavan province in Laos.
Exile Lao human rights groups on Friday pressed the Vientiane government to investigate the death in custody last month of Lao villager who had been detained since 2011 over a land protest in the country’s Salavan province.
The government has been silent so far on the death in jail of Sy Phong, one of two men kept in jail after 23 other protesters detained in 2011 had been released.
RFA’s Lao Service reported earlier this week that Sy Phong’s death in custody was revealed when prison officials called family members to pick up his body for religious observances and cremation.
Sy Phong and another accused leader, Som Nuk, had protested outside district offices with a group of 25 residents of Salavan’s Dane Nhai village to call for the return of land given by the government to a Vietnamese company to grow eucalyptus trees, a local source told RFA.
Police later came at night to arrest those who had taken part, falsely accusing them of using violence during the protest, he said.
“Most were freed after being held in jail for two or three months, but two of their leaders—Sy Phong and Som Nuk—were not released,” he said, adding, “Now, Sy Phong is dead, and villagers want to know why.”
“The Lao government should investigate the death fairly and clearly for the true cause of the death of Mr. Sy Phong in jail and give compensation to the victim’s family,” said Vanida Thephsouvanh, chairwoman of the Paris-based Lao Movement for Human Rights.
She said a statement that the Sy Phong’s case showed that “Lao officials still continue to harass local villagers who are against confiscations” of land.
Germany-based Bounthone Chanthalavong Weiser, head of the Alliance for Democracy, echoed the call for an investigation.
“I believe that these kind of arrests still happen in many provinces of Laos today which the central leaders cover up,” she said in a statement.
“My organization urges international organizations came to investigate these arrests and this death in Laos,” added Weiser
Earlier this week, a local official confirmed to RFA the eight-year-old arrests and jailing of the accused protest leaders, but said the two men had not been jailed for the protest over land, but because they had joined with “overseas Lao” in a plot to overthrow the government.
However, a Dane Nhai villager told RFA that the men “were not acting against the government” and had protested only because they did not want their land taken away to be used as a concession.
Reached for comment, Vixiene Navikoul, deputy governor of Salavan Province, told RFA on Monday that he would contact local officials to learn what had happened. But he did not answer RFA’s phone calls on Thursday and Friday.
Asked by RFA about the case, Salavan Province Governor Sisouvanh Vongchomsy said on Thursday: “No, no, I didn’t hear about this. They, the authorities, did not report about this to me.”
RFA’s Lao Service also learned on Friday that Sy Phon’s body was sent to his hometown in for burial because his relatives in Dane Nhai were afraid to conduct a funeral there.
The seizure of land for development or agricultural use—often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents—has been a major cause of protest in Laos and other authoritarian Asian countries, including Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam.
In July 2017, 15 residents of Yeub village in the Sekong province of Laos were taken into custody for obstructing workers and cutting down trees on their former land, which had been given by the government to a Vietnamese rubber company.
Several of those detained were beaten or subjected to electric shocks in the days following their arrest, with another later reported to have died in custody.
Reported and translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh, Sidney Khotpanya and Max Avary for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.
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