Laotians say they are confused after recently elected Lao President Thongloun Sisoulith gave a speech in which he appeared to contradict himself, urging members of the public to call out police abuse, while also demanding that authorities to crack down on social media use seen as undermining social order.
In an April 5 speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of the public security force in the capital Vientiane, Thongloun called on security personnel to “be role models, build trust, [and] be a force that people can rely on.”
“Police must protect people and must be fair to people. Police should allow people to participate and cooperate in maintaining safety and security,” said Thongloun, who on March 22 became the country’s first president without a military background after being appointed general secretary of the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party in January.
“People should be encouraged to report the wrongdoings of the police and other authorities especially the wrongdoings that will be dangerous to their community and to the general public. Police should not do anything that will scare people off or that will stop them from reporting,” he said.
However, in the same speech, Thongloun warned of evil forces seeking to topple the country’s one-party government with speech critical of its leadership on Facebook and other social media platforms and called on authorities to use whatever means necessary to disrupt such efforts.
“In the era of the advanced technological and modern social media, police must fight firmly and immediately against people who use social media to commit crimes, to destroy our country and to cause any disorder by undermining our unity, creating misunderstanding and creating any antagonistic parties in the country,” he said.
At the end of his speech, Thongloun reiterated that all security forces must immediately and effectively stand up against all adversary elements that aim to undermine the revolution.
Members of the public told RFA’s Lao Service that they were confused by the president’s statements, which they said seemed contradictory.
A truck driver, who often travels between Khammouane province and Vientiane, said he didn’t understand what Thongloun was trying to convey to the people in his speech.
“On one hand, the president urged us to report the wrongdoing of the authorities to the public and government; but on the other hand, he instructed the police to crack down on social media,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
“I was once stopped by a traffic police officer for speeding and the officer demanded a kickback from me then let me go. I took a short video of the officer and posted it on my Facebook page, and then I was summoned to a local police station, ordered to take it down, reeducated and accused of trying to defame the authorities.”
Afraid of cops
A motorcyclist in Borikhamxay province, who also declined to be named, told RFA that “many people are afraid of the police” in Laos based on prior experience.
“Even if they were stopped by a traffic police officer who demanded a kickback, most of them wouldn’t report the corruption to the authorities or to public,” he said. “If they did report, they would end up in trouble.”
Other motorists said that while they might take a photo or video of a police officer engaged in an illegal act, they would never say anything bad about the police on social media, because doing so could land them in prison or “forcibly disappeared.”
“We can’t say much,” a resident of Champassak province said. “If you say something bad, you’ll be accused of trying to break up the Party and government. We can’t talk back to or make any argument against the authorities.”
Bounthone Chanthalavong-Weise, president of the Alliance for Democracy in Laos, a Germany-based rights organization, suggested that Thongloun had “misspoken.”
“What he said was incorrect because social media exists to allow the public to report on, publish and exchange information that is often blocked by the government,” she said.
When contacted by RFA to clarify Thongloun’s statement, an official at the Prime Minister’s Office said that while netizens can “say anything you want” on social media, “what you say must be supported by proof and facts.”
“That’s the law,” he said, without providing further details.
Targeted for speaking out
Last year, RFA documented several cases in which Laotians were targeted after reporting police wrongdoing.
In March 2020, a young man and woman who gave their names as Boey and Keo were arrested in their home village of Xiengda on the outskirts of Vientiane and detained for a week after posting a video they took during a heated exchange with police over whether their land belonged to the state. One of Keo’s family members said at the time that the two had been “reeducated” for posting the video before they were released.
Sangkhan Chanthavong, who is better known as Thisi, was arrested on Aug. 26 last year in Champasak and detained for one month and three days after posting a video clip accusing the Lao government of nepotism because high-ranking officials regularly stock their departments with family members. In another video, he had criticized the judiciary, including police, prosecutors and judges.
On the evening of Oct. 27, 2020, police stopped a 17-year-old boy who had been sent by his mother to buy spices for their small restaurant in Vientiane and demanded 200,000 kip ($21.24) to release his motorcycle. The mother posted a video clip on Facebook scolding the officers for exploitation and three days later was summoned to the police station and forced to apologize.
Thongloun is not the first Lao president to issue a seemingly contradictory statement that led to public confusion.
Three years ago, during a speech to the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, former president Bounnhang Vorachith lamented what he called “dull and unpopular” broadcasts by Lao media, calling for more programming with more “creativity” that is “more reflective of the needs of the public.”
Later, in the same speech, Bounnhang called television, radio, and newspapers “tools” of the state, adding that “all media must serve the Party and government,” and adhere to their guidelines and policies.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.