Laos says women are now more respected and protected on International Women's Day Monday, but the words might ring hollow to Houayheuang Xayabouly, who languishes in jail more than a year after her arrest for a Facebook post complaining about the communist government’s failure to respond to a flooding emergency.
Houayheuang Xayabouly, better known by her nickname Mouay, was arrested Sept. 12, 2019, a week after she published videos critical about the government’s inability to rescue people from flooding in the country’s southern Champassak and Salavan provinces. The delayed government response had left many Lao villagers stranded and cut off from help, she said in the video, which was viewed more than 150,000 times.
The authorities charged her with defaming the country according to Article 117 of Laos’ Criminal Code, holding her in the Champassak provincial jail.
Though the swift arrest and sentencing may have silenced her, her legend only grew.
“It is very good we have such an outspoken woman,” a Lao activist in Thailand told RFA’s Lao Service.
“She alone had the gumption to criticize the government on internal affairs and other issues, so she is braver than any man is,” the activist said.
State media reported that while detained, Mouay confessed to her crime. In addition to the five years in prison, the maximum jail sentence, she was also slapped with a 20 million kip (U.S. $2,250) fine, also the maximum.
A lawyer who declined to be named told RFA that Mouay’s arrest was unjust.
“The arrest abuses the basic rights of Lao citizens. She has the right to criticize the government in a constructive way. The charge and the court’s decision are groundless,” the lawyer said.
“The measure to prosecute her does not make sense, so lawyers are confused, and we disagree with the court’s decision.”
Mouay had been an active critic of the government online since 2018, usually uploading her controversial content on her Facebook page and YouTube.
In late 2018 she published a video that slammed the Lao government’s slow and inadequate response to help survivors of Laos’ worst-ever dam disaster, the July 2018 collapse of the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy Dam in Champassak that destroyed all or parts of 19 villages, killed 71 people and displaced another 14,000 to temporary relocation centers.
In early 2019, Mouay set her crosshairs on corruption among government workers, who she said were able to use their positions to get rich quickly, then flaunt their wealth by buying luxury houses and cars.
In a later video, she complained about the widespread “pay-to-get-hired” scheme in Laos, bringing up the case of one of her relatives who was asked to pay about U.S. $3,000 to a local government office in exchange for a job he had applied for. Though the bribe was pocketed, her relative was never hired, so Mouay demanded that the bribed official return the money.
About a month prior to her arrest, Mouay took aim at traffic police who stop motorists then accept bribes. At one point in the video, she expressed her fury at a local police chief who said that bribes were an act of mutual consent between the officer and the motorist.
The video that got her arrested went up Sept. 5, 2019. After two storms barreled into southern Laos that week and dropped more than 40 centimeters (15 inches) of rain in some parts, many people were in desperate need of rescue and relief.
“My parents and I have been trapped—surrounded by water in Attapeu Province for several days now, and the authorities have sent no boats or helicopters to come evacuate or rescue us. I couldn’t remain silent any longer. Not saying anything at all is a thing of the past, and out of date,” Mouay said in the offending video.
One week later she was arrested. Authorities said she exaggerated government’s lack of response, and some of what she said was untrue, so it could create a misunderstanding and social disorder.
Mouay confessed to her crime, but rights groups believe she was coerced.
The 32-year-old Champassak province native is serving her sentence in the Champassak Provincial Detention Center.
International Women’s Day 2021
Celebrations for International Women’s Day in Laos were scaled down this year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
With an overall theme of “Women Leadership for Equality,” Women’s Unions all over the country held small events to commemorate the history of the day and the importance of women continuing to play a greater role in Lao society.
“Lao women’s roles and rights have become more respected and protected in the last several years, but many Lao women, especially those in remote areas are poor, uneducated, uninformed and easily victimized by human trafficking,” a member of the Lao Women’s Union told RFA.
“Most of the victims are trafficked into sex trade and hard labor within the country, to Thailand and China,” she said.
A government employee in Xayaburi province in the country’s northwest told RFA that life for women has vastly improved in recent years.
“For example, paid maternity leave was extended from three months to five months since 2019,” she said.
Women in power
Though Laos is an overwhelmingly male-dominated society, women have gained some traction in government, particularly in the country’s single-party national assembly, which, until recent elections was 27 percent female, well above the world average.
In a recent interview with the World Bank on the occasion of International Women’s Day, Lao radio host Chandavone Sinamonty said that for her, Laos’ most inspiring female figure was its most powerful—National Assembly President Pany Yathotou.
She said Pany Yathotou “is a woman with a broad vision who plays an important role in Lao society,” noting also that she was a member of the Hmong ethnic minority.
Pany Yathotou is currently the third-highest ranked member of Laos’ Politburo, behind Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and Vice President Phankham Viphavanh.
Prior to becoming National Assembly president in 2010, Pany Yathotou had been an assembly member since 1998. She also led the Laos’ central bank from 1988 to 1997.
She was for a long time the only female member of the Politburo until this year, when she was joined by National Assembly Vice President Sisay Leudetmounsone.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on its website commends Laos for having one of the world’s highest proportions of women in parliament, but it noted that very few women had power in other government institutions.
The UNDP also noted that although there are more Lao women in the labor market than at any other time in history, “there are still large inequalities in some regions, with women systematically denied the same work rights as men.”
It cited sexual violence and exploitation, unequal division of unpaid care and domestic work, and discrimination in public office as huge barriers. Climate change was also a concern, as “disasters have a disproportionate effect on women and children, as do conflict and migration.”
The proportion of women in the Lao National Assembly actually decreased as a result of the February 21 elections. Though the number of seats in the legislative body increased from 149 to 164, the number of female lawmakers decreased from 41 to 36, or moving from about 27 percent to 22 percent, below the global average of 24 percent.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.