UNPO urgently calls on the international community to respond to a severe escalation of violence by government forces against Hmong individuals living in the Phou Bia region in Lao PDR
***12 April 2021 UPDATE: The crisis in the region has recently been reported on by Radio Free Asia and ASEAN Today, the latter of which places the military's attacks in the context of foreign investments into the region by China through its Belt and Road Initiative***
UNPO urgently calls on the international community to respond to a severe escalation of violence by government forces against Hmong individuals living in the Phou Bia mountain region in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The military’s campaign amounts to a disproportionate use of force which is endangering the lives of civilians, including women and children.
UNPO further urges the government of Lao PDR to immediately cease any acts of violence against the Hmong people in the area, to grant immediate and unfettered access to the area to impartial international observers, to take measures to protect civilians living in the region and work towards a peaceful resolution of historical disputes.
Following decades of tensions and sporadic acts of violence perpetrated against the Hmong people residing in the Phou Bia jungle, the UNPO is deeply concerned that a recent escalation may result in a serious humanitarian and human rights crisis including the forced displacement of the Hmong community including women and children.
UNPO observes that on 14 March 2021 authorities in Xaisomboun (Saysombun in Lao) province issued a decree, circulated via a letter sent to 26 villages in the area, restricting access to the Phou Bia jungle to all civilians. The letter stated that access to the area is permitted only to military personnel from the Saysombun zone and soldiers of Tha Thom District, with all roads being closed from 14 – 30 March 2021 (subsequently extended). This decision effectively segregates the Hmong community that has taken refugee on the Phou Bia Jungle for the last four decades. Coinciding with the publication of the letter, an escalation of violence against the Hmong has been reported by community members living in the area. The recent escalation follows two decades of increasingly aggressive tactics by the government against the Hmong community and in particular, against the so-called “ChaoFa” Hmong.
Despite these serious humanitarian and human rights concerns, the government continues to deny the excessive use of force against the Hmong people and refuses access to the area to international observers, even on humanitarian or medical grounds. Framing the violence as part of a legitimate military campaign, in January 2021, Major General Khamlieng Outhakaisone stated during the Eleventh Party Congress that the “authorities in Xaysomboun Province have worked hard to monitor and suppress occasional flareups of unrest”. This intense campaign also coincides with the development of the Pho Bia Mountain as a tourist site with estimations of hundreds of millions of dollars in development funding. Foreign investment in the region has also increased with large scale industry expanding in the area.
The current situation and threat of violence has its origins in 2016 when repression and the use of force against the Hmong population in the Phou Bia region entered a new phase of severity. During this period, the military initiated a sustained campaign into jungle areas around the Phou Bia region in Northern Laos, making use of tanks and heavy artillery and firing indiscriminately into ChaoFa Hmong territory, despite the presence of women and children. Similar cases continued to be reported throughout 2018 and the first half of 2019 .
Many Hmong have surrendered to the military during this increased period of violence and put into camps. Others have fled Laos and taken refuge in neighboring countries, but a significant number of them was forcibly repatriated to Lao. Currently, Hmong from Laos remain unable to seek asylum and obtain refugee status in neighboring countries.
While the number of Hmong actually residing in the jungle has dwindled to less than 100 individuals split in groups of 4-5, many thousands of Hmong are living in villages, government camps and other regular and irregular settlements throughout the region, and violence and persecution against them has continued. In 2020, a group of 4 members of the community, including two minors, were presumably subjects of enforced disappearance, as they were trying to flee the Phou Bua region. Their whereabouts remain unknown. On 8 March 2021, a relative of the two missing minors was killed by the army and gruesome photographs of his execution distributed via social media to the Hmong community.
In August 2020, the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council expressed serious concerns about the situation of the ChaoFa Hmong through a public joint allegation letter. The letter, signed by ten Special Rapporteurs, was sent to the government of Lao PDR. To date, the government has not sent an official reply to the allegation letter. The letter addressed allegations of state-sponsored persecution of the Hmong people as outlined in this call for action. Furthremore, in March 2020, the Asia-Pacific Center on the Responsibility to Protect, part of the UN's early warning mechanim for genocide and atrocity crimes, upgraded the risk level for country-wide atrocities in Laos, citing specificially concern with the treatment of the Hmong as creating an environment conducive to atrocity crimes and building up the evidence base of a potential intent towards targeted physical elimination.
The Hmong living in the area are appealing to the international community for an urgent intervention and have issued a plea for a “even if it is temporary” refuge. Among the individuals still remaining, many civilians including the elderly, women and children, have been surrounded by soldiers coming from a large number military bases built in the area over the preceding last of intense clashes among the military and the Hmong. Soldiers from other areas of Lao have now joined the new military campaign. International obervers and humanitarian organizations have been summarily denied access to the region for years and continue to be denied access during the present crisis.