The Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) maintains a monopoly on political power in Laos, one of the world's few remaining communist states. President Choummaly Sayasone's government regulates virtually every facet of life, including religious freedom. Thousands of ethnic Hmong in rural areas have been forced off their land to make way for extractive industries and some Hmong refugees who returned to the country from Thailand in late 2009 and early 2010 appear to have vanished; efforts by their families, foreign diplomats, and members of the U.S. Congress to obtain information on their whereabouts have been largely unsuccessful. The climate for NGOs grew increasingly hostile when, in December 2012, the head of the Laos branch of the Swiss development agency Helvetas was expelled from the country. The same month, anti-poverty activist Sombath Somphone was detained by authorities and has not been heard from since. The state owns all media and any journalist who criticizes the government or discusses controversial political topics faces legal punishment. Refugees who come to Laos continue to face deportation. In June 2012, 20 North Korean refugees were deported after being arrested by authorities.
HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images