Profile of Muay: A Laotian Woman Human Rights Defender

March 18, 2021

On 17 a blog post in hrcessex by Sarah Mui profiles Muay: “A Fierce Woman Human Rights Defender”

Houayheung (“Muay”) Xayabouly is not only a mother, small business owner and the primary breadwinner of her family, but shehas also been breaking down stereotypical gender roles by being a fierce human rights defender and environmental activist in Laos.She is viewed as a public figure among her community because of her work to shed light onto the countless human rights violations that she and fellow Lao people have endured at the hands of the national government. In 2019, the Lao government decided to make an example out of Muay and unjustly sentenced her to five years in prison, for which she was stripped of all fair trial guarantees. In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, I urge all who read this to remember her name, learn her fight and spread awareness to demand that all charges be dropped and Muay be set free.

Photo courtesy of Manushya Foundatio

In 2017, Muay began raising awareness on social media over the excessive tolls that she along with other people in her community were being charged when crossing a bridge on the border of Laos and Thailand. The cost of the toll was equivalent to several meals, but Lao people relied on it to travel to and from work each day, including Muay herself. It turned out that the Lao government had given the private international company, Duangdee, the concession to charge the toll when it constructed the bridge in the first place. This concession left her community in an impossible situation where they were perpetually indebted to this private company who took advantage of the bridge’s necessity. Muay’s video about the toll deeply resonated with the Lao people, who agreed that the government benefited from the financial relationship with Duangdee. This made Muay realize the importance of using her voice to speak up for Lao people, and it was then that she made the decision to dedicate her life to fighting for them.   

The Lao government did nothing in response to their people’s outcry over the excessive tolls, but rather chose to focus attention on finding ways to intimidate Muay. Soon after the video went viral, the police were sent to her location to warn her to not criticize it.

In 2018, Muay challenged the Lao government over the corrupt hiring practices of public sector and governmental positions in that they were being appointed on the condition of bribes instead of through proper hiring procedures. This was quite personal for Muay because her own brother had been deeply impacted by this practice. He had always aspired to become a police officer but was cheated out of money and the position of his dreams due to these dishonorable practices. Muay’s video discussing the topic received over 320,000 views as of July last year. 

Soon after Muay’s widely viewed video, she was fired from her job as a tour guide for “unknown” reasons other than the fact her employer had been mysteriously pressured to do so. 

Muay was not going to let the government deter her from helping Lao people. Later that year, she decided to create a school for Lao children to address the dire inequalities that they faced in accessing education. The current practice was for parents to pay a bribe to secure a spot for their children, otherwise they could not provide them an education. She started multiple fundraisers to accomplish this goal, including selling shirts that said, “I don’t want to buy government positions,” referencing the Lao government’s corrupt hiring practices in addition to holding a concert featuring a number of local performers. 

Again, instead of actually listening to the suffering of its people, the government chose to continue to try to intimidate Muay by shutting down the fundraising concert and prohibiting the selling of shirts. 

The year 2018 was also troubling because that summer a dam collapsed in Attapeu Province, which led to numerous deaths, disappearances and displacements of Lao people. The government purportedly underreported the impact of the collapse and restricted access to the scene by the media and independent aid organizations. Muay decided to take matters into her own hands and post her own videos of the disaster and its significant effect on the community. 

In response to the shocking video, Muay was called to the police station and was told to cease all criticism of the Lao government. 

Around the same time, Muay had learned that donations for the impacted families of the dam collapse were being sold by Lao police for their own monetary gain. She could not allow her community to suffer so she started collecting donations for them herself. She documented and shared this all on social media.

Within a few days, the Lao government issued a press statement advising the public against reading “unofficial news” about the collapse. 

In the autumn of 2019, the Lao people who lived close to the dam were again harmed after a tropical storm caused major flooding, leaving over 100,000 displaced from their homes. Again, disturbed by the Lao government’s indifference towards its people, Muay posted another video calling the government out for its slow response and its lack of preventative measures which could have mitigated the storm’s impact.  

Around the same time, the Lao government sent police to arrest Muay without a warrant while she was dining at a restaurant. She tried to post a video about what had happened, but she was forced to delete it. She was then placed in pre-trial detention long before her hearing and was denied an impartial lawyer and the ability to challenge her detention. She was subject to repeated long interrogations where she was coerced to confess to “spreading propaganda against the Lao government.” She was subsequently sentenced to five years in prison, for which she visitation has been limited and closely monitored. She has not been able to see her young daughter but a handful of times and international NGOs have been completely barred.

Photo courtesy of Manushya Foundation

The Lao Government is Using Muay as an Example to Silence Dissent 

Muay is a strong and dedicated woman human rights defender and environmental activist who has fought endlessly for her community. Instead of taking accountability and listening to the suffering of its people, the Lao government has instead chosen to turn a blind eye to its human rights obligations and punish Muay for her significant contributions to her country. Until now, Muay’s story has only been made available by a few NGOs working hard to shed light onto her fervent advocacy and now wrongful detention. To spread the word about her fight, please share this blog, follow #FreeMuay and visit this link to demand that Muay be set free!

About the Author: Sarah Mui is an American human rights lawyer currently in the LLM for International Human Rights Law program at the University of Essex. She is also a research assistant with the Manushya Foundation located in Bangkok. Sarah hopes to work in the field women’s rights upon graduation. 

https://hrcessex.wordpress.com/2021/03/17/muay-a-fierce-woman-human-rights-defender/

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