BANGKOK (AFP): An isolated murder, a brutal attempted killing and a murky disappearance: Laotian activists have been caught up in a series of alarming recent incidents that have spooked the reclusive communist state's embattled dissident community.
Landlocked, poor and deeply tied to China, Laos is one of the world's most repressive countries, with independent civil society barely present, free media non-existent and rare protests quickly dispersed.
Now a spate of incidents involving government critics has sparked fears of a crackdown as the country gears up to take the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) next year.
The latest wave of incidents began in late April when a gunman shot campaigner Anousa "Jack" Luangsuphom in the head and body in a brazen attack at a Vientiane cafe.
The 25-year-old was an admin for a popular Facebook page where users shared memes, jokes and their dissatisfaction with the government.
"They were very scared when they saw what happened," exiled Laotian dissident Joseph Akaravong said of the activist community.
"It shows that the Lao government is afraid to see people activating to demand rights and freedoms in Laos," he told AFP from France, where he was granted asylum in 2022.
Last year, Anousa received an anonymous death threat and a warning to leave the country, according to one person with knowledge of events.
Many of those who spoke to AFP did so on condition of anonymity, citing fears for their safety, or that the Laotian government would ban them from working in the country.
In the days after Anousa's shooting, the state news agency published shocking, graphic CCTV footage of the attack as the news spread.
Miraculously he survived -- though his family initially said he was dead to deter the gunman from returning to finish him off -- and he is now being treated abroad.
Less than two weeks later, activist Savang Phaleuth disappeared into police custody on May 9 after returning to Laos from Thailand, where he had been living and working for 16 years.
Rights groups say the police have not informed Savang's family of the charges against him or allowed them to visit.
Then, on May 16, Bounsuan Kitiyano was found dead in Thailand's Ubon Ratchathani province on the Laotian border, shot three times and dumped in a forest.
Both Savang and Bounsuan belonged to the Free Lao group, which advocates for democracy and has staged protests outside the country's Bangkok embassy.
There is no proven link between the Laos government and either attack, and investigators in both Anousa's shooting and Bounsuan's killing have suggested personal disputes may be to blame.
But rights groups say the three incidents fit a disturbing and long-running pattern of harm coming to those who criticise or resist the regime.
"It is very clear that there is an ongoing effort to wipe out Laos critics and activists in Thailand," said Andrea Giorgetta, of the International Federation for Human Rights.
He told AFP that while this repression had been going on for years -- citing the environmental campaigner Sombath Somphone, who vanished in 2012 -- a change seemed to be under way.
"There is definitely an escalation of measures that are being used to target dissidents," he said.
"From detentions and deportations, you see outright killings."
Ten human rights organisations -- including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch -- issued a joint statement urging Bangkok and Vientiane to investigate Bounsuan's killing, noting "a recurring targeting of human rights defenders affiliated with Free Lao".
Other Free Lao members to be targeted include Od Sayavong and his housemate, who vanished in 2019, as well as Somphone Phimmasone, Soukane Chaithad and Lodkham Thammavong -- all arrested in 2016.
"Under this repressive climate, these human rights defenders who fled their country continue to live in fear of being targeted for exercising their human rights," the statement said.
AFP made multiple attempts to contact the Laotian foreign ministry, information ministry and embassy in Bangkok for comment, but got no response.
Laos is set to lead Asean next year, and some observers suggest Vientiane could be trying to clean house before the country takes the international spotlight.
"Lao authorities may be trying to get rid of activists ahead of being under high scrutiny next year," said Emilie Pradichit, of the regional human rights group Manushya Foundation.
Others point to new Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone, who pledged in December to tackle the tanking economy and "raise the spirit of the revolution to the highest level".
"The increased violence against Lao activists is to suppress any dissenting voice that would undermine the new PM's authority and image," said Pradchit.
As another international expert based in Laos put it: "Once in a while, an example is made and that serves to show people what the limits are."