Why Laos Restricts Religious Freedom

Troops of the Lao People’s Army (LPA) caught a group of Hmong Christians, confiscated their Bible and shot to death four women – after repeatedly raping two of them – forcing their husbands and children to witness the disgraceful and gruesome act on April 15.

Troops of the Lao People’s Army (LPA) caught a group of Hmong Christians, confiscated their Bible and shot to death four women – after repeatedly raping two of them – forcing their husbands and children to witness the disgraceful and gruesome act on April 15.

US-based think-tank Center for Public Policy Analysis reported that soldiers from a special 150-member unit of the LPA, led by Vietnamese secret police and military advisers, were responsible for the incident in north-eastern Xiengkhouang Province.

Another US-based group, Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom, reported that district police in Khammouan Province unlawfully detained 11 church leaders and believers around last Christmas, and officials of Katin village in Salavan Province expelled seven Christian families early this year.

Contrary to the notion that Laos, a communist state, has improved its religious freedom record over the last few years, especially after the United States gave it the (non-permanent) normal trade status in 2004, appears to be false. News from Laos does not reach the outside world, in time or ever, thanks to the absence of free press and lack of information infrastructure in the country.

Persecution of Christians, mostly from ethnic minority Protestant groups, which includes expulsion from village, forced relocation, pressure to renounce faith, detention and arrest, destruction of livestock and crop and closure of churches, is routine in provincial areas, especially in the provinces of Bolikhamxai, Houaphan, Salavan, Luanprabang, Attapeu, Oudamsai and Luang Namtha.

The Hmong Christian community in Laos (the Hmong, ethnic minority, allied with the United States in the Vietnam War and later during the civil war in Laos) is persecuted not only by the governments of Laos and Vietnam, but also by Hmong insurgents who have existed since the end of the Vietnam War. The insurgents seek to recruit Hmong Christians – a move opposed by most Christian leaders – and, at times, they attack those who resist or oppose them. And in their operations against the rebel group, Lao security forces indiscriminately target Hmong villages often destroying churches and homes out of suspicion.

Protestant Christianity in general, and the Hmong Christian community in particular, is seen by sections of the Lao society and the authorities as an American or imperialist “import” into the country and a threat to the communist rule.

While Laos has undergone some economic and cultural reforms, the country remains a single party state ruled by the Marxist-Leninist Laos People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) since the end of the Laotian civil war in 1975. The primary focus of “the party” has been to retain political power – one of the main reasons behind civil restrictions.

Part of the problem is that Laos is a narrow, landlocked country sharing borders with five, mostly stronger, nations: Vietnam, China, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia. Many of the provinces border two countries – Thailand and Vietnam – and most of Laos’ frontier areas are impoverished, lacking basic infrastructure. So the Laotian regime maintains a tight control over the social life.

In addition, the country’s proximity – both geographic and ideological – to Vietnam in particular is not helpful vis-à-vis religious freedom. Vietnam, too, is a single-party communist state. Moreover, Laos had a restive history with the United States, from the Vietnam War to the Civil War in Laos in the 1970s. Laos has diplomatic relations with Washington, but it remains cautious.

The party has been reluctant to grant those civil rights – or to the degree – that may threaten its exclusive political hold over the country. Rights of the people end – on paper or on the ground – precisely where such a threat is perceived.

The LPRP has allowed neither political opposition nor free press, nor civil society – or any other democratic institution that can challenge the power of or oppose the one-party regime – to take birth in the country. The people elect members of the National Assembly, the unicameral parliament, but it is known to be a rubber stamp of party’s decisions.

Religious organisations and institutions have been allowed to function, but only as long as they remain under government surveillance and control.

The Prime Minister’s 2002 Decree on Religious Practice – known as Decree 92 – passed to showcase religious freedom in the country gave some freedoms but also allowed government control of and interference in all religious activities and required all religious organisations to register with the government. The Decree did legalise religious activities previously deemed as illegal – including propagation, printing of religious material, ownership and construction of places of worship, and forming an association with religious groups from other countries – but subject to state approval. In addition, it banned any religious activity that could potentially create “social division” or “chaos” – leaving their definitions to the discretion of the authorities.

Around 60 percent of the 6.8 million people in Laos are followers of Theravada Buddhism, which enjoys a special status in the Lao society and is officially promoted by the “communist” government. The party apparently seeks to achieve political goals and suppress smaller religious denominations by co-opting the majority religion. It exempts Buddhism from most of the restrictions imposed on other religions, but maintains its control over the Buddhist clergy.

Among the Christian groups operating in the country, the government recognises only the Catholic Church, the Laos Evangelical Church and the Seventh Day Adventists. It pressures other small independent Protestant congregations to come under one of the recognised groups – so that it can exercise control over them with greater ease and more efficiently – and refuses to recognise them independently. While the Decree does not mention how unrecognised groups should be dealt with, experience shows that their activities are seen by authorities as illegal and their members and leaders are detained and arrested under various pretexts.

Human rights group Amnesty International estimated that at least 90 ethnic minority Protestants were arrested and detained without charge or trial between July and September 2009 alone.

Officials who abuse their powers are hardly punished.

It is the mandate of the Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO) to scrutinise implementation of laws by the authorities and prosecute in case of a contravention. However, practically, this is not possible given the party’s almost complete hold over it. Besides, breach of law by officials takes place mainly in rural areas where the people are mostly poor and illiterate. Even otherwise, it is common knowledge in the country that the basis of “justice” is not the letter or spirit of law but political/social influence or bribe – a luxury which few Christians have.

Even the judiciary is not independent. The judges are appointed by the National Assembly, all the members of which are from the one and only party in the country.

However, given that Laos realises the need for economic growth – especially when it compares itself with Vietnam – and is open to foreign investment and engagement with countries outside the region, there is scope for advocacy and engagement with this nation.

As a June 2010 briefing by UK-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide recommended, Laos should be encouraged to remove the reservation to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which goes against the spirit of the covenant’s aim to protect individual rights, allows for arbitrary interpretation and contains vague wording.

The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jehangir, who visited Laos in 2009, recommended a review of the Decree No. 92, saying bureaucratic controls over and impediments to liberty of movement in the context of religious activities should be discontinued. She also suggested that explanatory policy directions be passed on to the provincial and district levels to avoid any discriminatory interpretation. In addition, she noted that members of religious minorities seemed to have little or no access to higher education, and therefore the existing affirmative action schemes must be extended to religious minorities. Further, she called for adequate training of the personnel of detention facilities to raise awareness of their duty to promote and respect international human rights standards, including freedom of religion or belief.

Laos should be urged to heed Jehangir’s recommendations.

Laos also needs to introduce administrative reforms providing for accountability of officials to an independent institution.

The rulers in Laos often claim legitimacy of the single-party regime by saying there is no other way to hold a multi-ethnic and impoverished nation together. It is not unusual for a small, landlocked nation to seek greater control – social, cultural and political – but such a regime cannot hope to earn sympathies and respect of the international community as long as it persecutes and restricts basic human rights of its own people, including religious minorities.

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