Religious Freedom Conditions in Laos Improving, but “Isolated” Violations Continue

A new statement released by Norway-based Forum 18, has reported that religious freedom conditions in the country of Laos have improved in the last few years. However, the central government remains fundamentally hostile to religious freedom, despite their claims that religious freedom violations are caused by an alleged inability to control local officials. This hostility is revealed in "isolated" incidents of religious freedom violations against Christians and other religions.

Between April 20 and May 15, local officials detained 12 ethnic minority Christians in the southern province of Savannakhet for refusing to renounce their religious belief, the Paris-based Lao Movement for Human Rights reported. In March, district officials in the northern province of Luang Prabang ordered 35 Christian families to renounce their faith, US-based Christian Freedom International reported. When they refused, officials moved in with the families and threatened to stay until they complied with the demand. Just one month earlier, officials in another southern province, Attapeu, issued an ultimatum to local Christians to renounce their faith, leave the village or - if they insisted on staying put and keeping their belief - face death, according to British-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

These are just the most recent of continuing reports about how Christians in Laos, particularly those who are members of ethnic minorities, have been forced to renounce their faith, with severe consequences for those who refuse.

Meanwhile, some argue that freedom for religious communities in Laos has improved considerably in recent years. Robert Seiple, the former US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and a major proponent of "engagement" with Laos, contends that the Laotian state has made important, but often overlooked, progress towards religious freedom. In a May 2004 rebuttal to those who criticized the Lao government's record, Seiple argued that Lao officials have become more willing than ever to address religious freedom violations.

Although government officials arbitrarily closed some 85 Lao Evangelical churches nationwide between 1999 and 2001, since then - apart from isolated incidents, such as one in early 2003 when local officials tore down a church to create facilities for a nearby school - government officials seem to have halted large-scale closures of religious facilities. In addition, foreigners have been told that all religious prisoners were released by the end of 2003.

A significant factor in this dispute over the true state of religious freedom in Laos is the international community's lack of access to updated information about conditions on the ground. The Communist regime has refused requests by Amnesty International to visit the country, while foreign religious freedom advocacy groups have been able to visit only secretly. Meanwhile, foreign aid organizations, particularly those with religious affiliations, have generally been unwilling to share information about the conditions in-country out of fear that the Lao government would terminate their operations there. Currently, the most comprehensive and regularly updated report on religious freedom is the International Religious Freedom Report published each year by the US State Department.

Central government officials have defended themselves from accusations that the state actively represses religious communities by asserting that they are unable to control local authorities. According to one individual who discussed the state's religious policy with senior Lao officials, the former deputy minister of the Lao Front for National Unification (the Lao counterpart to the Vietnamese Fatherland Front and the Chinese United Front Department) maintained that the central government's ability to protect religious freedom was hampered by its lack of political influence over the provincial governors who have more direct administrative control over the villages where religious problems have occurred. These same officials claimed that the lack of political control has been amplified by the central government's difficulty in gaining physical access to many villages because of the lack of roads and vehicles.

Also, until recently no detailed set of laws and regulations on religion has existed to provide the basis for the protection of religious freedom. Although the constitution guarantees religious freedom, central government officials and their foreign supporters have argued that the lack of specific regulations on religious matters meant that the central government had limited capacity to enforce the constitutional guarantees. This also allowed local officials to interpret and implement the constitutional provision as they chose.

In July 2002, partly due to internal political needs and partly as a result of foreign pressure, Prime Minister Bounnhang Vorachith officially announced "Decree 92", which spelled out how religion is to be regulated. The Lao government and its supporters promoted the decree as a major positive step toward protecting religious freedom. Both government officials and Lao religious leaders noted that the government had consulted religious leaders in the drafting process.

Certainly, the decree spelled out more clearly which religious activities are permissible, yet key arrangements unnecessarily restrict religious activities: state approval is required to print religious literature, build religious facilities, travel abroad for training and meetings with co-religionists, and issue invitations to foreign co-religionists to visit Laos. Perhaps the most important restriction is the requirement that religious organizations register with the government. However, interestingly, the decree does not specify the consequences, if any, for groups that choose not to register. The contents of the decree directly contradict the central government's claim that religious freedom violations have been the work of uncontrolled local officials.

Still, most striking is how much the decree resembles state regulations in China and Vietnam. The relationship between Laos and these two Communist states, particularly Vietnam, has indeed grown in recent years. Vietnamese influence in Laos is noticeable. Reportedly, senior state officials of the two countries have made exchanges. Vietnamese media reported in early 2004 that senior Lao officials receive "ideological" training at the Vietnamese Communist Party School.

Yet Lao officials have not been the only ones learning from their Vietnamese and Chinese counterparts. Even Lao religious leaders have apparently been looking to these countries for lessons on how to manage their affairs in similar political conditions. According to a reliable source, one leader of the state-sanctioned Lao Evangelical Church visited Vietnam and China on several occasions.

All this shows that the religious freedom picture is complex, reported Forum 18. In the last few years, thanks to the efforts of proponents of dialogue and general international pressure, religious freedom conditions have improved in Laos - at least for Protestant Christians, the main targets of repression in recent years. However, "isolated" incidents of religious freedom violations seem set to continue.

[source: Forum 18]