BANGKOK—A French-based Lao exile group is accusing officials in a remote village in central Laos of seeking to evict Christians who refuse to renounce their faith, but the Lao Foreign Ministry denies the charge.
The Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) charged March 18 that Nakoon village authorities had stepped up a bid to eliminate Christianity from the remote area, accessible only by an eight-hour boat trip.
“Nakoon Christians have been worshiping underground in fear of arrest and imprisonment,” the group said, citing eyewitnesses.
“After learning that the Borikhamxay provincial authorities had recognized Christianity throughout the province in September 2006, the Lao Christians in Nakoon village began to be open in their Christian meetings. Consequently, a Borikan district committee of 13 people was formed to put a stop to the spread of Christianity and also to eliminate Christianity from Nakoon village.”
The panel comprised a district military officer, the head of village religious affairs, the chief of sub-district affairs, a district police officer, and the Nakoon village chief, it said. This panel launched a campaign to force local Christians to renounce their faith and summoned them to the local government office on 10 occasions, the group said.
On March 13, committee members assembled more than 180 people in a bid to pressure the Christians to abandon their religion, the LMHR said. When the Christians refused, they were ordered to leave the village. It published an order to deport 46 people from 10 families, as follows:
“Tao Jer (three family members); Tao Khamsing (five members); Tao Ku (four members); Mae Pet (seven members); Tao Saen (four members); Tao Pai (husband of Seun) (four members); Tao Pai (husband of Lai) (five members); Tao Sorn (four members); Nang Lao (three members); Nang Pheng (seven members).”
We have seen that religious freedom concerns—particularly in the year before Laos received Permanent Normal Trade Relations with the U.S.—have improved dramatically. What the Commission is concerned about is that those advances have stalled and there has been some regression, particularly in the provincial areas.
The Lao Foreign Ministry rejected the allegations, attributing tensions to difference in farming practices and lifestyles.
“There is a group of new people in the village,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy said in an interview.
“These Khmu [minority] people moved into the village from elsewhere in the country. This group has a different religion. They have their own way of living. They practice slash-and-burn farming and cut down trees haphazardly. So that led to some tension...between the new arrivals and those who were already living there.”
“This problem has worsened recently. This problem has nothing to do with the government and nothing to do with the law. The government stepped in because the problem has escalated,” Chanthalangsy said.
“The government has formed a mediation committee that will work to mediate differences between the groups.”
“In this case, I want to emphasize to RFA and to listeners that there have been no arrests and no persecution at all. On the contrary, the government has asked people in the area to educate themselves and not make problems. They have to live together peacefully.”
Asked about the reported deportation order, Chanthalangsy said, “About this problem, I would like to let you know that this is a local issue. It’s normal. Sometimes, issues arise because the ways of living are not the same, the methods of farming or fishing are not the same. So, sometimes there is violence.”
“There are, I mean there is dissatisfaction between people. This is normal among all groups of people. In this case, however, the one which we are referring to, up until today nobody has been expelled from the village.”
Asked about Christians being pressured to renounce their faith, he said he viewed this as “incitement employed by bad people who want to create trouble…”
“When I hear this news, I know it is people with bad intentions because the authorities never repress people because we have a law guaranteeing religious freedom. The prime minister has issued a decree insuring freedom of faith. In fact there are many Catholics living along Route 13,” he said, referring to a major national highway.
“They have lived there for generations without persecution.”
Scott Flipse, director of East Asia-Pacific Affairs at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said progress in moves toward greater religious freedom in Laos appears to have stalled.
“We have seen that religious freedom concerns—particularly in the year before Laos received Permanent Normal Trade Relations with the U.S.—have improved dramatically. What the Commission is concerned about is that those advances have stalled and there has been some regression, particularly in the provincial areas,” Flipse said.
“Our information is that some central authorities—particularly the Lao Front for National Construction, which oversees religion—have attempted both to intervene when Protestants or other ethnic minorities are arrested in the provincial areas and to do some training of local officials,” Flipse said.
“But again, in Laos, the decentralization of their government structure does not allow the central government to clamp down on provincial leaders. And so there are ethnic tensions, there are tensions left over from the war, there are now religious tensions that continue to boil up into abuses—both of human rights and of religious freedom. And these things continue to happen.”
Original reporting by RFA Lao service director Viengsay Luangkhot. Additional reporting by Richard Finney. Produced and written in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.