Four Lao Christians have been held in jail for over three months in the country’s Khammouane province for planning funeral rites—an exercise of religious freedom deemed by village authorities to have violated Lao customs and “divided community solidarity,” Lao sources say.
The four were arrested on July 3 in Khammouane’s Phousath village after traveling there to attend a Christian family funeral, but were quickly arrested before they could conduct ceremonies according to their faith, a Phousath village official told RFA’s Lao Service.
“They were detained because they came here to perform ceremonies that don’t conform with Lao culture, which creates unrest and divides community solidarity,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We called a meeting in the village, consulted with higher authorities, and then agreed to detain them,” the official said.
When the son of a local Christian family passed away, local villagers wanted to perform ceremonies “according to our culture handed down to us by our ancestors,” the source said, adding, “When someone dies, we help by making donations, sharing food, and asking [Buddhist] monks to come and pray at the home.”
“But [the Christians] wanted to do things that violate our traditional customs. They were preparing things that we felt were strange and wrong and do not understand, and so we acted in order to prevent them from happening,” he said.
The four--identified as Thao Vanna Vannalath of Koub village, Thao Khamphanh Lienthoummy of Kang village, Thao Sikhay Keomixay of Nong Hang village, and Thao Bounma of Yang village—are now being held at the Khook Ban Kham Khikai jail in Thakhek district, sources said.
No movement has yet been made to prosecute them or bring them to trial, though, the wife of one of those arrested told RFA following a recent visit to the jail.
“I asked them if the police investigation against them had ended, and they said, ‘Yes, the investigation has been completed, but no decision has been made on the case yet,’” she said.
Reached for comment, an officer in the investigations division of the Khammouane provincial police department said that a file on the case said to have been sent by prosecutors to police headquarters had not yet been reviewed.
“I’m not sure if that case is with us,” he said, speaking to RFA on Oct. 11. “It seems not to have turned up on the case list for trials. We’ll have to look for it first.”
Requests for comment sent to the provincial administration office received no reply.
Families face hardships
Because the four Lao Christians now being held are the heads of their families, their wives and children now face daily hardships trying to make a living, a source close to the case told RFA in separate interviews on Oct. 12 and 13.
“More than that, these families are having trouble seeking justice for their husbands, asking for their release and for respect for their rights and freedoms enshrined in the constitution and laws of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic,” he said.
“They are going to do their utmost to fight for justice in accordance with the law.”
Reached for comment, an official in the religious affairs department of the Lao central government said on Oct. 12 that his department will now work with the Lao Front for National Construction and the Evangelical Church of Laos to win justice for the four villagers now in jail.
“We will then talk to the provincial authorities so that they act correctly and fairly in accordance with the law,” he said.
Freedom to worship, preach
The Law on the Evangelical Church, approved and signed into law on Dec. 19, 2019, allows Lao Christians the right to conduct services and preach throughout the country and to maintain contacts with believers in other countries.
Lao churches must fund their own operations, however, and must obey other Lao laws, rules, and regulations.
Last month church members working in cooperation with the Interior Ministry and the Lao Front for National Construction held seminars in Bolikhamxay, Bokeo and Savannakhet provinces, with similar meetings planned in other areas to inform rural authorities on the new law, a church member told RFA at the time.
"The Law on the Evangelical Church was and remains a model of improved relationships between the central government and religious leaders," the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said on Oct. 16.
"[But] the implementation of laws remains slow in rural areas," the Commission said.
"USCIRF urges the central government to make more efforts to rein in the abuses of its provincial authorities and to ensure that the rights of all faith communities are protected across the country."
Reported and translated by Manichanh Phimphachanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.