Authorities in southern Laos’ Sekong province have issued a ban on people erecting religious shrines in front of their own homes or businesses, arguing that the practice is offensive to Buddhist ideals in the one-party Communist state.
According to the CIA Factbook, nearly two-thirds of Laotians are Buddhist, but there are many regional and local religions. Building shrines is an animistic practice of the Talieng ethnic group, of which the country has about 23,000 members, centered in Sekong.
While the Lao constitution grants freedom of religion, the government often restricts the rights of believers.
“You can believe in anything, but you can’t erect the shrine in front of your house. Behind the house is ok,” an official of Sekong provinces’ Information, Culture and Tourism Department told RFA’s Lao Service Thursday.
“We are Buddhists. We don’t believe in ghosts. So the shrine for ghosts should be in the back,” the official said.
On Feb. 4, authorities of Sekong’s Thateng district issued a district-level ban shortly after the provincial ban.
The district’s ban states that the shrines are not compatible with Lao culture and tradition, and that placing such a shrine in front of a building is inappropriate.
“It’s the ban that’s not appropriate,” a villager in the district told RFA, adding,“It’s [historically] been our tradition to keep [the shrine] in the front.”
The villager explained that many businesspeople place shrines in front of their property so that they can pray and ask the shrine for good fortune.
Another resident told RFA, “Nobody would put the shrine in hidden place. It’s against the shrine’s spirit. No spirit would live at the back of the house.”
“The Talieng believe in spirits. Once every two weeks, they offer water and food to the shrine and ask the spirit inhabiting it for good luck, good health and protection,” the resident said.
A third villager agreed, saying, “Most people put their shrines in the front. Occasionally you’ll see some on the side, but never in the back.”
A Buddhist monk in Vientiane told RFA that Lao Buddhists have a similar practice. They erect shrines in front of their houses to pray to the Buddha and ask for good luck and health as well.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.