BANGKOK, April 16, 2004 — ; A minority Hmong Christian from northern Laos says the government required him to renounce his faith before releasing him from three months in detention. Tong Tu Vang, 32, from Samneua district in the northern Lao province of Houaphan, also told RFA's Lao service his wife was required to pay about $1,000 to government officials before he was set free.
But Tong Tu Vang was also required to sign a statement in which he agreed to renounce his faith before the authorities would release him. The statement also stipulated that he would revert to animism as practiced by the majority of Samneua residents.
Tong Tu Vang's wife, Mee Geu, read the agreement to RFA's Lao service in Bangkok. "In the document is listed his name, age, and current address," Mee Geu said. "They wanted to know the duration of his practice as a Christian, where he practiced it, who introduced him to Christianity, who accepted him into the religion, and the name of his church leader."
"It asked him if he would continue believing in Christ or comply with district and provincial authorities by renouncing his Christian faith and reverting to the animist religion," she said. The document also explicitly forbids Tong Tu Vang from proselytizing Christianity and says practicing Christians are to be punished under federal, provincial, and local laws, she said.
In February this year, having signed the agreement but knowing they couldn't abide by it, Tong Tu Vang and Mee Geu fled Laos for a country they decline to name.
Tong Tu Vang was arrested in August 2003. "A Lao official approached me and asked me to hold his weapon [to set me up], which I did," he said in an interview. "A few days later [on Aug. 27], I was arrested by authorities and thrown in jail," he said. Tong Tu Vang was later sentenced to between 30 months and six years in jail for possessing illegal firearms.
But Tong Tu Vang said he believes he was targeted for arrest because of his faith and because of his relation to former Hmong army leader General Vang Pao, an outspoken opponent of the Lao government who now lives in the United States.
In 2003, the Lao government tightened its crackdown on opposition rebels and insurgents, especially in Houaphan Province. Lao authorities have long accused Protestants of collaborating with ethnic rebels but have recently begun targeting Catholics as well.
The State Department's 2003 report on human rights practices around the world described Laos's record on religious freedom as "poor."
"The Government continued to restrict freedom of religion, and police and provincial authorities arrested and detained approximately 30 members of Christian churches. At year's end, 13 members of religious communities were in custody or under arrest for their religious beliefs...On several occasions, Christians were threatened with expulsion from their villages for refusing to renounce their religion," it said.
The Lao Constitution provides for freedom of religion but stipulates that the state should play an active role in managing the country's religious affairs.