Laos - or, to be more precise, the Lao People's Democratic Republic - is a landlocked country of just over five million people, situated in south east Asia, north east of Thailand and west of Vietnam. Like its better known neighbour to its west Laos has a communist government. When the Pathet Lao took control in 1975 they ended six centuries of monarchy and imposed a hard-line brand of Marxism. Since 1997, when they joined ASEAN, there has been a gradual liberalising of the Laotian economy, a gradual return to private enterprise and an easing of foreign investment laws. There has also been an easing of the repression of religion and the first vestiges of free speech. However, political prisoners are still held in jail - the most prominent of whom are Latsami Khamphoui and Feng Sakchittaphong. Another prominent dissident, Thongsouk Saysangkhi, died in prison in 1998. They had been arrested in 1992 for forming a "social democratic club" to advance democratic ideas. Another five dissidents were arrested in the capital, Vientiane, on October 26 1999, apparently for attempting to stage a political protest. There has never been a trial and their fate is unknown. In October 2001 Lao authorities arrested and deported five Western democracy activists for staging an illegal protest against the government of President Khamtay Siphandone. Christians have also suffered repression and hardship. When I visited Laos with Congressman Joseph Pitts (Rep. Pennsylvania) I saw and heard first hand accounts of both the privations and the positive changes underway. About 60% of Laos are Buddhist. About 3% are Christian and the remainder adheres to traditional religions. Unable to eliminate "the opium of the masses," as Marx famously described religion, attempts have been made to co-opt religion for the purposes of the state. So, for instance, in 1991 a Buddhist stupa replaced the red star and hammer and sickle on the insignia of the Laotian Communist Party, and the word "socialism" has been removed from the motto of the State. Less than half of Lao Buddhists are regarded as orthodox followers of Buddhism with younger people, particularly, simply maintaining a traditional link with the religion. All Lao television aerials point towards Thailand and the unremitting diet of consumerism and materialism that is working its own magic. Christianity came to Laos in the seventeenth century but did not take root. More Catholic missionaries came with the French colonists in the nineteenth century. Four Catholic dioceses were established and a cathedral was built in Vientiane. According to the Government there are about 150,000 Christians in Laos and they divide about equally between the Catholics and Protestants (who established a presence at the turn of the twentieth century but established themselves after the declaration of Lao independence from the French in 1954). There are an estimated 245 churches and prayer houses, and 400 priests and ministers. The majority of Protestants are part of the Lao Evangelical Church. The other officially recognised Protestant denomination is the small Seventh Day Adventist church, established in 1973, and whose church in Vientiane I visited. The officially recognised churches have endured various forms of repression and hardship but the greatest suffering has been reserved for those small Christian "house churches" and unofficial groups who worship without registration or state sanction. Undoubtedly, some Evangelicals have been impeded from preaching, proselytising (especially among the many ethnic minorities, particularly the Hmong) and from publishing or distributing the Bible and other forms of religious literature. Catholics were among the strongest opponents of the Pathet Lao, believing that communism would sap human rights and destroy religious liberties. Although this is in the past, it has a continuing impact on how the State treats believers. In 1974 the Pathet Lao seized two Catholic churches in Vientiane and these have never been returned. The Holy Mother Church is in use as a fire station and the church of Notre Dame is used as a police station. I went to see the Catholic school which had also been seized and continues to be held by the government. Elsewhere, in Luangphrabang, the church and the bishop's residence were confiscated and the church building is used as a fire station. Catholics told me that in areas of the diocese such as Sayabouly and Bokeo there are thousands of Catholics without a priest. Every village appoints a catechist so that the faith may be handed on but they are desperately short of priests and of formation and resources for the catechists. The bishop of Luangphrabang has spent three periods in prison but in recent years he and the church have enjoyed improving relations with the government. Catholics would like to create a drug rehabilitation centre, to re-establish educational opportunities, and open a community centre (which they say they would do in collaboration with a group of Buddhists). But government restrictions and over-regulation still make this very difficult to achieve. But there are developments about which we can be positive. In summer of 2002 the gates of the Laotian prisons were literally thrown open to many Christians who were imprisoned for their faith. And in July 2002, the Laotian government passed laws that gave official recognition to the Lao Evangelical Churches. While a number of Christians remain in jail, this is an unprecedented turn of events. The new laws allow more freedom for the existing churches - such as the Catholic Church - to assemble and practice their faith among themselves. However, the negative side is that these same laws restrict the Christian outreach activities of evangelization and bringing new believers into the church. In one all too typical case, two years ago a Christian leader, Mr. Pa Tood, was detained in Savannakhet City Jail. He was offered bail on the condition that he gives up his Christian faith, which he refused to do. As punishment, he was put in solitary confinement with one leg in wooden stocks 24 hours a day. His legs became swollen and his health suffered badly. He was often deprived of food for several days. Pa Tood's wife, Koom, was arrested with her baby on 17th March 1999 and deprived of food in jail. She had a nervous breakdown after 7 days and was eventually released. Even while I was in Laos I heard other disturbing news about unregistered "unofficial" Christian believers. At all four official government meetings that I took part in I raised the case of Mr. Keo, an Evangelist ministering in Attapu District, Attapu Province. He had suffered four previous arrests and after his last release in 2002, he continued to share his faith and allowed his house to be used as a church meeting place. Currently, local authorities are trying to force him to recant and stop spreading Christianity by threatening to expel him and his family from this Province if he does not renounce his faith. The Governor of Attapu Province has a reputation for being very strict toward the Evangelical Church and we requested that his case be investigated and that Mr. Keo be permitted to practice his religion in peace. Our Jubilee Campaign delegation also called for the release of two pastors first arrested in 1999 in Oudomxai Province. That year, three pastors, Tchong Chan (63), Yot (64), and Lil (65), were arrested and charged as "traitors. Pastor Tchong was sentenced to 15 years and the other two to 12 years each. Two of these pastors remain imprisoned, although Pastor Lil died in prison last year. Dr Siho Bannavong, the Vice President of the Lao Front for National Construction, told us that the new laws promoting religious tolerance were being implemented unevenly and he gave us copies of the "Decree On Management and Protection of Religious Activities in the Lao People,s Democratic Republic promulgated by the Prime Minister in late 2002. Dr.Siho said that this law is now being distributed to the local level. However, even a cursory reading of the rules shows that they can be used punitively by officials if they so wish: for instance, the requirement in Article 6 to register 'movable and immovable properties of each religion' or seeking approval for all religious activities. Article 11 of the new rules requires believers to gather only where registered. Article 12 imposes tight requirements for approval of religious activity and Article 20 requires a Lao official to be present when any "properties for assistance" are given to believers (i.e., books, bibles and religious artifacts) Dr Siho candidly admitted that some people are opposed to the decree and could misinterpret its requirements. We found plenty of evidence that in areas such as Savannakhet the law is being harshly applied, whereas in provinces such as Champasak we heard that officials behave with enlightenment and tolerance. Aid to the Church in Need, has rightly pointed out that although the national constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the communist government has severely restricted religious practice. These new regulations could be used in the same way. Undoubtedly many Laotian communists would like to treat the Lao Churches like the official government controlled Protestant and Catholic churches in China, where churches are tightly controlled by the state and any attempt to spread their faith is strictly curtailed. Yet, as the Lao Foreign Minister, Somsavat Lengsavad, tacitly acknowledged to us they know that curtailment of religious liberties places severe obstacles in the path of normalising relations with the West. The US does not have NTR (Normal Trade Relations) with Laos. As we heard again and again they regard this as a grave impediment to economic and material progress. To obtain it, they will have to consider further some of the restrictions they have placed on believers, end the imprisonment of Christians, and return the confiscated properties. Do those things and they will not only win the whole-hearted admiration and support of observers in the West but they will also create active partners in their genuine quest to build a more civil society. David Alton is an independent crossbench peer, he is professor of citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University, and was one of the founders of Jubilee Campaign (email@example.com).
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