In response to the concerns of this Commission and the international community, violations of freedom of religion or belief have decreased in Laos over the past two years. Forced renunciations of faith have been condemned by the ruling party, the government has reopened most of the churches and other religious buildings closed in recent years, and all but two of the known religious prisoners in Laos have been released. In addition, the government currently interprets and enforces its religion law in a way that has facilitated religious activities and inter-religious cooperation. Though concerns remain, the recent improvement in conditions for freedom of religion or belief has led the Commission to remove Laos from its Watch List.
The Commission continues to be concerned about Laos' overall human rights record, which the State Department describes as "poor." Laos is a one-party, authoritarian state. In view of its continued poor human rights practices, there remains a possibility that past religious freedom abuses will reemerge. The Commission will therefore maintain its scrutiny of the actions of the Lao government with regard to religious freedom to determine whether developments continue to move in a positive direction or if a return to the Watch List is warranted.
Since the end of 2002, religious groups, particularly in the largest cities and districts of Laos, report steadily improving religious freedom conditions, including a more constructive relationship with the Lao government. The government remains wary of religious traditions other than Theravada Buddhism, particularly the various forms of Protestantism found among some ethnic minority groups. However, the Lao Front for National Construction (LFNC), the agency that oversees religious policy and regulates religious activities, has recently sought to promote conciliation and tolerance among religious groups and has intervened with local officials in cases where minority religious practitioners have been harassed, threatened, or detained. In the past, the LFNC was reluctant to intervene in local disputes, due to the significant measure of power given provincial governors in the Lao system of government. The LFNC has also cooperated with the U.S. Embassy in Laos in organizing, participating in, and conducting seminars on human rights, including religious freedom.
In most parts of the country, adherents from all religious communities are allowed to practice their religion with few restrictions. There continue to be reports, however, that provincial and local officials harass individuals, confiscate property, and, on occasion, detain persons for participating in religious activities. These problems are concentrated in parts of Savannakhet and Attapeu provinces, and often involve ethnic and religious minorities. In the last year, at least 30 Christians in Savannakhet and Attapeu provinces were detained. Most were released in a matter of days. In response to U.S. and international pressure, all but two religious prisoners were released by October 2004. There have been no new detentions since May 2004. Catholics, Baha'is, and Protestants in particular continue to report discrimination in the rural provinces.
Between 1999 and 2002, the State Department reported that campaigns of coerced renunciation of faith occurred in nearly every Lao province. These reports have diminished significantly in the past several years. Moreover, there have been no recent reports of incidents where security forces required the ritualistic drinking of animal blood mixed with alcohol which was the primary method used in past renunciation campaigns. However, there were a few occasions in the past year in which security forces in Attapeu Province's Sanamsai district used threats of arrest, expulsion, and property confiscation to coerce ethnic Protestants in the district to give up their faith. One member of a Protestant congregation was expelled from the district. Following growing international attention however, official harassment of Christians in Attapeu province diminished markedly.
According to the State Department, between 1999 and 2001 local authorities closed approximately 20 of Vientiane province's 60 Protestant churches, primarily those in Hin Hoep, Feuang, and Vang Vieng districts, and approximately 65 Protestant churches in Savannakhet and Luang Prabang provinces. Many of these churches were allowed to reopen in the past eighteen months, especially in Vientiane and Luang Prabang provinces. Six of Savannakhet's 40 churches remain closed, though recently, officials in Kengkok returned property seized in 1999 to a small Protestant congregation.
One ongoing concern is the potential for abuses through the implementation of Decree 92, the Lao government's 2002 decree on religious activities. During its visit to Laos in February 2002, the Commission was assured that passage of the decree would improve religious freedom in Laos by legalizing religious activities, protecting the religious practices of ethnic minorities, and providing guidelines to local and provincial officials to ensure that abuses by those officials would cease. Nevertheless, the decree provides government officials with a potential legal basis for control of, and interference in, religious activities. Many religious activities can be conducted only with government approval, and the decree contains a prohibition on activities that create "social division," or "chaos," reiterating parts of the Lao's criminal code, including Article 66, used in the past by government officials to arrest and detain ethnic minority Christians. Thus, Decree 92 and several provisions of the criminal code can be used to restrict and suppress religious activities, rather than protect and promote the freedom of religion and belief. However, there are credible reports that the LFNC is using Decree 92 to facilitate religious practice and to promote cooperation among religious communities. The Commission will continue to monitor how the decree is implemented and whether the central government has made progress in controlling the alleged abusive acts of local officials.
In the past year, the Commission and its staff have met with Lao government officials and religious leaders, domestic and international human rights activists, academics and other experts on Laos. The Commission has traveled to Laos and issued a report on its findings in February 2003.
In 2003, Resolution 402 was introduced in the House, stating the sense of Congress that the U.S. government should work to implement the Commission's recommendations on Laos. Commission findings and accompanying recommendations were also cited in several letters from Members of Congress to the Administration regarding human rights in Laos in 2004.
With regard to Laos, the Commission has recommended that the U.S. government should:
- make clear to the government of Laos that continued improvements in the protection of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief is essential to further improvements and in expansion of U.S.-Laos relations, and urge Lao officials to:
- ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and invite the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and other relevant UN mechanisms to visit the country;
- halt any harassment and detention of persons on account of their religion by local government officials and hold any such officials responsible for violations of the religious freedom of Lao citizens, particularly in such provinces as Savannakhet, Attapeu, Luang Prabang, and Saisomboune Special Zone;
- criminalize forced renunciations of faith by passing a law in the National Assembly providing for specific penalties for those who carry out such practices;
- repeal or amend Article 66 of the Lao Criminal Code so that it cannot be used to arrest or detain individuals for engaging in religious activities that are protected by the Lao Constitution and under international law;
- amend those elements of Decree 92 on religious activities that are inconsistent with international human rights law;
- respect and fully implement the freedom of individuals and organizations to engage in social, humanitarian, and charitable activities, free from undue government interference; and
- provide access to all parts of Laos by foreign diplomats, humanitarian organizations, and international human rights and religious organizations, in particular, to Savannakhet, Attapeu, and Saisomboune Special Zone;
- establish measurable goals and benchmarks, in addition to those listed above, for further human rights progress in Laos as a guide for diplomatic engagement between Laos and the United States or for initiating a formal human rights dialogue with the government of Laos, addressing such human rights issues as ethnic and religious discrimination, torture and other forms of ill-treatment in prisons, unlawful arrest and detention, the absence of due process, and practical steps to ensure the right to freedom of expression, association, and assembly;
- expand Lao language broadcasts on Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) while ensuring that the content of the Lao language broadcasts on VOA and RFA adequately includes information about the importance of human rights, including religious freedom, within Laos; and
- initiate and expand technical assistance and human rights programs that support the goals of protecting and promoting religious freedom, including:
- rule of law programs that provide assistance in amending, drafting, and implementing laws and regulations;
- human rights and religious freedom training programs for specific sectors of Lao society, including government officials, religious leaders, academics, police, and representatives of international non-governmental organizations;
- educational initiatives to combat intolerance of religious and ethnic minorities and to promote human rights education; and
- the expansion of the number and funding of educational, academic, government, and private exchange programs with Laos that will bring a wide cross-section of Lao society to the United States.