Laos National Assembly building. Picture: Shutterstock
The Laos government has faced unprecedented scrutiny of its poor rights record, including the disappearance of activist Sombath Somphone and the detention of dozens of Christians, during a landmark meeting in Europe which ended in London on May 21.
EU and UK officials requested answers on recent abuses during the first-ever government delegation from Vientiane to the annual EU-Laos rights and governance dialogue. Despite talks, the two sides failed to agree a joint statement on progress in this majority Buddhist Southeast Asian country, said a European Union official familiar with the talks.
Discussions in Brussels and London were overshadowed by the continued disappearance of influential civil rights activist Sombath Somphone, who went missing in December, 2012.
Officials also pressured the government, which has ruled since 1975, over the detention of 11 Christians, who were arrested after meeting in an unauthorized location this month.
Authorities had released 12 other members of the group, including a pastor, after they were coerced into signing a document agreeing not to worship in Savannakhet province, said London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
“Christianity is still seen by some [in Laos] as a ‘foreign’ religion, and converts to Christianity can be threatened with arrest and worse if they do not recant,” said Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of CSW, which issued a briefing to coincide with this week’s discussions.
Phoukhong Sisoulath, director-general of the Laotian Foreign Ministry’s law department and head of the 10-man government delegation to Europe, did not respond to emailed questions on the talks.
Following recent rights progress in Myanmar, Laos has been ranked the least free country in Southeast Asia and second only to North Korea in East Asia in terms of restrictions on civil and political rights, according to the Washington-based think-tank Freedom House.
In its briefing this week, CSW noted some recent improvements including a fall in the number of Christian prisoners of conscience, as Laos looks to revise its laws on religious freedom.
An updated, independently researched database of prisoners of conscience obtained by a rights group requesting anonymity showed that dozens of Christians remain behind bars in Laos for practicing their faith.
A year ago, three pastors in Savannakhet were imprisoned and one of them reportedly kicked and beaten, and in late 2012 police arrested five church leaders in the same province and chained their hands and feet.
The same year, another Christian was expelled from a village in Bolikhamsay province, east of Vientiane, for “having made 300 villagers embrace the Christian faith”. In June 2012 police arrested him on the charge that his religion was unacceptable to other people in the village. No subsequent trial has been reported.
Discussion of religions other than the majority Buddhism remains heavily restricted in Laos. Although CSW noted young Christians in Vientiane have started to use social media to arrange meetings at homes, proselytizing often results in jail time.
Media remains under tight state control, said Ounkeo Souksavanh, a journalist whose independent radio station was closed down by authorities in 2012 after airing the views of ordinary Laotians on an array of issues, many critical of the socialist government.
“[Some] listeners called in and talked about how the Christian community is restricted and harassed by local authorities,” said Ounkeo, who remains in self-imposed exile in Washington DC where he now reports on Laos for Radio Free Asia.