Cha Xiong was described by a neighbour as a good man who was well liked. (Photo: Radio Free Asia)
Two months after Cha Xiong, an ethnic Hmong Christian community leader, was shot and killed on his way home in Luang Prabang province in northern Laos, local authorities say they still don’t have a suspect in the case.
Lao police do not rule out the possibility, however, that the murder was religiously motivated in a conservative, predominantly Buddhist communist country where Christians are routinely marginalized and discriminated against.
Radio Free Asia, an American news service, has reported, citing an unnamed villager, that the 28-year-old Christian man had been well liked in his village and had had no known enemies.
“We lived close together. He is a good man and I’ve never heard anything bad about him,” the villager told the news service.
“His killing couldn’t have had anything to do with his behavior. He had four kids and now his wife has to raise them on her own without a husband.”
According to locals, Cha Xiong was returning home on his motorcycle from work on his farm around 9pm on Dec. 13 when he was gunned down by an unknown assailant. His body was found by a villager on the side of a street the next day.
Some local Christians believe that Cha Xiong may have been killed over his religious beliefs and Lao police say they are pursuing that line of inquiry, even though the motive behind the murder remains unknown.
“It is noteworthy that he was trying to propagate Christianity and had been appointed to be responsible for other followers of that religion,” an official told Radio Free Asia.
Many conservative Buddhists around the rural hinterland of the impoverished communist nation look askance at Christians, whom they accuse of seeking to undermine traditional Lao mores with their religion.
Owing to decades of communist propaganda, Christianity is widely seen as an alien religion that was imported into Laos by colonialists and western missionaries.
Christians number around 150,000 in a nation of 7 million, accounting for a small minority. There are many Christians among ethnic minorities such as the Hmong, a hill tribe with their own distinctive customs and traditions.
Many Christians face various forms of abuse and discrimination in their villages at the hands of Buddhist neighbors and local officials often turn a blind eye to it, according to foreign Christian groups who maintain contacts in a nation without any free press.
Local officials themselves may persecute Christians for openly practicing their faith, which has caused many believers to worship only in private for fear of being arrested or evicted from their homes.
Last year several Christian families living in different villages were evicted from their homes in what rights activists say is a clear pattern of discrimination across Laos.
In one instance, two families of ethnic minority Khmu villagers who converted to Christianity were evicted from their homes by fellow villagers at the instigation of a high-ranking soldier who despises Christians, according to foreign Christian organizations.
In addition to outright ostracism, Christians are also often denied various forms of aid.
“They say that Christians have no rights and that no one will take care of them,” one Hmong villager recently was quoted as saying. “We even go to speak to the village leaders, but these are the same people who are already angry with Christians.”