Among the Believers

By Iwan Setiawan

VIENTIANE – The university lecturer who wants to be known only as Khamvieng says it is a quiet life that he lives as a Christian in communist Laos. His faith, he says, has not caused him any trouble at the university or with his handling of several environmental projects for the government. “I never have any problem because of my religious activities,” he says. “I can go to church anytime.”

Pastor Khampouvieng Keohavong says all is well, too, with the Lao Evangelical Church. The 46-year-old, in fact, now has a daily routine that is pretty much uninterrupted and rarely altered. Rising at four in the morning, he takes a shower, reads the Bible, and then prepares his lecture. Then he boards his Jeep Cherokee for the 10-minute drive to the Centre of the Evangelical Church here in Vientiane, where he leads the morning mass. Afterwards comes the drive back home, where he takes his breakfast and plays with his grandchildren. By eight a.m, he is back at the church, and around three p.m. he begins a one-hour religious lecture to more than 20 church staff members.

“My father really loves his job as a pastor,” says his daughter, “because he likes to share knowledge about the Bible and Jesus’ teaching with others.”

Actually, if you ask Khampouvieng, he would probably even tell you he prefers reading the Bible than the newspaper because, he says, it is easier to find truth in the former.

It’s not clear, though, if he is alluding to the fact that the government controls the media in Laos. But he would probably have a hard time recalling any report in the local newspapers about what outsiders say have been happening to Christians in the Laotian countryside.

In the last few years, foreign-based organisations such as Forum 18, the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR), and Jubilee Campaign have said they have been documenting cases of persecution of Christians in Laos. The abuses, they say, have ranged from detention and forced renunciation of the Christians’ faith, to eviction from villages of those adamant to remain Christians, to outright murder.

Theory and practice

Laos is predominantly Buddhist, with as much as five million of its people professing to be followers of Buddha (although some estimates say only about 3.8 million are such). The rest of its estimated population of 6.4 million are believed to be largely animists, but there is a small community of Muslims in the country, as well as a growing number of Christians, many of whom belong to Protestant churches.

Theoretically, Laos bans religious persecution. Article 9 of its Constitution says, “The state respects and protects legitimate activities of Buddhists and believers of any religion, and promotes the participation of monks, novices and other religious priests playing a role in various activities that will benefit the nation and the public. The state prohibits any affairs that discriminate against religions and their laymen.”

Article 22 also says, “Lao citizens irrespective of their sex, social status, education, faith and ethnic groups are all equal before the law.” Article 30 provides for freedom of religion as well.

But the 2005 country report on Laos by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (US-CIRF) says that “local authorities in particular sometimes” violate the religious freedom guaranteed by the country’s charter. Echoing what foreign organisations have been saying for sometime now, it adds, “The Government interprets this clause restrictively, and cites it as a reason for placing restrictions on religious practice, especially to minority religions. A person arrested for religious offenses has little protection under the law. Persons detained may be held for lengthy periods without trial….”

”Religious practice is free only if practitioners stay within tacitly understood guidelines of what is acceptable to the Government,” the report also says. “The Lao Government typically refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing on the part of its officials, even in egregious cases of religious persecution. Blame is inevitably attributed to the victims, rather than the persecuting officials.”

At the very least, followers of the dominant religion – whose sangha (communities) are all part of the government’s Lao Buddhist Fellowship Organisation — have been able to practise their faith with little or no problem. Admittedly, though, there are just a few who seem to be visiting the temples in Vientiane these days. Among them is Kingkham Sitthirath, 62, who always brings food for the monks and says her morning prayers at her community’s temple. She says she has had more time to go to the temple since retiring as a nurse two years ago. She also says she has always felt free practising her faith since she was a little girl. Smiling, Kingkham says, ”If nothing important happens, I would like to go to the temple every day. But if I’m sick, I just stay at home. The monk never complains about it.”

But there are temples that seem to attract more people than others, and they happen to be those where Buddhism and the old Lao belief system mix and mingle. Si Muang and Ongtu temples are among these, and they see a steady flow of visitors – young and old, local and foreign – each day. In both temples, monks can be requested to perform a ceremony called “Bacii,” which is not really Buddhist in origin and involves 32 khwan or guardian spirits acting as guests of honour. At least that is what locals believe.

Si Muang temple is also the spot to make a wish to a decidedly non-Buddhist lady spirit called, well, Si Muang.  The legend says that the lady sacrificed herself when King Setthathirat moved the capital city of Lane Xang Kingdom (the old name of Laos) from Luang Prabang to Vientiane in the16th century. Many locals believe that the spirit of Lady Si Muang guards Vientiane to this day.

Officially, phii (spirit) worship is banned in Laos. But the believers who flock to Si Muang and Ongtu temple have yet to be reminded about that by the authorities.

Even hill-tribe cultures far from the city say authorities have been silent about their practice of animism. In Houay Noik village, up in the mountains of Longkut in Luang Prabang province, about 60 percent of the 200 ethnic Khamu who live there are animists while the rest say they are Buddhists. Both groups profess to live in harmony with the other and confirm that many of them still practise spirit worship.

Muslim and Christian minorities

Haji Yahya Ishak, head of the Islamic Association of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, also says that the only time the Department of Religious Affairs “invited” him to answer a few questions was in early 2002, while tension over Muslim militants was still high worldwide over the so-called 9/11 attacks in New York. But he says he explained to the authorities that they need not worry about the local Muslim community in Laos. For one, he reasoned, it was (and still is) small, counting only about 500 members. For another, Haji Yahya told the authorities, Islam does not really teach its adherents to use violence to resolve problems.

There are two mosques in Vientiane. The one located in Sikotabong district is frequented by Muslim Khmers who had fled their native Cambodia decades ago. The bigger mosque can be found near the centre of city, and attracts ethnic Tamil and Chinese Muslims.

Haji Yahya used to be known as Phouphet Phongsavang before he made the hajj to Mecca in the 1990s. He says that although the Muslim faith has made many Lao curious — especially after 9/11 and the trouble neighbouring Thailand has been having in its Muslim south — Muslims themselves have not been subjected to any type of prejudice. He says that his mosque even doubles as a classroom for more than 40 children who study the Koran five times a week. They also celebrate birthdays and sometimes arrange simple get-togethers there. During a recent gathering, two Buddhist ladies who lived nearby dropped by the mosque to contribute some fruits for the occasion.

The president of the Lao Evangelical Church, Dr. Khamphone Kounthapanya, insists local Christians are as worry-free as the country’s Buddhists, animists, and Muslims. This is even though the death of a provincial chairman of his church in late 2005 has been touted by rights groups based overseas that all is not well with Christians in Laos.

Details vary regarding the circumstances leading to the death of pastor Aroun Voraphom. But most reports say the body of the Protestant pastor was found on December 23, 2005 near a stream in Huaysiat village in the southern province of Borikhamxai. He had been stabbed several times through the heart, and he was slashed across the throat so ferociously that his head was essentially severed.

Dr. Khamphone says that the case remains unsolved. The LMHR says Aroun’s killing had something to do with his faith, but the authorities have begged to differ. After all, they point out, the Lao Evangelical Church has been officially sanctioned by the state since 2002. And the police have said that robbery seems to have been the motive.

A record of religious persecution?
If rights groups abroad are having trouble believing the Lao authorities, it’s because they say they have received many reports in the past six years or so pointing to religious persecution especially of Christians. Between 1999 and 2001, government officials arbitrary closed some 85 evangelical churches in different part of Laos, say the foreign-based organisations. The LMHR in Paris also says that between April and May 2004, local officials detained 12 ethnic minority Christians in the southern province of Savannakhet for refusing to renounce their faith.

In February 2004, rights groups abroad overseas reported, officials in Attapeu in the south, told local Christians to renounce their faith or leave their villages. The officials allegedly threatened the Christians with death if they stayed put and did not change their beliefs. A month later, district officials in Luang Prabang in the north allegedly ordered 35 Christian families to turn their backs on their beliefs; when they refused, says the Christian Freedom International in the United States, officials moved in with the families and threatened to stay until they complied with the demand.

The rights groups say that although local Roman Catholics have been subjected to some heavy-handed treatment by Lao authorities, it is the Protestants who seem to be bearing the brunt of the abuses. Magda Hornemann of the news service of the Oslo-based Forum 18, which monitors violations of the freedom of religion worldwide, also observes, “Non-religious factors have contributed to the complexity of the situation. Since many adherents of minority religions, particularly Protestant Christianity, are members of ethnic minority groups, ethnic tensions have loomed large.”

“These tensions are most often played out in remote villages during disputes over resources,” she continues. “In some of these cases, foreign missionaries have been accused of telling new converts they should neither share resources given them by foreigners with non-believers nor continue to participate in traditional village rituals that may have spiritual components. In those circumstances, local officials, who are essentially village chiefs, have made judgments in these disputes favouring the maintenance of unity and harmony in the larger community at the expense of minority rights.”

It hasn’t helped Protestants any that they happen to be increasing in number in Laos, to the point that the communist authorities have begun seeing them as a potential threat. Dr. Khampone himself says that Protestantism has flourished in the country especially since 2000, and that there are now around 61,000 Lao Protestants. Coincidentally, reports about the persecution of Christians began to reach overseas rights groups around 2000.

The Vietnam War ‘connection’

But Somchai Homlor, a human-rights lawyer based in Bangkok, says as well that the Lao officials’ seeming wariness of Christians – especially Protestants – can be traced to the Vietnam War, when the U.S. military formed a special army trained by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) inside Laos. Recruited for this army were members of the Hmong hill tribe led by the charismatic general Vang Pao, himself a Hmong. The “clandestine army” was used not only against the communists in Vietnam, but also against the Pathet Lao, which eventually came into power in Laos in 1975 and continues to run the country to this day.

Many of the animist Hmong converted to Christianity during the war. Consequently, says Somchai, Lao authorities came to see Christianity as a “violation” of Lao customs and an “imperialist foreign religion”.

Pastor Khampouvieng, however, feels secure enough to go to the countryside by himself, finding assurance in the smooth flow in his daily routine that includes a chat over Lao tea with church members after the three-p.m. lessons. By five p.m., he says, he is ready to head home, even as most of quiet, languid Vientiane seems to be just stirring to life, with people starting to fill up to the holes-in-the-wall and small cafes lining the streets near the Mekong River.

In Borikhamxai province, there used to be a pastor of the Lao Evangelical Church who also stuck to a routine most of the time, although occasionally he would also be called to perform religious services in a nearby village on short notice. But the last time the pastor – a father of four —  called up his wife to say he would be late, he said it was because he was going to buy a cake for their youngest daughter’s birthday party.

He never made it home.

His name was Aroun Voraphom.

Iwan Setiawan is a TV news producer of SCTV in Jakarta.

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