In 2018, religious freedom conditions in Laos trended the same as in 2017. It continued to be difficult to obtain and confirm details about religious freedom violations due to heavy govern-ment censorship and restrictions on freedom of information. Lao officials seek to control all perceived challenges to state authority and often characterize religious and ethnic minorities as potential agitators. The Lao constitution ostensibly protects its peoples’ inherent right to religious freedom. However, as exemplified by Decree 315, corresponding rules and reg-ulations pertaining to religious observance are excessively cumbersome, vaguely worded, and open to interpretation. This emboldened some local authorities to implement the spirit of the decree as they understand it rather than according to the decree. In 2018, communication between national and provincial government institutions remained limited, and local-level officials were often unaware of or unwilling to implement or enforce national laws and policies pertaining to religious freedom. As such, religious freedom conditions throughout the country varied widely by district, village, and province. In some parts of the country, religious freedom conditions were generally good, while in others—typically more rural and iso-lated areas—they remained quite poor. Some Lao authorities remained deeply suspicious of Christians, sometimes resulting in social exclusion, harassment, and arbitrary detention by law enforcement officials. Throughout 2018, USCIRF continued to receive reports of harassment and persecution of Christians in Savannakhet, a province known for its religious intolerance. The Lao government has a long history of sentencing individ-uals to indefinite prison terms for expressing open criticism of the government or shedding light on its human rights abuses, including religious freedom violations, and the possibility of government retaliation prompted many people to self-censor. Furthermore, the Lao government maintained its policy of pro-moting Buddhism through various state institutions, including public school curricula, and at times incorporated Buddhist rituals or ceremonies in official state functions. Religious ten-sions were also manifest at the village level, indicating a degree of generalized social prejudice toward religious minorities.
In 2019, USCIRF again places Laos on its Tier 2, where it has been since 2009, for engaging in or tolerating religious free-dom violations that meet at least one of the elements of the “systematic, ongoing, egregious” standard for designation as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).
Urge the Lao government to:
Amend Decree 315 in order to clarify administrative procedures and enforcement mechanisms, and,in the meantime, hold account-able central, provincial, and local government and law enforcementofficials acting in contravention ofLaos’ laws, the Lao constitution, andinternational standards; and
Permit all religious communities—particularly those located in rural and isolated areas—to operate freely regardless of their recognition status; and
Support programs that increaseunderstanding and awareness of Laogovernment policies and practicesrelating to religious freedom—including government restrictionsand social hostilities—amongnational and local-level officials, lawenforcement, and religious leadersrepresenting all beliefs.
The U.S. Congress should:
Send regular congressional dele-gations to Laos and hold hearingsfocused on religious freedom andrelated human rights to collect and disseminate information about overallconditions and specific violations.