Laos

Last Updated 23 September 2020

Lao People’s Democratic Republic is a landlocked country, bordering Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and China. The state gained independence from France in 1953 and is one of the few remaining one-party socialist states with a fast-growing economy1https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/la.html. However, it is estimated that a third of the country’s 6.5 million people live below the international poverty line.

Laotian society is the most ethnically diverse in Southeast Asia. As of 2019, the ethnic makeup of Laos mainly comprises of the Lao-Tai (62.4%), Mon-Khmer (23.7%), Hmong-Iu Mien (9.7%) and Chine-Tibetan (2.9%), which are further broken into over 200 ethnic groups and subgroups2https://laos.opendevelopmentmekong.net/topics/ethnic-minorities-and-indigenous-people/.

A 2010 country population report revealed that 66% of the population are Buddhists, 30% follow Laotian folk religion, 1.5% are Christians and less than 1% are Muslims. It is not known exactly how many Laotians identify as atheists or agnostic3https://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2012/12/globalReligion-tables.pdf.

The resource-rich country is ranked one of the least free countries and has a poor human rights record, particularly around enforced disappearances and restrictions on religious freedoms, freedom of expression, freedom of press and information, freedom of assembly and freedom of association4https://freedomhouse.org/explore-the-map?type=fiw&year=2020;https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/asia-and-the-pacific/laos/report-laos/.

 
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Constitution and government

Article 30 of the Constitution5https://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/docs/ELECTRONIC/75323/87941/F1091614924/LAO75323.pdf explicitly provides for the freedom of and from religion, which states “Lao citizens have the right and freedom to believe or not to believe in religions”, while Article 31 guarantees right to freedom of speech, press, assembly, association. Article 32 states that “Lao citizens have the right and freedom to conduct study and to apply advanced sciences, techniques and technologies; to create artistic and literary works and to engage in cultural activities which are not contrary to the law.”

The Constitution and some laws and policies protect religious freedom; however, other contradictory laws and policies restrict this right. Article 9 not only differentiates Buddhism from “other religions” but also states that: “all acts of creating division of religions and classes of people are prohibited”. The government interprets this clause as justifying some restrictions on religious practice by members of all religious groups. Religious groups that are not recognised by the state also have to affiliate with one of the recognised religions in order to legally operate within the country6https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/LAOS-2018-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT.pdf.

Decree 315, issued in 2016, dictates how and where religious groups operate. According to the decree, all religious groups must register with the Ministry of Home Affairs and must comply with the administrative requirements and guidelines on how, where and in what circumstance they are allowed to operate in. The language is reported to be vague and open to interpretation7https://www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/1158921/download.

There is no state religion. However, there is symbolic deference to Buddhism, which is the dominant religion throughout the land8https://www.state.gov/reports/2017-report-on-international-religious-freedom/laos/. In addition to Buddhism, the state also officially recognises other religious groups – namely, Christianity, Islam and the Baha’i Faith9https://www.state.gov/reports/2017-report-on-international-religious-freedom/laos/. The Ministry of Home Affairs and the Lao Front for National Construction oversees issues pertaining to religious affairs in the country10https://www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/1158921/download. There are also reports of suspicion and discrimination against Western religious faiths, particularly against Protestant Christians11https://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/13session/A.HRC.13.40.Add.4_enAEV.pdf. Violations against Protestant Christians often occur at a provincial level rather than at the state level12https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/07/17/laos-no-progress-rights#:~:text=Key%20areas%20of%20concern%20in,repression%20of%20minority%20religious%20groups; http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Uncertain-freedom-for-Laotian-Christians-50027.html.

Proselytizing is banned13religiousfreedom.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=169&Itemid=29.

Education and children’s rights

While there is no religious curriculum in public schools, the teaching of Buddhism is promoted as part of its mandatory cultural sessions.14https://www.state.gov/reports/2017-report-on-international-religious-freedom/laos/ Authorities claim that the promotion of Buddhist practices are taught in a secular manner and parents are allowed to remove their children if they wish. However, in some provinces, there are reports of students being forced into taking lessons in Buddhism or praying in Buddhist temples in order to advance to the next level15https://www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/1158921/download.

Family, community and society

LGBTQ+ rights

Same-sex activity is legal in Laos. However, the country does not recognise same-sex marriages or family units. LGBTQ+ persons do not have explicit legal protections and it is not known if conversion therapies exist in Laos16https://www.equaldex.com/region/laos.

Women’s rights

Both the constitution and existing laws on land rights, inheritance and personal laws view men and women as “equal”. The government has initiated programs aimed at promoting gender equality by improving literacy, health outcomes and economic empowerment17https://www.jica.go.jp/english/our_work/thematic_issues/gender/background/pdf/e05lao.pdf. However, it is unclear to what extent this legal equality exists in practice. For example, women find it more difficult to apply for loans because banks usually require the signature from the “head of the household” – who is typically male18https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—asia/—ro-bangkok/documents/publication/wcms_103494.pdf.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Media freedom

Although Article 31 in the Constitution states that “Lao citizens have the right and freedom of speech, press and assembly”, freedom of the press is severely restricted.  Most media is state owned and controlled, and journalists that criticize the government or discusses controversial political topics face legal punishment. While private media outlets do exist, they mostly steer away from reporting on politically controversial topics19https://www.ganintegrity.com/portal/country-profiles/laos/.

In 2014, the Lao government issued a decree ostensibly aimed at addressing “fake news”. The law bans the dissemination and circulation of false information that may undermine national security and prosperity of the country20https://www.reuters.com/article/us-laos-internet/new-laos-web-decree-bans-criticism-of-government-policy-media-idUSKCN0HI0WT20140923. It also requires website administrators to verify accounts and content before it is uploaded on their web page21https://thediplomat.com/2014/11/laos-internet-law-undermines-free-speech/.

News platforms must register with the Media Department of the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism before it can operate on social media sites. Individual social media users do not need to register with the ministry but must use their real names when setting up an account22https://technology.inquirer.net/89044/laos-orders-registration-of-social-media-news-platforms. Violators of the decree face unspecified legal action that can include account termination, fines or a prison sentence.

In addition to its restrictions on civil and political freedoms, reports also show that activists and political dissidents often risk disappearing upon speaking out against the government’s interests23https://monitor.civicus.org/updates/2020/02/21/laos-activist-od-sayavong-still-missing-six-months-while-critics-continue-be-silenced/; https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/07/17/laos-no-progress-rights#:~:text=Key%20areas%20of%20concern%20in,repression%20of%20minority%20religious%20groups..

Imports

The import of written materials made for mass consumption, including religious materials, are regulated by Decree 315, issued in 2016. Items must be approved by the authorities24https://www.state.gov/reports/2017-report-on-international-religious-freedom/laos/.

Freedom of assembly

The government severely restricts the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of association. The Ministry of Home Affairs have the authority to restrict religious activities that go against local customs or national policies and are allowed to shut down any activity that is deemed a threat to national security25https://www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/1158921/download. It is illegal to participate in organizations that engage in public protests or that in any other way cause “turmoil or social instability.” Violators can receive sentences of up to five years in prison.

References   [ + ]

1. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/la.html
2. https://laos.opendevelopmentmekong.net/topics/ethnic-minorities-and-indigenous-people/
3. https://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2012/12/globalReligion-tables.pdf
4. https://freedomhouse.org/explore-the-map?type=fiw&year=2020;https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/asia-and-the-pacific/laos/report-laos/
5. https://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/docs/ELECTRONIC/75323/87941/F1091614924/LAO75323.pdf
6. https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/LAOS-2018-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT.pdf
7, 10, 15, 25. https://www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/1158921/download
8, 9, 14, 24. https://www.state.gov/reports/2017-report-on-international-religious-freedom/laos/
11. https://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/13session/A.HRC.13.40.Add.4_enAEV.pdf
12. https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/07/17/laos-no-progress-rights#:~:text=Key%20areas%20of%20concern%20in,repression%20of%20minority%20religious%20groups; http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Uncertain-freedom-for-Laotian-Christians-50027.html
13. religiousfreedom.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=169&Itemid=29
16. https://www.equaldex.com/region/laos
17. https://www.jica.go.jp/english/our_work/thematic_issues/gender/background/pdf/e05lao.pdf
18. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—asia/—ro-bangkok/documents/publication/wcms_103494.pdf
19. https://www.ganintegrity.com/portal/country-profiles/laos/
20. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-laos-internet/new-laos-web-decree-bans-criticism-of-government-policy-media-idUSKCN0HI0WT20140923
21. https://thediplomat.com/2014/11/laos-internet-law-undermines-free-speech/
22. https://technology.inquirer.net/89044/laos-orders-registration-of-social-media-news-platforms
23. https://monitor.civicus.org/updates/2020/02/21/laos-activist-od-sayavong-still-missing-six-months-while-critics-continue-be-silenced/; https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/07/17/laos-no-progress-rights#:~:text=Key%20areas%20of%20concern%20in,repression%20of%20minority%20religious%20groups.

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