Officials in southern Laos have ordered a Christian family to remove social media posts and videos of villagers attacking a man’s coffin during his funeral in December because they opposed the family’s faith, people with knowledge of the situation said.
When the family from Savannakhet province’s Dong Savanh village took the body of their family patriarch to the cemetery for burial on Dec. 6, local authorities and residents angered by the group’s practice of a “foreign religion” beat the coffin with sticks and struck mourners and pallbearers with clubs.
The family buried the man in their own rice field, but authorities and residents continued to harass them. Authorities expropriated their land in February, and other villagers torched their home, family members and other sources told RFA in an earlier report.
The widow, Seng Aloun, who now must raise her children alone, posted videos on social media showing what had happened at the cemetery and asking for help. Police who investigated the February incidents asked her to remove them.
On March 15, authorities in Phalanxay district where the village is located invited her and some other members of the local Christian church to their office to discuss the conflict between the family and Dong Savanh village officials, said a local Christian leader who has been helping the woman and her children.
“At the meeting, the district authorities again demanded the family take down the posts and the videos of the burned home and the attack on the coffin, or to make changes to the posts,” he said.
One of the proposed changes was that the social media post should imply that someone else burned down their home, and not the village chief, said the Christian leader, who declined to give his name for safety reasons.
The family refused to make any changes to the posts or to delete the video recording, and said they would file a complaint with the provincial and central governments, he said.
The Christian leader said he questioned district officials about why the authorities have not interrogated and investigated the village chief about the fire and the seizure of the family’s farmland.
A district official who is a member of the Phalanxay City Problem Resolution Committee said that authorities at the meeting there discussed the conflict and tried to find a solution to the problem, while being fair to the Christian family.
Seng Aloun said district officials at the meeting promised her family that they would help find the arsonist.
“Right now, we still live in the forest outside the village. Nothing has been resolved,” she told RFA.
‘Both homeless and landless’
Christians in Laos have faced a string of similar assaults and legal moves against them in the one-party communist state with a predominantly Buddhist population despite a national law protecting the free exercise of their faith.
A member of the Evangelical Church of Savannakhet province said he was worried about Seng Aloun’s family because authorities do not honor the Lao government’s legal protection for Christians.
“In Savannakhet province, authorities at all levels from villages to the province have attended seminars and been informed about the Law on the Evangelical Church which spells out all the rights, rules and regulations concerning Christians,” he said. “But the problem is that many village authorities won’t comply. It’s like they know the rules, but they don’t follow them.”
The law, which came into effect in December 2019, gives Lao Christians the right to conduct services, to preach throughout the country, and to maintain contacts with believers in other nations. Christian churches must fund their own operations and must obey other Lao laws, rules and regulations, however.
Another Lao Christian said that local authorities have refused to take responsibility for their actions.
“They wouldn’t admit that they abused the family which is now both homeless and landless,” he said.
An overseas Lao rights group has called on the U.N.’s human rights office (OHCHR) to pressure the Lao government to respect religious freedom.
“We’re urging the U.N. to pressure the Lao P.D.R. to practically respect the religious freedom and particularly to address the burning down of the Christian family’s home and the seizure of their farmland in Savannakhet province,” Bounthone Chanthalavong-Wiese, president of the Alliance for Democracy in Laos, told RFA.
Bounthone sent a statement on the suppression of the rights of Christians in Dong Savanh village to the Southeast Asia office of the U.N.’s human rights agency on March 17, strongly condemning the violence
He noted that at the March 15 meeting held by the Phalanxay City Problem Resolution Committee, the Christian family was denounced instead of those who instigated the violence.
Bounthone called on the Lao government to punish the real culprits who set fire to the house and were responsible for the violence against the family, compensate Seng Aloun for her losses, stop preventing people from telling the truth about the grievances in the country, and implement religious freedom according to the U.N. Human Rights Convention and the Convention on Religious Freedom.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told RFA that the Lao government should tell the local authorities to stop harassing and oppressing people of different faiths.
“It’s their right to believe in any religion,” he said. “If they believe in Christianity, let them be Christians.”
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