December 2, 2009
Laos must “sustain and foster respect for religious diversity,” Asma Jahangir, a UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said yesterday after a weeklong visit to the Southeast Asian country. About 67 percent of Laotians are Buddhist, about 32 percent have an unspecified religion and 1.5 percent are Christian, according to the CIA World Factbook.
“The test of freedom of religion or belief lies with the level of tolerance extended to religious minorities,” she said in a statement issued in Vientiane, the Laotian capital.
Laotian authorities told Jahangir that some incidents of religious discrimination have taken place and said they won’t be tolerated in the future, the UN said on its Web site, without identifying the authorities. The Laotian embassy in Washington wasn’t immediately available by phone and an e-mail message seeking comment wasn’t returned.
Jahangir, who met with government officials and private citizens over the past week, said some Laotians told her that the government had undertaken campaigns aimed at forcing Christians to renounce their faith and that some people were arrested on the basis of their religion.
As many as 100 ethnic groups make up about 26 percent of the 6.8 million people in Laos, according to State Department data. Fifty-five percent are ethnic Lao, 11 percent Khmou and 8 percent Hmong.
Subsistence agriculture, dominated by rice, accounts for about 40 percent of the Laotian economy, which grew 7.5 percent in 2008, and 80 percent of employment, according to CIA estimates. The single-party Communist government depends upon aid from international donors for more than 80 percent of its capital investment.