SUBJECT - THE STATE DEPARTMENT 2000 ANNUAL REPORT ON INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
Thank you Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights for giving me the opportunity to testify on my own in front of you on the subject of the U.S. State Department Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2000 concerning Laos. I also would like to take this opportunity to thank the United Hmong Foundation, Inc. for sponsoring my wife and I to come to Washington, D.C. Without their support, we would not be here.
My name is Reverend Pha Her. I am the Secretary of the Lao Evangelical Church in Vientiane, Laos. The Lao Evangelical Church is the headquarter of the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination in Laos. This year marks the 50th year anniversary that the Gospel has reached the Hmong-Lao in Laos. My wife and I, along with eight other ministers and elders, were invited to the United States to attend an anniversary celebration that was held in Minneapolis, Minnesota on July 30th to August 4th, 2000.
It has been approximately 50 years since the American missionaries came to Laos. They were able to convert few Laotian, including ethnic Hmong and Khmuu, to become Christians. Today, over hundreds of thousands throughout the country of Laos have converted to Christianity, and the number is growing every day. After the Vietnam War in 1975, the Lao Communist Party has constantly been cracking down on religious groups, hence worshiping has been very difficult.
The Lao Communist Government does not want any religious groups getting together worshiping openly because they fear that organized religious groups are perceived as resistance activities against the government. For many years, the only way to conduct church services for the Christians were to get together as a small group inside individual homes or outside in the jungle where no authorities can see. Basically, we are operating underground. We provided services for them quietly and intelligently during the day or at night. Most of the groups did not have Bibles, so we had to share one Bible among the groups. For the last 10 years, after the Laos Constitution was established and implemented, the situation was a little more flexible towards allowing there to be religious activities. We were able to worship God more freely. We were able to contact outsiders. As a result, more Bibles were distributed to the believers. I was able to complete my ministry education in Thailand and then return to Laos to serve God and the community.
Not long after that, the situation had changed for the worst. The Government implemented a very restrict regulation against all religious groups. More foreign missionaries were detained. No international development projects, which were affiliated with Christians, were allowed to implement within the scope of helping Christians. Thus, Party Government began to harass and arrest pastors and elders. The Lao Evangelical Church leadership started to shift hands due to constant harassment and duress. This was all happening in contradiction to the Constitution of the Republic of Laos, which was adopted on 8-14-91, where freedom of worship was allowed. Prime Minister Numhak Pomsavanh and President Phumivong Vichit wrote in Article 3, Section 30 that any Lao Citizens have the right to worship any religions.
Based on the recent news, many religious believers, specifically Christians, have been arrested and imprisoned. Some of them even died in jail. It became very hard for me, as a pastor, to help the believers when authorities allegedly ordered to recant all faith without any reasons or justifications.
The Lao Government accused the Christians of being "Enemies of the State". We were forced out of all villages in accusation of being Christians who were friends and allies of the United States and friends of Christians from foreign countries. As Christians, we were accused of receiving money from other countries to bride the Lao to convert to Christianity and for organizing resistance against the party government. All these were untrue.The Lao Communist Government falsely accused the Christians of not worshiping according to the law. The word "Christian" is perceived by the Lao government as provoking revolutions waging wars against the Lao Party Government and among other religious groups. It is simply not true.
The Christians were forced to recant their faith or they would be imprisoned without any justification. Therefore, there is no peace for the people in Laos. We constantly worry about our safety every day.
Recently U.S. State Department's Executive Summary stated that "Laos is among the significant improvements in religious freedom." Apparently, most of the problems against religious freedom occurred among remote villages in Laos. I invite the U.S. State Department officials to travel the remote areas to observe these atrocities. The State Department had contacted the Lao Government to discuss or express the situation, but the Lao Government did nothing to improve the situation. I personally believe that these situations are getting worse, as you will see later in my testimony. In addition, I am concerned that more Christians are being arrested and imprisoned. Most of the cases involve the Hmong ethnic, including some of the recent refugee returnees from Thailand refugee camps. This has been a major concern among the Hmong Americans.
Since my youth, I have served God faithfully, work with integrity, served the church righteously, and taught them to obey and respect the government and its laws. Incidentally, the Lao Government has a history of discrimination against certain ethnic groups. They have no respect of their own constitutions. They arrested and imprisoned many ethnic groups, particularly in remote villages, and especially the Hmong. The fact that Hmong have several religious beliefs does not mean any religion is bad or is against the government.
Recently the government of Laos passed out documents saying that whoever is a religious person must recant their faith or face imprisonment and have their property or farms taken away.
This year, the believers were forced to recant their faith, and many were arrested. Many churches were closed or taken over by the Lao authority. From a foreigner's perspective, it may seem as if there is nothing wrong. The truth is, the Christians are being greatly oppressed and being forced to imprisonment.
Below is the list of over 70 names of the imprisoned Christians. I have had the privilege to travel extensively, visiting them during my tenure as Secretary of Lao Evangelical Church. They are:
Din Deng Village, Mouang Sam Phan, Phong Saly Province
December 31, 1999, five believers were arrested
1. Mr. Xong Phia Xiong 2. Mr. Chue Xiong 3. Mr. Wang Ger Vang, 4. Mr. Chong Lor Vang 5.
Mr. Sao Lot Vang
Pa Hin village, Mouang Sam Neua, Houa Phan Province
October 22, 1999, six believers were arrested
1. Mr. Chong Lor 2. Mr. Vang Pao Yang 3. Mr. Chef Vang 4. Mr. Vang Yang 5. Mr. Pao Ze Yang 6. Mr. Khoua Neng Yang
Mouang Siengnum, Luang prabang Province 1999 to present, three Pastors are in jail for five years. Presently, these three pastors have serious illnesses, swelling, and their wives and children all worded. The rest are still in jail butin stable condition. They are:
1. Pastor Bonmee 2. Pastor On Chan (Peter) 3. Pastor Sisamouth 4. Mr. Seng Fa, elder 5. Pastor Rang Phen - died during imprisonment 6. Mr. Khansen, elder of the church. 7. Mr. Khanphuan, elder 8. Mr. Phongsavan, elder 9. Mr. Khasai, elder 10. Mr. Kha Phong, Village chief, and a Christian 11. Pastor Levi 12. Mr. Sompong, elder 13. Mr. Somphen, pastor 14. Mr. Pa Van, elder 15. Mr. Phong Phang, elder 16. Mr. Khaaxen, elder 17. Mr. Boua Lup, elder
Six lowland Lao were arrested and imprisoned, but I could not get their names. Below are Christians from the Boun ethnic.
18. Mr. Ta Muai 19. Mr. Pa Tu 20. Mr. Dang 21. Mr. Achang 22. Mr. Lavoua 23. Mr. Nya 24. Mr. Xakoua 25. Mr. Khaxee 26. Mr. Koon Noi 27. Mr. Ad Der 28. Mr. Koua 29. Mr. Bouag Thai 30. Mr. Bouag Tong 31. Mr. ALeam 32. Mr. AMot
Luang Nam Tha province.
Christian believers from the Khmuu ethnic.
33. Mr. Bonethin 34. Mr. Pheth 35. Mr. Sikham 36. Mr. Khouanc 37. Mr. Chone 38. Mr. Doua Cang 39. Mr. Thak
40. Mr. Van 41. Mr. Cheng
Champasack and Uttapeu Provinces.
42. Pastor Sagnone 43. Mr. Vilakone, elder 44. Mr. Keo, elder 45. Mr. Sin, elder 46. Mr. Kham Muan 47. Mr. Khamseup 48. Mr. Savath 49. Mr. Hamone 50. Mr. Neuag
The following Christian believers were arrested on May 9, 2000 51. Rev. Savath Heunlith 52. Pastor Thongla 53. Pastor Thongsouth 54. Three other individuals I don't know their names. 55. No name 56. No Name.
Thabok Village, Bolikhansay Province
57. Pastor Ah Lon, Imprisoned for three years.
July, 2000 at Kilometer 52, three people arrested just before we left Laos.
58. Pastor Ker Yang, Imprisoned. No further detail information where about. 59. No name released 60. No name released
District of Vientiane Perfect
June 16, 2000 at Thakohai village, Mouang Pakgnum
61. Mr. Nao Xa Vang, 37 years old 62. Mr. Chang Xiong, 34 years old
Below are Churches that were taken over or were ordered to close by the Lao government authority without any given reason.
Luang Prabang Province, 12 churches were closed or taken over.
Savannakhet Province, 9 churches were closed.
Phongsaly Province, 1 room for worship, but ordered to close.
Federal News Service September 7, 2000, Thursday
Hua Phanh Province. 2 churches were locked and closed and taken over by authority. Vietiene Province. 5 churches ordered to close Sayabouri Province. 1 church ordered to close Vientiane Perfect. 5 places of worship were ordered to disperse or else surrender to the Lao.
Most recent actions against Christians
Since June 2000, the government has used law enforcement to oppress the believers in Vientiane Province and Vientiane Perfect. June 8, 2000, forced the believers in Thakoua Hai, to recant their faith. June 16, 2000, used authority to arrest Nor Xang Vang, 37 years old, and Chang Xiong 34 years old, imprisoned in Khu Ta Dang jail.
- June 27, 2000. Again, forced everyone to recant his or her faith, if not, then were arrested immediately. July 10 & 20, 2000. Authority came to force the church in 52- kilometer recant their faith and arrested two elders.
July 15-20, 2000. Authority forced the believers in the Souksala, who were repatriates from Thailand refugee camp, to recant their faith. They took over the church, which is now being used as an office. July 23-24, 2000. The authority oppressed believers in Phongnya II, the same way as above. July 23-25, 2000. The authority stated that they would coerce with arm soldiers along with law enforcement to oppress believers at Phu Kho Quo, and would use force if necessary. They had locked the door to the church.
If the believers agreed to recant, they could avoid imprisonment. The authorities forced the believers to sign an agreement and then would report to high authority that the believers did it in their own free will to recant their faith, without being forced. If anyone questioned or commented about it, the government would consider those people as opposing the government. They were arrested and were forced to comply.After arrival in the United States, I was notified that my job as Secretary of Lao Evangelical Church had been terminated and my name was reported to the authority of the Ministry of Interior. There is no guarantee for my safety if I returned to my homeland, Laos, because I am subjected to arrest. The last telephone conversation I had with my family was on the evening of September 3rd, 2000. I was informed that after my wife and I left Laos, more Churches were locked up and guarded by the Communist authority. Therefore, no one could get in to worship God. I was also informed that numerous Churches throughout the country were being taken over by the Government.
For all these reasons, I face a very difficult struggle in my life, especially since we have five little children behind in Laos. Their ages range from one and a half to thirteen years old. My wife and I have determined that it will not be safe for us to return to Laos in the meantime. Therefore, we have no choice but to seek political asylum here in the United States. Human rights violations must be fully compliant. Laos must allow international communities and the United Nations to look into the current situation.
We miss our children very much. After my wife heard about the insecurity of our lives, she cried about our children's safety and well being. Once the government finds out that those children are ours, their lives will be in danger. So, we would like to ask the U.S. Government for the protection of our children and immediate families. We also ask the U.S. Government to help bring our children here to unite with us.
In conclusion, the problem of the religious persecution in Laos is a very complicated issue. The search for a permanent solution requires the participation of the super power nations like the United States and the international communities' strong commitments on the part of monitoring the Lao People's Democratic Republic government to make sure that the people have freedom. Therefore, I strongly submit to you that it is essential for the United States, the United Nations, and the International Communities to be actively involved in the search for a permanent solution to the political problems in Laos.
Many solutions to the problems of Laos are just band-aids, while other solutions get bungled in red tape. The most effective way to eliminate religious persecution in Laos is to make sure that the people in Laos have the right to worship in their own ways. To providing people in Laos with long-term security, a delegation of Human Rights and Religious rights groups can be organized to go to Laos for the purpose of gathering information on various cases happening among religious groups, including those in the remote areas. This is only just a start to cracking down the oppression of Christians there. I am afraid that the Lao Communist Government can crack' down other religion groups at any time.
I propose that assembling a delegation, which will bring together factual information from Laos, is critical to the success of this initiative. Diverse representation in the delegation will also minimize the misinterpretation or misrepresentation of information collected and disseminated. The delegation can observe programs first- hand, question authority, and talk to religious believers.
The economic, political, social and religion in Laos, however, is seldom able to compete for attention like other countries. This will make the resolution to human rights in Laos both urgent and compelling into the international communities.
Therefore, I call on U.S. Congress, all countries, other governments and human rights organizations to look into this situation in Laos. In addition, I would like to recommend the following points:
1. Release those imprisoned as described above because they are impoverished, and wives and children are suffering.
2. Don't force the believers to recant their faith and leave them alone so that they have a place to serve their God.3. Stop the duress and the accusations against the believers.
4. Lao government gives back their churches and any property belonging to the believers.
5. Give back freedom and equal fights of religion to everyone in Laos.
God bless America and God bless the people in Laos.