During his visit, Dr. Bailey met with religious leaders in the remote northern province of Hua Phan and in the important southern city of Savannakhet. Leaders from both areas reported increases in religious freedom in recent years.

He also met with officials from the Department of Religious Affairs at the Lao Front for National Construction (LFNC) and the Department of Ethnic and Religious Minorities at the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The LFNC is responsible for the education and promotion of religious unity and conflict resolution among religious adherents in Laos. The MHA oversees the implementation of government laws and policies regarding the practice of religion in Laos. IGE has been working with both departments to hold educational and training seminars on laws and policies related to religion, and the rights of Lao citizens to believe in and practice their religion. IGE, the LFNC, and MHA recently conducted a Religious Freedom Education dialogue in the remote province of Salavan in Southern Laos. IGE also works with the LFNC and MHA to provide peace building workshops for national level religious and government leaders, with the hope the workshops will be allowed to be conducted at the provincial level soon.

The visit was an exciting time to be in Laos as the nation chairs and hosts the ASEAN meetings and prepared for the first ever visit by the President of the United States. President Obama’s four day visit to Laos is part of his effort to promote his goal to pivot American policy towards the Pacific region.

Just before President Obama’s arrival in Laos, the Lao government publically released the revised Decree 92, the key government policy document on religion and religious activity. Religious organizations in Laos have been waiting for the revision for nearly three years. While the release of the revised Decree 92 was welcomed by nearly everyone, there has been some disappointment as experts realize that the document increases an already cumbersome process of obtaining permissions from the government by religious groups. These include registration for new religious organizations, building a structure for religious activities, and holding religious events outside a religious organization’s main location.

A few days after the revised decree was released, some government officials said that while the document has been made available to the public, the government is still not ready to officially implement it. This slow process of inching towards greater religious freedom and the freedom to establish and operate civil society organizations is well known to those who regularly work with the Lao government. While on the whole religious freedom is increasing in some parts of Laos, in other parts officials continue to deny religious minorities permission to hold religious meetings and events.

It is hard to say how much of the very slow process to increase religious freedom is the result of traditional Lao culture and how much it reflects an ongoing internal political debate about religious diversity in Laos. IGE will continue to be a trusted partner and come alongside the government and civil society, encouraging them to make reforms to policies, practices, and laws that protect and promote religious freedom.

For more information, please contact IGE’s Laos Program Officer Dr. Stephen Bailey at sbailey@globalengage.org.