Governments have a long and dubious history of hiding behind the skirts of religious festivities once decisions are made to carry out undesirable jobs, particularly among the less savory countries where personal freedoms are considered a luxury for the politically connected.
The then Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and Vietnam sent its troops into Cambodia during Christmas in 1979 while adversaries in the West were settling in with their families, opening presents, and tucking into a traditional roast.
It was a similar tale with the Tet offensive in 1968, when the Viet Cong launched a major offensive against U.S. positions during the annual lunar New Year holidays in South Vietnam.
But it remains an absurd notion, that militaries on the march or police crackdowns might go un-noticed simply because global attention had turned elsewhere, towards good tidings and annual pilgrimages.
In this era of digital and smartphone technology, trying to hide seems even more ludicrous. Still, old habits die hard.
This Christmas, the Laos government – already facing the prospect of Western sanctions over its human rights record – decided it was an appropriate time to deal with its ethnic Hmong population who have never taken to the idea of a Communist one-party state.
Most Hmong are Christians and the killjoys in Vientiane decided to ban Christmas.
“In the latest crackdown, Lao and Hmong Christians, and Animist, believers have been arrested, tortured, killed, or have simply disappeared,” said Philip Smith, Executive Director of the Center for Public Policy Analysis (CPPA) in Washington.
He said the crackdown had been carried out in a systematic manner.
“The Marxist government of Laos, working in coordination with the Vietnam People’s Army and authorities in Hanoi, continues its policy of attacking independent religious believers who wish to worship freely outside of state-controlled, and state-monitored, religious institutions.”
The government of Laos Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong has already faced unprecedented international scrutiny over its failure to find missing agriculturalist and social reformer Sombath Somphone or deal with those responsible for his disappearance two years ago. Sombath was filmed being taken away by police. Still, this didn’t stop one scribe from describing his disappearance as a “piffling affair.”
European, U.S. and Australian politicians have applied diplomatic pressure on Vientiane over Sombath’s apparent abduction and have called on the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to intervene. ASEAN, typically, has been reticent to act. This came after a visit by EU parliamentarian Soren Sondegard, who said Laos was in a state of denial over the issue.
The treatment of the Hmong, however, has struck a nerve in other quarters. When Presbyterian missionaries arrived in Laos in 1885, their concepts of god and religion proved an attractive brew for marginalized ethnic communities like the Hmong.
Much later, the Hmong sided with the non-communists during the Indochinese wars and were armed by the United States, operating as insurgents in the remote mountains that divided Laos and Vietnam until 1975, when most were forced to flee the incoming cadre.
Those left behind maintained a low-level insurgency, providing a constant irritant to authorities, but they remained out of sight for much of the next three decades until they were documented in late 2002 by Australian reporter Andrew Perrin and fellow Australian photographer Philip Blenkinsop.
The Laos government was furious.
In June that year, Belgium journalist Thierry Falise, his French colleague Vincent Reynaud, their translator, and guides were jailed for attempting to visit Hmong groups, after being subjected to a peoples tribunal, described as a mockery by human rights groups.
Since then, the plight of the Hmong has hardly improved.
Of concern is Moua Toua Ter, a former Hmong resistance leader who is facing prosecution after being deported from neighboring Thailand in June. Little has been heard of his plight although the authorities in Laos have implied charges were being prepared against him, despite laying down arms years ago.
According to reports Moua was with the Hmong who fought with the United States in the CIA-backed “Secret War” in Laos during the Vietnam War era. After April 1975, he retreated to the forests and spent most of his time on the run – almost forgotten – until Perrin and Blenkinsop rediscovered an exhausted and starving Hmong resistance.
Moua fled to Thailand in 2006 with the surrender of 176 Hmong, mainly women, children and elderly where he had sought resettlement in a third country, but he was eventually detained after he shot dead a Laotian woman and was convicted of manslaughter.
His supporters say he acted in self-defense against a Laos government agent sent to bring him back. Moua was deported by Thai immigration following his release from jail.
Evangelicals, like the EA Foundation, say Laos remains among the world’s most severe abusers of religious liberty, and “has explicitly declared its intention to ‘eliminate Christianity.’”
“The government not only severely persecutes Christians, it is also pursuing a genocidal war against the restive Hmong, using military means which include gross barbarity, chemical weapons and starvation.”
There is no independent backing of those charges but rights groups like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have persistently complained that a lack of transparency and a refusal by the Laos authorities to speak openly and honestly about such allegations has cast the government in a bad light.
This and Laos’ unwillingness to act over the disappearance of Sombath Somphone was largely behind a recent petition by 82 NGOs from within ASEAN and further afield calling on the bloc to abandon its long stated principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a neighbor, which has been used to brush aside its own charter.
That includes key tenets enshrined in the ASEAN charter recognizing “the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms” with NGOs also calling on the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights to also intervene.
However, those not unreasonable requests – especially when considered under the light of international law – appear to have fallen on deaf ears within a state which still wins comparisons with Cold War benchmarks like Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia.
“Clearly, under these dark and grim conditions, there is still no Christmas in Laos for those who seek to celebrate and worship outside of the watchful eye of the military, secret police and communist authorities in Vientiane and Hanoi,” Smith of the CPPA said.