Reaching the Nations

Laos

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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Geography

Area: 236,800 square km.  Laos is landlocked in Southeast Asia and borders Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, and China.  The climate experiences tropical monsoon between May and November followed by a dry season from December to April.  Most of the landscape is mountainous with few plains.  The Mekong River flows along the Thai border.  Floods and droughts are natural hazards.  Environmental issues include refuse from war, deforestation and soil erosion.  Laos is divided into 16 administrative provinces. 

Population: 6,834,345 (July 2009)

Annual Growth Rate: 2.32% (2009)

Fertility Rate: 4.41 children born per woman (2009)

Life Expectancy: male 54.45, female 58.79 (2009)

Peoples

Lao: 55%

Khmu: 11%

Hmong: 8%

Other: 26%

The majority of the population is Lao.  Khmu primarily reside in north central Laos.  The Hmong also reside in northern areas.  Other ethnicities include over 100 different groups.  There is also an ethnic Vietnamese community in Vientiane. 

Languages:  Lao (55%), Khmu (10%), Hmong dialects (7%), Thai Don (5%), Phu Thai (4%), Lu (3%), Kataang (2.5%), Phuan (2.5%), So (2.5%), other (8.5%).  Lao is the official language.  84 native languages are spoken in Laos, most with 1,000 to 100,000 speakers.  Only Lao has over one million speakers (3.0 million). 

Literacy: 68.7%

History

In the 14th century, the Lan Xang kingdom was established in present-day Laos.  Lan Xang ruled the area for three centuries and influenced the Southeast Asia region.  The kingdom divided into three states and eventually assimilated into Thailand later and became part of French Indochina in the late 1800s.  France regained control of Laos following a brief hiatus in World War II.  Independence occurred in 1949 but France continued to exert influence on the region for the following decade.  Laos played an integral part of the Vietnam War as it experienced civil war between the communist Pathet Lao rebels and the Royal Laotian government.  The United States heavily bombed Laos to fight the North Vietnamese assistance of the Pathet Lao.  Communists took control in 1975 and continued strict socialist policy until 1988.  For the past two decades, Laos has allowed more privatization to occur within the economy and has shown a less isolated stance but remains a communist state. 

Culture 

Lao culture is an amalgam of indigenous tradition as well as Cambodian, Indian, and Chinese influence. Buddhism strongly influences culture.  Buddhist festivals are widely celebrated and temples are widespread.  Luang Prabang was the historic capital of Laos and is a World Heritage Site.  The Khene, a mouth organ of ancient origin from Laos, is celebrated as the national instrument.  Rice is the primary food staple. 

Economy

GDP per capita: $2,100 (2009) [4.5% of US]

Human Development Index: 0.619

Corruption Index: 2.0

Laos is one of the few remaining one-party communist states.  Foreign investment began in the mid-1980s and has contributed to steady economic growth.  The landlocked position of Laos has isolated it from international trade.  The infrastructure remains underdeveloped, particularly with electricity and roads.  Poverty has been reduced in the past two decades; 26% now live under the poverty line.  Agriculture employs for 80% of the workforce and produces 39% of the GDP.  Primary agricultural products include sweet potatoes, vegetables and corn.  Industry and services account for 34% and 27% of the GDP respectively.  Mining is the largest industry and exploits copper, tin, gold, and gypsum resources.  Timber is another important industry.  Primary trade partners include Thailand, Vietnam, and China. 

Corruption rates are among the highest in Southeast Asia.  Bribery is widespread.  In government, there are few checks and balances to prevent corruption among officials or address its occurrence.     

Faiths

Buddhist: 67%

Other or unspecified: 31.5%

Christian: 1.5%

Christians

Denominations  Members  Congregations

Catholic   45,000

Seventh Day Adventists   1,949  4

Latter-Day Saints   100  1

Religion

Theravada Buddhism is the most followed religion; there are over 4,000 temples.  Many of the small ethnic groups in rural areas practice ancestor worship and animism.  Very few do not practice a religion.  Catholics are concentrated in the center and southern portions of Laos where they worship openly, but face restrictions in the north.  The Lao Evangelical Church is sanctioned by the government and has caused friction with Protestants who want to start independent denominations.  Protestants are growing rapidly and likely number over 100,000.  There are approximately 8,500 Baha'is.[1] 

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index: 18th

The constitution allows for religious freedom but government restricts its practice.  The government offers incentives and financial support and imposes fewer restrictions on Buddhists.  The greatest religious tolerance occurs in the larger cities whereas rural communities experience the most intolerance and friction between Buddhists and other religions, particularly Protestant churches.  The government further restricts religious activities in rural areas.  Christians have faced limitations or are prohibited to import Bibles and religious materials whereas Buddhists do not have restrictions.  Violators can face fines and have materials confiscated.  Foreigners are forbidden to proselyte.  Christians in some provinces face harassment even when they assemble in private homes.[2]

Largest Cities

Urban: 31%

Vientiane, Savannakhet, Pakxe, Xam Nua, Thakek, Luang Prabang, Samakhixai, Pakxan, Nam Tha, Muang Sing.

One of the 10 largest cities has a congregation.  7% of the national population lives in the 10 largest cities. 

LDS History

The Laotian members likely began joined the Church in the 1970s in the United States.  Several Laotian-speaking congregations were organized, most of which were in California.  In the 2000s, a missionary proselytizing area opened in Nong Kha in Thailand,  just across the Mekong River from Vientiane.  A branch was organized in Vientiane in June 2003.  Elder Jeffrey R. Holland dedicated Laos for missionary work in February 2006.[3]  Full-time young missionaries served for a brief time in 2006.  As of late 2009, the Church did not have formal recognition.

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: 100+ (2008)

Many coverts have been baptized in the Thai border town of Nong Khai.  Members reside in Vientiane and its surroundings. 

Congregational Growth

Branches:  1

Only one branch functions in Vientiane under the direction of the Thailand Bangkok Mission.  A senior missionary couple resides in Vientiane and conducts humanitarian work. 

Activity and Retention

Over half the active membership lives on the outskirts of Vientiane.  There are approximately 100 active members.  Activity rates are likely over 50%.  In 2009, there were 10 active Aaronic Priesthood holders. 

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: Lao, Vietnamese

All LDS scriptures are available in Vietnamese.  The entire Book of Mormon translation in Lao was undergoing its final reviews prior to printing in early 2010.  Some Church materials are available in Lao and Vietnamese, including family history, scripture study, missionary, priesthood, young women, Sunday School, Relief Society, temple, and unit audio/visual resources. 

Meetinghouses

Meetings are held in a clean, modern rented space. 

Health and Safety

Laos has one of the highest numbers of unexploded ammunition and bombs worldwide.  Risk for spread of infectious diseases is high and medical infrastructure is limited.

Humanitarian and Development Work

In 1994, the Church delivered donated rice sent by a three-truck caravan from Thailand to Vientiane.  The Church also contributed to costs for transporting rice to the needy within Laos.[4]  Humanitarian senior couples have served in Laos teaching English since the early 2000s.[5]  The Church's worldwide clean water programs began from a single clean water project in Laos in 2002.[6]  Neonatal resuscitation training has been sponsored by the Church.[7]  Senior missionaries continue to conduct clean water and sanitation projects and donate school supplies.  Wheelchairs were donated in 2008.[8]

 

Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects

Religious Freedom

The Church faces many restrictions which limit missionary work.  Young full-time missionaries served briefly and had many restrictions regarding who they could speak with and were unable to distribute literature.  Many of the members are picked up by a bus to go to Church.  In 2009, police told the bus driver he was not allowed to transport members from outside the city into Vientiane for Church services.  

Cultural Issues

Buddhism strongly influences culture.  Buddhist persecution of Christians appears minimal and Christians face the greatest pressure from government officials.  The Church will likely continue to experience some opposition for holding worship services.  However, pressure will likely not be nearly as severe as on many minority Laotian Christians who have not only been persecuted by the religious belief, but their ethnicity due to possible connections to insurgency groups.

National Outreach

The Church has a tiny presence in Laos as only Vientiane (3% of the national population) has a congregation and no foreign missionaries may proselyte.  The majority the inhabitants in Vientiane are unaware of the Church.  The only opportunity for Laotians to join the Church is through personal contact with a Church member.  Local members will be instrumental in expanding the Church's national presence.  Outreach to northern provinces appears the most difficult as these regions experience greater intolerance toward religious minorities. 

Members who travel to meetings by bus provide opportunity for expanded outreach outside of Vientiane.  If government restricts the movement or logistics of Church members traveling to attend church services, , this may result in the creation of small groups or branches in lesser reached communities with some LDS members.

Member Activity and Convert Retention

High activity and retention appear the result of most converts seriously investigating the Church over a longer period of time and developing a habit of regular Church attendance prior to baptism.  Investigators have often overcome significant cultural pressures and opposition before joining the Church and tend to be strongly committed .  However, more than half the active members rely on Church-provided transportation to travel to Sunday meetings.  If transportation is not provided to members outside Vientiane, many may be unable to actively participate. 

Ethnic Issues and Integration

Geography mitigates many ethnic issues.  The Church has not faced ethnic integration issues yet due to the tiny size of Laotian membership.  Some issues may arise once congregations start meeting in areas with greater ethnic diversity. 

Language Issues

Laos experiences high linguistic diversity for an Asian country with a small population.  Language barriers between commonly spoken languages by Church members and the rest of the population leave many ethnic groups without a gospel witness.  Most of the indigenous non-Lao peoples have no Church materials translated into their native languages, such as Khmu. 

Leadership

Local leadership has developed following the recent arrival of the Church.  The first two missionaries to serve from Laos received their mission calls in early 2006.  At this time the Vientiane Branch had native members serving in the branch presidency.[9]  In 2009, members conducted home teaching visits after Church meetings due to government restrictions.  At the time the branch had 12 home teaching companionships.  Priesthood advancements appear to occur regularly.  Some mentoring by the mission president and senior couples to Laotian Church leaders occurs. 

Temple

Laos is assigned to the Hong Kong China Temple District.  Temple excursions rarely occur.  A temple preparation course was taught in 2009 and members did prepare names of ancestors to submit for temple work.  A temple built in Southeast Asia would reduce travel time and expense for Laotian members to attend the temple.  Significant sacrifice will be required for members to attend the temple for many years to come.

Comparative Growth

Laos is one of the most recently reached countries for the Church in Asia and has experienced growth greater than many nations which also have limited religious freedom.  The Church has had a presence in Bangladesh and Nepal at least a decade longer than in Laos yet all of these countries have a comparably sized active membership. 

Other Christian groups have had more rapid growth than the LDS Church in membership and national outreach.  Seventh Day Adventists have experienced rapid growth from 137 members in 1998 to over 1,800 a decade later.  Congregations have also reached outside of Vientiane to several provinces. 

Future Prospects

Government restricts international missionary outreach, requiring local members to be self-sufficient in ecclesiastical duties and member-missionary work.  Growth in membership on the outskirts of Vientiane may result in the formation of groups or small branches to serve members in these locations.  Outreach in other provinces appears unlikely for the medium-term future. 


[1] "Laos," International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127276.htm

[2] "Laos," International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127276.htm

[3] "Laos dedicated," LDS Church News, 25 March 2006.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/48673/Laos-dedicated.html

[4] "Church donates rice to Laos," LDS Church News, 27 August 1994.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/24136/Church-donates-rice-to-Laos.html

[5] "Pure religion: Time to fill a need," LDS Church News, 24 May 2003.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/43805/Pure-religion-Time-to-fill-a-need.html

[6] Askar, Jamshid.  "Clean water all around the world," LDS Church News, 22 August 2009.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/57788/Clean-water-all-around-the-world.html

[7] Weaver, Sarah Jane. "Saving babies' lives," LDS Church News, 12 November 2005.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/48131/Saving-babies-lives.html

[8] "Wheelchairs," Humanitarian Services, retrieved 9 March 2010.  http://www.lds.org/library/page/display/0,7098,6213-1-3215-1,00.html

[9] "Laos dedicated," LDS Church News, 25 March 2006.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/48673/Laos-dedicated.html