Human Rights Watch for
Lao Religious Freedom
A Lao Prominent Pastor Released After Almost 13 Years of Jail Sentence
Today (February 2, 2012), Bounchan was released from prison after serving 12 years and almost 8 months of jail sentence. He was convicted of treason and sedition against the Lao nation due his receiving of Bible training and his leading role in the salvation of at least 70 new converts.
A Lao Christian Convicted of Treason and Sedition for Sharing His Faith
Around January 1997, Bounchan (also referred to as Thongchan) Kanthavong, age 58, living in Vanghai village, Sai district, Udomsai province, Laos, came into contact with Christianity. He was introduced to the Christian faith by a Christian family with whom he spent the night while on business in Vongmon village, Sai district, Udomsai province. After returning home, he began to spread the faith to others at his clothing shop, resulting in around 70 people embracing the faith. His clothing shop then became the center of spreading the faith where people came from different villages, also seeking to embrace the faith with him.
His bold witness for the faith drew constant seekers for the faith to his shop, causing alarm for the authorities. The authorities had repeatedly warned him to cease believing, practicing, and spreading the Christian faith. He was also ordered to stop all worship activities at his shop. Sensing his life was in danger of being arrest due to him being at the center of leading others to the faith, Bounchan warned his wife, Sengkham, age 53, prior to his arrest, saying, if the authorities arrest him, it was based on no other ground other than because of his effort of leading a great number of Lao nationals to the Christian faith. Bounchan and Sengkham had 5 children together.
It was not long after his issuing of warning to his wife of the possible arrest that a couple police authorities came to his shop in the evening while the family was having dinner and then escorted him to the police station on June 8, 1999. He was then arrested and convicted of treason and sedition as well as sentenced to 12 years in prison. From his life and witness, the number of believers afterward grew from around 70 believers to presently over 3,000 believers throughout Udomsai province.
His wife, Sengkham, with the assistance of several official connections, investigated into what action(s) that her husband, Bounchan, had committed that would constitute treason and sedition against the Lao nation. The result of the investigation found that Bounchan’s (1) receiving of bible training (through several days of intensive teaching) and (2) his leading role in the salvation of at least 70 new converts at his shop brought fears to the authorities and it then became an issue of national security. It was further found that he was at the center of the start of the movement of leading the Lao nationals to abandon their Lao traditional religion (spirit worship) and in turn to embrace a foreign religion, thus placing Lao Christians in the position of being loyal and answerable to foreign power instead of the Lao authorities. The movement started by Bounchan became a national security threat to the Lao government. His actions were thus interpreted as treason and sedition against the Lao nation.
Several months ago (around April 2011), Bounchan told Sengkham, while she was visiting him in prison, that the authorities told him that they were willing to release him from prison if he renounces the Christian faith and separates from Sengkham, who is now the leading figure in the Vangsai village’s Protestant church in Udomsai province.
All indications point to Bounchan’s imprisonment as being religiously motivated. His actions, including leading others to the Christian faith when they sought after him and receiving bible training, were an exercise of his right to religious freedom. In essence, his conviction and sentence to 12 years in prison were based on religious ground.
Bounchan’s unjust prolonged imprisonment has affected his health, in particular his eyes, as well as his family has suffered tremendously without a father/husband to lead and provide for the family. Thankfully, under the leadership of his wife, Sengkham, the children grew up and all graduated from secondary school.