Laos (Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic) has been one of the world’s poorest countries, but is now experiencing significant economic growth as it enters the 21st century. Many people are spiritually hungry and the gospel is spreading as God’s people, many of whom have endured the fires of persecution, share the gospel with friends and neighbours.
Although there are more than 100 ethno-linguistic groups, the people of Laos fall into two main groups.
- 60% Lao or Lowland Lao. They mainly live along the Mekong River.
- 20% Upland Lao or Mon-Khmer peoples. Their villages are mostly in the hills of Laos
- 9% Highland Lao or Hmong-Mien peoples. Their villages are traditionally found on the mountain ridges.
- 7% Tibetan-Himalayan peoples including the Akha, Phu Noy and others.
- 4% Vietnamese, Chinese and others.
(Sources: Operation World 2010, OMF International)
The principal religion of Laos is Theravada Buddhism, though it is little more than a veneer over deep-seated animism. Laotian life and culture is heavily influenced by this animism-Buddhist mix. There are temples in many ethnic Lao villages, but most non-Lao (tribal) villages have no Buddhist presence.
Laos lacks a common language. The country’s official language is Lao, but ethnic groups use their own languages and dialects. English is the second official language.
Laos is completely landlocked, bounded by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar. Although 90 percent of the country is mountainous, most life centres on the fertile Mekong River and its tributaries. The river irrigates rice paddies and provides some fish. Laos has been very dependent on foreign aid and imported foodstuff for decades, but this dependence is diminishing.
The climate of Laos is tropical with April temperatures averaging 29°C (84°F) and January temperatures averaging 22°C (72°F).
The early history of Laos is sketchy. The original inhabitants of the area were the Mon-Khmer. The Lao and other Tai peoples gradually moved south from present-day Yunnan province, China.
The “Kingdom of a Million Elephants” was founded in the mid-14th century when the Khmer king at Angkor married his daughter to a Lao prince, Fa Ngum. After him, the kingdom had a long period of peace. It expanded to control parts of North Thailand, was beaten back by the Burmese, ruled by the Vietnamese, and eventually split into three states in 1713.
Hostilities between Thailand and Vientiane led to the conquering of the latter in 1778 and the other two states were forced into line. When Vientiane tried to reassert its independence in 1827, Thai forces completely destroyed it.
During the second half of the 19th century the French began to make their presence felt. A French military expedition in 1893 occupied the most important towns and by 1904 they controlled the whole country.
During World War II the Japanese occupied Indochina. After a brief period of independence, the French reoccupied the region in 1946.
In 1949 Laos became an independent state within the French Union but dissidents allied themselves with the pro-Communist Vietminh forces fighting the French in Vietnam. They invaded Laos in 1953 and quickly gained control of large areas.
The Geneva armistice ended this war in 1954. A coalition government was formed and in 1955 Laos joined the United Nations.
The U.S. and USSR supported different factions in the inherently unstable government. Civil wars alternated with tentative governments and splits alternated with coalitions.
In the mid-1960s Laos was drawn into the Vietnam War. North Vietnamese troops used jungle trails in eastern and southern Laos as routes to supply their forces fighting in South Vietnam and U.S. warplanes carried out increasingly heavy bombing attacks on the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail, dropping two million tons of bombs.
Following Communist victories in Cambodia and Vietnam in 1975, the Laotian monarchy was abolished and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was proclaimed. The (Communist) Lao People’s Revolutionary Party is still the only legal political party in Laos. Most opposition leaders fled the country in the 1970s.
Vietnamese troops remain in Laos to bolster the regime.
The country has struggled economically. Subsistence agriculture accounts for half of the GDP and provides 80 percent of total employment. Recently the government has moved towards an open-market economy, with significant success. Large investments have been made by international businesses and countries. The result is that Laos is experiencing its first-ever economic boom. Inflation is low and return on investments are beginning to pay dividends.
At the same time, there are still many problems. Corruption is rife. Laos has very poorly organized social services. The country still has a high infant mortality rate (5.9 percent), and many urban areas lack modern sewage and water facilities. Malaria, dysentery, parasitic diseases, and respiratory infections are a major problem, and there is only one doctor for every 2,200 people.
The birth of the church in Laos was slow and difficult. The ethnic Lao initially had no interest in the gospel, which was brought by a Presbyterian missionary in 1885.
However, the Khmu, slaves of the Lao, responded vigorously and the Khmu church now numbers more than 40,000 (6.2 percent of all Khmu people). In 1901 Swiss missionaries worked among Lao outcasts called Phi-Pop, men who are believed to communicate with evil spirits. They also responded and Christians in southern Laos now number around 15,000. However, since the early Christians were non-Lao and social outcasts, churches gained a stigma that has proved a barrier to those wanting to become Christians.
The Communists sought to eradicate all religion. Persecution of Christians was exceptionally harsh between 1975 and 1978. Suspected because of their association with Western missionaries, at least 90 percent of the trained church leaders fled the country and all Bible schools were closed.
Persecution and restrictions continued throughout the 1980s, with many believers imprisoned and fellowships quashed. Restrictions were eased in the 1990s but churches are suspected as potentially subversive and are still watched.
The Bible was translated into Lao in 1927, but this is now archaic. A new translation was completed in the late 1990s. Some ethnic groups (Hmong, Mien) have the Bible in their languages.
Some restrictions remain on public evangelism, the building of church buildings, and formal links with foreign organizations. It is said that the years following 1997 were the most oppressive for Christians since the beginning of the Communist government. Christians have been imprisoned and forced to sign statements rejecting their faith. However, the persecution seems to be declining some in recent years.
Buddhism has regained its old influence in the major Lao cities. The Lao government, supported by the Thai government and UNESCO, is heavily engaged in promoting Buddhism throughout the country.
- The church still faces restrictions and Christians still face persecution. Pray for freedom for evangelism and church planting, for the effective use of present freedoms, and for changes that will open Laos up for the preaching of the gospel. Pray that Christians would reach out, especially to the ethnic minorities.
- Pray for unity, integrity, and godly leadership in the church.
- Pray for leadership and Bible training. Pray for the effectiveness of church-based study programs.
- Missionary work is not permitted. However, Christians can enter the country in business and professional roles and serve God as bi-vocational Christian workers.
- There are at least 13 languages for which there is a definite need for Bible translation teams and a possible total of 66 languages. Pray for discernment in prioritizing, and for men and women to invest their lives in translating God’s word.
- Christian radio: FEBC broadcasts 16 hours weekly in Lao, Hmong, Khmu, Akha and Lahu. Pray for a good reception and spiritual response.
Unreached peoples in which there are no known churches:
- Tai peoples, speaking 15 languages.
- The northern peoples, many of whom have responded to the gospel in neighbouring China and Thailand.
- The small southern ethnic groups that were being evangelized for the first time between 1957 and 1963. War prevented the planting of churches among most of these peoples and they remain deeply enmeshed in the fear of spirits.
- The Vietnamese and Chinese, among whom there has been little evangelism.