Laos: "Hidden Beyond the Mekong: Muslims in Laos"

Amana Media Initiative
A report on the Muslim minority community in Laos, by Yoginder Sikand.
Sandwiched between Thailand to the west, China to the north, and Cambodia and Vietnam in the east, and with a population of less than seven million, Laos is one of the smallest countries in South-East Asia. It is also one of the poorest countries in the world.
Some sixty per cent of Lao's population belongs to the dominant Lao ethnic group, most of who claim to be Buddhists. Around a third of Laotians, mainly from the minority Hmong and Khmu communities, are animists, worshipping various forest and ancestor spirits.

Muslims form a very insignificant proportion of Lao's population. Community leaders estimate their number of be less than eight hundred, making Laos possibly the country with the lowest number and proportion of Muslims in the whole of Asia.

The first Muslims in Laos are said to have arrived in the early twentieth century, when the country was under French colonial rule. Most of them were Tamil-speaking Labbais and Rawthers from south India, many of them from the French-ruled enclave of Pondicherry along the south-eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal. The majority of them were single men, who worked mainly as guards and labourers in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. They were later joined by Pashtu-speaking Pakhtun Muslims from the North-West Frontier Province in what is now Pakistan. Many of them had been employed in the British army and stationed in neighbouring Burma during the First World War.

In 1953 Laos won freedom from the French after a long and bloody struggle. However years of chaos followed, plunging Laos into a deadly war between American-backed forces and the communist Pathet Lao, supported by Vietnam and China. In 1973, America was forced to halt its war against Laos, and, two years later, the communists took over the entire country and established the Lao Peoples' Democratic Republic.

In the mid-1960s, the Muslim population in Laos, almost all of South Asian origin, was estimated at around seven thousand. However, war had forced most of them to flee to various other countries. Roshan, a third generation Lao of Tamil origin, says most of those who remained were poor and could not afford to move elsewhere.

Today, a little more than a hundred Muslim families remain in Laos. The single largest ethnic group among them are Muslims of Cambodian origin, numbering sixty-one families. The first Muslims from Cambodia arrived in Laos as workers and small traders some forty years ago, but most of them came after the mid-1980s, when their homeland was taken over by the deadly Khmer Rouge. Today, most of them live by selling traditional medicinal herbs, which they import from Cambodia. Except for five families, all of them live in Vientiane. Some fifteen resident Cambodian Muslims have married Lao women.masjidazharvientiane

Most of Vientiane's Cambodian Muslims cluster around in a locality not far from the town's Chinese quarter. In the centre of their settlement is a large mosque, established in 1986, the Majid Azhaar-a graceful building topped with numerous gilded domes, which contains two large rooms. One room serves as a prayer-hall, and the other as a maktab, where some fifty Cambodian Muslim children study in two daily shifts that are timed in such a way as to allow them to attend regular school as well.

Forty year-old Muhammad Vina bin Ahmad is the Imam of the Masjid Azhaar. He received a traditional Islamic education at a pondok or madrasa in Phonm Penh, the capital of Cambodia. He then travelled to Vietnam to study with some Muslim scholars, after which he attended a three-month course for training would-be Imams in Malaysia. Fifteen years ago, the Cambodian Muslims of Vientiane invited him to become the Imam of the Masjid Azhaar and also to teach their children the basics of the faith.

In contrast to many Laotians, the Imam can understand English and speaks it fairly well. We discuss the community and the issues it faces. There is not a single book about Islam in the Lao language, he tells me. No one has taken the initiative to produce any Islamic literature in any of the country's roughly ninety languages. The closest equivalent available are some Islamic books, including a translation of the Quran, in the Thai language, which is similar to Lao. Given this situation, it is hardly surprising that few Lao people know anything at all about Islam, and there are just a few, some fifteen, Lao converts to the faith. Many of these converted after marrying Cambodian Muslims. Three Lao converts are presently studying Islamic Studies in universities in Malaysia. So far, the Imam goes on, three Cambodian Muslims from Laos have been on the Hajj, the fixed annual quota for the country being six.

Pakhtuns from Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province are the largest Muslim ethnic group in Laos after the Cambodian Muslims. In recent years, the community has been considerably depleted with migration to Pakistan and Western countries, and it now numbers less than thirty families. Almost all of them are Lao citizens, and some twenty Pakhtun men have married Lao women, the women having converted to Islam thereafter. Roughly a dozen Pakhtun men are in government service, including one who is a top-ranking police officer. Most of the rest are fairly prosperous cloth merchants based in Vientiane, and several of them own considerable amounts of agricultural land.

The third, and smallest, Muslim ethnic group in Laos are Tamil-speakers from southern India, who number around seventy. Most of them live in Vientiane, and the rest live in three other major towns in the country-Luang Prabang, Pakse and Savannakhet. Most of them are engaged in the cosmetics trade, importing their goods from China, Vietnam and Thailand.

Every major town in Laos (and there are only a few of them) has at least one Indian restaurant, and all are run by Tamil Muslims. The most successful Lao Indian restaurateur is 60 year-old Muhammad Nazimuddin, whose official Lao name is Samsack Sivilay (all Lao citizens, irrespective of religion, must have official Lao names). He runs a chain of six very popular Indian restaurants, all named after him, across the country.

Nazimuddin's is, as he explains, a classic rags-to-riches story. His father left his village of Mayuram in Tamil Nadu's Thanjavur district in the early 1940s and set up a small business in Saigon in Vietnam, which was then under French occupation. Twenty years later, he left Saigon, divorced his Vietnamese wife and returned to India along with Nazimuddin, who was then just two years old.

Nazimuddin studied in his village till the eighth grade and soon after decided to travel to Laos, where he began working as a security guard in Vientiane. Thereafter, he worked as a cook in a small eatery, for which he got a bed and food but no money. Later, he set up his own small food stall, catering mainly to visiting Indians who came to Laos to have their Thai visas renewed.

In 1995, Nazimuddin set up ‘Nazim's Indian Restaurant' in a busy commercial district in Vientiane along the Mekong river. This was a time when the ruling communist party was gradually opening up the country to the outside world. The restaurant catered mostly to the rush of Western tourists crossing over from Thailand eager to explore the hitherto closed and remote country. Today, the six ‘Nazim's Indian Restaurants' across Laos have a similar clientele, and for travelers tired of noodle soup and desperately seeking to avoid almost every conceivable sort of meat that is sold at many Lao eateries (including frogs, civets, dogs, grasshoppers and snakes), they are a major blessing.

The Jamia Masjid in the heart of Vientiane serves mainly Pakhtuns and Tamil Muslims. The Imam of the mosque, Maulvi Qamruddin, is a Tamil, and addresses the Friday congregations in both Urdu and Tamil, alternately using one of the languages every week. The mosque has a small maktab attached to it, where children are taught Arabic and about Islam, and the language of instruction is Lao.

Laos' Tamil Muslims, along with Pakhtun and Cambodian Muslims living in the country, recently joined together to set up the Muslim Association of Laos to oversee Muslim community affairs and also to liaise with the government. Says Haji Muhammad Rafiq, alias Sofi Sengsone, President of the Association (and also teacher at the maktab attached to the Jamia Masjid) "our relations with the Lao government have always been very good and we face no problems at all in our religious affairs...The Lao people, in general, are very gentle and affectionate...and we think it is our good fortune to be living here'.

More information about the Muslims of Laos can be obtained from Mr. Ahmadokhan Ungkary of the Muslim Association of Laos, who can be contacted at

By: Yoginder Sikand

29 July 2008