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Vietnam: Activists Refuse to Engage in Government’s Cat-and-Mouse Game

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Photo credits: Frontline Defenders.

Around noon on November 16, 2017, journalist Pham Doan Trang, a member of our editorial board, found herself stuffed in a car driven by plained-clothes police, some of whom she might have recognized from the dozen of times they have come and kidnapped her in broad daylight before.

Just less than half an hour earlier, she was an invited guest of the EU delegation at the swanky Lotte Building in Hanoi, Vietnam, together with Dr. Nguyen Quang A and two other activists, Nguyen Chi Tuyen and Bui Thi Minh Hang.

All of them, except for Nguyen Chi Tuyen who managed to avoid police detection, was kidnapped by the authorities almost immediately after they left the EU meeting. It was the latest episode in a ludicrous game of cat and mouse that the Vietnamese government had orchestrated for years.

While telling his Facebook friends about his experiences on November 16, 2017, where he was detained illegally and interrogated for five hours, the prominent pro-democracy intellect, Dr. A, also recalled that the police had done this to him 14 times just between last year and now. They also guarded and surveilled his home heavily, as well as almost followed him around all the time.

Doan Trang alone has been taken against her own will to various police stations for interrogation a few times just this year, sometimes for the entire day. This last one on November 16 was for 12 hours, which ended when police drove her home around midnight.

But she was not even certain that night if they were going to actually release her until the car stopped at her house.

Because “the police like ‘the surprise factor'”, she said. “They would love to terrify you and make it impossible for you to expect what was going to happen next. They rule by fear and instilling fear in you is their favorite job. You just have to learn how to become fearless.”

Fearless, determined, and completely devoted to the democracy movement in Vietnam would be the words to describe the woman many people view as one of the leading activists in Vietnam, journalist Pham Doan Trang.

Last year, during Barrack Obama’s May 2017 visit to the country, Doan Trang and Dr. A were also kidnapped by the authorities to prevent them from attending a meeting which was specially arranged by the Obama administration, so that the U.S. president could meet Vietnam’s independent civil society’s representatives.

For Doan Trang, in trying to make it to the meeting with Obama, she had to travel thousands of kilometers by car while still recuperating from a knees surgery. Her fellow activists had to accompany her, and one of them even also assumed the role of her personal nurse because Doan Trang was too weak to take care of herself. All the while, the group had to lay low and went under the radar so that they could avoid police detection.

Her knees injuries also came from the police who had crushed them while breaking up a peaceful march in 2015. Doan Trang and hundreds of other residents of Hanoi were protesting against the city government’s decision to cut down some 6,700 trees.

Back to the morning of May 24, 2016, despite their efforts to divert police attention, secret agents eventually caught up with Doan Trang’s group and found them at a motel about 100 km away from Hanoi, just a couple of hours before the meeting with Obama was supposed to start.

They were all illegally detained and interrogated, and Doan Trang was held in her motel room until those who were guarding her received confirmation that the Obama meeting was long over. Only then they would let her and her friends go.

Dr. A also received similar treatment. The police came to his neighborhood early that day in May 2016, around 6:00 A.M., and snatched him away. They confiscated his electronic devices, stuffed him in their car, and drove him around Hanoi and other local proximities like Hung Yen. After receiving confirmation that Obama had boarded his plane from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, they took Dr. A back to his home and released him around 1:00 P.M. the same day.

Neatly placed name cards left on the meeting table without the faces to match, and their empty chairs during the entire discussion vividly displayed the life of dissidents in Vietnam: The authorities do not hesitate to use whatever available means to subdue their bodies and silence their voices.

And on that day, it particularly seemed as if no single world leader could change such fact, not even the U.S. president.

Things did not change for the better this year either.

Before and during President Trump’s visit to Vietnam earlier this month, dissidents and activists like Dr. A and Doan Trang had reported that they were surveilled and followed by both police and plain-clothes officers. Some said they were even prevented from leaving their houses on certain days when world leaders – like Donald Trump and Xi Jinping – were in town.

So when it came to those events surrounding the kidnapping on November 16, the Vietnamese activists’ community was not exactly taken by surprise. However, because living under such oppression has become a way of life, it also prompted a quick response from them. Civil society organizations were not silenced, instead, they immediately condemned the authorities’ conducts.

Without any probable cause, no arrest warrant, the forceful taking of individual citizens into police custody violates even Vietnam’s own criminal procedures, leave alone international legal norms and practices.

Worse, this has been a routine violation.

Back in December 2015, dissident attorney Nguyen Van Dai and his assistant Le Thu Ha were taken into police custody and had been held without trials ever since.

In July 2016, dissidents Nguyen Bac Truyen, Truong Minh Duc, and Pham Van Troi were also taken into custody and later charged with Article 79 of the Penal Code for subversion against the State, together with previously arrested Dai and Ha.

Doan Trang said no one in Vietnam could really tell for sure each time an activist got snatched by the police, that whether it would be just for a few hours of questioning, or the government would press charges and put someone away for a couple of years.

Her take is to treat today as if it would be the last day she could still be a free person and try to make the most of it.

In a country like Vietnam, she said, there would always be so much to do and so much more needed to get done. And getting things done she did.

Doan Trang came to the EU meeting with an updated report on the Formosa environmental disaster, a new report on Vietnam’s Laws on Religion, and an update on the overall human rights situation in the country. She collaborated with others on these projects in 2017, and at the same time, published a book on introduction to politics. All were done while she still had not fully recovered from last year’s knees surgery and constantly been harassed by the authorities.

So perhaps, now is also the time that the Vietnamese authorities must stop playing this insipid game of catch and release.

It was like child-play, Doan Trang described her encounter with the police officers on November 16 on her Facebook status following her release.

The EU delegation initiated this meeting with members of civil society organizations and held it right before their annual Human Rights Dialogue with Vietnam (which will supposedly happen later in December this year). The delegation wished to consult the civil society actors on issues regarding the country’s environment, labor rights, and the overall human rights situation, pending their ongoing EVFTA (EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement) negotiations with Vietnam.

Ironically, all the while the EU delegation were wishing they could learn more about how Vietnam has been implementing human rights, the activists’ illegal arrest and detention happened right under their nose.

The police grabbed these activists as they were leaving the building where the meeting took place. It seems as if the Vietnamese authorities could not wait to put their hands on the nation’s most valuable prizes in trade negotiations with foreign governments.

But to Doan Trang and many of her fellow activists, being viewed as some prized pawns that Vietnam could use to exchange for economic interests, like trade agreements, undermines their cause.

And they refuse to be treated as such.

Rather, Doan Trang wishes the international community views her numerous arrests and others’ arrests and imprisonment during the past three years since she came back to Vietnam (after finishing her fellowship at the University of Southern California), as glaring evidence that the country is still ruled by a one-party dictatorship.

Only by seeing the Vietnamese regime for what it is and not giving it the presumed legitimacy of a democratic government, one that respects human rights and the rule of law, then foreign governments – like the EU – could truly press Vietnam on matters like respecting the people’s will and peaceful democratization process.

No one likes to see this cat-and-mouse game with the police to continue, except for the authorities themselves.

This is how Doan Trang hopes the world would react to the Vietnamese activists’ arrests and imprisonment: Do not request Vietnamese authorities to release one or two activists on an individual basis for humanitarian reasons.

Instead, the international community should call them out on their totalitarian characteristics, their disastrous human rights records, and inform them that their methods of oppressing dissidents and the democracy movement render them an illegitimate regime.

Human Rights

2020: 10 Religious Problems That The Vietnamese Government Doesn’t Want You To Know About

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Photo courtesy: Luat Khoa Magazine.

Vietnam makes no progress with freedom of religion, which remains tightly controlled. 

Vietnam is among countries with the greatest diversity of religions, but it is also among those that suppress freedom of religion most heavily.

In 2020, ethnic Thuong in the Central Highlands, Hoa Hao Buddhists, independent Cao Dai practitioners, and followers of new religions in the northwest all had to pay the price for exercising their freedom of religion.  


1. No place for new religions

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Muong Nhe District police in Dien Bien Province urge residents not to follow new religions. Photo: Dienbientv.vn.

Vietnam possesses a great diversity of religions, but the government is quite strict with new ones.

Recently, a woman introduced me to Phap Mon Dieu Am. She advised me to eat vegetarian and call a phone number to receive “messages that will be imprinted on your heart”. 

Phap Mon Dieu Am is a new religion, and the Vietnamese government prohibits spreading it. 

Authorities worry that new religions will destabilize security and spur anti-government activities. All new religions are referred to generally as “heresies.” 

In the northwest region, especially Dien Bien Province, two new religions have sprouted, known as the Gie Sua and the Ba Co Do religions. 

The province has initiated criminal proceedings against three people for “acting to overthrow the people’s administration” and “harboring criminals” in relation to the Gie Sua religion. 

Dien Bien police also acknowledged that it has pressured residents to sign forms giving up their new religions.

“We went from house to house, explaining things to the residents and asking them to sign pledges giving up the Gie Sua religion, to not believe in the propaganda about establishing “the Mong Kingdom,” Major Vu Van Hanh told the Dien Bien Phu Paper in February 2020.

“As of today, the Na Co Sa border defense post has gotten 55 households/325 individuals to sign pledges giving up their heresies”, he said. 

Despite the government’s threats, other new religions continue to silently operate across the country. 

The Government Committee For Religious Affairs stated in 2015 that there were approximately 60 instances of new religions in Vietnam. 

And yet, throughout Vietnam, people could sometimes unexpectedly hear information about these strange, new religions like Phap Mon Dieu Am, Thanh Hai Vo Thuong Su, Gie Sua, Ba Co Do, Hoang Thien Long, Phap Mon Di Lac, Buu Toa Tam Giao, or Hoi Thanh Duc Chua Troi Me…

2. Ethnic Thuong living under strict religious policies

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Two of the three ethnic Ba-Na individuals arrested on March 19, 2020 for practicing the Ha Mon religion. Photo: Tran Hieu. 

Since 1975, the Thuong ethnic group has been beleaguered as they have never been in their history.

After the government forced them to give up their traditional faiths, many converted to Catholicism and Protestantism. However, the Thuong have not been able to escape government harassment and are not allowed to freely organize their religious activities. 

Peaceful civil activities such as gatherings and protests are all seen as linked to heresies. 

Dega Protestantism, Ha Mon, and the Protestant Church of Christ are all seen as heresies that mislead the masses.

In March 2020, three Ba Na followers of the Ha Mon religion that had absconded into the jungle for seven years were arrested on suspicion of spreading anti-state propaganda.  In June, rather than being charged, the three underwent criticism sessions before the people.

In July, another ethnic Thuong underwent a public criticism session for illegally crossing the border to Cambodia many times, propagating “heresy”, and distorting state policies.

Thuong refugees in Thailand have stated that members of their ethnic group from the Central Highlands escape across the Vietnamese border every month. Currently, there are a little over 500 Thuong refugees in Thailand.

3. Interfering in the internal affairs of religious organizations

The arms of the state reach deep into the internal affairs of religions.

In June 2020, the Government Committee For Religious Affairs ordered the Tien Thien Cao Dai Temple to “create regulations for active dignitaries and functionaries, as well as regulations to resolve letters of petition and grievance, and the selection of dignitaries to be applied to its followers”. These regulations should be the internal matters that the religious organizations voluntarily manage, but the government is directing them to comply with specific instructions.

In Phu Yen Province, local authorities and the Tay Ninh Holy See Cao Dai Great Temple, Vietnam’s largest Cao Dai organization, tried to take over the independent Phu Lam Cao Dai temple in June 2020.

In a conference marking 25 years of state management of the Cao Dai religion, “the church of churches,” i.e. the Government Committee For Religious Affairs, stated that it will increase its research to study more closely the Cao Dai religion and to manage this religion, preventing it from further splintering and having internal conflicts between the religion’s own organizations. 

In June 2020, the Diocese of Vinh decided to retire Dang Huu Nam, a clergyman well-known for his civil society activities.  After the decision, the People’s Daily and many anonymous pro-government web pages stated that the removal was well-deserved because of Nam’s anti-government activities.

4. Arresting Falun Gong practitioners

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The two women arrested by Ha Tinh Province police at the beginning of April 2020 for illegally spreading Falun Gong. Photo: Kiem Sat Newspaper.

As of October 2020, at least 66 Falun Gong practitioners have been arrested and punished administratively for storing or distributing flyers regarding the religion. You may yourself see in public spaces a number of people practicing Falun Gong, numbers which are growing by the day in Vietnam.

However, distributing flyers or practicing Falun Gong with others at home are considered violations of the law.  In Quang Tri, a high school principle was harshly disciplined for inviting a large number of people to his home to practice Falun Gong.

In July 2020, police arrested 28 people for attending a lecture on Falun Gong at a residence in Ha Tinh Province.

Local authorities state that spreading Falun Gong violates the law because the religion has yet to be recognized by the state.

But Falun Gong practitioners disagree with this.

“Our connections are very loose,” a Falun Gong practitioner stated in an interview with Luat Khoa. “We don’t organize into associations or anything like Catholicism or Buddhism.”

LIV, the organization that manages Luat Khoa magazine, has archived information regarding Falun Gong practitioners that have been arrested. This list is a part of a database on freedom of religion in Vietnam, which can be found at: https://www.liv.ngo/data/

Readers can also check out a number of other Luat Khoa articles to find out more about the Falun Gong: Is practicing Falun Gong legal?…, and our Religion Bulletins from MayJune, and September.

5. Controlling publishing

Arrested Falun Gong practitioners have been administratively punished based on a decree regarding publishing. Specifically, they were punished for distributing flyers without government approval.

Publication policies are particularly strict when it comes to religion or politics.

In 2012, the government stipulated that the borrowing or gifting of publications between citizens requires government permission.

The Government Committee For Religious Affairs manages the Religion Publishing House and is the department in charge of censorship for religious publications. 

Control of publishing certainly exercises a heavy influence on the development of religions, and it is impossible to avoid the idea that the government censors with a heavy hand to purposefully limit this development.

6. Punishing individuals

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Venerable Thich Quang Do.  Photo: AFP.

In February 2020, Vietnam’s longest imprisoned monk Venerable Thich Quang Do passed away. 

Before 1975, Venerable Quang Do actively mobilized for the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. After 1975, he continued to lead this delegation, despite fierce government suppression that continued until his death.

Many other religious dignitaries remain subject to the government’s control and punishment.  

In January 2020, the head of Song Ngoc Parish Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc stated that he was banned from holding mass beginning in August 2019. Father Thuc is widely known by the public for his civil society activities among central Vietnamese fishermen after the Formosa environmental disaster. Between 2017 and 2019, the government banned him from traveling overseas twice.  

In February 2020, a Khmer monk named Seun Ty had his passport confiscated for two weeks, with the government threatening that he had violated Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Law. In May 2020, authorities refused to issue a passport to Nguyen Van Toan, a clergyman that often publicly criticized the government. 

After issuing complaints about discriminatory treatment, including instances of torture, families of a number of imprisoned religious activists stated that they had lost touch with their loved ones behind bars.

The government disapproves of religious activists linking with diplomatic missions of their own accord. 

The authorities ordered four religious activists in the Central Highlands, Pastors Nguyen Ngoc Khanh, Y Kuan E Ban, Y Quy Bdap, and Y Khen Bdap to come in for questioning after they met with an American delegation regarding religious freedom. 

7. Obstructing freedom of association

In 2020, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church continued to operate without legal recognition. As in previous years, members of the group were prevented by police from conducting ceremonies at their headquarters in March and July.

A number of members of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam stated that the government interfered in the February 2020 funeral of Venerable Thich Quang Do, stripping them of the right to manage the event. The attempted seizure of the Phu Lam Cao Dai Temple also demonstrates that the government does not accept the idea of practitioners there operating independently.

8. Seizing property and possessions

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St. Joseph School, which is part of the Da Minh Tam Hiep Parish, is currently a medical facility within the Dong Nai General Hospital. Photo: The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine Siena Tam Hiep.

The government has moved from seizing religious properties after 1975 to now “re-appropriating” them.

In 2020, Thi Nghe Parish in Ho Chi Minh City and the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine Siena Tam Hiep in Dong Nai Province stated that the usage rights for two schools that the government previously borrowed were quietly transferred to state entities.

Policies from 2003 related to land and properties of religious organizations  helped local authorities gain usage rights over religious properties  that they were “borrowing.”

Currently, religious organizations do not have the legal grounds to demand their properties back if the government refuses to return them. 

Religious organizations that possess large pieces of land can also become targets of harassment. 

In Thua Thien – Hue Province, Thien An Abbey and provincial authorities are in conflict over the abbey’s land and property. The abbey’s 107 hectares of land has been continually chipped away by the government since 1975, without notification nor compensation. 

In June 2020, Thien An Abbey’s forests were attacked by individuals who cut down trees and sawed deeply into the roots of many conifers.

On August 13, 2020, an area household mobilized a group of men to hammer down stakes and put up barbed wire on a part of Thien An Abbey’s land.

Another problem is that religious organizations are not allowed to sell or purchase land and must wait on the government to provide it.

In Ninh Binh Province, members of the Dong Dinh Parish were extremely upset when local authorities refused to give their land to their church. After the parishioners had donated the land to the government to pass to the church in accordance with the law, commune cadres announced that they would not turn the land over to the church but instead, would build a flood-prevention dyke between the current church land and the land parishioners had given to the government.

9. Religious organizations hit with reprisals

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Letters police sent to members of Phu Lam Temple inviting them in for questioning. Photo: Cao Dai Orthodox Preservation.

In August 2020, a crowd that included residents and commune cadres protested for two days on land disputed by Thien An Abbey, local households, and the government.  The crowd hung up banners and used loudspeakers to decry the monks “taking their land.” 

In Phu Yen Province, after supporting the unsuccessful takeover of Phu Lam Temple, provincial authorities invited five members of the temple in for questioning. Authorities threatened these members, telling them that they had to accept the government’s takeover order.

In 2020, Central Highland provincial authorities accused the Protestant Church of Christ of using religious activities to incite people to oppose the government. Many members of this church were taken in for interrogation. 

10. Controlling the press

The Vietnamese government maintains a monopoly over all official media. With regard to religious issues, Vietnam’s journalists present information according to government instruction. In February 2020, Tuoi Tre Newspaper had to remove an article about Venerable Thich Quang Do’s career.

In June 2020, many publications simultaneously posted articles rejecting accusations in a 2019 international report regarding religion issued by the United States. In August 2020, the monks of Thien An Abbey issued a rebuttal to a report by Thua Thien – Hue Radio and Television, stating that it was untruthful and smeared the monks. 

In recent years, all official newspapers in Vietnam have criticized the Falun Gong movement and its ‘impropriety.” These publications have only conveyed government views rather than the views of its adherents.

Two Catholic webpages, Good News To The Poor and VietCatholic, remain blocked in Vietnam, as are many press organizations that speak up for religious freedom, such as VOA, RFA, BBC, RFI, and Luat Khoa Magazine.

There are no private television or radio stations that operate freely in Vietnam.

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Religion

Religion Bulletin – October 2020: Authorities Forbid Thien An Abbey Clergyman From Returning Home

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Religious activists in Vietnam are paying a heavy price, sometimes putting their lives on the line.

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The former head of Thien An Abbey has been prevented from returning home after traveling to Europe to treat a suspected poisoning. Check out [The Government’s Reach] to find out how the government punishes religious activists. For the first time, figures for the number of Falun Gong practitioners in Vietnam are available; see them in [Religion 360*]. In [On This Day], a reminder of how the government installs surveillance cameras in many temples, and how the assault of six Hoa Hao Buddhist practitioners last year remains uninvestigated.

If you have any suggestions or would like to join us in writing reports, please email us at: tongiao@luatkhoa.org or editor@thevietnamese.org.


Religion Bulletin, October 2020:

The Government’s Reach: A history of punishing religious activists

Clergyman prevented from returning home to Vietnam after treatment for suspected poisoning

The former head of Thien An Abbey – Father Anthony Nguyen Huyen Duc – is still waiting for the Vietnamese government to allow him to return home.

After a period of leading Thien An Abbey’s resistance against the government’s land reclamation attempts, Father Duc traveled to Europe to seek medical treatment after a suspected poisoning. 

After his second medical treatment in Germany, he returned to Vietnam in September 2019, only to be told by police to return to Europe.  

“Right when I returned to Hanoi, I was questioned by police. High-level officers asked that I return to Europe because they could not ensure my safety or my life if I stayed in Vietnam, that it would be extremely adverse for the Thien An community if I stayed at the abbey,” the organization BPSOS reported, quoting from a letter Father Duc sent to leaders of the Order of St. Benedict. 

On October 16, 2020, the German diocese’s Committee for Justice and Peace sent a letter to Vietnam’s Justice Committee requesting they allow Father Duc to return to Vietnam.

The German committee requested that the Vietnamese government return the abbey’s confiscated property, cease its violence, protect and respect sacred religious objects, and uphold the right to freedom of religion.

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Father Nguyen Huynh Duc’s health conditions after a suspected poisoning. Photo: Good News To [sic] The Poor

BPSOS quoted Father Duc who stated that doctors in Europe also believe he had been poisoned.

Duc believes he was poisoned during the 2016 Lunar New Year at Thien An Abbey, when a person invited him to drink their tea and coffee.

“Right after the person left, I immediately felt sharp pains in my neck and head, aches down to my bones, my jaw became extremely sensitive and teeth came loose, I was unable to walk… a large (3 cm diameter) patch of my hair fell out…. Afterwards, I asked the sitting head Father Bruno for permission to travel to Europe,” BPSOS published, quoting from a letter written by Father Duc in August 2020. 

Father Nguyen Huyen Duc was the head of Thien An Abbey from 2014 to 2017. The abbey is known for its heated and long-running land dispute with Thua Thien – Hue provincial authorities.

Thua Thien – Hue Province rejects Father Duc as head of Thien An Abbey

In past years, Thua Thien – Hue provincial authorities did not accept Father Duc’s presence at Thien An Abbey.

In December 2017, they requested leaders of the Order of St. Benedict to remove him as head of the abbey.  

The authorities stated that Father Duc had allowed many unauthorized construction projects on disputed land, organized clergy appointments without permission, and obstructed government work.

After the government’s requesting letter, Father Duc took time off to travel to Europe for medical treatment. Leadership of the abbey was passed to another person.

In May 2019, as Father Duc was preparing to resume his position as head of Thien An Abbey, provincial authorities continued to insist that he should not take up the position. 

In a May 2019 document, provincial authorities accused Father Duc of “distorting the situation, and inciting ethnic hatred and opposition against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” while he was getting medical treatment overseas. 

Methods used to suppress religious activists

Religious activists like Father Duc have long endured many forms of harassment and suppression. Below are the systematic methods in which religious activists are suppressed, methods which are sometimes openly carried out by police, and at other times, by anonymous individuals. 

  • Smear tactics

In February 2018, many anonymous pro-state web pages published information alleging that  Father Duc had entered a hotel with a woman. 

According to the Catholic webpage Good News To The Poor, Father Duc’s stay at the hotel occurred in September 2017

Accordingly, Father Duc had arranged to meet with a group of overseas Vietnamese from Canada at the hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. This meeting was facilitated by a woman who was acquainted with both sides.

When Father Duc checked into his hotel room, approximately 100 plainclothes and uniformed police officers poured into the hotel in a prostitution raid. Father Duc was interrogated in a room. Police ultimately forced the woman to sit next to Father Duc and took a picture of them together. 

Rumors intended to smear individuals are regularly posted on anonymous pro-state websites and shared with the public. The source of these rumors is one big question mark. 

There are reasons to believe that Vietnamese police are directly involved. In 2008, after Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s Letter #31 spoke of religious freedom and politics in Vietnam, the first students of Hanh’s Plum Village met with difficulties.  

In August 2008, Plum Village students were expelled from Bat Nha Monastery and continuously harassed in a variety of ways. 

During the Bat Nha Monastery affair, the People’s Public Security Daily — the official mouthpiece for police — published an article citing a number of anonymous sources regarding the romantic relationship between Zen Master Nhat Hanh and Nun Chan Khong, as well as the dictatorial way in which Nun Chan Khong controlled Plum Village.

The article was published precisely when Plum Village was receiving public support in the Bat Nha Monastery affair.

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Screenshot of the article published by the People’s Public Security Daily, regarding Nun Chan Khong and Zen Master Nhat Hanh.
  • Assault

According to the webpage Good News To The Poor, in September 2017, a car driving Father Duc’s delegation was purposefully rammed by a pick-up truck after they visited Father Dang Huu Nam – who advocated parishioners sue the company Formosa for polluting the central Vietnamese coast. Father Nam stated that this same pick-up truck had purposefully rammed his vehicle many times.

In October 2019, six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists were ambushed and attacked by a group of people on the road to An Hoa Temple. These six practitioners were planning to prevent a roof re-tiling at the temple but were attacked before arriving.  A practitioner threatened to cut his own throat and set himself on fire as they were being attacked by unidentified individuals. 

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The six Hoa Hao Buddhists after the night of the assault (Photo: RFA) and the temple roof being re-tiled (Photo: Hoa Hao Buddhist Church).

The individuals who assault religious activists are often unidentified plainclothes people, and police normally do not pursue any kind of investigation after such incidents are reported. 

In December 2015, Father Dang Huu Nam stated with Good News To The Poor that his vehicle was blocked by a group of 20 individuals, who pressured him to get out of the car and then proceeded to surround him and beat him. 

“As the crowd of thugs beat me, the police chief of An Hoa Commune stood by on the side of the road and did nothing,” Father Nam told Good News To The Poor. 

In June 2018, according to a Cali Today article, Mr. Hua Phi, an independent Cao Dai dignitary in Lam Dong, was beaten and his beard shaved. He stated that an individual identifying himself as police brought in dozens of others who entered his residence, “covering his head and beating” him repeatedly. The incident occurred just three days before he was to have a dialogue with the Australian Embassy regarding human rights issues. 

  • Accusations of disturbing public order

Religious activists in Vietnam must be very careful in their conflicts with the authorities.  Five out of six Hoa Hao Buddhists are in jail because of their clash with traffic police in April 2017. 

These six practitioners, four of whom are from the same family, had opposed the traffic police confiscating the vehicles of those arriving at their house for a death anniversary.  The tug-of-war between the two sides quickly turned into a case of disturbing public order and obstruction of officials. 

In recent years, many social activists have been charged with disturbing public order in their conflicts with police.

  • Travel bans

Being prevented from returning home, as discussed at the beginning of the article with the case of Thien An Abbey’s clergyman, is rare. More frequently, religious activists are forbidden from traveling overseas; either the government confiscates their passports or they are not issued one at all. 

In May 2020, Father Nguyen Van Toan was denied the issuance of a passport; he is a frequent and public government critic. 

In February 2020, a Khmer monk named Seun Ty had his passport confiscated for two weeks. Police accused Mr. Seun Ty of violating the Cybersecurity Law.

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Monk Seun Ty has his passport confiscated by Soc Trang province police for two weeks. Photo: VOA.

In 2017 and 2019, authorities refused to allow Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc, head of Song Ngoc parish, to travel overseas. 

The issue of travel bans on religious and social activists remains unresolved. 

Religion 360*

Dien Bien Province continues to pressure residents to give up new religions

From the end of September to the beginning of October 2020, many state newspapers reported on the Gie-sua and Ba Co Do religions “raging in Dien Bien Province”. 

The Voice of Vietnam (VOV) newspaper, a government mouthpiece, stated that in Dien Bien Province, 112 individuals returned to the Gie-sua religion after giving it up previously, while 294 others were currently following the Ba Co Do religion in Muong Nhe district.

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Two so-called “propaganda” sessions regarding heretical religions in Dien Bien Province in 2019 (above) and September 2020. Photo: Dien Bien Phu Daily, People’s Public Security Daily. 

Ms. Nguyen Thanh Huyen, vice-chair of the Public Relations Commission of the Dien Bien Provincial Committee stated that the government would push people who followed unrecognized faiths to give up their religion. 

“A number of mountain villages have regulations and conventions, one of which states that anyone who participates in these religions [Gie-sua, Ba Co Do,…] will not receive [the benefits] of the regime and its policies”, Ms. Huyen stated to VOV. 

Dien Bien provincial authorities reported that the Gie-sua and Ba Co Do religions operate differently from one another but shared the same goal of establishing an autonomous Mong state.

Muong Nhe district police chief Major Vu Van Hung added that authorities were using Protestant dignitaries to push people to give up these “heretic religions”.  

“We’ve organized groups penetrating into households that follow these religions, courting group leaders and putting Protestant dignitaries in influential areas so that villagers will give up their religions. But the most economical method must be us using our resources to prevent unauthorized proselytizing online. Only then will we be effective,” Major Hung stated to VOV. 

Two people in Ca Mau arrested and punished administratively for spreading Falun Gong

Vietnamese police continue to arrest practitioners of Falun Gong for spreading the religion. 

The Ca Mau Daily reported that Ca Mau city police administratively punished two individuals on October 1, 2020 for distributing Falun Gong flyers without permission.

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The Falun Gong flyers that city police confiscated from two arrestees. Photo: Ca Mau Daily

Two individuals with the initials N.T.G and N.T.H were arrested on September 21, 2020 after distributing approximately 65 flyers to parents and students in front of a school’s gate. Police confiscated from the two 177 flyers and 30 books on Falun Gong.

According to statistics from Luat Khoa, at least 66 Falun Gong practitioners have been arrested and administratively punished for spreading the religion since the beginning of 2020.

Lam Dong Province television: More than 8,300 Falun Gong practitioners in Vietnam

On October 22, 2020, Lam Dong Radio and Television broadcast a report stating that across the country, there were more than 8,300 Falun Gong practitioners. Lam Dong Province, in particular, has about 110 practitioners.

The news was particularly noteworthy, as up to this point, no one had an accurate count of Falun Gong practitioners in Vietnam. However, Lam Dong Radio and Television did not cite the source of this figure.

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A Falun Gong practitioner during her interview with the Lam Dong Provincial Police. Photo: Luat Khoa Magazine.

According to the report, Lam Dong Province had a number of party members, veterans, and teachers who practiced and spread Falun Gong. Among them was a deputy commune head.

The report stated that spreading the practice in Lam Dong Province was both illegal and harmed the people. 

“Falun Gong is a religion that opposes science, convincing people that you can treat sickness without going to the hospital, it distracts people from finding livelihoods”, Lam Dong Radio’s reporters noted. 

Provincial radio and television stated that those spreading Falun Gong in Lam Dong were being sent materials from other provinces. 

Government Committee for Religious Affairs acknowledges some Cao Dai organizations “operate independently” and “splinter in resistance”

On October 27, 2020, the Government Committee For Religious Affairs acknowledged that there were “Cao Dai organizations that operate independently and splinter in resistance” during a conference on religious management in Ben Tre Province. 

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The Government Committee For Religious Affairs’ Conference on Cao Dai in Ben Tre (Photo on right: Government Committee For Religious Affairs). The unsuccessful seizure of Phu Lam independent temple by the government-supported Tay Ninh Holy See Cao Dai Church in June 2020 (Photo: RFA).

However, the article described the conference without going into detail about the splintering or independent activities of the Cao Dai organizations.

As covered in Luat Khoa’s  September 2020 Religion Bulletin, a number of independent Cao Dai temples are currently being pressured to merge with those temples being recognized by the government.

In recent years, the government has been helping state-recognized temples “take over” independent Cao Dai temples.

Although nearly all independent Cao Dai temples operate in a purely religious manner, the government views their independence as a security risk.

“Familiarizing the law” to religious practitioners 

From the end of September through all of October 2020, the Government Committee For Religious Affairs organized conferences on “advocating the law to religious practitioners” in many locations: Hai PhongKon TumGia Lai, Binh Dinh, and Bac Giang.

These conferences sought to familiarize Vietnam’s practitioners with the state’s strict religious management regulations. Furthermore, conferences in a number of provinces and cities also held exchanges on the teaching of two subjects, Vietnamese history and Vietnamese law, on the premises of religious organizations. 

This is one way in which the state controls the people’s views over religions in Vietnam. Religious practitioners had to pay attention not just to legal regulations but also to the ways state bodies treat them.

Similar conferences are expected to take place across many other provinces and cities. 

On This Day

Government installs camera in front of temple gates

In October 2019, numerous monks raised objections to the government’s installation of a surveillance camera pointing directly at their temple’s front gates. 

In Ba Ria – Vung Tau Province, Venerable Thich Vinh Phuoc stated that authorities had installed a camera in front of Phuoc Buu Temple before he had left for the United States to advocate for religious freedom. 

“It’s been more than just Phuoc Buu Temple; for over a year, they’ve installed many cameras in Xuyen Moc District, as well as the whole Ba Ria – Vung Tau Province,” Venerable Vinh Phuoc told RFA.

The government also installed a surveillance camera at another temple in Ho Chi Minh City.

“Since 2000, there have been many difficulties because Thien Quang Temple refuses to abide by the Buddhist Church of Vietnam (BCV). Their [BCV’s] management has been unbearable, stifling”, Venerable Thich Thien Thuan told RFA regarding the reason for the surveillance cameras.

Also in Ho Chi Minh City is Venerable Thich Khong Tanh. He is temporarily residing at Giac Hoa Temple, which also had surveillance cameras installed. 

“When I asked, they explained that the cameras were simply fulfilling a responsibility to monitor,” Venerable Khong Tanh told RFA. “These surveillance cameras deter democracy allies and friends from coming.”

In recent years, the government has installed surveillance cameras to monitor all kinds of activists. 

These activists have stated that the government wants to monitor who comes and goes from their residences, as well as the activists’ own routines. During special occasions such as visits from foreign delegations, security forces will prevent activists from leaving their homes. 

After a year, police still have not investigated the assault of six Hoa Hao Buddhists

This October marks one year since the roof of Hoa Hao Buddhism’s An Hoa Temple was re-tiled. It also marks one year since six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists were beaten on the way to prevent this re-tiling.

The scuffle occurred on October 7, 2019, at the Thuan Giang ferry pier, about 1.7 kilometers away from An Hoa Temple. 

The independent Hoa Hao Buddhists had all along opposed plans to re-tile the An Hoa Temple roof. However, the state-recognized Hoa Hao Buddhist Church moved forward with the plans anyway, ignoring the opposition.

The six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists involved include Vo Van Thanh Liem, Le Thanh Thuc, Nguyen Thanh Tung, Vo Thi Thu Ba, To Van Manh, and Le Thanh Truc. 

Mr. Thanh Liem stated to RFA: “When we arrived at Thuan Giang ferry, there were about 40-50 people blocking us; they beat Mr. To Van Manh, Mr. Le Thanh Thuc, and Nguyen Thi My Trieu, and my granddaughter, Vo Thi Thu Ba, had her phone smashed.  I saw that they were about to beat me so I poured gasoline on myself to threaten self-immolate, attempting to cut my own throat, and they ran off. They used long sticks and beat people so hard that the sticks were smashed to pieces”. 

Today, more than one year after the scuffle, police still have not initiated an investigation into the matter.

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Human Rights

CIVICUS 2020 Monitor Report Continues To Rank Vietnam As “Closed” Civic Space

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Photo Courtesy: Innovation for Change, East Asia

On December 8, 2020, international organization CIVICUS – a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world – revealed its 2020 Monitor report which tracks Civic Space worldwide. 

CIVICUS defines:

“Civic space is the bedrock of any open and democratic society. When civic space is open, citizens and civil society organisations are able to organise, participate and communicate without hindrance. In doing so, they are able to claim their rights and influence the political and social structures around them. This can only happen when a state holds by its duty to protect its citizens and respects and facilitates their fundamental rights to associate, assemble peacefully and freely express views and opinions. These are the three key rights that civil society depends upon. The CIVICUS Monitor analyses the extent to which the three civil society rights are being respected and upheld, and the degree to which states are protecting civil society.”

More than 20 organizations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor to provide an evidence base for action to improve civic space on all continents. Civic space in 196 countries is categorized as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology which combines several sources of data on the freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression. 

CIVICUS Monitor shows that out of 25 countries in Asia, Vietnam and three other countries, China, Laos, and North Korea, are rated “closed.” 

The new CIVICUS Monitor report also indicates that 90 percent of countries in Asia repress civic freedoms. It also raised concerns about attacks on the media and vilification of human rights defenders.

“Our research shows that civic freedoms, including the freedom of expression, assembly and association, continue to be violated across the region. The percentage of people living in Asian countries with closed, repressed or obstructed civic space is nearly 90 percent,” said Josef Benedict, Asia-Pacific Civic Space researcher for CIVICUS.

The report also stated that “in Vietnam, where civic space is rated ‘closed’ … the authorities continue to harass those who criticize the one-party regime. Scores of individuals were arrested or jailed after summary trials under an array of restrictive laws for ‘abusing democratic freedoms’ and ‘anti-state propaganda’, including activists, bloggers and Facebook users. Most recently, the Vietnamese authorities arrested human rights defender Pham Doan Trang – one of the nation’s most prominent independent journalists.”

Photo Courtesy: Pham Doan Trang Facebook.
Journalist Pham Doan Trang. Photo Courtesy: Pham Doan Trang Facebook.

Furthermore, the report also notes that “the persecution against independent publishers, The Liberal Publishing House, has continued in 2020 after a brief pause due to the pandemic.” It further reports that “members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam – the last independent journalist organization in the country – have also been arrested and prosecuted. Human rights groups raised serious unfair trial concerns and allegations of torture in the Dong Tam trial, which has led to convictions. Many activists were kept under surveillance, or detained for months without access to legal counsel and subjected to abusive interrogations.”

Dong Tam Trial. Photo Courtesy: Tuoi Tre newspaper.

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