Connect with us

Human Rights

Censorship in Vietnam: JFK Miller Interviews Thomas Bass

Published

on

  • With permission from author Thomas Bass, The Vietnamese is pleased to reprint the interview Mr. Bass has given to JFK Miller, a Melbourne-based journalist, in February 2018 on his latest book, Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World 

Thomas A. Bass’s 2009 book The Spy Who Loved Us dissects the double life of Pham Xuan An, a correspondent for Time during the Vietnam War and a contemporary of Peter Arnett, Richard Pyle, and Morley Safer. As American radio blasted Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ to signal the evacuation of embassy personnel in those final tumultuous hours of April 30, 1975, An was Time’s last man standing, the magazine’s sole remaining reporter in Saigon as the North Vietnamese tanks rolled in. In truth, he was part of the welcome brigade. An was a spy who used his journalistic contacts to feed vital intelligence to Hanoi. Time’s Zalin Grant, who worked alongside An, called him “the first known case of a Communist agent to appear on the masthead of a major American publication.”

But An’s tale is a story within a story. Bass’s latest book, Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), recalls his experience with Vietnam’s state censorship apparatus when he tried to get a translation of The Spy Who Loved Us published in Vietnam. He succeeded, but at a cost — five years of negotiations and no less than 400 cuts to his manuscript.

Was it worth it? Bass himself answers that question below. For me, the reader, the answer is a resounding yes. The censorship experience Bass recounts in his book paints a vivid picture of present-day Vietnam, and it’s not a flattering one. Economically, the country is one of Asia’s “new” tigers which last year posted the world’s second-fastest growth rate. Politically, however, it’s a paranoid and insecure beast which lacks the ability to confront its own past and look squarely at its own present (Bass does not mince words: Vietnam is “a culture in ruins,” he writes). I traveled to the country several times in the ’90s, but am ashamed to say my conception of Vietnam was cryogenically frozen somewhere between The Quiet American and Apocalypse Now. Well, it was, until I read this book.

My connection with Thomas Bass comes via our different but eerily similar experiences with state censorship – his with Vietnam, mine with China. As I worked my way through his book it struck me how alike the censorship systems in both countries are. And then on page 83, I learned why: Hanoi takes its cues straight from Beijing. The dissident novelist Pham Thi Hoai explains, “We always look to the Chinese and copy them… it is mandatory for every high Vietnamese official to get training in China once a year, just as it was in the time of the Cold War. It is no accident that every campaign and law adopted in China is introduced into Vietnam six months later.”

It’s perhaps no surprise then that Vietnam’s military conflicts with China, including the incredibly brutal 1979 conflict in which tens of thousands died on both sides in less than a month, are glossed over in school textbooks.

But this is simply one of the censorship’s many casualties. Writers and journalists are routinely given draconian prison terms for speaking truth to power. Criticism of the Chinese is censored, as is praise for the French and Americans (“they are not allowed to have taught the Vietnamese anything,” writes Bass). Disparagement of communism and communist party officials is banned, together with the discussion of “government policy, military strategy… minority rights, human rights, democracy, calls for political pluralism, allusions to revolutionary events in other communist countries, distinctions between north and south Vietnamese, and stories about Vietnamese refugees.”

Whether it’s novels or journalism, there’s an overarching optimism that must pervade writing in Vietnam that is forced upon its writers by state censors. Either be censored, self-censor, or be damned. A 1988 novel by the above-mentioned Pham Thi Hoai, The Crystal Messenger (which I’ve not read, but now want to because of Bass’s book), was banned for the reason that its view of Vietnam was “excessively pessimistic.” No surprise that she now lives in self-imposed exile in Berlin, a place where, unlike her homeland, she is lauded for her work.

My one criticism of Bass’ book is the choice of the most prosaic of titles – Censorship in Vietnam – with a nod to Huxley in the subtitle. But this is small beer. On the whole, this is a tremendously eye-opening book, and thoroughly readable. Our discussion follows.

***

Why was it important to you to have a translation of your book published in Vietnam, especially know that it would be censored?

Communicating across borders interest me. There is much to be learned and much to be unlearned, and even the misunderstandings are revelatory. Look what happened when I tried to mail you a copy of Censorship in Vietnam from the U.S. The book was returned to me several weeks later by “homeland security.” Who would have guessed that the “JFK” in your name – honoring of the 35th president of the United States – was suspicious? But apparently, according to the paranoids who patrol our borders, initials without complete first names imply criminal intent. So it took another 20 bucks and the entire “John Fitzgerald Kennedy” to get you a copy of my book.

Another answer to your question has to do with surviving as an author. My books have been translated into various foreign editions, and I enjoy traveling to literary events in far-flung places. So why not add Hanoi? Nha Nam, the Vietnamese publisher of my book, was supposed to be the country’s best. I would be joining the likes of Vladimir Nabokov, Milan Kundera, and Orhan Pamuk. Not bad company.

But I think you’re asking a more serious question, which is the subject of Censorship in Vietnam. If I knew how much grief I would be getting for translating The Spy Who Loved Us into Vietnamese, why did I invite it? The answer is pretty straightforward. I wanted to conduct an experiment. Exactly how much grief was coming my way, and who would be cranking the handle?

Did you brace yourself for a rough ride, or did you go into it thinking that you might perhaps get away with more than you thought you could?

I knew that chunks of my book on Pham Xuan An would be removed. It was full of subversive material – by which I mean material that the Vietnamese consider subversive – conversations with exiled writers, accusations of corruption in the Communist Party of Vietnam, jokes about how ugly the language has become in postwar Vietnam.

My Vietnamese publisher and my literary agent in New York and subagents in Tokyo and Bangkok all assured me that I had nothing to worry about, that none of the books they had published in Vietnam had been censored. They were either ignorant or lying, but it’s also true that no one pays much attention to foreign rights. A book goes into Polish or Portuguese, and very few authors have the time or skills required to check the translation. I had been tipped 3 off to the fact that even novels and poetry are censored in Vietnam. So a nonfiction book about a Vietnamese spy who claimed to have loved the United States and the values of investigative reporting and Western journalism was certainly going to be censored.

For the few hundred bucks my literary agent was making on the deal, he kindly allowed me to rewrite the standard publishing contract for the sale of translation rights, and then we patiently negotiated these changes as the contract was bounced back and forth between New York and Hanoi. I inserted clauses about prior review and final approval of the translation, and I larded the contract with trip switches, so that every time the censors moved on me I had to be notified. The manuscript became a kind of early warning system, ding, ding, dinging on my desk, at every stroke of a censor’s pen. And in Vietnam, as you yourself found in China, there is not just one censor, but various tag teams and competing groups of censors, which operate in a hierarchy of censors that stretches all the way up to the head of the Communist Party. Each level in this hierarchy is afraid of getting whacked by the one above it. So the natural urge is to adopt what the French call langue de bois – the wooden speech of martinets and political hacks. This is how a culture dies … but at least the censors will never be out of a job.

Given my jerry-rigged publishing contract, I owe a great debt of thanks to the editors at Nha Nam who honoured this contract. I was a pain in their necks, if not dangerous to the survival of their company, but still they notified me every step along the way. At the end of five years, my book was radioactive. My original editor had quit the company and quit publishing altogether. The project had been at death’s door a half dozen times, and many of us were surprised when printed copies of the book finally appeared – briefly – on bookshelves in Hanoi and Saigon.

Did you ever consider simply pulling the plug and abandoning the translation altogether?

Remember, this was an experiment, with every twist and turn in the process producing “data.” At the most basic level, I was studying the Vietnamese language. How has it changed since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975? Pham Xuan An complained about these changes when I was interviewing him for “The Spy Who Loved Us,” which began as an article for The New Yorker and later became a book with the same title. He said the Vietnamese language was being corrupted by Marxist-Leninist gobbledygook borrowed from Russia and Maoist terms imported from China. To learn how to speak this new language, An was sent to a “re-education” camp for ten months. “I was a bad student,” he said. “They never understood my jokes, but at least I didn’t do anything serious enough for them to shoot me.” (An’s “re-education camp” was actually a military academy outside Hanoi for training high-level officials, but I believe him when he says the experience was bone-chillingly boring.)

Censoring books in Vietnam begins before the first word is translated. In this case, the person chosen to translate my book was a north Vietnamese journalist fluent in gobbledygook. He produced quotes that sounded nothing like the south Vietnamese spy about whom I was writing. The publisher was surprised that I cared about these things or knew enough to want the language changed. A nonfiction book for them was the equivalent of an encyclopedia entry. Give us the information, and give it to us in today’s language – in this case, the language spoken in North Vietnam, which is where most of the book-buying public lives. There was also a good dose of prejudice at work. The South Vietnamese lost the war, which means that not only their political system but also their culture and language are in the process of being effaced.

After the censored Vietnamese-language copy was published in print, you released an uncensored version on the Internet. Can you explain why this was important to you?

Censorship is so crushing in Vietnam that many authors are skipping printed publications and releasing their work directly to the web. In my case, I wanted to see what the printed book looked like. I wanted to evaluate the damage done to the text by Vietnam’s censors, count up the number of cuts and alterations, and study the people and ideas that got erased.

After assembling my literary seismograph – in other words, after The Spy Who Loved Us was translated and released in Vietnam (although not under that title, which the censors considered far too dangerous)-I felt obliged to provide my Vietnamese readers with a copy of the original book. This too is standard practice in Vietnam. Even when a book is printed, people go to the web to find what everyone assumes will be a more accurate version online.

At the same time, I wanted to conduct a second experiment. Vietnam’s censors work across borders. You can’t publish books online with impunity. Electronic publications will be attacked by trolls, worms, viruses, denunciation campaigns, denial of service attacks, bribery, extortion – whatever works to get them taken down. I don’t want to exaggerate the risks I took, which were nothing compared to my Vietnamese colleagues, but the Vietnamese version of my book – the complete version published online in Berlin on computers hardened against attacks from Vietnam’s censors – invited retaliation. It was attacked in a variety of ways. The translator was forced to drop out. He also pulled his translation, which we could no longer use. People threatened to sue me. The internet lit up with chatter maligning me and the project. The Berlin web site went down a few times, but it held fast against the censors and trolls, due to the good work of exiled author Pham Thi Hoai, whose site for many years has been the rallying point for opposition to Vietnam’s communist police state.

When you engaged the dissident Pham Hong Son to translate your book for the Berlin release, did it weigh on your mind that you might be condemning him to another hefty prison term? (Son had already spent five years in prison and another seven under house arrest for translating essays on democracy).

As I mentioned, the first translator for the unexpurgated version of The Spy Who Loved Us, was forced to quit. Enough threats were brought to bear that he felt he had no choice. Pham Hong Son is a different kind of person altogether. After spending five years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, for translating an essay on democracy and recommending this form of government to his fellow countrymen, he went on doing exactly the same thing after he was released to house arrest. Trained as a medical doctor, a true intellectual and patriot, he is a brave man, someone whom I admire and am lucky to count as a friend. He did the work for free because he thought it was important, and ever since then, I have been looking for some way to repay him.

In your book’s foreword you ask the question central to all of this. Could China and Vietnam’s governance model become the new normal? It pains me to acknowledge this, but democracy, with all its trappings – not least of which, freedom of speech and freedom of the press – is in bad odor at the moment, while the Vietnam/PRC model, which puts economic development above free speech, is in the ascendancy. Add to this, declining American power and an Oval Office occupant who has turned American democracy (indeed all democracy, I would argue) into a global laughing stock, and Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill” now looks like a faltering candle. Is it any real surprise that countries like Vietnam and China seem to have more faith in their political systems than we currently do in ours? And do you not think that democratic reformers in Vietnam are, at least for now, fighting an impossible battle?

This is the key question of the moment. As the western democracies falter and lose faith in themselves, as they debase their elections, trade freedom for security, and forget their founding principles, people think that police states with good shopping look attractive.

This is an illusion. In fact, it is a dangerous illusion. Censorship can kill you. The absence of free speech can kill you. Not knowing the truth can kill you. These are fundamental values, not to be sold at any price, but they are also tools for survival. This argument was made by Nobel-prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, when he was asked by the Indian government to advise them on which model they should choose for development: the open societies of the West or China’s surveillance state, which is attractive at the moment because of its economic growth. Sen warned his compatriots not to go for the shiny lure. He reminded them about China’s Great Leap Forward, which was actually a great leap backward, killing at least 30 million people in a devastating famine. What caused this social collapse? Censorship – a skein of lies spun to please Chairman Mao, ignorance about what was happening in the countryside, courtiers, and buffoons who reported good news in place of facts. Exactly what’s happening in the United States today.

China has been called “a consumerist totalitarian state.” The description is just as apt for Vietnam, I think. In this type of polity, economic growth trumps personal freedom. The idea is that you cannot have both, that personal freedom must give way to economic development, that the two cannot possibly work in tandem. First World economic parity must be attained before you can even start to think about personal freedoms.

Vietnam, like China, is indeed a consumerist totalitarian state, and it too believes that good shopping can replace good governance. It thinks that substituting material goods for freedom is a bargain its citizens will buy. The people I write about in Censorship in Vietnam disagree. For them, freedom is a muscle that atrophies if you don’t use it. They think that all this talk about putting development first and democracy last is a bunch of ideological hooey. This argument is good for nothing more than buttressing the police state and building the walls behind which the ruling elites do their serious stealing. Who ever said that economic development and personal freedom are mutually exclusive? The history of our two countries, the United States and Australia, proves that the opposite is true. In fact, as the United States becomes less democratic and slides toward authoritarian rule, its economic development and leading role in science and technology will be weakened.

In the book, you write that state censorship is producing an intellectual wasteland in Vietnam, and yet I can’t help but think that we’re also suffering from this in the West, despite our having all the freedoms available to us and all the advantages of the digital age. We live in an era where knowledge has never been more widely available, and yet we seem to have succeeded in becoming remarkably ignorant (the rise of populism is not just restricted to the U.S). In a way, it makes us more culpable for our ignorance than those who live under authoritarian regimes. In their system, censorship is preventing them from getting to the truth, but we in the West have no such excuse.

I agree with you that these are perilous times. We are dancing on the edge of the volcano. We are distracted, forgetful, ignorant about our history, and incurious about our future. Plato wrote about this in his allegory of the cave, and here we are, twenty-five hundred years later, still chained to our seats, staring at shadows on the walls. “Democracy dies in darkness” is the motto adopted by The Washington Post after last year’s election in the United States. This sounds vaguely apocalyptic, but the paper’s editor is not looking for salvation in a Batmobile. He is reminding us about the importance of getting the news and learning how to sift truth from falsehood. You know the old joke, “What’s the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? A pessimist is better informed.” This is the golden age of journalism. I can wake up in the morning and before my first sip of coffee peruse headlines from Tokyo to Timbuktu. Sure, the amount of fake news and the stupidity of my optimistic neighbors is unnerving. But in this case, it’s up to me to loosen my chains and turn around if I want to see outside the cave.

You write that censorship exists in all societies, whether it is the state censorship of authoritarian regimes like Vietnam or the “soft censorship” of Western liberal democracies where dissenting views are side-lined. I want to take issue with this, if I may. To me, this a false equivalency. Here, people can express their opinions, while in authoritarian states they are prevented from doing so. Someone may risk marginalisation for expressing a non-mainstream view (whether it’s unpopular, unpatriotic, unorthodox, racist, or simply ignorant), but that person still has the right to say it.

I wasn’t arguing that “soft censorship” is the same as the hard variety, which is enforced by prison sentences or, in the most extreme cases, by death. I think that censorship exists along a continuum. It begins with ideological conformity, fear of retribution, a limited number of media outlets owned by large corporations, PR campaigns, book bannings, surveillance, disinformation, and propaganda. It moves from there to state-run security apparatuses, government control of the media, gulags, torture, and other means by which the state exercises its power. I oppose all forms of censorship, whether they be ideological or market-based. Some deserve more strenuous opposition than others, but all merit the light of discovery and condemnation.

What reaction (or denunciation) from Hanoi do you expect for publishing Censorship in Vietnam?

When the uncensored Vietnamese translation of The Spy Who Loved Us was published in Berlin – with side-by-side comparisons showing the 400 passages that had been cut or altered and with extensive commentary on how censorship works in Vietnam – the publication provoked a firestorm of criticism on the Vietnamese web. Hundreds of messages (not all of them written by trolls) accused me of “betraying” my subjects. I had quoted people without their permission or refused to remove their names when they asked me to do so. (Censoring books after publication is standard operating procedure in Vietnam. If something becomes too controversial or people get scared about being quoted, then a book disappears from the shelves. Even newspaper interviews are never conducted “on the record,” because the record can always be revised or erased.) The firestorm of criticism became the party line on Thomas Bass. He’s a backstabbing, bumpy-nosed betrayer of Vietnamese values who deserves to be censored and, in fact, he reveals the value of censorship, if it keeps people like him out of Vietnamese bookstores. At moments like this, I remember the advice of Henri Beyle, better known to us by his pen name Stendhal, who consoled himself by saying that he wrote for “the Happy Few.”

Now that your book has been published do you have any reservations about returning to Vietnam? Say you were invited to speak about your book at a literary festival in Hanoi. Would you be concerned about any repercussions?

I would be pleased to return to Vietnam. In spite of their benighted government, the people and the country are quite marvelous. Many brave dissidents are currently at work in Vietnam, and I would like to support them. I don’t know whether I’m brave or foolhardy or simply have the bones of a working journalist, but on my next trip to Vietnam, I plan to stuff my suitcase with copies of Censorship in Vietnam and try to carry them over the border. The electronic edition has yet to appear, and I have a lot of friends who would appreciate receiving a copy – even if they have to wrap it in brown paper or hide it under their beds. This will be another small attempt at lighting a match in the darkness.

Internet Freedom

Vietnam: The New Code Of Conduct On Social Media Is Not Legally Binding

Published

on

Decision 847 from the MIC. Photo: Luat Vietnam, The Independent. Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

On June 17, 2021, Reuters reported that Vietnam announced a national code of conduct for social media. This new code would be the national guidelines on social media behavior in Vietnam, where users are encouraged to post positive content about the country. There are certain prohibitions for social media users and companies, requiring that social media providers in Vietnam follow Vietnamese law when “requested by authorities to remove content from their platforms.” 

This national code of conduct is Decision 847/QĐ-BTTTT (Decision 847), and it was issued by the Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC).

There are specific prohibitions throughout this decision, and it also lists the individuals and entities that are subject to the regulations. Yet, at the same time, the extent to which it is a legally binding document and how the government will enforce it is still ambiguous. 

Nevertheless, we can safely conclude that right now, under Vietnamese law, Decision 847 is NOT a legally binding document.

Why is it not legally binding?

This so-called national code of conduct on social media was issued as a decision from the minister of the MIC. These kinds of decisions in Vietnam are not legally binding documents under the Law on Promulgation of Legislative Documents 2015

Under its Article 3.1, the Law on Promulgation of Legislative Documents 2015 requires that legally binding documents should be “general rules of conduct, commonly binding, and applied repeatedly to agencies, organizations and individuals nationwide or within a certain administrative division, promulgated by the regulatory agencies and competent persons in this Law, the implementation of which is ensured by the State.” 

A minister of any ministry is deemed incompetent to promulgate legal documents if he or she issues only a decision, such as this Decision 847. Only a circular or a joint circular issued by a minister will be deemed legally binding documents. Therefore, Decision 847 cannot be treated as a legally binding document under Vietnamese law. 

Decision 847 cannot regulate social media users and providers.

Technically, only binding legal documents can regulate its subjects, but Decision 847 is quite ambiguous. 

Article 2 of Decision 847 clearly defines the subjects that are being regulated, including official departments, state employees and officials who use social media. It also states that organizations and individuals who use social media and social media providers are all subjected to its regulations.

Yet, under Article 8, which sets the implementation of Decision 847, it states, “the social users and companies are encouraged to fully execute the content of this decision and propagandize it to other organizations and individuals who are also on social media.” 

If Decision 847 only encourages its subjects to follow and propagandize it, it completely defeats the purpose of regulating users and companies on social media in Vietnam. Moreover, the vagueness and ambiguity of this decision reaffirm that it should not be a legally binding government document.

Does the MIC want to regulate all the people, companies, and other governmental agencies in Vietnam with Decision 847? 

Typically, a decision from a minister would only affect his or her ministry. However, in developing this national code of conduct on social media, is it the intent of the minister of MIC to instruct and direct how citizens and other government departments should act on social media according to his standards of positivity and morality? Is it his or the government’s duty to coach citizens on behaving in our everyday life? 

Who will regulate the ethical and cultural values for the entire Vietnam? This country already lacks an independent court system, and this decision does not have any judicial oversight. So who will get to decide what ethics and culture are if Decision 847 is enforced? Is it the government’s decision to dictate good ethics, and what is a positive culture for Vietnam on social media? What will be the meaning of our freedom of expression if we actually behave and live like this?

Continue Reading

Religion

Religion Bulletin, April 2021: The United States Proposes Putting Vietnam On The List Of Countries Of “Particular Concern.”

Published

on

The Vietnamese government is found to have systematically violated freedom of religion.

https://2xjs7y10oiyz26vqxu2hok6y-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/image9.jpg
Illustration: Luat Khoa

[Religion 360*]

United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: Proposal to put Vietnam on the list of countries of particular concern

In its latest report on religious freedom, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) proposed reinstating Vietnam onto the list of countries of particular concern (CPC).

Governments that engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom are placed on the list of CPC. For countries on this list, the U.S. Congress will introduce non-economic policies before taking economic measures to stop violations.

USCIRF assessed that Vietnam’s religious freedom conditions in 2020 were as bleak as those in 2019. This is because the Vietnamese government enforces its Law on Faith and Religion, which contravenes international human rights standards and systematically violates religious freedom.

The organization listed numerous suppression and obstruction of religious freedom in Vietnam in 2020 involving independent religious groups and those recognised by the government.

Ethnic minority groups in mountainous areas that follow new religions and sects, Buddhist dignitaries, independent Cao Dai adherents, Protestants, Catholic clergy members, and prisoners of conscience are victims of the Vietnamese government’s strict religious policies. 

https://2xjs7y10oiyz26vqxu2hok6y-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/image-11.jpeg
The USCIRF’s 2021 report on religious freedom. Photo: USCIRF.

Specific instances of religious suppression in 2020 that USCIRF cited:

  • Suppressing religious activities conducted by ethnic minorities Hmong and Montagnard in the Central Highlands.
  • Limiting the religious activities of independent Hoa Hao Buddhists.
  • Interfering in the funeral of Venerable Thich Quang Do, the fourth patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church.
  • Obstructing the Unified Buddhist Church’s relief efforts in Thua Thien – Hue Province.
  • Harassing independent Cao Dai followers, attempting to take over their temples, and forcing them to unite with state-recognized churches. 
  • Harassing and attacking clergy members of Thien An Abbey over a land dispute.
  • Subjecting prisoner of conscience Nguyen Bac Truyen to poor prison conditions and limiting his access to medical care; refusing to provide the prisoner of conscience Le Dinh Luong a Bible.
  • Using Article 34 of the Law on Faith and Religion to interfere in the election affairs of a state-recognized religion. 

Deputy Minister of Home Affairs: “False religions” must be stopped

At the beginning of April 2021, Vu Chien Thang, deputy minister of the Ministry of Home Affairs and head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, affirmed the need to stop “false religions” from illegally operating and affecting social life.

https://2xjs7y10oiyz26vqxu2hok6y-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/image-3.png
Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Home Affairs and head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, Vu Chien Thang, talks about stopping “false religions”. Photo: Xuan Thu / TTXVN.

The Ministry of Home Affairs deputy minister stated that factions, sects, and illegal religious phenomena had appeared in many locations.

Afterwards, the head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs presented two solutions to deal with new religions.

First, local religious committees have to coordinate with other organizations, such as the police, to stop illegal religious activities in a timely manner.

Second, state-recognized religions have a responsibility to direct citizens towards their organizations. 

That there is no place for new religions in Vietnam has been the government’s consistent message for many years.  

In April 2021, Tuyen Quang Newspaper also reported that Tuyen Quang Province was currently seeing many new religious activities of a superstitious nature. These religious activities were being used to oppose the government.

The activities of new religions are never presented from multiple viewpoints. Instead, the press covers these religious phenomena from the government’s vantage, which predominantly opposes religious activities not recognized by the state. 

New religions are multiplying in Vietnam by the day, but the government’s hardline view pushes many followers to practice surreptitiously and without legal registration. 

Vietnam has regulations regarding the registration of religious activities, but the majority of them are dependent on the subjective views of the government and their acceptance of the religion.

The government asserts three reasons for the abandonment of new religions. First, new religions contain superstitious activities. Second, new religions have different tenets and conceptions from state-recognized religions, ruining customs and distorting culture. And third, new religions (such as Falun Gong) have a political agenda.

Greater Unity Newspaper: Investigate party members and state cadres that participated in the Humanity Club

In April 2021, the state press continued to investigate the activities of the Humanity Club (HC), a spiritual organization operating as a private enterprise.

We summarized notable events related to this organization in a recent bulletin. The Government Committee accused the HC of Religious Affairs and other state organizations of propagating superstitions and defrauding members.

This time, the Greater Unity Newspaper (which belongs to the Vietnamese Fatherland Front and aligned with the Vietnamese Communist Party) confirmed that some Party members and low-level and high-level state cadres were members of this club.

“Information obtained by Greater Unity reveals that the list of HC participants includes the former vice chairman of Hanoi city and even leaders who currently hold important government positions,” the Greater Unity Newspaper claimed.

Furthermore, the paper stated that some lecturers and cadres (without naming specific individuals) from a roster of universities, academies, and schools have participated in the club. 

The paper also asked that Party and State organizations “quickly deal with offenders” who had participated in and had propagated a superstitious organization.

https://2xjs7y10oiyz26vqxu2hok6y-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/image-12.jpeg
A meeting of the Humanity Club. Photo: Greater Unity Newspaper.

Followers of the Ba-ni religion protest their merge with Islam

At the end of April 2021, the Ba-ni religious community strongly protested on social media the requirement that they list their religion to be Islam or “other” when applying for new ID cards.

The Ba-ni religion is not recognized by the state as Buddhism and Catholicism are. Those who follow the religion are lumped together by the State with those who follow Islam.

Ba-ni religious followers are ethnic Cham, a long-standing indigenous group in Vietnam. Cham Ba-ni practitioners state that their practices and rituals are different from those of Muslims. Thus, they do not accept the merging of their religion with Islam. 

https://2xjs7y10oiyz26vqxu2hok6y-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/image-13.jpeg
Two Cham Ba-ni clergymen prepare betel leaves to place at the foot of a gravestone in a gravesite cleansing ritual. Photo: Ninh Thuan Newspaper.

Government vague in requiring faith certifications when citizens declare their religion on new ID cards

Vietnam’s new identity cards do not indicate the religions of their owners. However, the government is requiring that people declare their religion on their ID applications.

At the beginning of 2021, the government began issuing citizens new ID cards fitted with chips. Police in several provinces and cities have mandated that citizens present their faith certifications when they declare their religions.

This mandate has alarmed many religious followers, who practice their religion without faith certifications.

On April 24, 2021, Ho Chi Minh City authorities announced that citizens could declare their religions when applying for new ID cards without faith certifications.

At present, other provinces have yet to make similar announcements.

https://2xjs7y10oiyz26vqxu2hok6y-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/image-4.png
Citizens apply for new ID cards in Hai Ba Trung District in Hanoi on March 9, 2021. Photo: VnExpress.

Nguyen Phuc Nguyen, head of the Buddhist Department under the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, stated to  Giac Ngo Newspaper at the end of March 2021: “There is nothing troublesome about requiring Buddhist faith certifications.”

On April 14, 2021, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs confirmed that different locations had different requirements for religious declarations and new ID cards.

Nghe An: Government blocks two groups from the World Mission Society Church of God from operating

On April 12, 2021, Nghe An provincial authorities reported to the Government Committee for Religious Affairs that religious activities were still being exploited to oppose the government in the province.

The information above was brought up during a summary conference in Nghe An, marking three years since implementing the Law on Faith and Religion and its attendant 2017 decree.

Provincial authorities stated that the state’s management of religion was not tight enough, allowing some individuals to exploit religious activities to oppose the government.

The statement did not identify any religion in particular, but the situation on the ground reveals that the authorities were alluding to the dignitaries and followers of Catholicism. 

In 2020, Father Dang Huu Nam was transferred out of My Khanh Parish, and his pastoral duties were stopped. Father Nam is known for leading parishioners to sue the Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Company after the central coast environmental disaster. Authorities had long demanded his transfer and the cessation of his pastoral duties.

On April 7, 2021, VOV Newspaper reported that Anh Son suburban district police in Nghe An Province had obstructed proselytizing activities at a private residence in Phuc Son Commune. The activities involved six adults and six children from the World Mission Society Church of God, a religion the government fiercely suppresses. Police dispersed the meeting and confiscated exhibits, computers, and proselytizing materials.

https://2xjs7y10oiyz26vqxu2hok6y-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/image-14.jpeg
The children and adults of the World Mission Society Church of God blocked by police from proselytizing in Phuc Son Commune, Anh Son Suburban District, Nghe An Province. Photo: VOV Newspaper.

On April 19, 2021, the authorities blocked another group from the World Mission Society Church of God from conducting religious activities in an apartment in the city of Vinh. The People’s Public Security Newspaper reported that the police had brought approximately 11 adults and five children to the Hung Dung Ward police station for investigation. Religious documents and objects were confiscated, and local authorities were instructed by police to “supervise and educate” those involved.

https://2xjs7y10oiyz26vqxu2hok6y-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/image-15.jpeg
Followers of the World Mission Society Church of God were blocked from conducting religious activities on April 19, 2021, in the city of Vinh. Photo: People’s Public Security Newspaper.

This year’s commemoration of “Virtuous Master’s Disappearance Day” again interrupted by the authorities

In 2020, the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church reported that An Giang provincial authorities once again prevented followers from congregating to mark “Virtuous Master’s Disappearance Day”.

Beginning on April 4, 2021, authorities set up two checkpoints on the road leading to the headquarters of the Central Directors Committee of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church in Long Giang Commune, Cho Moi Suburban District, An Giang Province.

https://2xjs7y10oiyz26vqxu2hok6y-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/image-1.png
On April 5, 2021, police set up a checkpoint on the road leading to the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church’s commemoration site, one day before the event. Photo: Le Quang Hien.

After being blocked from their headquarters, many of the church’s dignitaries moved the prayer site to another location.

Furthermore, on April 5, 2021, the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church’s Communications Department reported that security forces had tailed the church’s directors.

Other Hoa Hao Buddhists celebrated at home by setting up altars and hanging flags and banners. There have yet to be any reports of police harassment and obstruction at private residences during this year’s commemoration.

The Hoa Hao Buddhist Church, the only Hoa Hao Buddhist organization recognized by the government, has never organized for this holiday, which is among three major holidays for Hoa Hao Buddhists. 

[Did You Know?]

The difference between the Ba-ni Cham and the Islamic Cham

According to researcher Inrasara, Islam began to influence the Champa kingdom in the 16th Century. During that time, Islam arrived by way of wealthy Arab merchants who had left China to spread the religion southward.

As it made its way into the kingdom, Islam entered into large and persistent conflict with indigenous Cham inhabitants who followed Hinduism. By the time of King Po Rome’s reign (1627 – 1651), Islam had indigenized to become the Ba-ni religion.

https://2xjs7y10oiyz26vqxu2hok6y-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/image-6.png
The attire of Ba-ni Cham women (left) and Islamic Cham women. Photo (from left): Inra Jaya, Lam Vien Nui Cam.

Today, Cham people who follow Islam in the areas of An Giang, Tay Ninh, and Ho Chi Minh City; Cham people who follow Ba-la-mon (a Hindu religion) and the Ba-ni religion mainly reside in the two provinces of Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan. 

The 2019 census only recorded the number of followers of Islam and Ba-la-mon, providing no figures for the Ba-ni Cham.

According to statistics from April 1, 1999, Vietnam had a total of 152,132 ethnic Cham. [1] Among them, Ninh Thuan had 61,000 people; Binh Thuan 29,312; An Giang 30,000; Binh Dinh and Phu Yen 20,000; Ho Chi Minh City 5,000; Dong Nai 3,000; Tay Ninh 3,000; and Binh Phuoc and Binh Duong 1,000. According to the Nation and Development Newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs, there were approximately 31,000 Ba-ni Cham in 2018.

Ba-ni Cham has different religious activities from Islamic Cham. They believe in Allah, but they also worship the gods of rain, the seas, and the mountains, as well as their ancestors. They have lost the tradition of going on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Vegetarianism and daily prayer are carried out in September and only by laypeople. The influence of matriarchy has caused Ba-ni Cham to focus more on the karơh ceremony for women than the katat ceremony for men (both are initiation ceremonies the Ba-ni religion reserves for boys and girls when they reach puberty).[2]


References:

[1] Inrasara, Journeys and Home, page 16, Writers Association Publishing House.

[2] Inrasara, Cham Wisdom, page 106, Knowledge Publishing House.

Continue Reading

Environmental Rights

The Socialist Irony: Vietnamese Companies Exploit Labor And Damage The Environment In Cameroon

Published

on

Photo credit: La Carmina (background) and Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). Graphic: Son Nguyen/The Vietnamese

“…it is like destroying forest in other people’s backyards, not in ours.” – A quote from an informant working for a Vietnamese timber logging company, according to EIA. 

Various Vietnamese companies are damaging Cameroon’s forests and its economy through logging activities in the country, according to a new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international non-profit organization aiming to protect the global climate.

In an investigative report, the EIA said that these companies extracting timber to export back to Vietnam were violating export laws and were engaging in labor exploitation and discrimination, tax evasion, illegal logging, and other things. 

The Vietnamese socialist government has consistently condemned the imperialism and economic exploitation that has resulted from capitalism. In a recent article about socialism, Nguyen Phu Trong, the Secretary General of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), declared that the country should strive for “sustainable development… instead of usurping natural resources and destroying the environment.” A socialist government is regarded as the alternative to capitalist countries which have failed to address the problems of environmental damage and labor exploitation. 

However, this issue highlights that companies coming from a government of such ideology are perfectly capable of environmental, economic, and labor abuses – especially when it concerns less developed countries. 

Timber is largely used as the architectural materials for Buddhist temples and private houses in Vietnam. Previously, the market was dominated by timber extracted and exported from Laos and Cambodia; but the companies have moved to Cameroon due to its relaxed laws surrounding logging. 

Vietnam is now the second-largest timber processing hub in Asia, only after China. 

The total value of timber imports and exports from the prominent timber processing countries in Asia. Graphic: EIA. 

The private companies named in the report include Dai Loi Trading Co. Ltd., Xuan Hanh Wood Company, Thang Long Import-Export Company Ltd., Hai Duong Wood Import-Export Company Ltd., and an unregistered Vietnamese company represented by someone known as Le Jessan Tan. All of these companies are reportedly private companies, meaning no links with the government have been found. 

The EIA reportedly conducted this independent investigation for three years before releasing the report in late 2020. The report is titled “Tainted Timber, Tarnished Temples: How the Cameroon-Vietnam Timber Trade Hurts the Cameroonian People and Forests.

Environmental and labor abuses in Vietnam

In its ideological doctrine, the VCP consistently claims that the socialist government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Land in Vietnam is also constitutionally “owned by the people,” and the private ownership of land is theoretically unconstitutional. The VCP’s socialism is understood as a way to uplift the common people by limiting the power of private businesses and corporations. 

Despite Vietnam’s commitment to socialism, stories about environmental and labor exploitation are not new in the country’s private sector. With various sources of natural resources and a large population providing cheap laborers, the country is ripe for exploitation.

The case of Formosa in 2016 is an example. During this time, Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh, Ltd., a Vietnamese private company, was heavily polluting the seas in central Vietnam, leading to massive fish and other marine life deaths. The primary investor of Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh, Ltd. is the Taiwanese Formosa Plastics Group.

Human lives have also been a loss. As the results of such massive fish deaths, some people died or became seriously ill, with others even believed to have developed cancer, from either diving in the sea, eating poisonous fish, or as the result of exposure to the company’s chemicals. 

For years, various cases of illegal timber trade in Vietnam have been reported. There have been 30,000-50,000 cases of forest violations per year, according to statistics provided by the international non-profit organization Preferred by Nature. The organization also regards Vietnam as one of the most high-risk countries regarding the illegal timber trade. 

Even state-controlled media outlets in Vietnam sometimes publish opinion articles criticizing the Vietnamese government’s handling of environmental issues. 

According to this graph, Vietnam is among the most high-risk countries in terms of the illegal timber trade. Graphic: Preferred by Nature. 

Workers in Vietnam also face tremendous hardships and, in many cases, outrageous exploitation. 

For example, cases of forced labor in drug detention centers have been reported, in which people struggling with drug addiction were not only forced to provide free labor but were also tortured. In the garment industry, child labor is among the common practices. Even among the “normal” workers – those who are non-criminal adults and are able-bodied-mistreatment, underpayment and lack of social security were also frequently reported. 

Because of this, it is not surprising that there are similar and even worse cases committed by Vietnamese companies abroad. 

Unethical activities in Cameroon

Vietnamese companies are accused of various unethical activities in Cameroon, including violation of export laws, tax evasion, illegal harvesting, disregarding the illegal origin of timber, and abuse of workers. 

In the name of profit, the companies casually commit these illegal activities. According to the report, to maximize profits, the companies hired workers for years without a proper contract or social security guarantees. They frequently discriminated against, underpaid, and abused Cameroon workers. 

The companies also avoided paying taxes in Cameroon by mostly conducting transactions with cash. From 2014 to 2017, around $300 million went unreported when timber was being exported to Vietnam, according to the EIA investigation.

Alongside these violations, the companies also turn a blind eye to illegal timber, even if such timber originated from terrorist organizations. In fact, according to EIA, the company Dai Loi was reportedly buying timber that originated from Hezbollah. 

One informant from one of the Vietnamese private companies compared the way Vietnamese and French companies inspect timber in Cameroon. According to the informant in the report, the French asked many questions regarding the origin of the timber, such as whether child labor was involved. But the Vietnamese only care about whether there is documentation to bypass the Vietnamese customs, even if the timber was harvested illegally. The informant said: 

“We wouldn’t care less about your wrongdoings. Just give me whatever papers that the customs require…”

Vietnamese customs also do not care about illegal logging because “it is like destroying forest in other people’s backyards, not in ours.”

Imports of logs from Cameroon to China, Vietnam, and the EU during the period of 1992-2018. A lot of Vietnamese timber companies moved from Laos and Cambodia to Cameroon due to its relaxed laws governing logging. Graphic: EIA.

Policy recommendations for Vietnam

The EIA report recommends the Vietnamese government do the bare minimum: official acknowledgments of the loopholes in importing timber, followed by more effective regulations regarding fraudulent paperwork and financial transactions of private timber companies. 

So far, half a year after the report’s release, no state-controlled media in Vietnam has reported on the situation. There have been no official statements and no apologies. 

Based on his article on socialism, Nguyen Phu Trong would argue that these flaws exist because the country is in the “transition period” to socialism. This means that existing exploitation is not the government’s ideology but rather the inevitable reality of the global capitalist, market-oriented economy. Furthermore, these companies are private and not government-affiliated, so it is not the system’s fault. 

Let us assume that this argument is true. If so, however, it is even more important and urgent for Vietnamese leaders and policymakers to acknowledge the unethical activities of these companies and come up with more effective regulations to demonstrate their commitment to socialism – which, according to their own arguments, is supposed to be healthier for the environment, the economy and workers. 

Or are we supposed to wait endlessly for an unambiguous date of a successful transition to socialism? 

Continue Reading

Trending