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Censorship in Vietnam: JFK Miller Interviews Thomas Bass

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  • 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.

Religion

Vietnam Officially Announces National Decline In The Number Of Buddhist Followers, Shocking Its Buddhist Sangha

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Graphics: Luat Khoa Magazine. Photo courtesy: Buddhist demonstration in Saigon in 1963 (left, source: Posterazzi). Buddhist followers at a ceremony at Hoang Phap Pagoda in 2010 (right photo, source: Hoang Phap Pagoda).

According to Vietnam’s official statistics, in 2019, the religion with the largest number of followers in the country is Catholics with 5.9 million people. The number of followers of Buddhism is 4.6 million, ranking second. However, the numbers reported by this census contradict statistics from other state agencies, leading religious leaders and followers in Vietnam to question its accuracy.

The Giac Ngo Newspaper – a Buddhist media – reported that this news “shocked” some monks, and that some  believers “burst into tears” when they heard the news. Many people naturally assumed that Vietnam would have more Buddhists than any other religious group.

However, over the years, followers, monks and as well as senior sangha officials in Vietnam, have gone from one disappointment to another because the number of Buddhists has fallen dramatically in state statistics.

The number of Buddhists in the 2009 Population and Housing Census was 6.8 million, a decrease of about 300,000 compared to 1999. Even so, Buddhism remained the religion with the largest number of followers in Vietnam.

The situation only changed with the 2019 census results.

In that year, the government announced that the number of Buddhists decreased by 30 percent compared to 2009. From 2019, Buddhism has lost its top position in the number of followers in Vietnam according to the State census.

Over the past 50 years, Vietnam’s general population increased, but the number of Buddhist followers decreased

Buddhism – a religion of about 2,000 years of development in Vietnam – now has only 4.6 million followers, accounting for about 4.78 percent of the total population.

Meanwhile, the number of people who claimed to be Buddhist in the Republic of Vietnam (which only consisted of the south of Vietnam and a portion of the center) in 1963 was 9 to 11 million, accounting for 70 percent to 80 percent of the south’s total population as stated in the estimates that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) compiled that year.

The current figure of 4.6 million Buddhists is also less than the number of followers identified by the CIA as active Buddhists in the Republic of Vietnam in 1974, which was about 5-6 million.

After 1975, the vibrant religious culture in the south suffered a period of “government watch” for more than 15 years. During that time period, major religions were restricted in their practices and the smaller religions were completely banned.

According to State Magazine, a research journal of the Ministry of Home Affairs, in the first two censuses of 1979 and 1989, Vietnam did not record the number of religious followers.

By the early 1990s, Vietnam began to officially recognize the religions that were previously popular in the South but which were banned after 1975, such as Hoa Hao and Cao Dai Buddhism. In 1999, the government started to keep statistics on the number of religious followers in the country.

Nevertheless, as more statistics were completed, it was observed that the number of Buddhist followers were reported as having fallen. Throughout the three censuses (in 1999, 2009, and 2019), the number of Buddhists decreased by 35 percent while the national population increased by about 26 percent

Graphics from Luat Khoa Magazine based on the data sources below.

The Vietnam Buddhist Sangha refutes the state figures, but also does not publicize its own membership numbers

Looking back, in 2012, the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam opined about the number of Buddhists in Vietnam after the 2009 census results were published.

Although Most Venerable Thich Bao Nghiem, vice chairman of the board of directors and head of the Board of the Dharma Preaching of the Central Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, acknowledged the 2009 census is quite “large, serious, and objective,” he also said at the time: “The statistical results …. about Buddhism are not accurate for many different reasons.” He explained that in Vietnam, apart from those who claim to follow other religions, the rest are really “followers of Buddhism, who love Buddhism and are influenced by Buddhism”. If one accepts Thich Bao Nghiem’s reasoning, then the number of followers of Buddhism in Vietnam could have been about 78 million in 2009 – which is the number we get when we subtract all people who declared themselves to have a different religion than Buddhism from the national population at that time.

However, in 2019, the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha was again surprised when the State census stated that the number of Buddhist followers declined further and that Buddhism was no longer the religion with the most followers in Vietnam.

Despite this continuing disappointment, over the years, the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha – with nearly 40 years of operation and the only state-recognized Buddhist organization in the country – still has not published the number of its own followers. The only official figure for Buddhists in Vietnam comes from state statistics.

Meanwhile, other religions have tallied and announced the numbers of their own followers. For example, in 2018, the Vietnam Catholic Bishops’ Council announced that the whole country had about 7 million Catholics (Vietnam’s state statistics put the number at just about 5.86 million). Overseas branches of Hoa Hao Buddhism also stated that there were about 3 million Hoa Hao Buddhists in 2010 (state statistics in 2009 said just 1.3 million).

Figures for the number of Buddhist followers from other state agencies are also inconsistent

Unable or unwilling to declare the number of its own Buddhist believers, the Buddhist Sangha currently uses statistics from the Government Committee for Religious Affairs.

Accordingly, the Sangha often uses the estimate given by Tran Thi Minh Nga that she used when she wrote an article in 2014 on the website of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs. Nga said that up to June 2010, Buddhism had had about 10 million followers in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the number of Buddhists in 2009 announced by the General Statistics Office was only 6.8 million.

Nga did not cite the data source that she mentioned in her article at that time. In 2014, she was the deputy director of the Buddhist Department of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs. Currently, she is serving as the deputy head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs.

In a report on religious freedom in Vietnam in 2019, the US Department of State also used data from the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, which in January 2018 stated that about 14.9 percent of the total population was Buddhist. If applying this ratio to the total population in 2019, the number of Buddhists would have been about 14.3 million.

According to Associate Professor Hoang Thu Huong of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, the National University of Hanoi, Buddhist monks believe that Buddhists must include both 1) those believers who take refuge in the Three Jewels or Triple Gem (also known as the “Three Refuges”), and also 2) those who identify themselves as being influenced under Buddhism. Dr. Huong also said that because the criteria for inclined towards Buddhism could not be included in statistics survey questions, and that could be why the number of Buddhist followers differs among different state agencies.

However, during the period of the Republic of Vietnam, the CIA recorded both of these statistics, including active believers (possibly including the Three Refuges) and self-proclaimed and sympathetic Buddhists.


(*) Data sources for the chart listed above.


This article was written in Vietnamese by Thai Thanh and previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on February 18, 2021. The translation was done by Luu Ly.

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Religion

Religion Bulletin, December 2020: Falun Gong Encounters Troubles With The Authorities

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Kon Tum provincial police formally express the government’s position on Falun Gong.

To our readers:

In 2020, we began to publish monthly bulletins on religion in Vietnamese on Luat Khoa and in English on The Vietnamese in order to record events affecting freedom of religion and faith in Vietnam.

In addition to these religion bulletins, Luat Khoa also regularly publishes articles on freedom of religion and it has also created an English-language database on the same topic.

Luat Khoa’s efforts in 2020 on freedom of religion remain modest. To prepare content for 2021, we hope readers will contribute suggestions for religious topics at tongiao@luatkhoa.org or editor@thevietnamese.org


[Religion 360*]

Authorities accuse Falun Gong of intending to establish an opposition political force

In December 2020, provincial and municipal authorities continued to block the spread of Falun Gong.

Police and the state-run press have asked citizens not to spread Falun Gong, not to share information regarding the religion on social media, and to report to police anyone “propagandizing” the religion.

Information drawn from the state press indicates that in 2020, the authorities confiscated materials to spread Falun Gong from at least 71 people.

These people were normally stopped as they were individually handing out flyers and gifting keychains and books. No reports indicate that these people spread Falun Gong in any organized manner.

Provincial and municipal authorities have consistently blocked the spread of Falun Gong by citing that the state had yet to permit the distribution of the religion’s flyers.  

However, in December 2020, Kon Tum provincial police took this policy one step further in expressing the government’s position on Falun Gong.

Kon Tum provincial police stated that Falun Gong uses its focus on health and exercise as a cover to lure people into joining the religion. They also accused Falun Gong adherents of asking the government for legal recognition in order to form an opposition political force in Vietnam.

Below are the cities and provinces that have investigated and confiscated materials from Falun Gong practitioners in December 2020.

Hai Duong Province: Keychains with propaganda content confiscated from two people 

According to VTC Newspaper, Thanh Mien district police in Hai Duong Province investigated a 61-year-old woman for promoting  Falun Gong among students on December 2, 2020. 

The woman was investigated by police for handing out keychains containing a link to a Falun Gong website for students. Police confiscated 190 of the woman’s keychains.

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Confiscated keychains containing messages promoting Falun Gong. Photo: Hai Duong Newspaper.

Also in Hai Duong Province, police confiscated 10 greeting cards and 24 keychains belonging to a 26-year-old woman who was handing out materials promoting Falun Gong on December 23, 2020.

Quang Ninh: Falun Gong books and flyers confiscated prior to distribution

On December 29, 2020, Tien Yen district police in Quang Ninh Province reported that they had requested a woman turn in Falun Gong materials that she was storing at her residence. Police confiscated 40 books, 6 flyers, and 10 keychains containing Falun Gong content from the woman.

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Photo: Quang Ninh provincial police.

The items were confiscated for containing material promoting Falun Gong, a religion not yet permitted by the state.

Bac Ninh Province: Two Falun Gong students prevented from proselytizing by police

A number of unsourced photographs and videos shared on social media showed two Falun Gong students in Bac Ninh encountering difficulties with police on the night of December 22, 2020. 

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Photo: Vietnamese History Forum.

According to the photographs and video, a man and a woman dressed in Santa costumes on the occasion of Christmas spread Falun Gong materials in a public area. 

The police officer in the clip stated that a number of Catholics were “upset” at the pair’s actions and reported them. Police ordered the two to the police station for questioning.

State journalists have yet to report on this case.


Head of Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism’s Central Oversight Committee prevented from attending prayer ceremony

On December 15-16, 2020, Can Tho city police prevented Mr. Nguyen Van Dien, head of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism’s Central Oversight Committee, from attending a prayer ceremony.

According to the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism, on the afternoon of December 15, 2020, a group of plainclothes individuals from Can Tho city police arrived at Dien’s residence to demand that he not attend an important prayer ceremony at its temple.

On the morning of December 16, 2020, police continued to demand that a driver not take Dien to the ceremony.

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Two Can Tho city police officers sit opposite Dien. Photo: Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism.

The organization’s website stated that police stopped Dien by using COVID-19 and the ban on assemblies as a pretense. However, only Dien was prevented from attending the ceremony. Moreover, other ceremonies in the area were allowed to carry on as normal.

Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism is not recognized by the state. Members of this organization are regularly obstructed at gatherings and events.


Ho Chi Minh City authorities return five religious properties to the Saigon Archdiocese

According to the Ho Chi Minh City Party Committee website, municipal authorities  “gifted” five religious properties to the Saigon Archdiocese on December 21, 2020. The reason for this “gift” was not provided.

The Saigon Archdiocese confirmed the return of the religious properties belonging to five parishes: Tan Lap Parish, Cong Thanh Parish (District 2), Tan My Parish (Hoc Mon), Tan Hiep Parish (Hoc Mon), and Binh An Parish (District 8).

The Archdiocese website confirmed that the government had “returned” the properties to them. 

According to Archbishop Nguyen Nang’s statement during a meeting, these were religious properties that the parishes had lent to the state after 1975 to serve as schools. He stated further that the archdiocese was “delighted to receive back the properties, in order to provide necessary services for parishioners” and that he hoped the other properties would also be returned if the city was able to build new schools.

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A meeting between the Saigon Archdiocese and the Ho Chi Minh City authorities on December 2t, 2020.  Photo: Saigon Archdiocese.

After 1975, Catholic organizations in southern Vietnam lent many properties to the state for educational purposes.

To this day, the number of properties lent has not been precisely established. Conflicts between the state and the Catholic church continue to occur.


Thien An Abbey’s shrine to the Virgin Mary vandalized

In December 2020, the area around Thien An Abbey that was dedicated as the shrine to the Virgin Mary (Thua Thien – Hue Province) was trespassed upon by strangers many times.

The monks stated that many stone benches and greenery in the area were vandalized and that the grounds of the shrine were sullied with dirt. The abbey has reported the incident to the authorities, but the area around the shrine continues to be vandalized. 

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Pictures of the vandalized shrine were taken by Thien An Abbey.

For more than 20 years, Thien An Abbey has been in limbo due to a land dispute between the abbey and local residents and Thua Thien – Hue provincial authorities.

Events indicate that the authorities and local households have teamed up in their land disputes with the abbey.


Government prevents the Unified Buddhist Sangha from distributing free aid

According to the Unified Buddhist Sangha, Huong Tra commune authorities in Thua Thien – Hue Province prevented the church from distributing free aid to flood victims at the end of December 2020.

Afterwards, authorities confiscated all gift vouchers and prevented residents from coming to Long Quang Monastery to receive free aid. 

The reason authorities gave for the obstruction was that as the Unified Buddhist Sangha was not recognized by the state, and therefore distributing free aid was illegal.


[On This Day]

Letter from the House of Representatives on freedom of religion in Vietnam

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Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, Edward R. Royce, and U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Daniel J. Kritenbrink. Photo: CFUS News (left), AFP (right).

In December 2017, Mr. Edward R. Royce, chair of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, sent a letter to Mr.  Daniel J. Kritenbrink, US ambassador to Vietnam, to express his concerns about freedom of religion in the country.

In the letter, Royce expressed his concerns about the new Law on Faith and Religion, which was set to go into effect on January 1, 2018.

“I fear that this new law will form the basis for continued mistreatment of those who seek to practice their faith in Vietnam,” he wrote.

Royce’s fears have become a reality. 

In the past three years, state organizations have taken advantage of the law’s nebulous regulations to control religious activities.

Most recently, the Vietnamese Protestant Church (Southern branch) had to postpone its clerical congress for not sufficiently meeting the requirements of the Law on Faith and Religion. Specifically, they had not sent the roster of candidates to the Government Committee for Religious Affairs prior to the congress.

Royce’s fears about the Vietnamese government using ambiguous national security concerns as pretext to suppress religious activities also proved to be true. 

In a number of areas in the northwest, authorities have tightly controlled religious activities. The Protestant Church of Christ in the Central Highlands is even seen as a threat to national security. 


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

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Internet Freedom

9 Takeaways From Vietnam’s Draft Decree On Personal Data Protection

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Photo courtesy: Emotiv.com.

This article was written in Vietnamese by Trinh Huu Long and previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on February 18, 2021. The translation was done by the author.


It’s been almost three years since Vietnam’s National Assembly passed the highly controversial Cybersecurity Law. No guidance on the law’s implementation has been given as the central government usually does in the case of decrees, circulars, and decisions.

A draft decree was made available to the public for comments back at the end of 2018, but it quickly disappeared after receiving huge backlash from domestic and international actors.

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Public Security’s website announced another draft decree which was to address personal data protection.

You can find the full text of this document in Vietnamese here (Google Drive link). The draft decree is available for public consultation from February 9 to April 9.

We have taken a look at the text and below are nine takeaways.

1. Two types of personal data

The draft decree categorizes personal data as two types: basic and sensitive.

Basic personal data includes information about personal identification, such as name, date of birth, place of birth, address, nationality, ethnicity, marital status, and ID number. One thing, however, is unclear: “data containing online activities and history.”

Sensitive personal data includes political and religious opinions; health, genes, sex, biometrics; finances; sexual life; residence; social networking; and others.

2. Individual right to personal data

Individuals have a wide range of rights regarding their personal data as follows:

  • To consent or refuse data processing by others of one’s own personal data;
  • To be informed of personal data being processed by others;
  • To demand an end of data processing; to file complaints about violations;
  • To demand compensation in cases of data abuse;
  • Sensitive personal data should not be released. Plus, no release of basic personal data is allowed should it negatively affect its owner. The draft decree doesn’t specify the term “to release personal data” and whom the data is released to besides the public, but based on the wording of Article 6, the draft seems to be only addressing releases to the public.

3. Circumstances in which personal data is being processed without consent

According to Article 10, all personal data, regardless of being basic or sensitive, is subject to being processed (collection, storing, and use) without consent in the following circumstances:

  • Matters relating to national security, public security, and public order;
  • Emergencies where the freedoms, or the health and life of the owner’s personal data or of the community’s are being involved;
  • Investigations and convictions of legal violations;
  • Conducting research and gathering statistics (after de-identifying the data);
  • Other circumstances according to the law and international treaties.

The last circumstance, “other circumstances according to the law,” is a loophole that is widely used in the legal system of Vietnam to give the government’s executive branch, especially ministries, an almost unlimited ability to interpret laws and regulations using circulars and executive decisions.

4. Personal data being processed without informing its owner

According to the draft decree, the owners of personal data are normally informed should their data be processed by government agencies or other legal actors.

However, there are three exceptions to the rule, and the most concerning is the second one (Item b, Section 3, Article 11): “In case the processing of personal data is constituted by the law, international agreements, and international treaties.”

This is another loophole in an important matter relating to the transparency of personal data processing.

5. The establishment of the Committee on Personal Data Protection

A new government agency called the Committee on Personal Data Protection is going to be established. It will be set up under the central administration.

The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) can appoint no more than six members to the Committee upon the cabinet’s approval.

The Committee is closely tied to the MPS Department of Cybersecurity and Hi-Tech Crimes Prevention as it is headquartered at the department and chaired by the department’s head officer.

6. Permit required for processing sensitive personal data

Article 20 requires that parties who want to process sensitive personal data must register with the Committee on Personal Data Protection. 

However, the Article excludes activities by government agencies relating to law enforcement, judicial procedures, heath, social security, and scientific research. That means these agencies don’t need to register. Also, the Article leaves another loophole for other authorities to exploit by attaching a clause saying “other activities according to the law.”

What remains after excluding the above-mentioned government agencies? Enterprises and non-governmental organizations, both domestic and international ones. Services such as social media, banking, and healthcare must register with the Committee.

7. Permit required for conducting cross-border transfer of personal data 

This is directly related to foreign services operating in Vietnam or domestic services operating in other countries, especially technology companies.

Article 21 states that four conditions must be met before a party can make a cross-border transfer of personal data:

  • Data owner’s consent;
  • Storing the original copy of the data in Vietnam;
  • Providing documents that prove the data receiving countries have personal data protection regulations at the same or higher level than that of this decree;
  • Obtaining a written approval from the Committee.

The second and third conditions can be waived should the data processing party provide statements regarding their commitment on protecting the data.

The data processing party must archive records of data transferring within three years, and stop transmitting data should data leaks or abuses occur, or should they no longer have sufficient capacity to protect the data, or the data owner is incapable/ having difficulties  protecting his/her rights and interests.

The Committee on Personal Data Protection will routinely inspect data transmitting parties once a year.

The requirement of storing data’s original copy in Vietnam will likely make it a bit more difficult for foreign social networks, email services, and e-commerce activities to operate in Vietnam. According to Google expert Duong Ngoc Thai, Facebook is unlikely to store users’ personal data in Vietnam but rather just cache data to make access to its services faster.

8. Administrative fines can be up to 5 percent of the total revenue of a company in the Vietnam market

Those who violate the regulations on personal data protection are subject to fines of 50 million dong or 5 percent of their total revenue in  the Vietnam market.

Simultaneously, violators can also be banned from processing personal data for 1 to 3 months and may have their data processing licenses revoked.

If not allowed to collect, store and use users’ personal data, online services will probably not be able to function the way they do currently.

The decree doesn’t specify how the government can prohibit online services from processing personal data, but the Cybersecurity Law provides the government  with the authority to order the telecommunications companies to block services and sources of information that are deemed to be harmful to society.

9. Effectivity

The draft decree is expected to take effect on December 1, 2021, as stated in the document.

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