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Human Rights

Saigon Is Under De-facto Martial Law

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Photo courtesy: Facebook Dang Tuan

June 17, 2018| Hundreds of people were stopped, detained, searched, and later taken to a temporary holding center set up in the heart of Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) for apparently no reasons.

The government, this time, did not even announce that there were any “illegal” public gatherings as in the previous weekend where thousands of people protested against the cybersecurity and Special Economic Zones draft laws.

What they have done instead, was to preemptively take a strike at all of the citizens who were happened to be in those hot spots of last week’s protest. Some did go out to the streets with the intent to participate in a demonstration, but they could not even start.

From the early morning, all types of police, secret police, and security forces have filled up various areas in Saigon. Many coffee shops near the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica were asked to close by the authorities.

One witness reported that police were arresting people at a McDonald’s nearby. The only group that acted provocatively was the police and other security forces, this person wrote on Facebook.

The security forces watched every single bystander, people who happened to pass through the area. Anyone who looked “suspicious” to them would get stopped, asked for identification, searched, and demanded to show their phones where any pictures that were taken would get deleted.

All were done without any probable cause and of course, without a warrant.

It seemed as if the law no longer existed there. The city was under siege by its police force, and the people lived under martial law.

Worse, there would likely be no recourse in a court of law for the victims, even if some of them could gather enough courage to file a complaint against the authorities.

One person who was arrested while working near Nguyễn Văn Bình Books Street and detained until that evening said on Facebook, that she felt the experience eerily reminded her with words from Anne Frank’s Diary.

She also recalled that others were taken into separate rooms and some got beaten up by the police. The beatings must be very violent because everyone at that detention center could hear the screams. When they tried to run towards the room to help, the police stopped them with threats of physical violence, recalled by another witness.

The victim – who later got identified as Trinh Toan – was taken to the hospital for head injuries and reported to be in a coma since.

Those who got released were cited for “disrupting public disorder,” ironically.

Another witness live-streamed to tell her story after her release. She described how she and other Catholics got picked up by the police on their way to church. They were taken to that very same detention center in Tao Dan Park and later were both beaten and abused verbally.

A Vietnamese overseas detailed how the security forces physically subdued him and assaulted him while he was strolling near his house close to Hoang Van Thu Park. The police only released him after he screamed out some profanity in English and revealed his foreign nationality.

Some other people were already taken into police custody with no warrant a few days before last Sunday.

One of them was Nguyen Tin. He described the police physically assaulted him, smacking his face repeatedly when he refused to speak and answer questions while in custody. The right to remain silent does exist in Vietnam, but in this case, it failed to protect the citizen.

Almost all of the pro-democracy activists in Vietnam had plainclothes officers surveilled their homes this past week to prevent them from leaving the house and joined the protest.

On social media, many more people were reported missing in the past 48 hours, and efforts by civil society groups are ongoing to document and identify those who were arrested, detained and/or suffered abuse.

Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch tweeted today:

“Brutality of #Vietnam authorities attacking activists opposed to new internet surveillance law is really off the charts! Time for #Hanoi to be called out by U.N. Human Rights Council, U.N. General Assembly for their rights crimes!”

From the June 10, 2018 protest, the authorities might have arrested about 300 people in Saigon alone. One of them was an American citizen, Will Anh Nguyen, whose story made headlines internationally. Vietnam police filed charges against Nguyen for “disturbing public order” on June 15, 2018, and continued to hold him in detention.

This past weekend, Saigon was the city that got suppressed the hardest. It is estimated that over 100 people arrested and detained and the number of injuries caused by police brutality is still being counted.

Internet Freedom

Vietnamese Activists React to Facebook Taking Down “Anti-state” Posts

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Photo Credits: asiasentinel.com

In mid-April, Reuters broke the news that Facebook agreed to censor so-called “anti-state” posts after the Vietnamese government put pressure on the social networking site and took local servers offline, slowing down traffic. Since the news broke, the activist and politically-engaged community in Vietnam has been determined to jump over another hurdle in its struggle for freedom of expression. 

Thao Dinh, an activist in Hanoi who formerly worked as director of communications for VOICE, a Vietnamese human rights NGO, said she has used Facebook much less since learning about the content restrictions and has switched to other platforms. 

“Diversity is important,” Dinh said. “The worst scenario is one platform becoming a monopoly. So I would recommend people use as many services as they want depending on their needs, such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Blogs, LinkedIn, Reddit, Quora, Telegram, except the platforms spying on us for the government.”

Additionally, Vietnamese activists are urging their fellow countrymen, if they choose to use Facebook, to be wary about sharing sensitive and personal information on the platform. Hoang Dung advised his network on Facebook to adjust their settings and clear their  “Off-Facebook Activity” which is a summary of activity that businesses and organizations share about your interactions, such as visiting their apps or websites. 

Vi Yen Nguyen, the training manager at VOICE, shared on her profile three other alternatives to Facebook: Signal, Telegram, and Wire. 

Vi Yen wrote, “Facebook was faced with pressure by the Vietnamese government and gave up. It is no longer a reliable platform. Although admittedly, in this censorship case, Facebook is only a victim.” 

(Vi Yen Nguyen’s quote was in Vietnamese: “Facebook đã chào thua trước áp lực của chính quyền Việt Nam. Nó không còn là một nơi đáng tin cậy. Dù phải thừa nhận rằng, trong vụ kiểm duyệt này, Facebook cũng chỉ là một nạn nhân.”)

Human Rights Watch said that Facebook should have resisted. 

“Facebook has set a terrible precedent by caving to the government of Vietnam’s extortion,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Now other countries know how to get what they want from the company, to make them complicit in violating the right to free speech. The government of Vietnam shouldn’t have throttled the platform’s traffic in the first place, but Facebook shouldn’t have agreed to its demands.”

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said that the Vietnamese government “has instructed us to restrict access to content which it has deemed to be illegal in Vietnam. We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and work hard to protect and defend this important civil liberty around the world. However, we have taken this action to ensure our services remain available and usable for millions of people in Vietnam, who rely on them every day.”

The UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights require businesses such as Facebook to “respect human rights,” including avoiding infringements and addressing adverse impacts in which they are involved. As a member of the Global Network Initiative, Facebook has pledged that it will protect the human rights of users when they are confronted with government demands inconsistent with international human rights standards.

“It’s hard to see how Facebook can live up to its human rights obligations when it’s helping Vietnam censor free speech,” Sifton said.

The pressure on Facebook coincides with a new decree by the Vietnamese government implementing monetary fines for people and internet companies for posting or publishing a sweeping range of items with “forbidden contents”, materials that promote “reactionary ideas”, “have not been allowed for circulation, have been prohibited for circulation or have been confiscated.” 

The United States and other countries should have better utilized their diplomatic leverage to support Facebook in their stance against pressure from the government of Vietnam, Human Rights Watch said. Other businesses and business groups should have stood more publicly with the company to prevent the government’s strong-arm tactics.

The reluctance of Vietnamese activists to continue using Facebook has created new market opportunities for other social networks. Dinh recently got her Twitter profile officially verified.

“Since #Facebook is lowering its standards to protect human rights in #Vietnam, Twitter and other platforms are having a great opportunity for growing in [the] Vietnam market,” she tweeted

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Religion

Religion Bulletin – February 2020

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The Report on Religious Freedom in Vietnam is published on the first Monday of each month. If you would like to contribute information to the report, please send it to tongiao@luatkhoa.org or editor@thevietnamese.org

Government interferes in religions’ internal affairs

In our February report, we attempt to provide an understanding of how the Vietnamese government is interfering in the internal affairs of religious organizations in [The Government’s Reach] section. In February 2018, the government sentenced six Hoa Hao Buddhist followers; rediscover the case in [On This Day] section. The remaining section covers the passing of the Venerable Thich Quang Do and the lesser-known self-immolations that occurred in Vietnam after 1975.

The Government’s Reach

How the Vietnamese government has interfered in the internal affairs of religious organizations 

Since 1975, the Vietnamese government has maintained broad and deep interference in the internal affairs of religious groups. Religious groups recognized by the state have no choice but to accept such interference from the government. Those religious organizations that choose to resist face a high possibility that the government will retaliate in multiple ways.  

Catholic priest impeded from holding mass 

At the beginning of January 2020, Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc wrote on his Facebook that from August 2019, he has been denied permission to hold mass during prayer sessions in Binh Duong, Dong Nai, and Saigon. Father Thuc stated that local police came to the churches, threatening him and forbidding him from holding mass. 

“In August 2019, I was to attend a pastor’s mass in Dong Nai. The night before mass, he called me and told me that police had spoken to his superiors and said that if Father Thuc held mass, then the entire ceremony would be cancelled. So the superiors told me not to come,”, Father Thuc said of the government’s harassment.

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Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc. Source: Nguyen Dinh Thuc’s Facebook.

Police preventing Father Thuc from holding mass is understood as retribution, the kind that religious activists regularly encounter when they displease the government. 

Father Nguyen DInh Thuc, age 42, head of Song Ngoc parish, Vinh diocese, Nghe An province, has been repeatedly harassed by the government the past few years, particularly in 2016 when he spoke up against Formosa polluting the central Vietnamese coast. 

His activities calling for greater human rights have caused him an increasing amount of trouble. According to The 88 Project, he was banned from leaving the country twice in 2017 and 2019 for national security reasons. Currently, the government has begun engaging in a variety of methods to limit Father Thuc’s religious activities. 

Police interfere in disagreement over An Hoa Tu temple’s renovation

In September 2019, An Giang provincial police put on house arrest a group of dignitaries of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church (unrecognized by the government) to prevent them from attending a meeting of the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church – the only Hoa Hao Buddhist organization recognized by the state—regarding the repair of An Hoa Tu Temple. 

The disagreement between these two churches began in July 2019, when the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church announced that they would be replacing the roof of An Hoa Tu temple, one of the religion’s main temples and a site of pilgrimage for all Hoa Hao Buddhists. The roof renovation met with opposition from the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church from the very start. 

Instead of letting the two churches solve the problem themselves, local authorities decided to intervene.

In September 2019, An Giang provincial police warned the management committee of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church “not to incite followers” regarding the renovation. Police assured the management committee that the An Giang provincial people’s committee had only permitted the replacement of the roof, not the demolition of the entire temple.

After this warning, six members of the Pure Hao Hao Buddhist Church were blocked by a group of individuals on the way to An Hoa Tu temple and beaten, on the day that the roof tiles were to be replaced. (See details: Report on Religious Freedom in Vietnam – October 2019). To this day, local authorities brush off the attack, which left several injured.

The government interferes with a Cao Dai temple’s right of ownership 

According to human rights group BPSOS, in 2017, an independent Cao Dai temple in Phu Thanh A commune, Tam Nong suburban district, Dong Thap province was confiscated by the authorities and given to a representative of Sect 1997, one among a number of Cao Dai organizations recognized by the state (1997). 

During the affair, Mr. Duong Ngoc Re was asked by Phu Thanh A communal authorities and the Tam Nong district police to meet on March 20th, 2017, in order to force him to hand over the temple to Sect 1997. When he refused, the authorities took possession of the temple that same day. The very next day, Sect 1997 had one of its representatives read out the paperwork in the presence of local authorities, who then approved the transfer.

According to BPSOS, in the last two decades, 285 of approximately 300 Cao Dai temples have been appropriated by Sect 1997 with government support.

A history of the Vietnamese government’s interference in the internal affairs of religious organizations 

After 1975, the Vietnamese Communist Party aimed to push the country towards socialism. As such, religions in the south were not allowed to operate freely as they had before. In the north, religious activities had been severely curtailed by the government since 1954. 

According to southern Buddhist monks, after taking control of the south on April 30th, 1975, the Southern Provisional Revolutionary Government limited all religious activities, many places of worship were confiscated and turned into administrative offices, Buddhist statues were destroyed, religious offices in charge of social affairs were all closed, many practitioners were arrested and imprisoned without trial. 

Overt government interference in the internal affairs of religions officially began on November 11, 1977 with the pulmugation of Resolution #297-CP regarding “One policy for religion”. In the resolution, opening classes, convening internal meetings, appointments or transfers of dignitaries, and even followers assisting in religious activities—all had to be approved by the government. 

During this time, besides strictly controlling religious activities, the government also began to find ways to eliminate churches and associations of traditional Vietnamese religions and establish their own that were loyal to the state. 

For example, with Buddhism, the government instigated divisions within the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (established in 1964). According to the Venerable Thich Quang Do, at the beginning of 1980, the government invited a number of church leaders to meet to discuss the unification of the religion, when it should have been an internal affair. In 1981, the government then recognized the Buddhist Church of Vietnam with a number of members from the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. After the Buddhist Church of Vietnam was established, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam has suffered discrimination and suppression to this very day.

According to BPSOS, after attempts to eliminate the Cao Dai religion failed, the state established Sect 1997 in 1997. The Cao Dai Holy See in Tay Ninh went from being a well-oiled machine organizing religious activities over a wide area to simply a branch with circumscribed reach and subject to strict government control.   

With Hoa Hao Buddhism, the government only recognized it as a religion in 1999 after the Government Committee For Religious Affairs accepted a component of the Committee Representing Hoa Hao Buddhism. Other branches of Hoa Hao Buddhism that existed before 1975 were not recognized and became illegal. 

In 1999, the state replaced Resolution #297-CP with Resolution #26/1999/ND-CP, but maintained its broad powers to interfere as before. However, the latest resolution further restricted religious freedom because it increased the number of jurisdictions religions were subject to. For example, carrying out the ordination of a monk in Buddhism or similarly, a priest in Catholicism would require the consent of the prime minister himself. 

On the outside, religious activities in Vietnam appear stable because they have been thoroughly subsumed by the state and the political objectives of the Communist Party. Religious sects and associations that choose to remain independent suffer the government’s interminable abuse and suppression.

Four spheres of state interference in the internal affairs of religious organizations, through legal regulations 

In 2016, Vietnam passed the Law on Faith and Religion, to go into effect in 2018. The 2016 Law on Faith and Religion contained many improvements compared to prior regulations. However, the spirit of this law remains the same: tight control of religious freedom by maintaining state interference in the internal affairs of religious organizations:

Interference in the internal organization of religious groups

The 2016 Law on Faith and Religion stipulates that if a religious organization wants to amend its charter (Article 24), or split, merge, unify with other religious organizations (Clause 3, Article 29), then it must seek approval from the government. Regarding personnel, the state reserves the right to approve or disapprove of nominations for positions in religious organizations (Clause 5, Article 34).

Under the 2016 Law on Faith and Religion, the government uses Resolution 162/2017/ND-CP to more strictly control religious organizations. This resolution stipulates that Vietnamese citizens must seek government approval if they seek to organize activities linked to overseas religions. The resolution also requires local, religious gathering places to seek government approval of any changes in representatives.

Interference in religious groups’ training programs 

According to the 2016 Law on Faith and Religion, all religious organizations must have their training classes approved by the government (Clause 3, Article 38). Classes teaching Vietnamese history or Vietnamese law on the basis of religious training must follow the guidelines set out by the Ministry of Education and Training, the Ministry of Justice, and all related bodies (Article 40).

Interference in freedom of association

The 2016 Law on Faith and Religion has many stipulations that limit freedom of association, even within religious organizations. Meetings that involve multiple religions or foreign elements require approval from the central government (Article 44).

Religious organizations that want to organize festivals or congresses must seek approval from the central or local authorities (Clause 3, Article 45). Religious organizations that invite foreign speakers (Article 48) or desire to join international religious organizations must seek the approval of the state (Article 53);

Interference in religious groups’ management of property and finances 

In regards to religious grounds such as temples and churches, the 2016 Law on Faith and Religion stipulates that the commune’s people’s committee, in conjunction with the Fatherland Front, must organize an election and recognize a representative and a management committee for that property (Clause 3, Article 11). Accounts containing funds collected from religious activities, such as mass, must be reported to the state, with clear statements on how the funds will be used. 

Resolution 162/2017/NĐ-CP also states that prior to carrying out collection activities and donation drives, religious organizations must report the details, methods, objectives, and duration of such events to the government.

Outside of regulations related to religion, the Vietnamese government is also able to use many other provisions to suppress religious freedom, such as those related to public assembly, disturbing security and order, and publishing, as well as those found in the Cybersecurity Law … all are used to suppress religious organizations not recognized by the state. 

Religion 360°

Venerable Thich Quang Do passed away 

On February 20th, 2020, Venerable Thich Quang Do, Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam passed away at Tu Hieu Temple (Ho Chi Minh City) at the age of 91. 

He was among activists that the Vietnamese government kept under house arrest the longest. In 1982, after the government established the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, authorities confined him to a temple in Thai Binh for 10 consecutive years. In 1995, he was sentenced to 5 years in prison after he voluntarily return to Ho Chi Minh City to help flood rescue efforts in the Mekong Delta. After he got out of prison in 1998, he served five years house arrest in Ho Chi Minh City. In 2003, just as he had completed his house arrest, authorities prevented him from leaving Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Ho Chi Minh City, until mid-2018 when he was forced to leave. 

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Thich Quang Do during his trial in Ho Chi Minh City, August 1995, with the Venerable Thich Khong Tanh, Thich Nhat Ban, Thich Tri Luc, and two retired scholars Dong Ngoc, Nhat Thuong. Source: Vietnamese Buddhist.

From 1975 until he passed away, Venerable Thich Quang Do never had the freedom to operate, as he explained to Al-Jazeera in 2007: “We’re prisoners in our own homeland, where our government decides who has the right to speak and who has to keep their mouth shut.”

Since the establishment of the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam has faced fierce repression from the government: 

“They [the government] have not ended their discrimination and repression of the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam. Church activities the last 30 years have been very difficult (to organize). Preaching and teaching are not permitted, opening schools is not permitted, […] If they have an opportunity to get rid of [the church], then they’ll use it. For many decades, [I’ve been stuck] in this one room […] Every two months, I have a hospital visit. That’s it. No one comes in or out, and I can’t go anywhere. And even to the hospital, [police] follow”, Venerable Thich Quang Do told Radio Free Asia at the end of 2012. 

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A picture of Venerable Thich Quang Do in his room at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery on September 3rd, 2018. Source: Buddhism International Office of Information.

Venerable Thich Quang Do became the fifth Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam in 2011. He had worked for the church since it was established in 1964. From 1975 onwards, he and a number of southern monks continued to guide the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam through the government’s persistent discrimination and repression. 

On This Day

Six Hoa Hao Buddhists sentenced to prison

The independent followers of Hoa Hao Buddhism in the Mekong Delta have been among the most repressed religious communities in Vietnam. In February 2018, six Hoa Hao Buddhists were sentenced to prison for “disturbing public order” and “obstructing officials”.

Six individuals, among them four members of the same family, were sentenced to prison on February 9th, 2008. The An Phu District People’s Court sentenced Mr. Bui Van Trung, age 56, to six years; Ms. Le Thi Hen, age 58, to two years in-absentia, Ms. Bui Thi Bich Tuyen, age 38, to three years; Mr. Bui Van Tham, age 33, to six years; Mr. Nguyen Hoang Nam, age 38, to four years; and Ms. Le Hong Hanh, age 41, to three years. 

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The six Hoa Hao Buddhists sentenced to prison, from left to right, top to bottom: Mr. Bui Van Trung, Mr. Bui Van Tham, Ms. Le Thi Hen, Ms. Bui Thi Bich Tuyen, Ms. Le Hong Hanh, and Mr. Nguyen Hoang Nam.

According to BBC Vietnamese, the case occurred the night of April 19th, 2017, when Bui Van Trung’s family invited people over to his house to mark the anniversary of a passing. The day before, plainclothes police had set up a checkpoint to block people from attending the event at Mr. Trung’s house. 

According to the indictment from the People’s Investigation Bureau of An Phu suburban district, An Giang province, at approximately 6:30 PM on April 19th, 2017, three people were on motorbike on the way to Mr. Trung’s house, when they were stopped by traffic police to check paperwork. Stating that they had not broken any traffic laws, the three refused to provide any. At that time, Mr. Nam, Ms. Hanh, Mr. Trung, and his family approached and refused to let police confiscate the motorbike because the three stopped individuals refused to present their paperwork. The event quickly escalated into a protest. Those on Mr. Trung’s side accused the authorities of entrapping the people coming to his house to attend the anniversary. As a result, they raised their voices and created signs protesting the religious repression occurring. 

On June 26th, 2017, police arrested Mr. Trung and his son Tham. The day after, Mr. Nam was also taken in. Ms. Hanh was arrested on November 13th, 2017. During the interrogation process, Mr. Trung and others denied “disturbing public order”.

For many years, the An Giang provincial authorities had kept tight watch over Mr. Trung’s family because they frequently organized independent religious activities. In 2012, Mr. Trung was sentenced to 4 years in prison for “disturbing public order” and “obstructing officials”.

The government frequently uses the crimes of “disturbing public order” and “obstructing officials” to punish religious, democracy, and human rights activists.

Did You Know?

Many self-immolations took place after 1975

Did you know: after 1975, many religious organizations in the south went through a very dark period. Southerners at the time saw hundreds of temples confiscated, settings for social activities re-purposed, and many religious activities forbidden. Perhaps most painful were the less-publicized self-immolations, conducted to demand the state respect religious freedom.

The first self-immolation occurred in Can Tho on November 2nd, 1975. Abbot Thich Hue Hien and 11 Buddhist nuns of the Duoc Su Zen Monastery immolated themselves in the temple, about 30 kilometers from Can Tho. Only when the immolations were covered by international media a year later did authorities begin their own investigation.

However, after the investigation, the government told Amnesty International that Abbot Thich Hue Hien had conspired to kill the nuns because he was afraid of being exposed for a sex scandal.

Venerable Thich Quang Do and a number of monks from the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam disputed the results of the government’s investigation, deepening the conflict between the government and the church. In April 1977, many of the church’s monks were arrested and tortured. Venerable Thich Thien Minh was one of those arrested, ultimately dying in prison in October 1978. 

In an interview with Venerable Thich Thien Quang after he escaped the country to Indonesia in 1979, he stated that in the last two years, there were approximately 18 southern nuns who self-immolated to push for religious freedom. Self-immolations continued into the 1990s.

On May 21st, 1993, an unknown man immolated himself at Thien Mu Temple (Hue). The authorities stated that the individual was not a Buddhist and that the immolation was due to a personal problem. 

However, the authorities did not explain why the individual traveled nearly 1000 miles to self-immolate at Thien Mu Temple. Several days after the immolation, the authorities interrogated Thich Tri Tuu, the head of Thien Mu Temple, which lead to a large protest in Hue. 

Another self-immolation occurred May of 1994 in Vinh Long. Thich Hue Thau, a member of the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, immolated himself on May 28th, 1994. Thich Hue Thau’s older brother, Le Trung Truc, told Christian Science Monitor: “My younger brother could not live without independence (in religious activities), so he decided to end it”. 

Mr. Truc said that Thich Hue Thau self-immolated after authorities prevented him from practicing at any of the temples in the province because he was a member of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. He also stated that his younger brother had mobilized a group of Buddhists to walk all the way to Hanoi to protest the numerous high taxes on farmers. However, the group was blocked before it was able to leave Vinh Long province. Immediately after, the authorities asked Thau to close his own temple. A few days after that, he self-immolated behind his temple during the night.

Translated by Will Nguyen

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Religion

Religion Bulletin – January 2020

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The Report on Religious Freedom in Vietnam is published on the first Monday of each month. If you would like to contribute information to the report, please send it to tongiao@luatkhoa.org or editor@thevietnamese.org.

The Vietnamese government views all developing religions today as heresy. Our [Flashpoint] section seeks to show you how the struggle between the Dien Bien provincial authorities and developing religions is unfolding. Discover the fascinating aspects of developing religions of the past in [Did You Know?] section. It’s been 15 years since Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh was allowed to return to Vietnam; read about it in the [On This Day] section.

Flashpoint

Dien Bien province

  • Region: northwestern Vietnam
  • Area: 9,541.2 km2
  • Number of ethnic minority groups: 21 
  • Population: approximately 576.700 (2017)
  • Predominant religions: Protestantism, Catholicism, and Buddhism
  • Developing religions: The Faith of Ho Chi Minh’s Spirit, Buddhists of Miraculous Sound, Doan Trang, Familial Tradition of the Lac Viet, Falun Gong, Gie Sua, Lady Do, and the World Mission Society Church of God
  • The number of arrests related to developing religions in 2019: more than 22 people
  • Concern: suppression of developing religions
  • Methods of suppression: preventing proselytization, imprisoning proselytizers, forcing citizens to sign vows to abandon their religion. 

The current emergence of developing religions: 

Dien Bien is a province in northwestern Vietnam with predominantly mountainous terrain; most of its land area borders Laos, with a small portion bordering China. 

According to the Dien Bien provincial government, the province has seen in the past few years the emergence of many new religions, which they refer to as “heresy”. These religions mainly gather large groups of people to proselytize, acts which the government claims both are illegal and take advantage of people. 

According to the Dien Bien provincial government, at the end of 2017, the province discovered that the Gie Sua religion was proselytizing mainly those of the Mong ethnic minority group. In 2019, Dien Bien province had 1,208 followers of the Gie Sua religion. Though it did not describe the religion clearly, both the Dien Bien government and the police force used the press to propagate the idea that it was a strange, heretical religion that caused harm to law and order and needed to be stopped.

According to the Dien Bien Phu Newspaper, a propaganda arm of the provincial government, the World Mission Society Church of God appeared in the province in 2018, spread to Pu Nhi commune, Dien Bien Dong suburban district, but was able to be quashed by the government in time. 

The Buddhists of Miraculous Sound was first discovered by the Dien Bien provincial authorities in 2009 with approximately 10 followers in the city of Dien Bien Phu. The religion was started in 2004 by a Vietnamese individual named Tran Tam, who also goes by “Master Ruma”, with many offices around the world. Tran Tam converted a number of Vietnamese in Laos and Cambodia, and then afterwards, carried the faith to Vietnam. The Buddhists of Miraculous Sound use a number of meditation practices from both Buddhism and Catholicism.

Another northern province with followers from this religion is Vinh Phuc, which borders Hanoi on the northeast. According to the Vinh Phuc provincial government, Tran Tam has entered Vietnam and been deported many times. Vinh Phuc province has uniformly rejected all applications for activities related to the Buddhists of Miraculous Sound.

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Police of Muong Nhe suburban district, Dien Bien province advise people not to follow new religions. Source: Dienbientv.vn.

Methods the government uses to eliminate developing religions 

Opinion pieces published by the Dien Bien provincial government regarding developing religions all revolve around how to eliminate them. 

According to the Dien Bien provincial authorities, in order to eliminate these religions, they’ve had to prevent conversion sessions, arrest proselytizers, force followers to sign pledges abandoning the religion, or introduce or reintroduce followers to state-sanctioned religions. 

“The masterminds, the heads of these heretical groups must be firmly dealt with, […]. Here’s a typical example: recently, police gathered, arrested, and prosecuted a number of individuals who led the establishment of the “Mong State”, one of which was involved in proselytizing people into the Gie Sua heretical religion […], By April 9th, 2019, 14 individuals representing 14 households, and 74 followers of the Gie Sua religion in the mountainous village of Na Co Sa 3, Na Co Sa commune (Nam Po suburban district) had […] signed pledges to abandon the religion”, Dien Bien Phu Newspaper, Dien Bien province.

In the first ten months of 2019, authorities in the suburban district of Muong Nhe arrested 22 people involved in “heretical” religious activities. By May 2019, the Dien Bien provincial government stated that it had convinced 1,006 followers to abandon the Gie Sua religion and that it would continue such efforts to completely eliminate the religion from the province. 

“We visited them house-by-house, speaking with residents so that they better understand. We asked them to sign pledges to leave the Gie Sua religion, to not listen, to not believe propaganda arguing for the establishment of the “Mong Kingdom”. […] As of now, the Na Co Sa Military Border Post has gotten 55 households/325 individuals to sign pledges abandoning the heretical religion”, Commander Vu Van Hanh, Na Co Sa Military Border Post, responding to Dien Bien Phu Newspaper in February 2020.

The Government’s Reach

There’s no room for new religions in Vietnam

Emerging new religions in Vietnam appear to be effectively nipped in the bud with labels like “heresy” and “strange faith”. 

Activities spreading superstition affect the social fabric. They have the clearest and broadest influence on the population in places where these new religions (heresy, strange faiths) appear: Supreme Master Ching Hai, Long Hoa Maitreya, Treasured Temple of the Three Religions, Protestant Word of Life…” Lê Minh Quang – Deputy Head of the Lam Dong Provincial Party Committee.

In an article published March 2015, the Government Committee For Religious Affairs documented 60 counts of new religions, “a number of which are heretical, negatively influencing order, morality, lifestyles, customs, habits, culture, and health.”

Though there was no official list of these heretical religions, a publication of the Central Propaganda Committee divided these “heretical religions” into three groups. The first group included religions that sprung up locally from Protestant foundations (Dega Protestantism, Vietnam Protestant Church of Christ, Prayer Committee for Protestant Revivalism, the Lutheran Fellowship Church of Vietnam and America) and Buddhist foundations (Trang Huong Quang, Maitreya Buddhism, Treasured Temple of the Three Religions, Peaceful Sky, Great Ancestral Orthodox Church…). The remaining group contains those religions that were imported from overseas, such as Supreme Master Ching Hai, Falun Gong, Charismatic Revival, Yiguandao, Wuwei,…

These religions obviously cannot register their activities with the government, as their proselytizing efforts are essentially illegal. The government subjectively deems them “heretical religions” by default, rather than through any judicial review. 

In terms of Protestant denominations that have no been officially recognized, the government has issued Directive #01/2005/CT/TTg, which allows people to sign up for group activities through local authorities. However, this directive is not applicable for those new religions with Protestant foundations. 

In 2015, the Lam Dong provincial authorities “firmly disallowed registration” of any group religious activities by Tran Xuan Vinh, a follower of the Vietnam Protestant Word of Life Church (seen as a “heretical religion” under its previous name Charismatic Revival). According to the Lam Dong authorities, there are currently 37 families in the province that still congregate for this religion. 

The government attaches the label “heresy” on these religions based on characteristics that one could also find among other state-sanctioned religions in Vietnam: founders calling themselves the heads of religions, collecting money to build temples and shrines, developing organizations; proselytizing by appealing to people’s trials and tribulations; drawing in family members; not carrying out traditional customs. Moreover, these new religious groups, after being punished, run the risk of becoming seen as anti-government.

Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2020: the Vietnamese government has yet to do anything to improve freedom of religion 

“Religious groups which are not officially recognized, including some branches of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religions, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Buddhism face constant monitoring and threats of harassment and intimidation.” – World Report 2020, Human Rights Watch 

With its long-standing “achievements” in religious oppression, Vietnam is one of a number of countries closely followed by international organizations. In the past 20 years, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has repeatedly criticized the Vietnamese government for systematically oppressing fundamental civil and political rights, especially the religious freedom of local minority groups and unrecognized religious groups.

Its latest report revealing much of the same, HRW states that the Vietnamese government continues to monitor every move made by religious groups and is prepared to strongly suppress at a moment’s notice. The government continues to use regulations to limit religious freedom, police to harass religious activities, and courts to punish religious activists and dissidents with jail terms.

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Rah Lan Hip, 39, of Jrai ethnicity, was sentenced by the People’s Court of Gia Lai Province to 7 years in prison and 3 years house arrest in August 2019 for his religious activities in the Central Highlands.

“Although the authorities allow many churches and temples within state control to organize worship and offerings, they still forbid religious activities that are contrary to “national interest”, “public order”, or “greater unity”. These arbitrary categories include many ordinary religious activities,” HRW concluded about religious freedom in Vietnam in 2019. 

HRW’s observations reveal that Vietnam has not fulfilled the obligations it stated it had during the country’s Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Council in June 2019. During the session, Vietnam had “accepted the recommendation” from Italy and Angola to reduce bureaucratic procedures surrounding religious activities. It also accepted a recommendation from Poland guaranteeing that it would carry out the 2016 Law on Faith and Religion in accordance with international standards. In its pledge to the United States, Vietnam agreed to allow Protestants and other groups in its northwest to register their activities; however, it has so far refused to do the same for groups in the Central Highlands. 

See more: When the Central Highlands are no longer home (How did the Thuong people escape the Central Highlands?)

On This Day

15 years ago today, Vietnam permitted Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh to return home

“For 40 years, we tried to arrange our return to Vietnam. Finally, in December of 2005, I was given permission to return to my homeland…”

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book The Art of Power. 

In January of 2005, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, together with approximately 200 individuals, returned to Vietnam. The Vietnamese state allowed him and his Buddhist delegation to return home for 10 weeks.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s first trip back home after 40 years gave him a favorable impression of the government, even though police stringently checked his delegation. His delegation was able to convince the government to allow public prayer sessions in Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, and Hanoi.

However, he was not allowed to meet with dignitaries of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (a Buddhist organization that was re-established in 1991 and repeatedly suppressed by the state) in Ho Chi Minh City. 

This trip was the first time Hanh has been allowed by the Vietnamese authorities to return home since he traveled to the United States to advocate an end to the Vietnam War in 1966. In the entirety of his time overseas, he never stopped advocating an end to the devastating war. Up until 1975, Hanh, along with those inside the country directed social programs, chief among them the Youth School for Social Service and the Committee on Vietnamese Reconstruction and Development. After 1975, Thich Nhat Hanh began programs to rescue refugees escaping Vietnam by boat, along with many other humanitarian activities. 

When the war ended, he settled in Paris and established a center for meditation studies. From then onwards, thousands of people from all over the world became disciples of Hanh and his Plum Village Tradition. Thich Nhat Hanh would become one of world’s most influential Vietnamese. 

Prior to his return in 2005, Hanh’s books were not permitted wide publication inside the country. Even now, a number of his books have not been published in Vietnam, like Lotus in a Sea of Fire. 

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Thich Nhat Hanh and his students walk along a path in Hue, during his first return to Vietnam in 2005. Source: PVCEB.

Did You Know?

The mystery of past new religions in the South 

The South during French colonization and the Republican era saw the birth of many new religions, a few of which are still growing vibrantly to this day.

These religions, when they first emerged, displayed characteristics that today’s government would deem “heretical”, including sharing a foundation with larger religions like Buddhism and Daoism, founders calling themselves the heads of religion, and attracting followers by treating unusual illnesses.   

Let’s go through a number of strange aspects of these past new religions in order to better understand the new religions of today. The religions below have all been recognized by the Vietnamese government. 

Hoa Hao Buddhism 

In 1939, in the village of Hoa Hao, Tan Chau district, Chau Doc province (today known as An Giang province), a young man not yet 20 years old announced that he had lived through several incarnations of suffering and was sent down by the Buddha to “save all living creatures”. From that moment, Hoa Hao Buddhism was born and the young man became the religion’s founder.

That young man was named Huynh Phu So; legend has it he was born emaciated and sickly, but upon his return from the Bay Nui area, he made a complete transformation, speaking eloquently, and possessing an excellent command of Buddhism. 

Concerned about the large following that Hoa Hao Buddhism had, the French colonial authorities accused Huynh Phu So of being mentally ill, had him psychologically treated in Saigon, then put him under house arrest in Bac Lieu. 

See more: The turbulent and tragic history of Hoa Hao Buddhism  

Cao Dai 

If the Cao Dai religion came into existence today, it’s very likely the authorities would find every way to eliminate it due to its mystical nature.  

The Cao Dai religion emerged in the South during French colonial rule. This religion has its roots in an activity that is still seen as superstitious to this day: seances. According to the religion’s history, the first followers of Cao Dai were able to connect to souls that conveyed a request from the Jade Emperor to establish the religion.

Cao Dai’s mission is to unify the “Triple Schools” of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. On top of this, it also fuses five larger religions (Five Branches) into one, including Buddhism, Daoism, Catholicism, and Confucianism. Because of this, Cao Dai worships 8 individuals who represent the Triple Schools and the Five Branches.

See more: Squarely in the South, the origins of Cao Dai 

Curious Fragrance of Treasure Mountain

“Curious Fragrance of Treasure Mountain” is a religion that emerged in the middle of the 19th century. It was founded in the Mekong River Delta by a man whose identity is still unclear, a man named Doan Minh Huyen, born in 1807.

According to Tran Van Dong, folk tales claim that Doan Minh Huyen was able to attract many followers because he was able to heal people using natural water; he would give sick people ashen water and fresh flowers to consume as an offering to the Buddha. Doan Minh Huyen also announced a Long Hoa Festival, where Maitreya would appear and receive practitioners.

Curious Fragrance of Treasure Mountain is a religion whose foundation is Buddhism; however, unlike Buddhism, it does not require followers to leave their homes (to become monks or nuns), eat vegetarian, or set up costly altars; rather, its followers simply worship a red sheet of fabric. 

Translated by Will Nguyen

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