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Vietnam Accused “Hostile Forces” Of “Abusing” Ba Vang Pagoda Story. What Is Ba Vang?

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Buddhist followers at Ba Vang Pagoda. Photo credits: Ba Vang Pagoda.

A number of Vietnam’s state newspapers simultaneously began reporting on an almost identical story in late March 2019. They all accused “hostile forces” of “abusing” the Ba Vang Pagoda Incident to “promote, incite, and entice the people, monks, and Buddhists to fight against the government, generating divisions of religious unity.”

Such strong words came from an article printed on April 1, 2019, by the VTC News (Vietnam Television Corporation), one of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s largest mouthpieces, which further announced:

“The hostile forces changed information as a plot to distort the freedom of religion situation in Vietnam.”

The Ba Vang Pagoda Incident was just the latest addition to the laundry list of accusations made by the Vietnamese government against “hostile forces” over the years. Often, it would accuse them of taking advantages of social problems in Vietnam to incite the public and created friction between the state and its people.

But what happened at Ba Vang Pagoda? What is this place?

Why do both the Vietnamese government and its people care so much about it recently?

Ba Vang is a Buddhist temple in Quang Ninh Province, and Abbot Thich Truc Thai Minh belongs to the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS). The VBS is the only Buddhist Sangha recognized by the Vietnamese government, and it is also a member of the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, an umbrella group of mass movements in Vietnam aligned with the Communist Party of Vietnam.

Earlier in March 2019, some video clips of a Buddhist follower named Pham Thi Yen preaching in front of thousands of people in Ba Vang Pagoda spread rapidly on Facebook and other social media platforms.

One clip shows Mrs. Yen discussing the case of a female student who was gang-raped and murdered while on her delivery route earlier this year. Yen explained that the killing was due to the deceased’s evil karma, which she said the deceased had sown in her past life, and for which she must suffer retribution this life. Her speech had angered the entire nation.

Then, on March 20, 2019, an investigative report in the Lao Dong newspaper entitled “Spreading the dead soul’s vengeance, Ba Vang Pagoda earns tens of millions of US dollars every year,” fueled even more public backlash against the pagoda. The article alleged that religious leaders at the pagoda were performing superstitious activities, such as offering to eliminate bad luck for a large sum of money from its followers.

Members of the Ba Vang Pagoda preached that all troubles in life sprang from the ghosts of many previous lives before who follow the people until this life to seek revenge for past misdeeds or grudges. If one “wants to be forgiven,” he or she then must “offer money to the ghosts” which they could do it by donating money to Ba Vang.

On social media, people began to investigate Abbot Thich Truc Thai Minh and his past. In Vietnam, there has always been strong speculation among the public about the entangled, secretive relationship between the Party and the VSB, where high ranking monks and abbots have been elected to the National Assembly, held governmental posts, and have always spoken in support of the VCP.

The social backlash and public anger towards the Ba Vang Incident prompted a quick reaction from both the government and the VSB. Multiple ministries issued urgent orders to investigate the matter, and the VSB announced that it had disciplined Ba Vang’s abbot.

But the people refused to let the story de-escalate. Indeed, more and more netizens dug up past videos and pictures Ba Vang had previously used as infomercials. Photos of past and present leaders, such as Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who was shown walking hand in hand with Abbot Thich Truc Thai Minh spread like wildfire on Facebook.

Facebook users went further and started to suspect openly that the Ba Vang Pagoda Incident was indeed an internal fight between high ranking officials in Vietnam whose business interests had collided. It has been an old rumor among Vietnamese people that some of the large and well-constructed pagodas in the country were places where illegal money laundering activities took place, involving many of the VCP’s officials.

Some well-known Facebook commentators continued to question the incidents at Ba Vang Pagoda, asking: who had approved the construction and operation of the pagoda, whether it was legal to ‘collect money for superstitious activities,’ who was behind all these activities.

And as the people continued to probe, the government turned to an old trick, blaming “hostile forces” for the ongoing controversy.

In the past, the government had accused “hostile forces” of being behind the fight against the operation of illegal BOT toll booths. The protests in June 2018, where thousands of people rallied against the Special Economic Zones and the Cybersecurity law, were also supposedly incited by such forces, according to the state.

Free Press

Minister of Propaganda Says Vietnam’s Press Should Serve Party, Prevent “Self-Evolution”

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At a conference on “Strengthening Party-building Work in Press Organizations” last Friday, Mr. Vo Van Thuong, head of Communist Vietnam’s Central Propaganda Committee, reminded attendees that the press must serve the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the revolution in order to function “stably” and “without error”. 

Referring to a government plan ratified earlier in the year to develop and manage press throughout the country until 2025, Thuong stated that the time for debate had passed and that strict implementation was now key. According to state media and in sentiment echoed by Thuong, the press serves as “an important channel to fight against incorrect information, fake news, news critical of the regime, and that which makes people lose trust in the Party-State.”

In his remarks at the conference, Thuong stressed the importance of ideological work in press organizations and making sure Party cadres and Party members guard against signs of political, ideological, and moral decay. In particular, Thuong warned against signs of “self-development” and “self-evolution”, negative terms that refer to the shift towards liberal democratic values–values which are anathema to the ruling Communist Party.

In this vein, Thuong took to admonishing journalists who lacked “proper training” and were critical of society but not sufficiently critical of themselves. He also stressed the importance of proper training for leadership and suggested greater oversight of the Party committees and organizations involved in press organizations, particularly when it comes to adherence to Party regulations.

“In order to help press organizations develop self-awareness and a more proper nature, we should do as a number of comrades have stated: ‘Sometimes those who educate [Party members and cadres] must themselves be educated’,” Thuong stated.

Thuong reminded attendees that Vietnam’s journalists were journalists of the revolution, journalists of the Party, and journalists of the state; as such, they should work closely with the Central Propaganda Committee, the Ministry of Information and Communication, various central Party committee blocs, and the Vietnamese Journalists Association, in order to strengthen the leadership of the Party.

The plan approved April 2nd of this year also seeks to streamline Communist Vietnam’s press environment, limiting government bodies to one newspaper and one magazine, with a shift to electronic rather than print forms, and with the “Vietnamese Communist Party E-Newspaper” and the Central Propaganda Committee serving as the “core” of the country’s press structure. 

Along with head of propaganda, Thuong is also currently a member of the Politburo (short for “Political Bureau”, the leading body of the Vietnamese Communist Party), and the secretary of the Central Committee (from which members of the Politburo are chosen). In the past, Thuong was deputy secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) Standing Committee, first secretary of the Central Committee of the HCMC Communist Youth Union, and secretary of the Quang Ngai Provincial Party Committee.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Vietnam ranks 176th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom. Although freedom of the press is guaranteed by Article 25 of the 2013 Vietnamese Constitution, Communist Vietnam is a one-party, authoritarian state that does not tolerate challenges to its power. It controls all official media, newspapers, and publishing houses in the country and regularly censors material that does not conform to sanctioned historical or political narratives.

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New Visa Rules Make It Easier for Foreigners to Work, Invest in Vietnam’s Coastal Economic Zones

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On November 25, the National Assembly (NA) of Vietnam passed amendments to its Law on Entry, Exit, Transit, and Residence of Foreigners that would allow visa-free entry into coastal economic zones, as well as enable visa status changes from inside the country. The amendments were approved with 83.6% of the vote and go into effect July 1, 2020.

The amendments stipulate that in order for a coastal economic zone to quality for the visa-free exemption, it must be separate from the mainland, possess clearly defined territory and boundaries, have an international airport, and must not compromise national security or national defense.

Of note in the amendments is the alternate phrasing “special administrative-economic unit” used to refer to areas affected by the new law. The phrase “special economic zone” (SEZ) is considered sensitive after nationwide protests broke out in June of 2018, in opposition to a Special Economic Zones (SEZ) law that was being considered before the NA. The law would have established SEZs in Van Don, Bac Van Phong, and Phu Quoc, but widespread concern that the SEZs would be overrun by Chinese investors prompted the NA to shelve the law.  

Some Vietnamese have noted that Van Don and Phu Quoc of the previously-shelved SEZ law both qualify for visa-free entry under the new amendments, sparking concerns that the government is attempting to circumvent popular opposition. Representatives of the NA themselves have expressed concerns that opening up these areas to visa-free travel may pose a national security threat and have requested greater government regulation.

But Vo Trong Viet, chairman of the NA Committee on National Defense and Security, has argued that “the amendments would make it easier for foreigners to stay in Vietnam to learn about the market, and look for jobs and investment opportunities without wasting time and money on immigration procedures.”

Also included in the amendment is a stipulation allowing foreigners to change or renew their visa status while inside Vietnam, instead of having to leave the country entirely, as was previous practice. The amendment allows for visa changes by individuals in specific circumstances: “visitors who can prove they are investors or representatives of foreign organizations that make legal investments in Vietnam” and their family members, as well as foreign workers who receive job offers or enter with e-visas (provided they have the requisite work permit or work permit exemption).

Vietnam’s National Assembly, elected in 2016 and currently in its 14th session, consists of 496 members, 475 of which belong to the Communist Party (the remaining 21 are independents). Though largely considered a “rubber stamp” parliament due to a lack of public consultation and debate, discussions over pieces of legislation have increased in recent years, and the NA has begun to assume a larger political role in the eyes of the public. The NA meets twice a year to formally ratify laws, with individual members serving five-year terms.

Elections for the 15th session of the NA are set to take place in 2021.

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Freedom of expression

In Prolific Day, Vietnam Sentences Six Dissidents to Prison for “Anti-state” Activities

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Nguyen Chi Vung (top), Pham Van Diep (middle), Vo Thuong Trung, Doan Viet Hoan, Ngo Xuan Thanh, and Nguyen Dinh Khue (bottom, left to right) . Photo sources: Kien Thuc, Binh An, and Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper, respectively. Composite photo created by Will Nguyen.


In a particularly damaging day for Vietnamese dissidents, six individuals were sentenced to a total of 26 years in prison for opposing the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). The convictions on November 26, 2019 bookend an active month for Vietnamese security forces, who have arrested and convicted numerous individuals for their on- and offline “anti-state” activities. 

Nguyen Chi Vung, 38, was sentenced to six years in prison by a court in the southern Mekong Delta province of Bac Lieu. Vung was convicted under Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code for “Making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and articles against the SRV”. According to Reuters, Vung had “held 33 livestream sessions on Facebook ‘to share distorted information’ and ‘encourage people to participate in protests during national holidays’”.

Pham Van Diep, 54, was convicted under the same article, with a north-central Vietnamese court in Thanh Hoa sentencing him to nine years in prison and five years probation. His indictment stated that he had a nine-year history of expressing online dissent and that he made frequent Facebook posts criticizing the VCP leadership and SRV policies. According to Tuoi Tre newspaper, he had previously printed and distributed anti-SRV flyers in the Lao capital city of Vientiane. On June 28, 2016, Diep was arrested by Laotian authorities, tried in February of 2018, and sentenced to 21 months in prison for “using the territory of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to oppose neighboring countries”. Lao authorities took him to the Vietnamese border one month after his trial, where he was allowed to re-enter Vietnam.

In Dong Nai, a province bordering the southern hub of Ho Chi Minh City, four individuals were convicted under Article 118 for “Disruption of security”. According to Vietnamese Human Rights Defenders, “[t]he four convicted were arrested on April 25, 2019, for their intention to participate in a peaceful demonstration scheduled on April 30 to mark the 34th anniversary of the fall of the US-backed Saigon regime”. Vo Thuong Trung, 42, and Doan Viet Hoan, 35, were each sentenced to three years in prison, while Ngo Xuan Thanh, 49, and Nguyen Dinh Khue, 41, each received 28 months.

The convictions of these six individuals in one day comes a little over a week after 43-year-old music teacher Nguyen Nang Tinh was sentenced to 11 years in prison and five years house arrest for violating Article 117. According to his lawyers, a Facebook account making anti-SRV posts used the same name as their client. However, they said the account did not, in fact, belong to him. Tinh was arrested May 29, 2019 and convicted on November 16 in the north-central province of Nghe An.

Last week also saw the high-profile arrest of Pham Chi Dung, a journalist with a doctorate in economics, and a founding chairman of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam. Dung, 53, is a former VCP member and is known for his incisive political and economic critiques of both the VCP and SRV. He has written for Voice of America, BBC, Radio Free Asia, NBC News, Nguoi Viet, and Asian Nikkei Review.

Dung’s arrest has been noted by the European Union and condemned by Reporters Without Borders, who hailed him as “an outspoken Vietnamese journalist and leading press freedom defender who for years has been trying to help create an open and informed civil society in Vietnam that is not controlled by its Communist Party.” He is currently being held at the Phan Dang Luu Detention Center in Ho Chi Minh City, one of two centers in the city where political dissidents are usually held while they are being investigated (the other being Chi Hoa Prison). He faces up to 12 years behind bars.

Although freedom of speech, press, and assembly are all guaranteed by Article 25 of the 2013 Vietnamese Constitution, the SRV is a one-party, authoritarian state that does not tolerate challenges to its power. It routinely arrests and convicts activists under Articles 117 and 118 of the penal code, as well as Article 331, which cites  “Abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State”. Such broadly defined articles are regularly used as a catch-all to target citizens who criticize the VCP or demand political reform. The SRV has long claimed that it does not jail prisoners of conscience, only individuals who violate the law. Human rights groups say the two are not mutually exclusive.

Addendum: On November 28, 2019, two more individuals in Dong Nai were convicted under Article 117. Huynh Minh Tam, 41, and his sister Huynh Thi To Nga, 36, were sentenced to nine and five years of prison, respectively, for making Facebook posts critical of the SRV.


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