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.