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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.

Press Release

The Vietnamese: Call for Pitches

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Dear Readers and Writers:

For the last five months, The Vietnamese has not been publishing regularly, something that you may have noticed. Our magazine was short on staff and it affected our publication. We are very sorry about any inconvenience it may have caused you. But here comes the good news. 

Starting in September 2019, we have been back and starting to use a new working scheme for our publication. Now we are reaching out to freelancers to submit pitches and work on articles to be published on our platform. 

As we have written in our mission statement for The Vietnamese, this magazine will be “a platform for each and every Vietnamese individual – who shares our dreams, our visions, and our daily struggles for a democratic country where the rule of law and human rights are respected – to raise their voice and bring their issues to the world stage.” 

We have probably also noticed some of the same issues as many of you, that Vietnam’s human rights situation and political scene were not being demonstrated as clearly as we want them to be on the world stage. Many of the critical issues that Vietnamese people care and are concerned about were not discussed in English writings. And now, this is the time that you can submit your pitches and start writing about what concerns Vietnamese people the most in terms of human rights, democracy, and political concerns.

Please be aware that as a magazine, The Vietnamese quite often does not publish very time-sensitive or breaking news. We decide on pitches at our weekly editorial meetings, and so it may take up to at least one week to respond to your pitch. Once we accept a pitch, it typically takes two weeks to one month before it is published as our editorial team is also made up of freelance and part-time staff, which may delay our response time. 

A few times a year, we will also be considering a specific call for pitches for certain themes and we will send out updates when there are such calls.

OUR RATES:

– US$200 for text (approximately 1,500 words for written pieces)

– US$200 for 7-10 minute (edited) video clips with English subtitles, US$150 for a recorded op-ed or interview. 

Invoices should be submitted after the article has been published on our website. We are committed to paying timely and promptly.

PITCH FORMAT:

Please answer all of these questions in an email to be sent to editor@thevietnamese.org or vi.tran@thevietnames.org. 

– What is your name?
– What section are you pitch to, is it written form  or video?
– What’s your idea? (Please be as specific as you can.)
– Who could you talk to or have access to?
– What makes this story interesting or insightful?
– When can you submit the first draft?
– Will you submit photographs with the article that you or another person has taken?
– Please provide any links to your previous published articles or videos.

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Press Release

Pham Doan Trang Received Prize for Impact from Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 Press Freedom Awards

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Photo credits: RSF

On September 12, 2019, our editor Pham Doan Trang had received the Prize for Impact from Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Awards 2019 in Berlin, Germany.

Trang was not able to travel and received her award in person. Instead, our editor Trinh Huu Long and also the editor-in-chief for Luat Khoa magazine was representing Trang to accept it.

Being her colleagues, The Vietnamese magazine’s staff is delighted and honored that Doan Trang received the Impact award. We have all been inspired and moved by her tireless efforts – as she stated – to make sure that “journalism is not a crime anywhere in the world.” Together with her, we all work for Vietnam to soon be a democratic country.

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Imprisoned Dissident – Anh Ba Sam – Encountered Odd Events Before Release Date

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Portrait of Anh Ba Sam. Photo credits: Luat Khoa Magazine.

Journalist Nguyen Huu Vinh (whose pen name is Anh Ba Sam) faced quite a few peculiar encounters in Prison Center Number 5, Yen Dinh district, Thanh Hoa province in recent months.

According to Le Thi Minh Ha, his wife, on December 9, 2018, a man in a police uniform came to visit Vinh in his prison cell and spent an hour and a half talking to him. At the end of their conversation, the man left behind an envelope full of money and told Vinh that after his release from prison he should support To Lam, the current minister of public security – the national police force in Vietnam.

Mrs. Ha told Luat Khoa magazine: “My husband recounted the story to me when I visited him. Neither one of us could grasp what was happening. Who was this man and who had directed him to do such a thing? Was he someone who works for To Lam or someone who wanted to harm To Lam? Nevertheless, it could also be intimidation. We think we should publicize this information to protect Vinh.”

Both Ha and Vinh went to college with the current Minister To Lam in the 1970s, where all three were studying at the People’s Security Academy. This school is where the Vietnamese government trains its future secret police force officers.

Vinh was arrested on May 5, 2014, and at the time, To Lam was the vice minister of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS). He was held in pre-trial detention for almost two years before being convicted of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state, the rights and interests of other entities and citizens,” and sentenced to five-year-imprisonment on March 23, 2016. Before his arrest, he was the owner of the blog site Anh Ba Sam – one of the most famous online newspapers in Vietnam during the past few years.

Another event – which also caused Ha to have more concerns over her husband’s safety – happened on January 27, 2019, the day of her monthly visit to Prison Center Number 5.

She stated that one prison guard had requested to meet her in private and told her: “On the release day (which will be May 5, 2019), if there are only family members then the center will process the paperwork and release him at the gate of the prison. If there are other non-family members accompanying (you), carrying banners and posters with them, then the prison center will take Vinh to a remote area and leave him there by himself.”

“On March 4, 2019, my husband called me from the prison center in accordance with the monthly allowance of five-minute-phone calls, where he told me that the same prison guard met with him again in private and told him the same thing,” Ha informed Luat Khoa magazine.

Mrs. Ha had already sent a letter of complaint to Prison Center Number 5 on February 1, 2019, to report the previous incident. She received a response dated February 25, 2019, which insisted that no prison guard had communicated any such content to either her or Vinh at the center.

Luat Khoa indicated that its reporter contacted the prison center with the number Ha had provided in April 2019, but the person who answered the phone refused to acknowledge the name of the alleged prison guard. Instead, he stated that the name belongs to someone who lives near the prison center. When the Luat Khoa reporter pressed for the current condition of Nguyen Huu Vinh, the person then said he did not know.

Mrs. Ha had also lodged complaints regarding the threat to release Vinh in a desolate area with Minister To Lam, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the National Assembly Judicial Committee and its Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, as well as Ho Thanh Dinh – The head of the Prison Management Bureau. However, all of her complaints eventually were passed down to Prison Center Number 5 to resolve.

“The person who threatened me and my husband was an officer at Center Number 5, and if all of my complaints were making their way back to this same place, then it would be meaningless. Both of us are feeling anxious and scared now that they (the prison guards) might try to harm Vinh one way or another,” Ha said.

On March 4, 2019, she also sent a letter to an alumni group consisting of her and Vinh’s former classmates at the People’s Security Academy, to suggest that if any one of them is going to accompany her on his release day, then please don’t bring any banner or poster so that they would be “in compliance with” the prison center’s request.

*** This story was first written in Vietnamese by Tran Ha Linh for Luat Khoa magazine on April 12, 2019. The Vietnamese has reviewed all of the complaints and letters which Mrs. Ha submitted and the official reply from the prison center. But because we only received information from Mrs. Ha, we decided at this time not to reveal the names of the prison guard or of the man in police uniform mentioned in this story.

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