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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.

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COVID-19: Why Vietnam’s Second Positive Wave Might Not Be Entirely Negative

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Vietnamese people quickly wear masks as protective gears. Photo courtesy: The Vietnamese

After nearly 100 days of zero new confirmed cases in the local community, within the last 10 days, there has been a jump in the number of patients contracting the virus in various cities in Vietnam.

According to official figures, in the six months from January 23  to July 25, there were only 140 local cases, the rest were imported patients, and zero fatalities. Since July 25, in a period of less than two weeks, more than 300 new local cases have been confirmed with 10 deaths so far.

Da Nang, the third largest city of the country, has become the new epicenter of the pandemic. 

While this new surge seems to have caught the entire nation by surprise, in reality it is a scenario that was long written on the wall, with the pandemic having never really ceased to rock countries after it first appeared on the world stage in January 2020 (the first reported case outside of China). And though it has created a new scare among citizens, it is a positive and necessary alarm.

Empty street in Hoi An city in August 2020. Photo Courtesy: The Vietnamese

To the moon and back

More than three months without domestic positive cases had put the whole nation in a complacent mode. Even the health care staff at hospitals had lowered their guard. Most of the initial cases from July 25 were linked to patients and their caretaker relatives in Da Nang hospitals.

Since then, the virus has quickly spread throughout the community and to other cities.

Fortunately, it does not take long for the whole system to restart and quickly return  to crisis mode. Da Nang was almost immediately put under partial lockdown, with thorough contact tracing being carried out for every new case. People who had been in close contact with new positive cases were put under quarantine. Medical teams and personnel from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh were sent to the epicenter to help relieve the pressure and the wearing of face masks in public in big cities became mandatory again. 

There is reason to be optimistic about the ability of the country to contain the new wave despite it having caught everyone off guard.

Local wet market in Hoi An City. Photo courtesy: The Vietnamese

Through the looking glass of Taiwan

With the initial success in containing Covid-19, there has been an ongoing debate among citizens on whether Vietnam’s authoritarian system is better equipped than other democratic societies to cope with a pandemic. However, focusing on governing systems might miss some critical points.

Comparing Vietnam with Taiwan, an exemplary success in the fight against this pandemic, may provide some useful insights.

At first glance, the two countries could not be more different. One is a communist state, the other one of the most vibrant democratic systems in the world. At closer look, Vietnam and Taiwan share some vital similarities in the fight against Covid-19. 

They both are next to China, the origin of the pandemic. Both governments, and especially their people, have the same distrust of the Chinese Communist Party, hence the high alert mode from the very beginning, long before other countries took this infectious disease seriously. They also share painful experiences from the SARS pandemic in 2003, which also originated from China. With those scars still fresh in mind, going through this crisis is like bathing in the same river twice. They knew how and where to swim.

The culture and society also played an important role here. 

Both countries are still dominated by Confucious-like ideals about the need for a harmonious society where collectivism trumps individualism. In the case of major crises like a pandemic, this kind of mindset helps glue the community together faster, quickly putting everyone into the same “for the common good” mode. 

This particular pandemic, Covid-19, in which the elderly are the most vulnerable, also highlights one important aspect: how societies treat and value their aged populations.

In Vietnam, like Taiwan, most families have at least one senior member living under the same roof. Therefore, most people, even the younger generations, despite being in low-risk groups, still voluntarily took extra precautions to protect their family members.

Opportunities lie in the midst of every crisis, as the old saying goes. And there are many opportunities for a change-demanding society like Vietnam.

While the resurgence has shattered the illusion of exceptionalism, deflating many hardcore aficionados of the authoritarian system, it has also inflated the constant alert mindset, which is a life-and-death difference in the fight against most infectious diseases.

The health crisis also puts the whole governing system in the spotlight, pushing the need for greater transparency and accountability.

With the virus always seeming to have a head start, the authorities have had no other option than to constantly play catch-up. Around-the-clock updates and publicized data and numbers are now the new normal. Government officials are forced to focus on containing the spread of the pandemic. Even when the pandemic is over, it is hard to imagine returning to “the old normal”. 

The virus has also created space for a newborn civil society. With the government’s resources stretched thin and vastly inadequate, citizens and volunteer groups have organized themselves for a wide range of mutual-support activities, from donating basic necessities to setting up coordinating teams to offer transportation for supplies and people in need. Again, when the pandemic is over, citizens who have trained themselves in this new normal will not be easily caged again. Instead, they will demand a greater place on the stage in building a common and better society for themselves.

A deadly pandemic is obviously not an ideal scenario to push for a positive change in any society. But as in any crisis, a good response brings along good reforms. 

There are reasons to be optimistic about the emergence of some form of positive change after the country has gone through this extraordinary period. 

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9th Annual Vietnam Advocacy Day

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Vietnam Advocacy Day is an annual event, organized by Boat People SOS, where Vietnamese Americans across the United States come to Washington, DC to meet with their representatives to voice about human rights issues in Vietnam and to connect with other Vietnamese diaspora community, human rights witnesses and advocates. Due to COVID-19, the 9th annual VNAD 2020 will take place through several webinars.

Please register for the webinars at the links below.

Webinar 1: Friday July 31st, 9AM- 11AM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Religion and the Rights of Indegenous Peoples

Register for Webinar 1: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-FORB-1

Webinar 2: Friday July 31st, 1PM- 3PM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Religion and the Rights of Indegenous Peoples continued

Register for Webinar 2: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-FORB-2

Webinar 3: Friday August 7th, 9AM- 11AM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Expression, the Press and Internet

Register for Webinar 3http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-EXPRESSION

Webinar 4: Friday August 7th, 1PM- 3PM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Expression, the Press and Internet
Topic: Prisoners of Conscience and Torture

Register for Webinar 4: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-POC

Webinar 5: Friday August 14th, 9AM- 11AM EDT

Topic: UN Mechanisms and Sanctions

Register for Webinar 5: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-UN

Webinar 6: Friday August 14th, 1PM- 3PM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Expression, the Press and Internet
Topic: UN Mechanisms and Sanctions – continued

Register for Webinar 6http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-SANCTION

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Press Release

Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese’s Press Release on the Indictment of Three Members of The Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN)’s

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As media organizations, Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese magazines vehemently denounce the three recent arrests of the three members of IJAVN: Le Huu Minh Tuan (detained on June 12, 2020), Nguyen Tuong Thuy (detained on May 23, 2020, and Pham Chi Dung (detained on November 21, 2019).

All of these three journalists were charged with the crime “publish, store, and disseminate or propagandize information, documentation, and products against the Social Republic of Vietnam” (Article 117 of Vietnam’s current Penal Code). This penal code has already been viewed as a blatant violation of people’s freedom of speech and free press by many human rights organizations. 

IJAVN – together with running its Vietnam Thoi Bao newspaper – is a regular civil society organization formed under the right to associate, and it sets to implement the right for a free press and promote an independent and decent media for Vietnam.

Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese magazines share and support the values in which the IJAVN pursues. 

As journalists, we ultimately care for the safety of our other colleagues. We consider the reality of a government trying to silence any journalist to be an imminent threat to us and anyone who practices free speech.

Silencing journalists is also a violation of the right to read free and independent media of the people.

We have realized that the call for the government of Vietnam to release immediately and unconditionally these three journalists of IJAVN would be unrealistic in the situation of Vietnam. However, that action is the only righteous conduct that the Vietnamese government could act right now, and therefore, we call on them to immediately do so.

We also call on all of the journalists, the activists, the public, the international organizations, and the foreign governments to jointly monitor and pressure the Vietnamese authorities to release the three journalists, Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and Le Huu Minh Tuan; and to call on the government to respect the Vietnamese people’s right for a free press and the freedom to form associations.

___

To contact us, please email editor@luatkhoa.org

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