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Montagnards: Persecuted in Vietnam, Living in Limbo in Thailand

Over the past two decades since it first began, Hanoi’s persecution of the indigenous peoples of the Central Highlands is still raging on.

Four among at least 500 Montagnards people living in limbo in Thailand. Photo: Thinh Nguyen.

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Tran Duy – Ha Anh

On the morning of April 19, 2008, indigenous villagers of Ia Piar – more than 80 km away from the Gia Lai provincial capital in Pleiku – were heading to their commune people’s committee with well prepared posters and banners calling for religious freedom and the protection of land ownership. They had their own “battle plan” ready, but so did the authorities.

Soon after the protest began, the villagers, who are Protestants, ran into a group of strangers carrying wooden sticks in their hands. For no reason, the protesters were severely threatened and beaten by these people. To save their lives, the villagers ran off in different directions, except for Nay Them, who was arrested despite not having joined the protest.

Nay Them recalls how the meeting room of the district police, where he was first interrogated,  soon turned into a “slaughterhouse”. The police tied him to a chair with electric wires. He was tied so tightly he could barely move, not even a centimeter.

As if in a Hollywood movie, policemen kept walking around Nay while his whole body was shaking violently after being kicked, slapped, and beaten with batons that directly struck his head. Being shaken up after falling down from the chair, he was beaten over and over again. The people who hit him no longer considered him as one of their compatriots.

There was no attempt to talk to him nicely or to reason with him. Or maybe it was simply because this tactic is not used for ethnic Jrai people such as Nay. He had no rights at all, not even the right to talk, or to even open his mouth.

The police insisted that Nay knew exactly where the protestors were hiding. They kept beating him over and again with their hands and a baton. “ Soldiers, plainclothes policemen, mobile policemen and even traffic policemen were enjoying beating me up”, said Nay. “One of them walked around me and finally hit my face with a baton”. Blood splattered from his swollen nose and eyes  until Nay fainted.

The next day, Nay woke up at a detention center with wounds all over his body. “I was in so much pain my eyes were swollen”, he recalls. “I could sit but could not open my eyes. I could not eat for five days”.

Ia Piar Commune is almost 80 km away from Pleiku, the provincial capital, and about 17 km away from the district police department.

Meanwhile, Nay’s brother-in-law, Siu Wiu, the person in charge of the protest, was hiding far away deep in the forest. Siu was a small, muscular Jrai, a typical example of the dark-skinned Montagnards in the Central Highlands. His eyes were as sharp as a cat’s.

Every policeman in this district knew Siu Wiu. He had been sent to a re-education camp in 2004 under the charge of leading a demonstration. At the camp, Siu met 180 other Jrai people who were exploited while being held prisoner. They worked as sugar cane porters or builders from early morning until evening . “Everyone was beaten by hoe handles no matter who they were – young or senior citizens,” Nay said.

“We were arrested not for burglary, but for fighting for land protection and religious freedom”, he said. “Do you know if treating us like this is right or wrong?” Siu recalled asking one officer at the camp. 

Two years later, he was set free, the re-education camp having failed to change Siu’s thinking about the government.The camp gave him 160,000 dong, which was just enough to buy a bus ticket home, leaving him without any money to buy anything to eat on his way back to his village.

Meanwhile, Siu’s family members – all Protestants – continued to be targeted  because they had taken part in the protests. Some had been detained, arrested or imprisoned.

Siu Wiu was under house arrest while his father, Nay Bro, was imprisoned. “I was not allowed to do anything, and our land was also taken by the government,” Siu said. He added that the government had take three-quarters of his land, leaving just a little than 250 square meter left for farming. 

Facing such difficulties, he called for a protest in front of the people’s committee of the Ia Piar commune. Other villagers joined Siu in the protest.

“In order to convince the villagers to join this protest, I talked about the truth. They also lost their land so they followed me”, said Siu. “Their beliefs were threatened by the government. Their family members had been sent to prison for religious reasons. The government said that we were free to exchange information, free to communicate. But in fact, we would be arrested whenever we raised our voices.”

Protests such as this were not uncommon in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. From 2001 to 2008, demonstrations have taken place frequently in the area and thousands of people have fled to Cambodia to escape the government’s revenge.

One month hiding in the forest was too much for Siu Wiu. He decided to go home to look for more food, but he was detained immediately. “I was arrested at around 4 pm and severely tortured,” he said. “They tied my legs to the chair with a  hammock string and started to beat me until my mouth was swollen, my eyes could not open properly, and my ears were full of blood”.

Siu was sentenced to 10 years in prison at the end of December 2008.

Nay Them, who was released right after they caught Siu, never forgot what the policeman told him: “I understand that you don’t know about the protest, but as I was afraid that you would hide some information, I had to beat you first”.

The experiences of Nay Them, Nay Bro and Siu Wiu show how the Central Highlands of Vietnam is like a large prison for ethnic people who fight for their religious freedom and land rights. The more remote their villages are, the more controlling the local governments are. No law exists in these far-flung regions. 

No lawyers dared to defend them. In addition to being a warning to villagers of the high cost of joining protests, the mobile trials were also a government ruse to make it appear that those charged had been given a fair trial. The trials were a sham. And even when left prison after serving their time, they’d still never be free people.

Nay Bro had been sentenced to seven years in prison for sabotaging the great unity policy after being accused of organizing protests in 2005. At the detention center, he was imprisoned with 62 other Jrai, Ede and Bana people for their work on behalf of  land rights and religious freedom.

After being released from prison, the local police kept an eye on him as he remained a suspect in the  plotting of protests.

“On August 25, 2015, the police came to arrest me again,” said Nay Bro. “They came to my house while I was looking for bamboo shoots in the forest. When I headed back home, my wife informed me that there were 5-6 policemen visiting my house. They asked her to keep me in my house as they wanted to see me the next day. I would rather die in the forest than be put under communist surveillance”.

Nay Bro took his personal belongings and informed his daughter that he and his wife would be away for a few days to take care of some friends in the hospital. Nay and his wife hid in the forest for more than 11 days.

Stateless in Thailand

As a highlander, Nay Bro didn’t believe what lowlanders often said: “If you didn’t do anything wrong, the police would set you free.” From his own experience, he knew that “once  I was imprisoned for the first time, I would have no chance to go home after the second time I was imprisoned”. 

In September 2015, Nay Them helped his parents-in-law travel to Saigon, where they then followed a stranger travelling by bus to Thailand. Crossing the border was the only way to avoid being arrested by the government and sent back to a reform camp or prison. Thailand was the favorite place for Montagnard refugees seeking to escape Vietnam.

Siu Wiu (right) and his father, Nay Bro, standing in front of their house above a river in Thailand. Nay Bro has been waiting for resettlement for almost 4 years in Bangkok, not knowing what will happen next. Photo: Luat Khoa tap chi.

The word Montagnard was first used by the French when they ruled Vietnam to refer to the more than 20 different ethnic groups indigenous to the Central Highlands. These indigenous peoples lived in the Central Highlands before the Kinh, or Vietnamese, people arrived. The E-de, Jrai and Bana people have a larger population than other ethnic groups, such as the  K’ho, Sedang, Stieng, and Ma.

Today, the word Montagnard has disappeared from official state usage,. They are now generally known as “ethnic minority people”.

Them was arrested in November 2016 after the police discovered  that he was involved in helping his parents-in-law escape across the border to Thailand. He was in a dilemma between asking his in-laws to return  to Vietnam and being prosecuted on the charge of  “forcing others to flee or stay abroad illegally”, which carried a punishment of at least two years in prison.

Once again, crossing the border was the only way that Nay Them could think of to get out of his predicament. He took his wife, two children and his wife’s younger brother to Thailand with him after having been temporarily released. The arrest warrant was issued immediately after they left.

In the middle of July 2019, I met Nay Them and his wife’s other eight family members at a refugee camp in a suburb of Bangkok. They lived not far from the WestGate Shopping Mall, in the Bang Dai District, Nonthaburi Province. Siu Wiu came to Bangkok in 2018 after finishing his 10-year prison term.

Temporary identification cards issued for asylum seekers Nay Them and his family. Photo: Luat Khoa tap chi.

That day, Nay Them looked exhausted and frustrated. With a big paper board hanging in front of his chest, he and his two year old daughter, who was born in Thailand, wandered around different NGO offices, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), begging for help for his wife, who had been detained for over a year.

Sen Nhiang, a Jrai person who took me to the camp from the MRT station, said “Although living in poor conditions here, I can follow my Protestantism freely. In the worst case, even if I’m arrested, I would not be beaten as the Vietnamese police did to me”.

Together with his wife and three other children, Sen lived in a 20 square meter room. There were no chairs or tables. A thin mattress lay in a corner, and the only other objects were an  electric fan, clothes, books, a gas cooker, and an empty fridge; a Christian crucifix was placed solemnly in another corner of the room. His three children spoke Jrai and Thai much better than Vietnamese. His wife was sitting in front of their house weaving a towel for overseas Vietnamese who donated rice for her community. For almost a year, Sen had no job, as was the case with other refugees living here. His 14-year old daughter had just broken her arm and he was looking for support to continue her treatment. 

Talking about the status of the Montagnards in Thailand, Grace Bui, a retired US attorney, said that this area is now home to over 500 Montagnards, with approximately 120 children. “Thailand did not sign the United Nations Convention in 1951 on the status of refugees, so Montagnards, despite being recognized as refugees by the UNHCR, are still illegal residents,” she said. “They are not allowed to work, and police can arrest and punish them very harshly.” ”

Grace has been voluntarily working in the camp over the last four years. She works with overseas Vietnamese to obtain rice donations. Grace asks the INGOs, UNHCR for support for the most needy cases, especially when someone is arrested. 

Y Rin Kpa, an Ede ethnic man from the Central Highlands, who had been in prison for 10 years for  taking part in protests, messaged me via Facebook from a refugee camp in Cambodia. He told me that he was in a camp in Phnom Penh with 27 other Montagnards, including seven children under 14.

He reported that Cambodian police were strictly surveilling these people. They lived with very limited subsidies and supplies funded by the UNHCR every month. However, their biggest fear wasn’t living under such a demanding situation, but of being deported back to Vietnam, where they could face imprisonment and other abuses. A family of three was forced to go back to Vietnam in June 2019. 

Evan Jones, a coordinator for Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, a non-governmental organization that advocates for refugees in the Asia Pacific region, explained why these people don’t want to return to Vietnam.

“Vietnam is well-known for punishing returnees with prison sentences, harassment, physical abuse and intimidation,” she said. “It has been particularly difficult to keep in contact with Montagnards who have been forcibly returned in the past. This may suggest that they have faced reprisals from the Vietnamese authorities after their return.”

The Criminal Law issued in 2015 includes four articles for  prosecuting people for illegal border crossings. The shortest prison sentence is one year  (Article 349) if charged with organizing or brokering illegal emigration. The law stipulates up to 20 years in prison for particularly serious cases as stated in Article 121, which covers illegal emigration for the purpose of opposing the people’s administration.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asian Division for Human Rights Watch, has been observing the human rights situation in the Central Highlands for nearly 20 years. He is not optimistic about the situation of Montagnard refugees.

“Vietnam continues to press hard to persuade the Thai government to force Montagnards to go back.  In Bangkok and nearby provinces, Montagnards live in difficult situations, doing low paying work in the informal sector, and facing problems with access to health and education services for themselves and their children. Most importantly, they don’t know what the future will hold for them, and whether they will ever be safe,” he said. “In Cambodia, Vietnam’s influence is even greater [than in Thailand], so seeking protection is even harder. UNHCR officials and diplomats based in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, who represent governments that resettle refugees, should redouble their efforts to protect the Montagnards, and strongly resist Vietnam’s efforts to force the Montagnards to go back.”

Despite pressure from the Vietnamese government, the number of Montagnards crossing the border into Thailand is still increasing. “The total number of Montagnards [crossing the border] has increased,” said Sen Nhiang.. “Last month, there were 20 more people coming from Dak Lak. We don’t have enough rice to give them”.

Sen Nhiang and his wife, sitting in their small studio apartment in Bangkok, recall what made them escape Vietnam to become stateless in Thailand. Photo: Luat Khoa tap chi.

Vietnamese embassies in both Thailand and Cambodia refused to speak with Luat Khoa about the situation of the Montagnards. In Thailand, the embassy didn’t respond to our emails, faxes or phone calls. In Cambodia, a staff member named Ngoc informed us that he had no information about the status of the Montagnards in Phnom Penh, while the Politburo officer said Ngoc was the only one who could answer our questions. 

The Montagnard refugees don’t speak English or Thai and very little Vietnamese. As a result, it takes them much longer to go through UNHCR procedures to obtain refugee status; after that, they have to wait for approval from a third country to be re-settled. The chance of resettling is uncertain, and nobody is sure what the future will be like.

Jennifer Harrison, UNHCR spokeswoman in Bangkok, said she could not reveal the total number of Montagnards who are applying for refugee status at UNHCR. She said UNHCR is doing its best to help refugees.

She said: “UNHCR consistently advocates that refugees and asylum seekers – having been confirmed or claimed to be in need of international protection – cannot be returned to their countries of origin according to the principle of non-refoulement, which prevents states from expelling or returning persons to a territory where their life or freedom would be threatened.”

Losing all in Vietnam

For hundreds of years the Montagnards have  depended upon the forests to earn their living and to survive. It’s said that the Montagnards preserved the forests of the Central Highlands to serve the never-ending needs of the Kinh people – the majority of Vietnam’s population. The beds the Kinh people lie on and the chairs they sit on likely come from forests in the Central Highlands.

The Montagnards sacrificed their own fertilized lands to welcome immigrants from the north when the country was divided into two regions in 1954. And they did this again when the lowlanders moved to the new economic zones on  the order of the government in a move to deal with population growth and unemployment in cities after 1975.

The Montagnards I met in Thailand said that they had been under surveillance by the Vietnamese government back in the villages in the Central Highlands. First they were not allowed to follow their Protestant beliefs and then they lost their lands.

The Central Highlands has become the most religiously sensitive areas in Vietnam following a long period of persecution since 1975. Photo: East West Center.

The Central Highlands is no longer a mysterious land when native customs and customary laws continue to be abolished by the government. 

“When I was a child, I heard from teachers and the commune people’s committee that praying for rain, buffalo stabbing and other traditional practices were considered backward customs and superstition”, said Nay Them. “They asked the village elders to abandon these ancient customs”.

People eliminated costly rituals and men stopped smoking and drinking once they started to follow Protestantism. And so it was strange in the early 2000s when the government asked the people to restore their traditional customs. Between 2000 and  2004, the government wanted to limit the number of Protestants and so sought to restore these old customs, which were anathema to their religious beliefs. 

“They said that these were the original customs of the Central Highlands, and that following Roman Catholicism and Protestantism were following French and American customs,” said Nay Them. He had witnessed the police take away Bibles away from people  and beat them, but he did not understand why they did it.

Under strict controls by the local authorities, Nay asked his community to focus on praying at the beginning of the month, but it was also very difficult.  At the beginning of the month, the villagers secretly prayed together at the leader’s house. Every Sunday, the police would come and check all the houses. If they found people praying, they would force them to go to the police station. Police said that this religion was not allowed, especially when the people gathered and prayed at the same place.

“I went to the public church but what I got was contemptuousness,” said Nay Them. “They also discriminated against me for advocating against the government”.

Pastor Than Van Truong, who helped some Montagnard families cross the border to Thailand, said that in the 2000s the number of house Protestant groups in the Central Highlands increased sharply. These groups paid much interest to human rights as the local government had been discriminating against them regarding administrative procedures and land disputes. The people  depended on their religious affiliations to share their concerns about such issues.

There are many Protestants like Nay in the Central Highlands who also need to pray at home.The number of Protestants in the Central Highlands increased by 432% from 1975 to 1999, to a total of 228,618 followers.

The Protestants in the Central Highlands have long been regarded as a threat to the Communist regime. In 1999, former Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, along with Nguyen Tan Dung, one of the deputy ministers responsible for  the Central Highlands, established the  184 Steering Committee  (the Committee for the Guidance of Correct Thought) to suppress Protestants in the Central Highlands and the northwest.

“When we pursued and drove away FULRO (the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races) and the rebellious groups, evangelical churches in some places had to be closed….”, according to a committee statement describing its successful effort to control Protestantism in the Central Highlands. “After a few years of taking measures against Protestantism, such as suspending religious activities of Protestantism, dismissing the governing board of deacons, re-educating the clergy in detention camps, closing churches, dealing forcefully with unauthorized religious activities and agitating for the masses to defect from their own religions in fact, Protestant activities have been narrowed and prevented from operating in a normal way”

FULRO was an armed movement fighting for independence for indigenous people in Vietnam. They fought against both the regime of the Republic of Vietnam and the Viet Cong.  After hiding themselves in the forests in Cambodia, FULRO was disbanded and its members were resettled in the United States at the end of 1992.

Neil L. Jamieson, Le Trong Cuc, and A. Terry Rambo – three researchers – predicted in a special report published in 1998 that there might be some crisis in the area, and this prediction became true between  2001 and 2008. 

“Many upland people began to see themselves as poor and backward. They felt inferior to lowlanders, to foreigners, and even to some other minority groups”, the researchers wrote in their report. “Lacking money, food, access to natural resources and public services [education, health care, information], they were  on the edge of losing their most precious resources of all: self-confidence and self-respect. It was not just that they lacked money and access to daily necessities. After all, the uplands have always been economically worse off than the lowlands. The problem is that the people gradually became self-conscious about their economic status.”

In early 2001, thousands of Montagnards paraded from their villages to the government center in the region for a protest. The government then issued a curfew order, cut off the telephone lines, mobilized tanks and mobilized army forces to eliminate the massive protest.

In order to alleviate the situation, author Nguyen Ngoc suggested former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who was in charge of the Central Highlands, to revise land ownership policies, but he refused to do this. Dung sent the protesters work as forced laborers in re-education camps and  prisons.

Since the 2001protests, the government has claimed that FULRO and its Degar Protestantism, a religious organization that unites the Montagnard Protestants to stand up for their rights, was behind uprisings and activities that were opposed to the government in the Central Highlands. Until now, many Montagnards continue to be persecuted as the government thinks they have links to these organizations.

In the refugee camp in Bangkok , I had tried to find out the connection between the refugees and Degar Protestantism but the people I spoke to claimed to have no idea about it. Pastor Than Van Truong said that he had asked the Montagnard pastors to get more information about Degar Protestantism but again no one knew anything about it. 

Kpă Hung, a 44-year old Bana man, who was arrested for the  third time in 2004, when he was sentenced to 12 years in prison, lost his faith in the government. “On the protest day, I sought a transparent dialog between the government and the people,” he said. “But they neither admitted their faults nor changed their minds”. 

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Dung has continued to push harsh policies in the Central Highlands during his two succeeding terms as prime minister.

A former UN staff member in Vietnam told Luat Khoa that the state considered the Central Highlands “very sensitive” in terms of religious and ethnic issues.The United Nations in Vietnam could only intervene in the Central Highlands indirectly through Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR) and visits by the UN special rapporteur.

Land issues did not improve after a series of misguided policies in the Central Highlands, such as hydropower projects, which allocated most of the land to agroforestry farms and land in forest areas to Vietnamese  and other migrated minority groups from the north. The Montagnards didn’t received any benefits. The Land Law issued in 2003 and 2013 did not solve the land problem for indigenous highlanders.

An anonymous expert with a decade of experience working on forest lands said that the land issue in the Central Highlands was extremely complicated. He said that land disputes in some areas of the regions accounted for more than 90% of complaints. Land disputes had been taking place among the Montagnards, the government, businesses, the Kinh and other ethnic migrants.

The expert said that the Montagnards continue to face many disadvantages. “For example, they didn’t have sufficient legal evidence to fight for their land”, he said. “And furthermore, the government did not provide  adequate compensation for the indigenous people who lost their land to the government. Their land was not protected by customary laws and the people didn’t even have the right to agree on prices.”

The expert said that those indigenous people who didn’t want to fight, moved closer to natural forests, but they once again had  to confront the government. 

He added that the vicious cycle of land loss, land shortages, land disputes and encroachment was a result of multiple factors. “For instance, forest land for ethnic people to cultivate was worth approximately 15 million dong/ha/year. But if they switched to trading crops, the profit would rise to 80-120 million dong/ha/year,” he said.

The Montagnard families whom I met in Bangkok told me that they had little to no space available for use. They didn’t have enough capital to grow high-value crops so they tried to live day by day.

Children under threat

In an old house above the small canal, I found a group of Jrai women painting scenes of their unforgettable escapes from Vietnam. While there, I met Jen, a 20-year-old Jrai girl who had fled to Bangkok the  year before. She spoke a little English and the Jrai language, and she was working hard as a  translator for an American artist who was coming to the camp every weekend to provide painting therapy to her mom and others in the camp.

Jen’s mother was painting a scene about how she lost her two-year daughter after they passed through the immigration check-point at the border. While she hid herself under the bus she let her daughter go with the guide through the check-point. They reunited two days later in Laos and continued their escape to Thailand.

The paint of Jen’s mother described her escape to Thailand. Photo: Luat Khoa tap chi.

When her mother fled to Thailand, Jen was still a child in the Central Highlands. “My two younger sisters and I had to take care of ourselves. We were very scared  right after our parents had left home….” she said. “We cried so much, but we accepted the reality after two or three months, and we tried to be stronger for the next three years”.

Jen stuttered when describing the time her mother tried to escape from the police after being forced to provide her husband’s contact in Bangkok. “My mother didn’t say that she was about to go to Thailand,” said Jen. “She told me to stay at home and take care of my two younger sisters; then she walked away with my youngest sibling.”

“When I turned 18-years-old they came to my house and asked if my father had called me or if I had contacted my parents,” she said. “I dared not to speak any words. I was afraid that they would arrest me.”

Jen said there were many similar cases in her  village. “the police arrested the family members and beat them at the police station”, she said. “When they came to see us, we gathered at the corner and I tried in fear to protect my sisters with my arms.”

“Once again, the police ordered me to come to their office. They threatened that if I did not call my parents and urge them to return home, I would be put into prison,” she said. “They asked me to give them my parents’ contact information. I answered that I didn’t have any. I was so scared that I only spoke a few words and then burst into tears. They yelled at me. They beat me up. They slapped my face and head. Each night, they sent some people to investigate our house.” 

Jen later decided to give 10 million dong  (about US$430) to the man next door to send her three sisters to Thailand. The money was from her grandmother and her job.

“At 3:00 am that day, the man took the  three of us to Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City”, she said. “At the Mien Dong Bus Station, he told us to wait until someone picked us up. Finally, a man came and forced us to walk quickly. We jumped into a small car with many people, I had no idea what would happen next. We walked through the river and the jungle. After three days, we arrived in Thailand”.

To escape the threat of Vietnamese police, children like Jen’s sisters had to go with strangers and travel in dangerous cars with the hope that they would later be able to reunite with their parents. The children faced the danger of  being kidnapped, sold to brothels, or forced to work as slaves.

For the past two decades, only international organizations abroad have been monitoring the situation in the Central Highlands, but they are struggling to get  accurate information due to government restrictions in the area.

Many NGOs remain silent when asked about the situation in the Central Highlands for fear of government retaliation. World Vision Vietnam, a Christian organization that has helped children in Vietnam for 30 years, declined to comment on the situation of children in persecuted Protestant families in the Central Highlands.

 Phil Robertsonbelieves that the Vietnamese government is trying to cover up its human rights violations in the Central Highlands.

“The problem is Vietnam sees its abusive treatment of the Montagnards as an internal matter and does everything it can to keep the international community out of this,” said Robertson. “But in reality, what Vietnam is doing to the Montagnards clearly violates international human rights, and so the international community is quite right to be concerned about this.”

Robertson added that Hanoi severely restricts access to the highlands to keep diplomats and human rights monitors like HRW, UN officials, and international media out of the picture, so it is sometimes difficult to get up-to-date information about what is happening there. 

“By making it difficult to get information from the area,” he said, “Vietnam hopes to make the world forget its blatant discrimination and rights abuses against the Montagnards.” 

“Over the past 20 years, the Montagnard people have gone through hard times, especially during crackdowns by the authorities after protests, but these communities are strong and they continue to persevere in the   face of government repression,” he said.

A Ga, a Protestant from the Montagnard Evangelical Church Of Christ, has resettled with his family in the United States after seeking asylum in Thailand for six years. However, he is still on watch the list of the Ministry of Public Security in Vietnam and so dares not go back home. In July 2019, he was surprisingly chosen to meet U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House along with other survivors of religious persecution in the world.

A Ga said that his case caught the attention of U.S. government because he was arrested by Thai police in January 2018. He said he believes the Vietnamese government was involved in his arrest. After three months in detention, he and his family were taken to the Philippines and then flown to the United States. Now he has begun a new life in North Carolina – the place where many Montagnards families have resettled in the past.

Meanwhile, in the refugee camps in Thailand and Cambodia, Montagnard refugees continue to  live desperate lives, not knowing what the future holds for them.

While you are reading this article, somewhere on the desolate borders between Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, there are likely some frightened Montagnard families making the harrowing trip across the border, running away from the Vietnamese government in the hope of finding a new and better life.

Human Rights

Legal Briefing On Democracy Activist Pham Thi Doan Trang’s Arrest

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Photo Courtesy: Pham Doan Trang Facebook.
Photo Courtesy: Pham Doan Trang Facebook.

Pham Thi Doan Trang, a leading democracy activist and a prominent Vietnamese journalist, was arrested on October 6, 2020 in Ho Chi Minh City by Vietnamese police.

Here is a legal briefing updated on the morning of October 9, Vietnam time.

What allegations has the Vietnamese government made against Pham Thi Doan Trang?

Doan Trang is charged with “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code, and “making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code (revised in 2017).

This is a bit complicated. Why are they charging her with two crimes under two separate penal codes? Here is the context:

The 1999 Penal Code (revised in 2009) was replaced by the 2015 Penal Code. The 2015 Penal Code went into effect on January 1, 2018 after being revised in 2017.

The two crimes that Doan Trang is charged with are almost the same. Here is the text:

Article 88. Conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

1. Those who commit one of the following acts against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam shall be sentenced to between three and 12 years of imprisonment:

a) Propagating against, distorting and/or defaming the people’s administration;
b) Propagating psychological warfare and spreading fabricated news in order to foment confusion among the people;
c) Making, storing and/or circulating documents and/or cultural products with content against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

2. In the case of committing less serious crimes, the offenders shall be sentenced to between 10 and 20 years of imprisonment. 

Article 117. Making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

1. Any person who for the purpose of opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam commits any of the following acts shall face a penalty of five to 12 years’ imprisonment:

a) Making, storing, spreading information, materials, items that contains distorted information about the people’s government;
b) Making, storing, spreading information, materials, items that contain fabricated information that causes dismay among the people;
c) Making, storing, spreading information, materials, items to cause psychological warfare.

2. An extremely serious case of this offence shall carry a penalty of 10 to 20 years’ imprisonment.

3. Any person who makes preparation for the commitment of this criminal offence shall face a penalty of 1 to 5 years’ imprisonment.

What does this mean?

Here is the date you need to remember: January 1, 2018. That’s the day the new and current penal code took effect.

The only reason Doan Trang is charged with the same crime under both the old and current penal codes is that the government has been “investigating” her activities both before and from January 1, 2018.

Some people suspect that Doan Trang is linked to the Dong Tam case as she authored and distributed two Vietnamese-English reports on Dong Tam (in February and September 2020). Some others think her case is mainly about her role at the Liberal Publishing House, a samizdat publisher founded in February 2019. But the two charges suggest that the police take the case further than that.

What did Doan Trang do before 2018?

Her famous book titled “Politics for the Common People” was published in 2017, and there was a report on the environmental disaster in central Vietnam in 2016. She has been involved in international advocacy work since 2013 and she also played a role in the environmental protest movement in Ha Noi in 2015, as well as other activities

Who is in charge of the investigation?

The Investigation Bureau of the Ha Noi Police. 

Although the arrest was jointly conducted by Ha Noi Police, the Ho Chi Minh City Police, and the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the lead agency is the local government of Ha Noi.

According to the MPS website, the Investigation Bureau of the Ha Noi Police was the organization that opened the case and filed charges against Doan Trang. The People’s Procuracy of Ha Noi later approved these motions. It is unclear when the motions were filed and approved.

Where is Doan Trang now?

The latest information from the mainstream media is that Doan Trang has been transferred to Ha Noi. Ha Noi Police confirmed the information with the Tuoi Tre newspaper.

Where exactly is Doan Trang being detained? Her family told us that they were informed by Ha Noi Police in the evening of October 8 that she is being detained at Detention Center No. 1 (also known as the new Hoa Lo Prison) in Tu Liem district of Ha Noi.

How long is the pre-trial detention expected to be?

According to Article 173 of the Criminal Procedure Code, as the crime Doan Trang is charged with falls under either the very serious or extremely serious categories of both penal codes, the time limit for detention is four months, and can be extended once for three months.

However, if Doan Trang’s case is categorized as an extremely serious type, the procuracy can extend the detention twice, for four months each time.

The process may be prolonged due to requests for further investigation from the Procuracy or the provincial-level court of Ha Noi. In this case, it could become very complicated as with the case of blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh, who was detained for 22 months before going to trial.

When will Doan Trang be allowed to meet with attorneys and receive family visits?

It’s unclear whether or not Doan Trang will be allowed access to legal representation and to receive family visitation.

According to Article 74 of the Criminal Procedure Code, “the head of the Procuracy is authorized, when confidentiality of investigations into national security breach is vital, to sanction defense counsels’ engagement in legal proceedings after investigations end.”

Articles 88 and 117 fall under the national security chapter of the Penal Code, and therefore access to lawyers is not guaranteed. Even if a lawyer is granted permission to assist Doan Trang, his or her access to the accused, in practice, is not always guaranteed.

Family visitation, according to Article 22 of the Law on Temporary Detention and Custody, depends on the decision of the head of the detention facility. If the investigative agency requests the detention facility not allow the detainee to meet with relatives, the facility head may accept the request, and Doan Trang will not be able to see her family before trial. It’s highly unlikely the facility head would reject such a request by the police.

Here is what the law says:

Article 22. Meetings with relatives, defense counsels and consular access of persons held in custody or temporary detention

[…]
4. The head of a detention facility may not allow a visitor to meet a person held in custody or temporary detention in the following cases, for which he/she shall clearly state the reason:

a. The visitor, who is a relative of the person held in custody or temporary detention, fails to produce his/her personal identity papers or papers proving his/her relationship with such person, or the case-settling agency has requested in writing the detention facility not to let such person meet with his/her relatives for the reason that such a meeting may seriously affect the settlement of the case; the visitor, who is a defense counsel, fails to produce his/her personal identity paper or paper on the defense for the person held in custody or temporary detention;
[…]

If visitation is granted, Doan Trang’s family can visit her once a month, with each visit lasting no longer than one hour.

What’s next?

We don’t know when the investigation will be completed or when Doan Trang will be presented before the court. However, here is what we can expect:

  • The People’s Procuracy of Ha Noi will issue an indictment prosecuting Doan Trang.
  • The trial will be conducted by the People’s Court of Ha Noi, a provincial-level court.
  • After the trial, if Doan Trang appeals, the case will go up to the People’s High Court in Ha Noi, a tribunal higher than provincial level and lower than the supreme level. Usually, political cases stop after the appellate.
  • There is no chance that the case will be brought to the People’s Supreme Court, the highest tribunal of the land, as it requires motions filed by either the prosecutor general or the chief justice, both controlled by the very ruling Communist Party that wants to silence critics to protect their monopoly.

Contact Trinh Huu Long: long.trinh@liv.ngo.

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Land Rights

Thien An Abbey – 45 Years Under The Government’s Fist

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Photo source: Thien An Abbey. Graphic: Luat Khoa.

“Thien An” means “heavenly peace”, but the Catholic monks here have never lived in peace.

In the 45 years since Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, the monks of Thien An Abbey have only known hard labor and study, and resistance against forces hell-bent on taking their land by any and all means. 

Thien An Hill today is no longer covered by sweeping pine forests; under the government’s fist, the trees have all withered away. The authorities have coercively taken the land by using thugs. The monks defend themselves using the only weapon they have: prayer. 

Once sacred and picturesque, the area has now become anything but. How did this come to pass?

Thien An Abbey is born on Thien An Hill

1940 – 1943: The abbey comes into existence

In 1940, Father Romain Guilauma, a French missionary, purchased a piece of land on today’s Thien An Hill. The place resembled a miniature Da Lat and was only about 10 km away from the center of Hue. Father Guilauma built a thatched cottage on the land to receive monks from the Order of Saint Benedict. The land is currently situated in Cu Chanh Village, Thua Thien – Hue Province.

Antonin-Fernand Drapier, the French Resident Superior of the Holy See, said a celebratory mass upon the opening of the abbey on June 10, 1940. The abbey was given the name “Thien An”, meaning “heavenly peace”. 

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From 1940 to 1943, monks studied under the thatched roof of this cottage. They also dug lakes and planted orange groves. Source: Thien An Abbey.

1943 – 1965: Digging Lake Thuy Tien, planting pine forests 

During this time, monks expanded the abbey’s footprint, building structures, cultivating the land, and raising livestock to achieve self-sufficiency.

The abbey built a chapel and a three-story building with 28 rooms in 1943. In 1956, the abbey began construction on a second three-story building, with 38 rooms on the upper two floors.  

The pine forests on Thien An Hill were almost certainly planted by monks during this time period. Furthermore, according to the Hue Festival, monks also dug two large lakes (Upper and Lower Thuy Tien), which provided water for the entire area.

From then on, these lakes and pine forests became one of Hue’s hidden getaways and the area began to be referred to as Thien An – Lake Thuy Tien.

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Archbishop Philipphe Nguyen Kim Dien blessed the church cellar and the stone altars in 1965. Source: Thien An Abbey.

1965 – 1975: Re-issuing a copy of  the “parcel map”

In 1969, Abbot Thomas Chau Van Dang asked the Thua Thien provincial Land Office (under the Republic of  Vietnam) to reissue “copies of relevant land registers and maps”, lost after the violent Tet Offensive in 1968.

The abbey stated that the Land Office provided it with “a copy of the parcel map”, that showed an area of 107 hectares.

According to the map, abbey land bordered Upper Duong Xuan Village to the north, Bang Lang and Kim Son villages to the south, Minh Manh Road to the east, and Bara Dam and Cu Chanh villages to the west.

Monks have stated that these 107 hectares of land are predominantly pine forests, punctuated by a fish farm, a dam, an elementary school, an orphanage, Duc Me (Mother Mary) Hill, and Thanh Gia (Cross) Hill. 

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Monks of Thien An Abbey in 1966. Source: Ngy Thanh/PBase.

Four decades of unrest

1975 – 2000: Abbey land is turned into an amusement park and private villas are also built on the site

After the Communist victory in 1975, religious establishments no longer had a voice. They had to follow the orders of the revolutionary government, no matter how backwards these orders were. 

In January 1976, the head of Hue’s Office of Agriculture and Forestry asked the abbey to “cede” a school it no longer used to house workers. The office began using the school before the abbey had agreed to cede the property.

Afterwards, the abbey said, the government garrisoned troops on abbey land and asked the monks to hand over its dispensary, orphanage, and one hectare of land. The abbey faced with no choice and had to agree. A fish pond was also later requisitioned. 

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The front (above) and back (below) of the abbey’s elementary school before 1975. Source: Thien An Abbey.

The land dispute over Thien An Hill took on another layer of complexity when the central government became involved. 

In November 1999, the People’s Committee of Thua Thien – Hue Province recommended that the government confiscate Thien An Hill to construct an amusement park. A month after, Vietnam’s prime minister decided to take over more than 49 hectares of the abbey’s land and rent it to the Ancient Capital Hue Travel Company (a state-run business) to build the Thuy Tien Lake and Thien An Hill Amusement Park.

In the process of confiscating the abbey’s land, monks stated, the government wrongly used an order for uncultivated land, which meant the government could confiscate lands without providing the abbey with any compensation or advance notification; as such, the abbey was neither compensated nor notified that the land had been taken. 

The abbey petitioned the government regarding the wrongful confiscation of the land, stating that the government lacked jurisdiction according to the Land Law at the time.

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Source: Thien An Abbey.

Also in 1999, Boi Tran Villa, a restaurant and an exhibition hall for an individual, Ms. Phan Thi Van’s paintings, was constructed. The abbey said that the villa’s land was previously the abbey’s orange grove, which the Tien Phong Forestry School had partitioned off and sold.  

The forestry school later became the Tien Phong Forestry Company, owned by the People’s Committee of Thua Thien – Hue Province.

2000 – 2010: The state “does not recognize” the 107 hectares of abbey land

Before the abbey’s petition was even addressed, the Thuy Tien Lake amusement park opened in 2001, with more than 70 billion dong (US$3million) in investment. 

In 2002, Vietnam’s State Inspector General addressed the abbey’s petition, responding that: “The State does not recognize Thien An Abbey’s land usage rights for the 107 hectares of land and pine forest on Thien An Hill.” 

What’s even more strange is that while the State Inspector General pointed out that “the entirety of the land and pine forest on Thien An Hill” had been given to the Tien Phong Forestry School in 1976, the abbey was completely unaware of this.

The abbey continued to oppose the Inspector General’s conclusion through more of its petitions to the government, stating that such conclusion did not focus on resolving the abbey’s disagreement according to the prime minister’s decision. 

The Thuy Tien Lake Amusement Park had begun admitting people from the public in the middle of 2004. However, by 2008, it was suffering heavy losses. The provincial People’s Committee later allowed another company to lease the amusement park. 

In December 2008, the government issued a directive for provinces and cities to review and return to religious organizations all properties that were not being used effectively; however, none of Thien An Abbey’s properties were returned. 

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A corner of the Thuy Tien Lake \Amusement Park, abandoned after only a few years of operation. Souce: Lolivi.

2010 – 2015: Another villa in the “special-use forest”

The government designated Thien An Hill a “special-use forest” but continued to build villas within it.

In 2010, the Cat Tuong Quan Retreat was constructed. The business venture was pursued by another individual, Ms. Ta Thi Ngoc Thao, aiming to provide a space for rest, meditation, and Zen study. The abbey stated that the retreat’s land was previously the abbey’s orange grove that the Tien Phong Forestry School had partitioned off and sold. 

In 2011, the Thuy Tien Lake Amusement Park was closed down due to unprofitability.

Thien An Abbey reported that in 2013, the Thua Thien – Hue Province People’s Committee issued papers certifying Tien Phong Forestry Company’s land usage rights, which included a number of the abbey’s structures, including an internal road, a chapel, a dormitory, and a building that the Hue Office of Agriculture and Forestry had borrowed since 1976.

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Cat Tuong Quan Retreat seen from above. Source: Tripadvisor.

2015 – 2017: Conflict escalates, a statue of Jesus smashed 

From the beginning of 2015, peace was shattered on Thien An Hill as the gentle lands became anything but.

The abbey said that beginning in January 2015, the government proposed multiple times that the abbey accept a measly 18 hectares of land so that their claims would be entered into the official registry. The abbey refused.

In May 2015, monks discovered that a statue of Jesus belonging to the abbey had been smashed and scattered in the wilderness. 

At the beginning of 2016, a group that included police, cadres, employees of the Tien Phong Forestry Company, and reporters entered the abbey to investigate the chopping down of numerous pine trees. Afterwards, the monks were rounded up by investigators allegedly for the crime of deforestation. The monks stated that an article in the Vietnam Law Newspaper slandered the abbey, falsely accusing it of deforestation and obstructing officials

In March 2016, a statue of Jesus that had just been put up was pulled down by a group of women, civil defense officers, and cadres mobilized by the government.

In the middle of 2016, the abbey reported that the Thuy Bang commune authorities led about 200 individuals accompanied by a large excavator to halt road construction linking the abbey to a partially-completed garden. The Thuy Bang Commune People’s Committee afterwards issued the abbey a form stating that it had trespassed on special-use forest land by constructing this road.

In March 2017, authorities continued to mobilize people to prevent the abbey from leveling land in areas the abbey claimed. 

That same month, unknown persons carved large V’s into numerous pine trees near the abbey’s dam, causing them to slowly wither and die.

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Many of the abbey’s pine trees had deep V’s etched into their bark, causing them to slowly die. Source: Thien An Abbey.

In May 2017, the government continued to allow numerous individuals to arrive at the abbey and disrupt renovation work on the abbey’s claimed land. 

At the end of June 2017, a statue of Jesus and the Holy Cross was resurrected only for the government to pull it down again. A number of monks were injured in the incident, but were unable to get to the hospital for treatment because police had set up traffic barriers blocking exit from the abbey. 

After that scuffle, the provincial People’s Committee met with abbey representatives, but the conflict remained unresolved. The committee stated that the prime minister’s statement in 1999 and the State Inspector General’s decision in 2002 were “faultless and should remain as is”. 

***

On July 25, 2017, the abbey reported that the provincial People’s Committee had responded to a number of the abbey’s grievances regarding the piney hill:

First, the abbey’s school building was demolished according to the government’s 1976 Decision 188/CP because the school was a “remnant of land possession and colonial exploitation…”

Second, the land which the Cat Tuong Quan Retreat sat on originally belonged to the Tien Phong Forestry School, which transferred it to a residential household in 1984; this entity then passed it onto another household, which then passed it onto the retreat. 

Third, the owner of the Boi Tran Villa purchased land for his/her villa by combining purchases from two different households: one from the household that passed the land to the Cat Tuong Quan retreat and the rest from another household.

Fourth, regarding another household that was supposedly using abbey land, the committee stated that this household was sitting on land that the forestry school had granted to the family in 1984 to start a garden and build a house.

The abbey argued that the committee’s explanations were not convincing, especially since land survey records remain conspicuously missing.

***

On December 18, 2017, commune authorities blocked monks from setting up a Christmas welcome gate on an internal road leading into the abbey. 

Approximately one week later, the abbey reported that Phan Ngoc Tho, the vice-chairman of the Thua Thien – Hue Province People’s Committee, proposed that the Order of Saint Benedict and the Provincial Vietnamese Order of Saint Benedict no longer designate Father Nguyen Huyen Duc as the abbey superior and that he should be transferred out of the province. 

2018: Year of repeated forest fires 

In January 2018, Thuy Bang commune police asked the abbey to provide a list of individuals who resided at the abbey in any form to help with on-site corroboration.

At the beginning of March 2018, after monks felled a tree to prevent a fire, police and traffic officers, forest management, and government cadres all joined forces to obstruct the felling, ultimately confiscating the pine tree. After this event, five incidences of forest fire occurred one after the other. 

On March 4, 2018, a portion of the abbey’s claimed pine forest caught fire. After the fire, four other forest fires occurred on May 10, May 22, May 23, and July 4, 2018.  The abbey claimed that the fires destroyed about 8 hectares of pine trees that were about 60 years old.

The landscape of the fire on July 4, 2018, taken from the Abbey’s bell tower.

In June 2018, Phan Ngoc Tho became the chairman of the Thua Thien – Hue Province People’s Committee after his predecessor retired early.

On July 18, 2018, the abbey reported that a group of employees from the Tien Phong Forestry Company had entered the burned land on July 4 to plant pine trees but were stopped by the abbey.

In December 2018, the abbey continued to demand the Tien Phong Forestry Company return the school it had borrowed from the abbey. 

2019 – 2020: Strains continue to worsen

On the night of April 19, 2019, about three hectares of old pine trees that had grown for more than 60 years burned completely. According to the abbey, Tien Phong Forestry Company regularly claims that it manages the land but it did nothing to stop the burning.

The fire happened on April 19, 2019. Source: Thien An Abbey Facebook.

The abbey reported that this fire and the previous five fires were ignored by firefighters and that the government, which has released no public information about the events, failed to carry out an investigation into the damage.

In May 2020, Thua Thien – Hue provincial authorities announced that they would transform the dilapidated Thuy Tien Lake Amusement Park into a “cultural park to serve the community, a state-of-the-art creative space, a sculpture garden.”

About a month afterwards,  approximately one hectare of the abbey’s pine forest was hacked to pieces. Many large pine trees were sawed into, leaving deep scars that would kill the trees slowly without felling them.

In July 2020, the abbey continued to send official documents asking for the return of the elementary school that the Tien Phong Forestry School borrowed from the abbey.  

***

Over three consecutive days, from August 10-12, 2020,  when the entirety of Thua Thien – Hue Province was on-guard against COVID-19, a crowd of approximately 40 people held up signs and shouted over loudspeakers at the site of a toppled statue of Jesus, demanding the abbots halt their work and return the land to them.

Abbots recognized these individuals as committee cadres, members of the Thuy Bang commune women’s association, and familiar security and surveillance officers. 

Protests of this nature cannot be organized without the backing of local authorities. The ongoing dispute between the abbey and the government continues to escalate with no prospects of good results. We will continue to update the latest developments of this dispute in the coming months. 

Protest against Thien An Abbey on August 10, 2020. Source: Thien An Abbey Facebook.

This article was written in Vietnamese by Thai Thanh and previously published on Luat Khoa Magazine. The translation is done by Will Nguyen.

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Religion

Religion Bulletin – August 2020

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Discover the four common tactics the Vietnamese authorities use to suppress religious organizations in [The Government’s Reach]. In [Religion 360°], we continue coverage of the parishes resisting the government acquisition of schools borrowed after 1975, along with other news. Learn a bit about the Khmer Krom movement in [On This Day], where we discuss the arrest of a former Khmer temple head in Tra Vinh.

If you have any suggestions or would like to join us in writing reports, please email us at: tongiao@luatkhoa.org or editor@thevietnamese.org

[The Government’s Reach]

Four tactics the Vietnamese authorities use to suppress religious organizations 

For years, the government has used multiple tactics to suppress religious organizations it does not agree with.  The authorities refer to their actions as “professional”, but in common parlance, these actions are more “cloak and dagger”. The following are the four most common tactics used by the government to suppress religious organizations.  

  1. Organizing crowds to protest

The land dispute at Thien An Abbey continued to escalate in August 2020. On August 10 and 11, a group of about 40 individuals organized a protest to speak out against Thien An Abbey for sitting on their and the government’s land. Protestors used large signs and loudspeakers to threaten and insult monks while standing on the disputed land. According to the  abbey, the crowd’s organizers were cadres of the Thuy Bang Commune People’s Committee, along with a number of police, as well as cadres from social organizations such as the Women’s Association. 

Crowds protest at Thien An Abbey on the afternoon of August 11, 2020. Source: Good News to the Poor.

In May 2017, an enormous mobilized force of between 1,000 to 3,000 people organized a week-long protest to speak out against Father Dang Huu Nam, the head of Phu Yen Parish in Vinh Diocese. This force criticized the clergyman’s words against the government and his actions when he assisted parishioners in suing the Ha Tinh Formosa Co. a year after the company caused a marine environmental disaster in 2016. 

A protest opposing Father Dang Huu Nam in May 2017. Source: People’s Police

In Vietnam, protests like these cannot be organized without the backing of the government. They’re put together to smear and lower the prestige of religious organizations that the government does not approve of.

  1. Using state media 

The protests against the monks of Thien An Abbey were reported in detail by the Thua Thien – Hue Province state media. After the protests, Thua Thien – Hue newspapers published two articles on August 18, 2020 and August 26, 2020 accusing the monks of surreptitiously taking land and falsely slandering the authorities with accusations of oppression. Hue Radio-Television broadcast a report on the protests as well. State journalists have previously blamed the monks of Thien An Abbey for being “aggressive and uncooperative with the authorities”. 

The protests opposing Father Dang Huu Nam were also reported in-depth by scores of other state journalists. More significantly, Vietnam Television (VTV) conducted a live national broadcast on the evening of March 24, 2017, regarding priests in Phu Yen Parish. The VTV report accused the Phu Yen priests of disrupting order and security by inciting parishioners to submit litigation against the Ha Tinh Formosa Co.. 

The Vietnamese state closely monitors media organizations, and journalists are not allowed to report on news that could adversely affect government interests. No independent television and radio stations are permitted to operate.

Religious organizations today normally have to establish their own media channels or use social media to speak up for themselves. There are currently two Catholic websites actively operating: “Good News to the Poor” and “VietCatholic,” but both are blocked in Vietnam.  Independent media, such as VOA, RFA, BBC, and RFI, are also blocked in Vietnam. 

  1. Using hired thugs

According to the monks of Thien An Abbey, this land dispute has lasted more than 20 years and has always involved unidentified, aggressive individuals who assault the monks. Over many years, Thien An Abbey has faced numerous aggressive acts, including glass shards strewn across the football field, pine trees being cut down, statues of Christ being stolen and smashed, stalking, and threats—none of which are investigated by local authorities. 

An attack on monks in July 2017, which the authorities did not investigate. Source: Good News to the Poor.

The Vietnamese authorities are well-versed in using hired agents to create physical scuffles in order for police to then respond with violence.

On February 14, 2017, according to VOA, police infiltrated a group of people who were mobilizing to sue the Formosa Co. These infiltrators threw rocks in the direction of riot police and instigated violence, giving police a pretext to suppress the movement, injuring about 50 parishioners. Police also instigate and/or stage scenes of violence in order for state media to record negative images. 

Hired agents who were not part of the contingent hurled rocks in the direction of riot police in order to instigate violence.  Source: VTV.

In October 2019, six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists were stopped by a mob blocking the road and were severely beaten as they were on their way to An Hoa Temple to stop the re-tiling of that temple’s original roof. The matter was not investigated by the police. 

The government use of hired thugs to instigate violence and threaten activists and religious groups is commonplace in Vietnam—and a serious problem.

  1. Harassment using administrative regulations unrelated to religion

In 2018, Thuy Bang Commune police asked Thien An Abbey to provide a list of individuals who lived at the abbey in order for police to carry out direct inspections and corroborations.

In June 2017, Thua Thien – Hue provincial police set up a traffic blockade to prevent parishioners and monks from entering Thien An Abbey. Simultaneously, a large scuffle broke out at the abbey itself, injuring many monks who were unable to get to a hospital because of the traffic blockade. 

This administrative harassment may seem insignificant but sometimes it is part of a larger trap to ensnare religious organizations and activists.

In February 2018, six Hoa Hao Buddhists were sentenced to between two years of probation and six years in prison for interfering with traffic police who had prevented residents from attending the death anniversary of a fellow follower. The six were convicted of obstructing officials and disturbing public order when they protested and argued with traffic police who were purposefully checking the papers and confiscating the vehicles of those attending the anniversary.

Local authorities regularly misuse administrative regulations as tools to punish and entrap religious organizations and to hinder activities. Authorities in a number of locations in the Central Highlands refuse to issue paperwork to independent worshippers, such as identity cards, passports, marriage licenses, and land use deeds, as punishment. 

[Religion 360°]

Thi Nghe Parish asks for help as the authorities unilaterally change the usage rights of a parish school 

In August 2020, Thi Nghe Parish in Ho Chi Minh City asked citizens for support in demanding the return of their school, which the authorities had initially borrowed and later permanently altered the usage rights to. 

Phuoc An – Thi Nghe Private School before 1975. Source: Ogden Williams Collection.

Vietnam does not recognize the right to land ownership. Land belongs to the state and citizens are granted usage rights.

Before 1975, Thi Nghe Parish contributed money to build Phuoc An Private School for approximately 4,000 students. After 1975, when private schools were abolished, the parish lent the state two three-story structures and another single-story building to function as a school (named Phu Dong Elementary School).  

In 2019, when the parish was conducting a survey to build an underground parking structure for parishioners, it discovered that the authorities had granted usage rights to Phu Dong Elementary School in 2013; for six years, the parish was unaware that the school structures no longer belonged to them.  

After more than a year of petitioning, in July 2020, Binh Thanh District authorities responded, stating: “Phu Dong Elementary School, including border walls, are state property to be managed by Phu Dong School.”

Land policy from the 2000s granted local authorities the ability to delineate to themselves the (continued) usage of religious grounds already being used by the state. If the state continues to use these religious grounds for public purposes, then religious organizations cannot ask for the return of their properties.

Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation demands the return of a school building it lent to the authorities 

At some point in the last 44 years, the Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation’s Giuse School became a Dong Nai Province medical center.

Nuns in the congregation stated that before 1975, 1,000 students came to study at the school every year, at both the elementary and middle school levels. In 1976, the congregation lent the school to the authorities for five years to train cadres.

After five years, not only did the authorities refuse to return the school to the congregation, they further borrowed two rowed structures and a 6.482 square meter plot of land. These grounds were handed over to Bien Hoa General Hospital, which was then granted usage rights in 2004. 

St. Giuse School, currently of Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation. Photo source: Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation.

Recently, the Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation is in need of activity grounds for newly-joined nuns and as senior facilities for older nuns, hence it has asked for the return of the school building it lent to the government. But similar to the situation in Thi Nghe Parish, such returns are difficult to achieve if the authorities do not voluntarily choose to do so.

Dak Nong Province announces that it must “deal with” many new religions in the region

In August 2020, the Dak Nong Newspaper, belonging to the Dak Nong Province Communist Party, reported that many new religions were operating illegally in the region. 

These new religions are referred to as “strange” or “heretical” religions. According to the Dak Nong Newspaper, approximately 10 of these “strange, heretical religions” have penetrated the province. Among them, the Gie Sua religion has the most followers, with 232; Falun Gong has 96; Hoang Thien Long 71; the World Mission Society Church of God 53; and the Tien Thien religion 24.

The Dak Nong Newspaper reported that the government will resolutely eliminate these “strange, heretical religions” from the province, and will ask residents to denounce anyone following or spreading these unsanctioned religions.

State journalists report that the Gie Sua religion was founded by an ethnic Hmong in the United States, who changed Protestant rites, such as worshipping on Sunday instead of Saturday, not recognizing the lord Jesus’ name, and not celebrating Christmas or Easter. 

According to Nghe An Newspaper, the Hoang Thien Long religion involves the spiritual worship of martyrs and “Uncle Ho” to treat diseases.

The Khanh Hoa Newspaper states that the World Mission Society Church of God was a religion based on the tenets of Protestantism and was introduced from South Korea into Vietnam in the 2000s. 

The Tien Thien religion has yet to be reported on by state media. Information available online indicates that this religion is based on the teachings of Daoism. 

Individual punished for spreading Falun Gong beliefs

State media reported that at least one person has been punished for spreading Falun Gong practices in August 2020.

According to the People’s Police Newspaper,  Hai Duong provincial police arrested Ms. Le Thi Thoa, 61, as she was “illicitly spreading Falun Gong” in an alleyway in the city of Hai Duong. She was fined 300,000 dong (US$13).

Ms. Le Thi Thoa was arrested by investigators and punished administratively. Source: People’s Police.

Though the government has not made any formal pronouncements about Falun Gong, local authorities uniformly see it as heretical and forbid people from promoting the  movement.

A number of religious prisoners unable to receive foodstuffs, medicine, and supplies due to COVID-19

Hua Phi, Cao Dai leader and member of the Inter-religious Council of Vietnam, told RFA that the authorities were not allowing religious prisoners to receive foodstuffs, medicine, and supplies due to COVID-19.

Near the end of July 2020, COVID-19 resurged in a number of cities in Vietnam, and detention centers and prisons temporarily discontinued outside visits. These detention centers became disease hotspots, such as in Da Nang, where outside visits and deliveries for prisoners were temporarily halted.

However, in other cities and provinces, a number of families of non-political and non-religious prisoners were still able to send in medicine and supplies. 

Current regulations allow these detention centers autonomy in determining visitation and outside delivery policies. There’s a high possibility that these centers are using COVID-19 as a pretense to punish religious prisoners. 

Authorities finally recognize Lai Chau Parish as a religious organization after more than 13 years of applying 

On August 21, 2020, the Lai Chau Province People’s Committee permitted the Hung Hoa Diocese to establish the Lai Chau Parish as a legal religious organization.

According to Father Phero Pham Thanh Binh the Epsicopal See of Hung Hoa Diocese had been requesting that the authorities recognize Lai Chau Parish as a legal religious entity since 2007, a request that has only just now been accepted.

The 2016 Law on Faith and Religion stipulates that an organization granted a certificate of registration must operate for at least five years and meet a number of other requirements before it is officially recognized as a religious organization. In actuality, however, the authorities often drag their feet in granting legal status to any religious organization. 

Hung Hoa Diocese manages parts of the north of Vietnam, including the entirety of Phu Tho, Yen Bai, Lao Cai, Lai Chau, Dien Bien, and Son La provinces, a portion of Hoa Hinh, Ha Giang, and Tuyen Quang provinces, as well as the city of Hanoi. 

According to the head of the Hanoi Episcopal See, Giuse Vu Van Thien, Hung Hoa Diocese has faced many difficulties, because the religious policies are different from province to province: “Some policies are relaxed, but some others are difficult. Some of the policies have limited government interference, but some are overbearing. And there are others that even have cadres announcing white zones which means there are no religions in that locality at all”. 

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The imprisonment of a Khmer temple’s former head and the Khmer Krom Movement

At the end of July 2010, Tra Vinh provincial police imprisoned Thach Sophon, the former head of a Khmer temple, after investigating him for a case that occurred in April 2010. 

Thach Sophon was arrested July 29, 2010, two days after he left the priesthood. The government stated that his arrest stemmed from an incident in April of that same year, in which the temple he headed held a suspected burglar in captivity for a night before bringing him to police. More than a month after his arrest, he was  still not  allowed to see his family or any lawyers. 

According to RFA, the human rights group Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF), which advocates for the rights of Khmer living in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region, raised objections to Thach Sophon’s detention. The federation stated that he was arrested because the government suspected he was linked to the Khmer Krom movement. In 2006, the federation said, a disciple of his was accused of anti-state propaganda but was able to escape to Thailand before being detained. Another disciple confirmed that Thach Sophon had been monitored by the authorities since 2005.

In September 2010, Thach Sophon was sentenced to nine months of probation for illegally detaining another person. 

These events pushed many human rights groups to suspect that the authorities intentionally arrested Thach Sophon to interrogate him about the Khmer Krom movement. When this proved unsuccessful, they framed him with a case that occurred three months earlier.  

The Khmer Krom Movement

The Khmer Krom movement picked up strength during the 2000s and still operates, though it no longer draws as much attention. It is a movement that peacefully advocates for the rights of local Khmer living in Vietnam, including Khmer monks. Many Khmer Krom organizations participate in the movement, but the predominant one is the The Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF), whose website is currently blocked in Vietnam.

The Khmer Krom movement advocates for human rights in Vietnam for the Khmer ethnicity, including their freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of information and the press, land rights. It also includes medical right, the environment, and local culture.

However, the Vietnamese authorities still see the movement as a seditious one that unites Cambodian citizens and Khmer living in the Mekong Delta against the government. In August 2010, Vietnam requested that Cambodia resolutely shut down this movement. In 2014, many large protests broke out demanding human rights for Khmer living in Vietnam. 

The temporary confiscation of a Khmer monk’s passport after an alleged violation of the Cybersecurity Law in February 2020

In February 2020, Long Phu district police in the province of Soc Trang interrogated a 36-year-old Khmer monk of Cambodian citizenship named Seun Ty, confiscating his passport for two weeks.

“They interrogated me and pressured me to confess to violating Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Law after I shared a Radio Free Asia (RFA) interview with Mr. Tran Manrinh, a representative of KKF,” Seun Ty told Voice of America. ‘They used this action to accuse me of violating the Cybersecurity Law.”

Long Phu district police had threatened to bar him from entering Vietnam or fine him 30 million dong (US$1,298). After human rights organizations forcefully spoke up, his passport was returned after two weeks. 

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