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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.

Religion

LIV Launches Database on Religious Freedom in Vietnam

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Photo courtesy: Luat Khoa magazine

On July 17, 2020, Legal Initiatives for Vietnam (LIV) launched its Database on Religious Freedom in Vietnam.

LIV is a non-profit organization based in California (United States) and is the organization that oversees both Luat Khoa Magazine and The Vietnamese. You can find more information about LIV and the reason the organization is based in the United States (and not Vietnam) here.

With this regularly-updated data, LIV hopes to begin documenting cases related to religious freedom, both past and present. 

It could be an issue related to the land dispute between the Tuy Hoa Protestant Church and Phu Yen provincial authorities. It could be the trial of an ethnic minority member from the Central Highlands who practiced Dega Protestantism or trials for those who promoted Falun Gong. 

It could also be the conflict between Hoa Hao Buddhists in An Giang Province regarding the restoration of the An Hoa Tu Temple or the scuffles between unaffiliated Hoa Hao Buddhists and local police.  

Currently, when you access this data, you will see 19 cases (among them, more than 20 events involving Falun Gong practitioners have been combined into one case), with more than 91 victims or persons directly involved. Other cases are still being updated.

To expand the number of readers, this data content will be presented in English. After consulting the Q&A information below, you can access data regarding freedom of religion here: www.liv.ngo/data

Why did LIV put together this database?

The multi-faceted religions of Vietnam are a national point of pride, and the strength of religion and faith has contributed to the ability of Vietnamese to persevere through difficult periods in history. 

After April 30, 1975, however, many people became victims of the Vietnamese state’s harsh religious policies. 

Although the strict control of religion has gradually decreased over time, the state still maintains a tight spiritual grip on religion. Activities that lay outside government control or that allegedly do not support the government’s efforts to build “national unity” are all seen as illegal. 

As an organization that primarily conducts journalism, LIV has encountered many difficulties in evaluating the situation regarding freedom of religion and faith in Vietnam. Unlike cases involving freedom of speech or other political cases, those involving religion are generally not known or else fall into obscurity. For cases that are known, information is spotty and lacking. We believe that other press and human rights organizations also encounter similar problems. 

Because of this, our initial data is created by compiling information regarding cases related to religious freedom in a systematic way. We hope this data can be a useful source of information for journalists, activists, as well as readers who care about the right to freedom of religion. 

How was the data compiled?

The compiled data is based on information coming from sources such as local and foreign journalists, as well as from human rights organizations. 

Furthermore, where such arrangements can be made, LIV will directly gather information from the people involved.

Database information only includes cases reported by journalists and those people directly involved. We will not provide our own viewpoints regarding these cases.

We hope readers will contribute information about cases that they are familiar with. For directions on how to contact us, please see the section “How Can I Provide Information?”

How do I read information from the data table?

Readers can view the data using the Air Table tool. This is an interactive spreadsheet tool that makes it easy to find information without having to switch tables.

When you open the link www.liv.ngo/data, you will see four tables: 1. Case, 2. People (victims), 3. Case Timeline, and 4. Supporting Documents.

https://www.luatkhoa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/vrfd-2-1024x448.png
Photo Courtesy: Luat Khoa magazine

For information about each case, you only need to read Table 1. All information in the other, remaining tables are connected to this first one. 

In Table 1, you’ll see the name of each case in the first column, with the relevant information added across rows.

In the next four columns, you can filter cases according to more detailed information: Related religion, Issues, Location, and Status, by pressing the “Filter” button and entering the information you want filtered. 

For example: if you want to find cases that occurred in An Giang Province, press “Filter”, choose “Location”, and pick the province of “An Giang”.

In the three columns near the end of Table 1, including People, Case Timeline, and Supporting Documents, you can see that the information here is colored. With these three columns, you can click on the phrases in each cell to view more detailed information.

For example, if you want to read more information about individuals related to the case of Rlan Hip, an ethnic Jrai sentenced to seven years in prison for disrupting national unity, you can press on his name in People (victims) in Table 1. Information about the victim, Rlan Hip, will appear as follows:

https://www.luatkhoa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/image1-2.png
Photo Courtesy: Luat Khoa magazine

The People section includes the personal information of relevant individuals, such as birthdate, ethnicity, identifying photographs, gender, and activity timelines.

Case Timeline provides chronological summaries of cases based on information from  sources that we have quoted in the penultimate column of Table 1.

Supporting documents can be videos, photographs, or any materials related to each case.

Similarly, you can also filter data by Table 2. People (victims) to look at information according to gender, ethnicity, religion, and criminal prosecution.

How can I provide information?

We hope you can contribute to this religious freedom database as much as possible. Tell us about cases involving religious freedom that you know about or are directly involved in. 

Readers can send us information through this link: bit.ly/vuviectongiao. We’ll reach out to you as soon as possible to gather more information. You can also provide us information anonymously. Information provided will only be used for this religious freedom database and will not be given to any third party. 

As we compile and present data, it will be difficult to avoid errors, and we hope readers can take a little time to contribute their thoughts. Email us at tongiao@luatkhoa.org or religion@liv.ngo.

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Religion

Religion Bulletin – May 2020

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The Report on Religious Freedom in Vietnam is published on the second Monday of each month. If you would like to contribute information to the report, please send it to tongiao@luatkhoa.org or editor@thevietnamese.org

This report will provide information on other legal provisions outside of the Code on Religion that also limit the right to freely practice religion in Vietnam, such as the regulations regarding publication as stated in the section [The Government’s Hand]. As in previous reports, you can read prominent news regarding religious freedom in [Religion 360°], in which a few followers of Falun Gong were fined when they passed out flyers that the government deemed to be illegal. [On This Day] retells the story of Vietnamese Montagnards escaping to Cambodia in 2015. Under [Did You Know?], you can also learn about the dramatic decrease of the number of people who follow Hoa Hao Buddhism and Cao Daism during the past 10 years.

The Government’s Hand

Imagine that you were in a photocopy shop to print some flyers about religion such as advising people to believe in Christ, or even simpler, promoting fasting and meditation under a religion that you trust. 

You have printed the flyers and will pass them out to your relatives, neighbors, friends, and even strangers who sit in the park. A few minutes later, the police come and detain you. They even take you to the police station to interrogate you, and if you voluntarily performed those acts, the police will confiscate all of your flyers and cite you for an administrative violation.

That is what has happened to Falun Gong proselytizers who were arrested and fined when they passed out flyers that the government had not approved. From March to May 2020, there were at least 22 Falun Gong adherents who were arrested because they possessed and passed out flyers promoting their religion (find the detailed story in the [Religion 360°] section). 

This is the method that the Vietnamese government uses to control the publishing of religious materials.

Regulations Regarding Publication under Vietnam Laws Contributed to a Tightening of the Freedom of Religion

Under the Law on Publication 2012, Vietnam does not allow independent publishers to register and operate. Publication can only be done by those who hold permits that were issued to governmental departments, civil society organizations, and associations controlled by the Vietnamese Communist Party. 

In practice, publishing houses in Vietnam often obtain permits for book stores and book companies. Even though we can say that publication activities are getting easier in Vietnam, it is not the same situation with sensitive topics such as politics and religion.

The Law on Publication 2012 did try to open up the regulations about providing permits for materials that are “given, gifted, or lent” (Article 4), which were not clarified in the previous code of 2004.

The materials that were being deemed as “given, gifted, or lent ” all had to be permitted to be published. If not, the publisher could be fined for violating Article 27 for publishing and disseminating materials that were not allowed under Decree 159/2013/NĐ-CP.

The Law on Publication 2012 also stipulates that the government forbids “publishing, printing, and disseminating” any materials that are deemed to be “superstitious” (Article 10). At the same time, only governmental departments regulating culture and religion may decide whether a material is superstitious or not. As a result, the label of “superstitious” is being applied to almost all of the new religions and beliefs in Vietnam.

Concurrently, the government also regulated that the Committee for Religious Affairs has the sole authority to “publish Bibles, prayer books and mantras, religious teachings, fiction and religious readings produced by religions that are allowed to be practiced in Vietnam”.

Individuals Do Not Have the Right to Publish Religious Materials

The recent arrests and administrative fines given to Falun Gong proselytizers have been widely published in the state-owned media and serve as a warning to individual citizens that they do not have the right to distribute materials without the state’s consent, especially religious materials.

On the other hand, the Law on Publication 2012 also stipulates that besides governmental departments and organizations belonging to the Communist Party, only businesses and entrepreneurs may apply for permits to distribute published materials (Article 36). Distribution also includes materials that could be “given, gifted, or lent”. This regulation allows the government to administratively fine individuals who distribute materials, including even those that were already permitted.

Therefore, if an individual person wants to print, sell, or just distribute freely a published material, then he or she could be fined administratively or could be prosecuted under the Penal Code. For example, the government could deem such material as information that opposes the regime.

Facing strict government rules and regulations regarding publishing, the new religions are continuously finding different ways to publicize their beliefs while being classified as “cults” by the regime.

Being forbidden to distribute materials, new religious groups have found other ways to disseminate their beliefs, with social media being the most common method.

Phap Mon Dieu Am (in Vietnamese), a new religion founded by Master Ruma, has been rising in popularity over the past few years, and has a YouTube channel with more than 24,000 subscribers and over 9 million views. People who want to follow Master Ruma can fill in an online form and wait for a “messenger” of this sect to meet with them in person and instruct them on how to practice their religion.

[Religion 360°]

At Least 22 Falun Gong Proselytizers Arrested

From March to May 2020, there were at least 22 Falun Gong proselytizers detained and fined administratively in 12 provinces and cities throughout Vietnam.

These people were arrested because they possessed flyers with information about Falun Gong and also content accusing the Chinese government of suppressing this spiritual movement.

There was an increase in the number of arrests after the Committee for Religious Affairs announced to all provinces and cities that “cults and extremist religions” have taken advantage of COVID-19 to promote their beliefs.

However, a few Falun Gong practitioners that we interviewed told us that practicing and promoting Falun Gong were just a voluntary act.

According to news reports in Vietnam, these arrests were made because the people had passed out flyers without government consent, according to the Decree involving news media and publication.

After they were arrested, each person had to pay a fine according to their own conduct and based on the flyers and the other materials that they had used to promote their beliefs. In Ha Tinh Province, a man was fined 25 million dong when he was found to be in possession of several boxes of Falun Gong materials. In Vinh Long Province, a 41-year-old woman was fined 4 million dong after she was found to have passed out four books containing information on Falun Gong at a bank.

The central government of Vietnam has yet to decide on whether to  consider Falun Gong as a religion in the country. However, in a few provinces, the local authorities have already deemed Falun Gong a cult and so not authorized to practice in Vietnam.

There are still no statistics specifying the number of Falun Gong proselytizers in Vietnam, but some of the members believe that their population is rising. 

However, the news media in Vietnam describes the Falun Gong with skepticism, asserting that the Falun Gong movement is illegal and also against science so the media  continues to publish propaganda to discourage people from following it.

The number of Falun Gong adherents arrested in provinces and cities:

Province NameNumber of arrests
1Dien Bien1
2Quang Ninh1
3Thai Binh1
4Nghe An4
5Ha Tinh5
6Quang Ngai2
7Binh Thuan1
8Ho Chi Minh City1
9Binh Phuoc2
10Dong Nai2
11Vinh Long1
12Ba Ria – Vung Tau1
Estimated Total22

The Government Refusal to Issue a Passport to a Catholic Priest

On May 29, 2020, Father Nguyen Van Toan wrote on his Facebook page that he received a notice from the government rejecting his application for a new passport.

Father Toan stated that he accidentally found out that the government refused to provide him with a passport because the Hanoi police accused him of conducting activities against the State.

Father Nguyen Van Toan is a 40-year-old priest of the Redemptorist Church, Thai Ha Parish, Hanoi. He often criticized the government publicly at his masses and he was once arrested when he protested in Hanoi.

The Family of a Prisoner of Conscience Ho Duc Hoa: The Nam Ha Prison Reduced Hoa’s Prayer Time to just Once a Week

The Association to Protect Freedom of Religion said on May 25, 2020, that the family of prisoner of conscience Ho Duc Hoa informed them during a telephone call from prison that the Nam Ha Prison in Ha Nam Province, had reduced his time to read his Bible and pray. He is now only allowed to pray once a week, compared to before when the prison allowed him to pray every day.

Ho Duc Hoa, 46, was tried in the beginning of 2013 with 13 other young activists who were either Catholics or Protestants for subversion against the state. While his co-defendants were sentenced to between two and four years in prison, Ho Duc Hoa was handed a harsh 13-year sentence.

RFA reported in August 2019 that Ho Duc Hoa’s family received a letter from him in which he complained about his deteriorating health,  complaining about a stomach problem, an enlarged intestine, as well as  high blood pressure, hemorrhoids, and also vertebrae problems. Between May and August 2019, Nam Ha Prison denied Ho Duc Hoa’s request to go to a hospital for a medical examination. 

Restrictions on the time to read the Bible or other religious books are often reported by prisoners of conscience in Vietnam. 

[On This Day]

Vietnamese Montagnards Who Fled Vietnam to Cambodia Rejected for Political Asylum

In May 2015, the representative of the Vietnam Border Defence Force in Dak Lak Province confirmed that many Montagnards had fled from the Central Highlands to Cambodia.

Colonel Nguyen Luong Hoa, the political commissar of the Border Defence Force in Dak Lak Province, claimed that Vietnamese Montagnards were being lured to Cambodia to fight against the Vietnamese government.

According to human rights organizations LICADHO and Human Rights Watch, in March 2015, the Cambodian government confirmed that it had recognized 13 Montagnards from Vietnam as political asylum seekers at the end of 2014. However, Cambodia rejected about 100 other Montagnards who also fled from Vietnam,  including 54 people who were forced to return to Vietnam during the early months of 2015.

In January 2015, a representative from a local human rights organization in Cambodia informed AFP that about 13 Montagnards crossed the border from Vietnam. These refugees stated that they ran away from Vietnam to Cambodia because they were fleeing oppression at home.

In May 2015, a group representing Ratanakiri Province of Cambodia, which shares a border with Gia Lai Province of Vietnam, traveled to discuss some issues with the provincial governments of Central Highlands. During this meeting, the two sides also talked about regulating the number of Montagnards fleeing from Vietnam to Cambodia.

The Montagnards are an indigenous people living mainly in the Central Highlands among  20 ethnicities. Beginning in the 2000s, Montagnards continuously crossed borders to flee Vietnam and escaped to Cambodia and Thailand for political asylum.

These Vietnamese refugees stated that they were suffering a lot of oppression from the government with regard to their religious rights, land rights, poverty and racial discrimination. If they raised their voices to object, they would be persecuted. However, the Vietnamese government said that the refugees fled the country because they were lured into an anti-state scheme or because of economic hardship.

The Central Highlands is a dangerous mountainous area and so the government has tried to isolate the people in that region from the rest of the population in the country. Until this day, independent journalists and human rights defenders could hardly contact the people who live in the Central Highlands due to these above-stated reasons.

[Did You Know?]

Cao Daism and Hoa Hao Buddhism Have A Lot Less Followers Nowadays

Both of these religions were established during the time the French colonized the south of Vietnam, and they attracted many followers for decades up until 1975.

Cao Daism Suffered a 76 Percent Decline in Followers During the Last 10 Years

In 1930, the Cao Dai religion had about 500,000 to 1 million followers when the entire population of the south of Vietnam was about 4 to 4.5 million, according to the records collected by Jayne Susan Werner and sent to the Governor-General of French Indochina on December 14, 1934. 

According to the Committee for Religious Affairs, from 1930 to 1975, followers of the Cao Dai religion grew steadily to about 2 million.

However, based on  an article in the Los Angeles Times, probably using information collected prior to 1975, there may be as many as 4 million Cao Dai followers. This number seems to be correct if one looks at all of the Cao Dai temples from the south to the central provinces of Vietnam.

Yet in 2009, the Committee for Religious Affairs estimated that Cao Dai followers in Vietnam numbered only 2.4 million people.   

From the census in 2019, the population of Cao Dai followers has fallen to 556,234 people,  a 76 percent reduction since 2009.

Hoa Hao Buddhism Suffered a 31 Percent Reduction of Followers in the Last Decade

Just like Cao Daism, Hoa Hao Buddhism has suffered a reduction of the number of its followers during the last 10 years.

In 2009, the Bureau for Religious Affairs of Can Tho City confirmed that there were 1.43 million Hoa Hao Buddhists in Vietnam. However, in 2019, the number of Hoa Hao Buddhists had fallen to 983,079 people, a 31 percent drop from the year 2009.

Before 1975, there were 2 million Hoa Hao Buddhists living in the west of South Vietnam, concentrated in An Giang and Chau Doc provinces.

What Caused the Reduction of Followers?

We could not find any report that offered reasons relating to the drastic reduction of the followers for these two religions. We believe the reason for this reduction could be as follows:

1. The harsh government control over these two religions

After 1975, the new regime tried to erase these two religions but it was forced to recognize Cao Daism and Hoa Hao Buddhism after it failed to eradicate them. The government recognized Cao Daism in 1997 and Hoa Hao Buddhism in 1999.

The independent followers of these two religions often stated that the regime only allowed the followers that  obeyed  government instructions and controls to become the leaders of the two “official” and “recognized” associations for Cao Daism and Hoa Hao Buddhism.

After 1975, the activities of these two major religions were significantly restricted  by the government. Followers could no longer conduct charity work and education and missionary work were also forbidden, preventing the two religions from being practiced as freely as before. 

More than that, the government implemented strict punishment of any followers who opposed the government’s handling of religions, such as applying the Penal Code or suppressing and harassing critics on a daily basis.

After the government recognized these two religions at the end of the 1990s, it also clarified how it would keep them from expanding. The religious practices of these two religions were once celebrated widely in the south of Vietnam, but are now restricted locally with strict controls by the government.

2. Young People Distance Themselves from Religion

The education system in Vietnam has always discouraged the discussion of religions and religious activities in society.

Educational books often teach children about loyalty to the Communist Party and to follow the law, but they rarely discuss traditional values and religious beliefs within the community.

The mass media is controlled by the State and newspapers, television and radio also do not discuss religion.

We do not have statistics on the number of followers of these two religions during different times, but the current government policy is to try to stop them from developing through the enactment of a numbers of drastic rules and regulations to control religious practices.

3. Identification Cards Are the Only Method for Counting Followers of Specific Religions

All identification cards in Vietnam specify a person’s religious affiliation.

In reality, to reduce potential problems involving religion, such as being discriminated against in recruitment to some governmental departments or joining the Communist Party, many families may declare that they are not members of any religion even though they actually follow a religion.

On the other hand, some police officers put down “no religion” when processing identification cards for people, possibly  to reduce the number of followers of a religion or to reduce its influence.

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Religion

Religion Bulletin – April 2020

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The Report on Religious Freedom in Vietnam is published on the first Monday of each month. If you would like to contribute information to the report, please send it to tongiao@luatkhoa.org or editor@thevietnamese.org

April’s [Religion 360°] will cover the month’s main religious developments, including the arrest of three ethnic Bahnar followers of the Ha Mon religion, the arrests of numerous Falun Gong proselytizers, and a number of other stories. We look back at the April 2004 protests over land and religious freedom in the Central Highlands in [On This Day]. And finally, [Did you know?] will discuss the custom of ancestral worship, which was almost wiped out after 1975. 

Religion 360°

Three ethnic Bahnar arrested in March 2020 with no connection to FULRO 

According to Health & Life newspaper, three ethnic Bahnar, Ju,56, Lup, 50, and Kunh, 32 were arrested by Gia Lai provincial police on March 19, 2020, in a matter unrelated to FULRO (Front United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races) operations.

Kunh revealed to investigators that he was not directed or supported by FULRO forces, and that he had only kept in contact with an individual named Y Khoet, who was a follower of the Ha Mon religion in Kontum Province.  

According to the above article, beginning in July 2012, the three arrested men would hide deep in the jungle during the day and then sneak into the village at night to talk to young people about the Ha Mon religion. On March 19, 2020, police arranged the capture of all three. 

(From left) Lup and Ju were arrested by Gia Lai provincial police on March 19, 2020. Source: D.A.

Many arrested for propagating Falun Gong after the Government Committee for Religious Affairs warned that “new religions may take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic” 

At the beginning of April, the website of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs announced its request to all provinces and cities to be on-guard for and prevent “extremist religious sects” from taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to “assemble and incite large gatherings of people”. 

The announcement also stated that provinces and cities needed to prevent people from transforming their residences into houses of worship, as well as organizing illegal collections of money for religious sects. 

According to Procuracy, the online newspaper of the Supreme People’s Procuracy, at the end of March and beginning of April, Ha Tinh provincial police arrested and administratively punished four women and one man for illegally propagating Falun Gong as they distributed masks and religious pamphlets to residents. 

Nghe An Newspaper also reported that three women were arrested and administratively punished at the end of March for illegally propagating Falun Gong.

Two of the five individuals arrested by Ha Tinh provincial police at the beginning of April 2020 for illegally propagating Falun Gong in Ha Tinh. Source: Procuracy Newspaper.

In mid-April, provinces and cities made announcements regarding the supervision and prevention of activities by new religious sects, which they referred to as “strange religions” and “heresies” on their websites. 

Similar to Khanh Hoa Province, Dak Lak provincial authorities reported that the “strange religions” in the region were: the “Supreme Master Ching Hai organization, Falun Gong, and the activities of extremist Protestant religious sects (such as the “Church of God and Heavenly Mother”, “Saving Grace”, “The Graceful Path”, “New Heaven and Earth” and otheres).” Besides these new religious groups, Binh Thuan provincial authorities also identified a number of others, such as the Buddhists of Miraculous Sound, Religion of Consistence, and the Supreme Order of Dragon & Flower.

Authorities of Hoa Binh Province in northern Vietnam announced that they are assigning the provincial Bureau of Internal Affairs the task of determining which illegal religious activities are those of “religious groups”, “assemblies”, and “religious organizations”.

Venerable Thich Tue Sy to lead the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam

On April 18, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam announced the decision of the former Fifth Patriarch Thich Quang Do regarding the transfer of full church leadership powers to the Venerable Thich Tue Sy.

According to this decision, once Venerable Thich Tue Sy meets the requirements, he will convene an extraordinary assembly on behalf of the Patriarchal Institute to elect all positions in Hoa Dao Pagoda. 

The Venerable Thich Quang Do signed the decision on May 24, 2019, before he passed away February 22, 2020. The signing ceremony was recorded, and Venerable Thich Tue Sy was present with many others. 

Venerable Thich Tue Sy

Birth name: Pham Van Thuong 

Birthdate: February 15, 1943 

Entered monastery: 1950

Age: 77
Native region: Quang Binh Province

According to the Lotus Library, Venerable Thich Tue Sy is an erudite scholar of philosophy and Buddhism. He is fluent in many foreign languages and has contributed to the translation of many foreign books.

Before 1975, he participated in teaching and management at Van Hanh University. In 1984, he was arrested along with other monks while protecting the university after the authorities confiscated the property to turn it into Su Pham University. He was imprisoned until 1988, when he was sentenced to death for attempting to overthrow the state and establish a revolutionary organization. In 1998, his sentence was reduced, and he was released. According to RFA, he was kept under very strict house arrest until 2004.

7 Catholic priests punished for violating COVID-19 social distancing orders 

According to VnExpress, on April 16, 2020, Ha Tinh Province decided to administratively punish seven Catholic priests for assembling parishioners for prayers during the government-ordered social distancing period.

The authorities stated that on April 4 and 5, six parishes in Ha Tinh organized prayer sessions for hundreds during church ceremonies.

Each priest was fined from 5 to 7.5 million dong (US$216 to US$325). 

Government social-distancing orders were in effect from March 28, to April 22, 2020. During this time, religious activities and assemblies were greatly restricted; many instead took place on social media. 

On This Day

Large protests in the Central Highlands, April 2004

In April 2004, Vietnamese journalists reported that protests had broken out on April 1011 in the three Central Highland provinces of Dak Lak, Gia Lai, and Dak Nong.

According to VnExpress, approximately 10,000 people participated in the protests on those two days.

The VnExpress article, along with other state newspapers, reported that local residents rode farm vehicles and motorcycles carrying deadly hunting weapons, swords, sticks, crossbows, and rock. The protestors caused riots by destroying property and stealing food items along the protest path. 

The chairman of the Dak Lak Province People’s Committee, Nguyen Van Lang, asserted that these riots were organized by FULRO forces demanding the establishment of a separate, autonomous state. 

However, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the primary reasons for the riots were harsh religious policies, unjust land policies, and government failure to guarantee social welfare in the Central Highlands. After protests in 2000, police launched several large waves of suppression against locals who wanted to practice independent religions.

Describing the method of suppression, the chairman of the Dak Lak Province People’s Committee stated: “In the latest event, we simply used the riot police and self-defense militia to restore order. After we gathered the women and children together, we explained to them that we had directed buses here to drive them directly back to their villages, so they could return to their normal lives.” 

However, according to HRW, police used excessive force, killing 8 local people on the streets, while many others died behind bars. 

The authorities did not announce the number of arrests after these protests. Nevertheless, an article in Vanguard Newspaper reported that in the last two months of 2004 alone, Gia Lai provincial police had arrested 146 local people with alleged ties to FULRO.

Siu Wiu, an ethnic Jrai, was forced to undergo extrajudicial re-education for participating in the 2004 protests. He stated to us that he went through re-education with 180 residents of Gia Lai. They had to labor heavily from morning to night while lacking sufficient food and shelter.

After the protests in 2004, the Central Highlands remained the site of many other protests by locals demanding religious freedom and the right to own land. 

Did You Know?

Ancestral worship was abolished by the state after 1975 but was later revived as a national tradition 

After the Saigon government fell in 1975, folk religious activities in the South were seen as “meaningless ceremonies”, “superstitions”, or “old-fashioned customs”. Ancestral worship was one of many activities that the state tried to abolish. 

In the North, spiritual activities began to be abolished in 1940 after the Communist Party began to control a number of northern areas. In 1994, a study showed that for every 35 Vietnamese families surveyed (including those of cadres), only one family worshipped its ancestors. [12]

Research has revealed a number of reasons why the state limited or prohibited many religious activities after 1975:

  • It believed religious activities were “superstitious”, “backwards”, and limited human capability by convincing people to believe in the mystical.
  • It saw the worship of dead people as a “meaningless ceremony”. 
  • It believed religious activities were a tool of the feudal class to exploit the people. 
  • It believed faith and religious activities were tools used by foreigners to take advantage of the masses and control the country, because ultimately, religions and faith practices in Vietnam all originated from overseas: Catholicism and Protestantism are both from the West, and Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism entered Vietnam from China.

According to Professor Philip Taylor, though they were prohibited, folk religious activities continued on in multi-faceted fashion, especially when the government opened up its doors to enact “Doi Moi” (economic and political reform in the mid-1980s). 

In the late 1990s, government policy regarding faith and religion began to be researched for carrying out reform. The following reasons convinced the government to place religious and faith activities under its strict control: 

  • The ideology behind proletarian revolution was no longer effective in the era of globalization, especially as Communism collapsed across the world.
  • The Vietnamese economy cratered when the government tried to centralize it.
  • Vietnamese state researchers pointed out that faith and spiritual activities contributed effectively to building nationalism, especially ancestor worship.
  • Ancestor worship had also been used to maintain the legitimacy of the Communist Party, such as to “give thanks” to “revolutionary heroes” who sacrificed themselves for national independence.
  • The desire to attract overseas Vietnamese back to their homeland to re-invest and support relatives. Ancestral worship activities were encouraged to draw overseas Vietnamese back to their homeland.

In 2004, after nearly 30 years of abolishing customs and ceremonial offerings, the state officially recognized faith activities, but through a different lens.

According to the National Assembly’s 2004 Decree #21 regarding religion and faith: “Faith activities are activities that express the worship of ancestors; commemorating and honoring those who have served the country, the community….” Article 5 of this Decree affirms that ancestral worship is a national tradition. 
See more: Vietnam after April 30th, 1975: how “superstition” became “national character” – Part 2

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