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.
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”.
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.
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.
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”.
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 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.
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.
Vietnamese Activists React to Facebook Taking Down “Anti-state” Posts
In mid-April, Reuters broke the news that Facebook agreed to censor so-called “anti-state” posts after the Vietnamese government put pressure on the social networking site and took local servers offline, slowing down traffic. Since the news broke, the activist and politically-engaged community in Vietnam has been determined to jump over another hurdle in its struggle for freedom of expression.
Thao Dinh, an activist in Hanoi who formerly worked as director of communications for VOICE, a Vietnamese human rights NGO, said she has used Facebook much less since learning about the content restrictions and has switched to other platforms.
“Diversity is important,” Dinh said. “The worst scenario is one platform becoming a monopoly. So I would recommend people use as many services as they want depending on their needs, such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Blogs, LinkedIn, Reddit, Quora, Telegram, except the platforms spying on us for the government.”
Additionally, Vietnamese activists are urging their fellow countrymen, if they choose to use Facebook, to be wary about sharing sensitive and personal information on the platform. Hoang Dung advised his network on Facebook to adjust their settings and clear their “Off-Facebook Activity” which is a summary of activity that businesses and organizations share about your interactions, such as visiting their apps or websites.
Vi Yen Nguyen, the training manager at VOICE, shared on her profile three other alternatives to Facebook: Signal, Telegram, and Wire.
Vi Yen wrote, “Facebook was faced with pressure by the Vietnamese government and gave up. It is no longer a reliable platform. Although admittedly, in this censorship case, Facebook is only a victim.”
(Vi Yen Nguyen’s quote was in Vietnamese: “Facebook đã chào thua trước áp lực của chính quyền Việt Nam. Nó không còn là một nơi đáng tin cậy. Dù phải thừa nhận rằng, trong vụ kiểm duyệt này, Facebook cũng chỉ là một nạn nhân.”)
Human Rights Watch said that Facebook should have resisted.
“Facebook has set a terrible precedent by caving to the government of Vietnam’s extortion,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Now other countries know how to get what they want from the company, to make them complicit in violating the right to free speech. The government of Vietnam shouldn’t have throttled the platform’s traffic in the first place, but Facebook shouldn’t have agreed to its demands.”
In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said that the Vietnamese government “has instructed us to restrict access to content which it has deemed to be illegal in Vietnam. We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and work hard to protect and defend this important civil liberty around the world. However, we have taken this action to ensure our services remain available and usable for millions of people in Vietnam, who rely on them every day.”
The UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights require businesses such as Facebook to “respect human rights,” including avoiding infringements and addressing adverse impacts in which they are involved. As a member of the Global Network Initiative, Facebook has pledged that it will protect the human rights of users when they are confronted with government demands inconsistent with international human rights standards.
“It’s hard to see how Facebook can live up to its human rights obligations when it’s helping Vietnam censor free speech,” Sifton said.
The pressure on Facebook coincides with a new decree by the Vietnamese government implementing monetary fines for people and internet companies for posting or publishing a sweeping range of items with “forbidden contents”, materials that promote “reactionary ideas”, “have not been allowed for circulation, have been prohibited for circulation or have been confiscated.”
The United States and other countries should have better utilized their diplomatic leverage to support Facebook in their stance against pressure from the government of Vietnam, Human Rights Watch said. Other businesses and business groups should have stood more publicly with the company to prevent the government’s strong-arm tactics.
The reluctance of Vietnamese activists to continue using Facebook has created new market opportunities for other social networks. Dinh recently got her Twitter profile officially verified.
“Since #Facebook is lowering its standards to protect human rights in #Vietnam, Twitter and other platforms are having a great opportunity for growing in [the] Vietnam market,” she tweeted.
Religion Bulletin – February 2020
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Government interferes in religions’ internal affairs
In our February report, we attempt to provide an understanding of how the Vietnamese government is interfering in the internal affairs of religious organizations in [The Government’s Reach] section. In February 2018, the government sentenced six Hoa Hao Buddhist followers; rediscover the case in [On This Day] section. The remaining section covers the passing of the Venerable Thich Quang Do and the lesser-known self-immolations that occurred in Vietnam after 1975.
The Government’s Reach
How the Vietnamese government has interfered in the internal affairs of religious organizations
Since 1975, the Vietnamese government has maintained broad and deep interference in the internal affairs of religious groups. Religious groups recognized by the state have no choice but to accept such interference from the government. Those religious organizations that choose to resist face a high possibility that the government will retaliate in multiple ways.
Catholic priest impeded from holding mass
At the beginning of January 2020, Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc wrote on his Facebook that from August 2019, he has been denied permission to hold mass during prayer sessions in Binh Duong, Dong Nai, and Saigon. Father Thuc stated that local police came to the churches, threatening him and forbidding him from holding mass.
“In August 2019, I was to attend a pastor’s mass in Dong Nai. The night before mass, he called me and told me that police had spoken to his superiors and said that if Father Thuc held mass, then the entire ceremony would be cancelled. So the superiors told me not to come,”, Father Thuc said of the government’s harassment.
Police preventing Father Thuc from holding mass is understood as retribution, the kind that religious activists regularly encounter when they displease the government.
Father Nguyen DInh Thuc, age 42, head of Song Ngoc parish, Vinh diocese, Nghe An province, has been repeatedly harassed by the government the past few years, particularly in 2016 when he spoke up against Formosa polluting the central Vietnamese coast.
His activities calling for greater human rights have caused him an increasing amount of trouble. According to The 88 Project, he was banned from leaving the country twice in 2017 and 2019 for national security reasons. Currently, the government has begun engaging in a variety of methods to limit Father Thuc’s religious activities.
Police interfere in disagreement over An Hoa Tu temple’s renovation
In September 2019, An Giang provincial police put on house arrest a group of dignitaries of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church (unrecognized by the government) to prevent them from attending a meeting of the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church – the only Hoa Hao Buddhist organization recognized by the state—regarding the repair of An Hoa Tu Temple.
The disagreement between these two churches began in July 2019, when the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church announced that they would be replacing the roof of An Hoa Tu temple, one of the religion’s main temples and a site of pilgrimage for all Hoa Hao Buddhists. The roof renovation met with opposition from the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church from the very start.
Instead of letting the two churches solve the problem themselves, local authorities decided to intervene.
In September 2019, An Giang provincial police warned the management committee of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church “not to incite followers” regarding the renovation. Police assured the management committee that the An Giang provincial people’s committee had only permitted the replacement of the roof, not the demolition of the entire temple.
After this warning, six members of the Pure Hao Hao Buddhist Church were blocked by a group of individuals on the way to An Hoa Tu temple and beaten, on the day that the roof tiles were to be replaced. (See details: Report on Religious Freedom in Vietnam – October 2019). To this day, local authorities brush off the attack, which left several injured.
The government interferes with a Cao Dai temple’s right of ownership
According to human rights group BPSOS, in 2017, an independent Cao Dai temple in Phu Thanh A commune, Tam Nong suburban district, Dong Thap province was confiscated by the authorities and given to a representative of Sect 1997, one among a number of Cao Dai organizations recognized by the state (1997).
During the affair, Mr. Duong Ngoc Re was asked by Phu Thanh A communal authorities and the Tam Nong district police to meet on March 20th, 2017, in order to force him to hand over the temple to Sect 1997. When he refused, the authorities took possession of the temple that same day. The very next day, Sect 1997 had one of its representatives read out the paperwork in the presence of local authorities, who then approved the transfer.
According to BPSOS, in the last two decades, 285 of approximately 300 Cao Dai temples have been appropriated by Sect 1997 with government support.
A history of the Vietnamese government’s interference in the internal affairs of religious organizations
After 1975, the Vietnamese Communist Party aimed to push the country towards socialism. As such, religions in the south were not allowed to operate freely as they had before. In the north, religious activities had been severely curtailed by the government since 1954.
According to southern Buddhist monks, after taking control of the south on April 30th, 1975, the Southern Provisional Revolutionary Government limited all religious activities, many places of worship were confiscated and turned into administrative offices, Buddhist statues were destroyed, religious offices in charge of social affairs were all closed, many practitioners were arrested and imprisoned without trial.
Overt government interference in the internal affairs of religions officially began on November 11, 1977 with the pulmugation of Resolution #297-CP regarding “One policy for religion”. In the resolution, opening classes, convening internal meetings, appointments or transfers of dignitaries, and even followers assisting in religious activities—all had to be approved by the government.
During this time, besides strictly controlling religious activities, the government also began to find ways to eliminate churches and associations of traditional Vietnamese religions and establish their own that were loyal to the state.
For example, with Buddhism, the government instigated divisions within the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (established in 1964). According to the Venerable Thich Quang Do, at the beginning of 1980, the government invited a number of church leaders to meet to discuss the unification of the religion, when it should have been an internal affair. In 1981, the government then recognized the Buddhist Church of Vietnam with a number of members from the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. After the Buddhist Church of Vietnam was established, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam has suffered discrimination and suppression to this very day.
According to BPSOS, after attempts to eliminate the Cao Dai religion failed, the state established Sect 1997 in 1997. The Cao Dai Holy See in Tay Ninh went from being a well-oiled machine organizing religious activities over a wide area to simply a branch with circumscribed reach and subject to strict government control.
With Hoa Hao Buddhism, the government only recognized it as a religion in 1999 after the Government Committee For Religious Affairs accepted a component of the Committee Representing Hoa Hao Buddhism. Other branches of Hoa Hao Buddhism that existed before 1975 were not recognized and became illegal.
In 1999, the state replaced Resolution #297-CP with Resolution #26/1999/ND-CP, but maintained its broad powers to interfere as before. However, the latest resolution further restricted religious freedom because it increased the number of jurisdictions religions were subject to. For example, carrying out the ordination of a monk in Buddhism or similarly, a priest in Catholicism would require the consent of the prime minister himself.
On the outside, religious activities in Vietnam appear stable because they have been thoroughly subsumed by the state and the political objectives of the Communist Party. Religious sects and associations that choose to remain independent suffer the government’s interminable abuse and suppression.
Four spheres of state interference in the internal affairs of religious organizations, through legal regulations
In 2016, Vietnam passed the Law on Faith and Religion, to go into effect in 2018. The 2016 Law on Faith and Religion contained many improvements compared to prior regulations. However, the spirit of this law remains the same: tight control of religious freedom by maintaining state interference in the internal affairs of religious organizations:
Interference in the internal organization of religious groups
The 2016 Law on Faith and Religion stipulates that if a religious organization wants to amend its charter (Article 24), or split, merge, unify with other religious organizations (Clause 3, Article 29), then it must seek approval from the government. Regarding personnel, the state reserves the right to approve or disapprove of nominations for positions in religious organizations (Clause 5, Article 34).
Under the 2016 Law on Faith and Religion, the government uses Resolution 162/2017/ND-CP to more strictly control religious organizations. This resolution stipulates that Vietnamese citizens must seek government approval if they seek to organize activities linked to overseas religions. The resolution also requires local, religious gathering places to seek government approval of any changes in representatives.
Interference in religious groups’ training programs
According to the 2016 Law on Faith and Religion, all religious organizations must have their training classes approved by the government (Clause 3, Article 38). Classes teaching Vietnamese history or Vietnamese law on the basis of religious training must follow the guidelines set out by the Ministry of Education and Training, the Ministry of Justice, and all related bodies (Article 40).
Interference in freedom of association
The 2016 Law on Faith and Religion has many stipulations that limit freedom of association, even within religious organizations. Meetings that involve multiple religions or foreign elements require approval from the central government (Article 44).
Religious organizations that want to organize festivals or congresses must seek approval from the central or local authorities (Clause 3, Article 45). Religious organizations that invite foreign speakers (Article 48) or desire to join international religious organizations must seek the approval of the state (Article 53);
Interference in religious groups’ management of property and finances
In regards to religious grounds such as temples and churches, the 2016 Law on Faith and Religion stipulates that the commune’s people’s committee, in conjunction with the Fatherland Front, must organize an election and recognize a representative and a management committee for that property (Clause 3, Article 11). Accounts containing funds collected from religious activities, such as mass, must be reported to the state, with clear statements on how the funds will be used.
Resolution 162/2017/NĐ-CP also states that prior to carrying out collection activities and donation drives, religious organizations must report the details, methods, objectives, and duration of such events to the government.
Outside of regulations related to religion, the Vietnamese government is also able to use many other provisions to suppress religious freedom, such as those related to public assembly, disturbing security and order, and publishing, as well as those found in the Cybersecurity Law … all are used to suppress religious organizations not recognized by the state.
Venerable Thich Quang Do passed away
On February 20th, 2020, Venerable Thich Quang Do, Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam passed away at Tu Hieu Temple (Ho Chi Minh City) at the age of 91.
He was among activists that the Vietnamese government kept under house arrest the longest. In 1982, after the government established the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, authorities confined him to a temple in Thai Binh for 10 consecutive years. In 1995, he was sentenced to 5 years in prison after he voluntarily return to Ho Chi Minh City to help flood rescue efforts in the Mekong Delta. After he got out of prison in 1998, he served five years house arrest in Ho Chi Minh City. In 2003, just as he had completed his house arrest, authorities prevented him from leaving Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Ho Chi Minh City, until mid-2018 when he was forced to leave.
From 1975 until he passed away, Venerable Thich Quang Do never had the freedom to operate, as he explained to Al-Jazeera in 2007: “We’re prisoners in our own homeland, where our government decides who has the right to speak and who has to keep their mouth shut.”
Since the establishment of the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam has faced fierce repression from the government:
“They [the government] have not ended their discrimination and repression of the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam. Church activities the last 30 years have been very difficult (to organize). Preaching and teaching are not permitted, opening schools is not permitted, […] If they have an opportunity to get rid of [the church], then they’ll use it. For many decades, [I’ve been stuck] in this one room […] Every two months, I have a hospital visit. That’s it. No one comes in or out, and I can’t go anywhere. And even to the hospital, [police] follow”, Venerable Thich Quang Do told Radio Free Asia at the end of 2012.
Venerable Thich Quang Do became the fifth Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam in 2011. He had worked for the church since it was established in 1964. From 1975 onwards, he and a number of southern monks continued to guide the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam through the government’s persistent discrimination and repression.
On This Day
Six Hoa Hao Buddhists sentenced to prison
The independent followers of Hoa Hao Buddhism in the Mekong Delta have been among the most repressed religious communities in Vietnam. In February 2018, six Hoa Hao Buddhists were sentenced to prison for “disturbing public order” and “obstructing officials”.
Six individuals, among them four members of the same family, were sentenced to prison on February 9th, 2008. The An Phu District People’s Court sentenced Mr. Bui Van Trung, age 56, to six years; Ms. Le Thi Hen, age 58, to two years in-absentia, Ms. Bui Thi Bich Tuyen, age 38, to three years; Mr. Bui Van Tham, age 33, to six years; Mr. Nguyen Hoang Nam, age 38, to four years; and Ms. Le Hong Hanh, age 41, to three years.
According to BBC Vietnamese, the case occurred the night of April 19th, 2017, when Bui Van Trung’s family invited people over to his house to mark the anniversary of a passing. The day before, plainclothes police had set up a checkpoint to block people from attending the event at Mr. Trung’s house.
According to the indictment from the People’s Investigation Bureau of An Phu suburban district, An Giang province, at approximately 6:30 PM on April 19th, 2017, three people were on motorbike on the way to Mr. Trung’s house, when they were stopped by traffic police to check paperwork. Stating that they had not broken any traffic laws, the three refused to provide any. At that time, Mr. Nam, Ms. Hanh, Mr. Trung, and his family approached and refused to let police confiscate the motorbike because the three stopped individuals refused to present their paperwork. The event quickly escalated into a protest. Those on Mr. Trung’s side accused the authorities of entrapping the people coming to his house to attend the anniversary. As a result, they raised their voices and created signs protesting the religious repression occurring.
On June 26th, 2017, police arrested Mr. Trung and his son Tham. The day after, Mr. Nam was also taken in. Ms. Hanh was arrested on November 13th, 2017. During the interrogation process, Mr. Trung and others denied “disturbing public order”.
For many years, the An Giang provincial authorities had kept tight watch over Mr. Trung’s family because they frequently organized independent religious activities. In 2012, Mr. Trung was sentenced to 4 years in prison for “disturbing public order” and “obstructing officials”.
The government frequently uses the crimes of “disturbing public order” and “obstructing officials” to punish religious, democracy, and human rights activists.
Did You Know?
Many self-immolations took place after 1975
Did you know: after 1975, many religious organizations in the south went through a very dark period. Southerners at the time saw hundreds of temples confiscated, settings for social activities re-purposed, and many religious activities forbidden. Perhaps most painful were the less-publicized self-immolations, conducted to demand the state respect religious freedom.
The first self-immolation occurred in Can Tho on November 2nd, 1975. Abbot Thich Hue Hien and 11 Buddhist nuns of the Duoc Su Zen Monastery immolated themselves in the temple, about 30 kilometers from Can Tho. Only when the immolations were covered by international media a year later did authorities begin their own investigation.
However, after the investigation, the government told Amnesty International that Abbot Thich Hue Hien had conspired to kill the nuns because he was afraid of being exposed for a sex scandal.
Venerable Thich Quang Do and a number of monks from the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam disputed the results of the government’s investigation, deepening the conflict between the government and the church. In April 1977, many of the church’s monks were arrested and tortured. Venerable Thich Thien Minh was one of those arrested, ultimately dying in prison in October 1978.
In an interview with Venerable Thich Thien Quang after he escaped the country to Indonesia in 1979, he stated that in the last two years, there were approximately 18 southern nuns who self-immolated to push for religious freedom. Self-immolations continued into the 1990s.
On May 21st, 1993, an unknown man immolated himself at Thien Mu Temple (Hue). The authorities stated that the individual was not a Buddhist and that the immolation was due to a personal problem.
However, the authorities did not explain why the individual traveled nearly 1000 miles to self-immolate at Thien Mu Temple. Several days after the immolation, the authorities interrogated Thich Tri Tuu, the head of Thien Mu Temple, which lead to a large protest in Hue.
Another self-immolation occurred May of 1994 in Vinh Long. Thich Hue Thau, a member of the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, immolated himself on May 28th, 1994. Thich Hue Thau’s older brother, Le Trung Truc, told Christian Science Monitor: “My younger brother could not live without independence (in religious activities), so he decided to end it”.
Mr. Truc said that Thich Hue Thau self-immolated after authorities prevented him from practicing at any of the temples in the province because he was a member of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. He also stated that his younger brother had mobilized a group of Buddhists to walk all the way to Hanoi to protest the numerous high taxes on farmers. However, the group was blocked before it was able to leave Vinh Long province. Immediately after, the authorities asked Thau to close his own temple. A few days after that, he self-immolated behind his temple during the night.
Translated by Will Nguyen
Religion Bulletin – January 2020
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
The Vietnamese government views all developing religions today as heresy. Our [Flashpoint] section seeks to show you how the struggle between the Dien Bien provincial authorities and developing religions is unfolding. Discover the fascinating aspects of developing religions of the past in [Did You Know?] section. It’s been 15 years since Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh was allowed to return to Vietnam; read about it in the [On This Day] section.
Dien Bien province
- Region: northwestern Vietnam
- Area: 9,541.2 km2
- Number of ethnic minority groups: 21
- Population: approximately 576.700 (2017)
- Predominant religions: Protestantism, Catholicism, and Buddhism
- Developing religions: The Faith of Ho Chi Minh’s Spirit, Buddhists of Miraculous Sound, Doan Trang, Familial Tradition of the Lac Viet, Falun Gong, Gie Sua, Lady Do, and the World Mission Society Church of God
- The number of arrests related to developing religions in 2019: more than 22 people
- Concern: suppression of developing religions
- Methods of suppression: preventing proselytization, imprisoning proselytizers, forcing citizens to sign vows to abandon their religion.
The current emergence of developing religions:
Dien Bien is a province in northwestern Vietnam with predominantly mountainous terrain; most of its land area borders Laos, with a small portion bordering China.
According to the Dien Bien provincial government, the province has seen in the past few years the emergence of many new religions, which they refer to as “heresy”. These religions mainly gather large groups of people to proselytize, acts which the government claims both are illegal and take advantage of people.
According to the Dien Bien provincial government, at the end of 2017, the province discovered that the Gie Sua religion was proselytizing mainly those of the Mong ethnic minority group. In 2019, Dien Bien province had 1,208 followers of the Gie Sua religion. Though it did not describe the religion clearly, both the Dien Bien government and the police force used the press to propagate the idea that it was a strange, heretical religion that caused harm to law and order and needed to be stopped.
According to the Dien Bien Phu Newspaper, a propaganda arm of the provincial government, the World Mission Society Church of God appeared in the province in 2018, spread to Pu Nhi commune, Dien Bien Dong suburban district, but was able to be quashed by the government in time.
The Buddhists of Miraculous Sound was first discovered by the Dien Bien provincial authorities in 2009 with approximately 10 followers in the city of Dien Bien Phu. The religion was started in 2004 by a Vietnamese individual named Tran Tam, who also goes by “Master Ruma”, with many offices around the world. Tran Tam converted a number of Vietnamese in Laos and Cambodia, and then afterwards, carried the faith to Vietnam. The Buddhists of Miraculous Sound use a number of meditation practices from both Buddhism and Catholicism.
Another northern province with followers from this religion is Vinh Phuc, which borders Hanoi on the northeast. According to the Vinh Phuc provincial government, Tran Tam has entered Vietnam and been deported many times. Vinh Phuc province has uniformly rejected all applications for activities related to the Buddhists of Miraculous Sound.
Methods the government uses to eliminate developing religions
Opinion pieces published by the Dien Bien provincial government regarding developing religions all revolve around how to eliminate them.
According to the Dien Bien provincial authorities, in order to eliminate these religions, they’ve had to prevent conversion sessions, arrest proselytizers, force followers to sign pledges abandoning the religion, or introduce or reintroduce followers to state-sanctioned religions.
“The masterminds, the heads of these heretical groups must be firmly dealt with, […]. Here’s a typical example: recently, police gathered, arrested, and prosecuted a number of individuals who led the establishment of the “Mong State”, one of which was involved in proselytizing people into the Gie Sua heretical religion […], By April 9th, 2019, 14 individuals representing 14 households, and 74 followers of the Gie Sua religion in the mountainous village of Na Co Sa 3, Na Co Sa commune (Nam Po suburban district) had […] signed pledges to abandon the religion”, Dien Bien Phu Newspaper, Dien Bien province.
In the first ten months of 2019, authorities in the suburban district of Muong Nhe arrested 22 people involved in “heretical” religious activities. By May 2019, the Dien Bien provincial government stated that it had convinced 1,006 followers to abandon the Gie Sua religion and that it would continue such efforts to completely eliminate the religion from the province.
“We visited them house-by-house, speaking with residents so that they better understand. We asked them to sign pledges to leave the Gie Sua religion, to not listen, to not believe propaganda arguing for the establishment of the “Mong Kingdom”. […] As of now, the Na Co Sa Military Border Post has gotten 55 households/325 individuals to sign pledges abandoning the heretical religion”, Commander Vu Van Hanh, Na Co Sa Military Border Post, responding to Dien Bien Phu Newspaper in February 2020.
The Government’s Reach
There’s no room for new religions in Vietnam
Emerging new religions in Vietnam appear to be effectively nipped in the bud with labels like “heresy” and “strange faith”.
“Activities spreading superstition affect the social fabric. They have the clearest and broadest influence on the population in places where these new religions (heresy, strange faiths) appear: Supreme Master Ching Hai, Long Hoa Maitreya, Treasured Temple of the Three Religions, Protestant Word of Life…” Lê Minh Quang – Deputy Head of the Lam Dong Provincial Party Committee.
In an article published March 2015, the Government Committee For Religious Affairs documented 60 counts of new religions, “a number of which are heretical, negatively influencing order, morality, lifestyles, customs, habits, culture, and health.”
Though there was no official list of these heretical religions, a publication of the Central Propaganda Committee divided these “heretical religions” into three groups. The first group included religions that sprung up locally from Protestant foundations (Dega Protestantism, Vietnam Protestant Church of Christ, Prayer Committee for Protestant Revivalism, the Lutheran Fellowship Church of Vietnam and America) and Buddhist foundations (Trang Huong Quang, Maitreya Buddhism, Treasured Temple of the Three Religions, Peaceful Sky, Great Ancestral Orthodox Church…). The remaining group contains those religions that were imported from overseas, such as Supreme Master Ching Hai, Falun Gong, Charismatic Revival, Yiguandao, Wuwei,…
These religions obviously cannot register their activities with the government, as their proselytizing efforts are essentially illegal. The government subjectively deems them “heretical religions” by default, rather than through any judicial review.
In terms of Protestant denominations that have no been officially recognized, the government has issued Directive #01/2005/CT/TTg, which allows people to sign up for group activities through local authorities. However, this directive is not applicable for those new religions with Protestant foundations.
In 2015, the Lam Dong provincial authorities “firmly disallowed registration” of any group religious activities by Tran Xuan Vinh, a follower of the Vietnam Protestant Word of Life Church (seen as a “heretical religion” under its previous name Charismatic Revival). According to the Lam Dong authorities, there are currently 37 families in the province that still congregate for this religion.
The government attaches the label “heresy” on these religions based on characteristics that one could also find among other state-sanctioned religions in Vietnam: founders calling themselves the heads of religions, collecting money to build temples and shrines, developing organizations; proselytizing by appealing to people’s trials and tribulations; drawing in family members; not carrying out traditional customs. Moreover, these new religious groups, after being punished, run the risk of becoming seen as anti-government.
Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2020: the Vietnamese government has yet to do anything to improve freedom of religion
“Religious groups which are not officially recognized, including some branches of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religions, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Buddhism face constant monitoring and threats of harassment and intimidation.” – World Report 2020, Human Rights Watch
With its long-standing “achievements” in religious oppression, Vietnam is one of a number of countries closely followed by international organizations. In the past 20 years, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has repeatedly criticized the Vietnamese government for systematically oppressing fundamental civil and political rights, especially the religious freedom of local minority groups and unrecognized religious groups.
Its latest report revealing much of the same, HRW states that the Vietnamese government continues to monitor every move made by religious groups and is prepared to strongly suppress at a moment’s notice. The government continues to use regulations to limit religious freedom, police to harass religious activities, and courts to punish religious activists and dissidents with jail terms.
“Although the authorities allow many churches and temples within state control to organize worship and offerings, they still forbid religious activities that are contrary to “national interest”, “public order”, or “greater unity”. These arbitrary categories include many ordinary religious activities,” HRW concluded about religious freedom in Vietnam in 2019.
HRW’s observations reveal that Vietnam has not fulfilled the obligations it stated it had during the country’s Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Council in June 2019. During the session, Vietnam had “accepted the recommendation” from Italy and Angola to reduce bureaucratic procedures surrounding religious activities. It also accepted a recommendation from Poland guaranteeing that it would carry out the 2016 Law on Faith and Religion in accordance with international standards. In its pledge to the United States, Vietnam agreed to allow Protestants and other groups in its northwest to register their activities; however, it has so far refused to do the same for groups in the Central Highlands.
See more: When the Central Highlands are no longer home (How did the Thuong people escape the Central Highlands?)
On This Day
15 years ago today, Vietnam permitted Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh to return home
“For 40 years, we tried to arrange our return to Vietnam. Finally, in December of 2005, I was given permission to return to my homeland…”
– Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book The Art of Power.
In January of 2005, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, together with approximately 200 individuals, returned to Vietnam. The Vietnamese state allowed him and his Buddhist delegation to return home for 10 weeks.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s first trip back home after 40 years gave him a favorable impression of the government, even though police stringently checked his delegation. His delegation was able to convince the government to allow public prayer sessions in Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, and Hanoi.
However, he was not allowed to meet with dignitaries of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (a Buddhist organization that was re-established in 1991 and repeatedly suppressed by the state) in Ho Chi Minh City.
This trip was the first time Hanh has been allowed by the Vietnamese authorities to return home since he traveled to the United States to advocate an end to the Vietnam War in 1966. In the entirety of his time overseas, he never stopped advocating an end to the devastating war. Up until 1975, Hanh, along with those inside the country directed social programs, chief among them the Youth School for Social Service and the Committee on Vietnamese Reconstruction and Development. After 1975, Thich Nhat Hanh began programs to rescue refugees escaping Vietnam by boat, along with many other humanitarian activities.
When the war ended, he settled in Paris and established a center for meditation studies. From then onwards, thousands of people from all over the world became disciples of Hanh and his Plum Village Tradition. Thich Nhat Hanh would become one of world’s most influential Vietnamese.
Prior to his return in 2005, Hanh’s books were not permitted wide publication inside the country. Even now, a number of his books have not been published in Vietnam, like Lotus in a Sea of Fire.
Did You Know?
The mystery of past new religions in the South
The South during French colonization and the Republican era saw the birth of many new religions, a few of which are still growing vibrantly to this day.
These religions, when they first emerged, displayed characteristics that today’s government would deem “heretical”, including sharing a foundation with larger religions like Buddhism and Daoism, founders calling themselves the heads of religion, and attracting followers by treating unusual illnesses.
Let’s go through a number of strange aspects of these past new religions in order to better understand the new religions of today. The religions below have all been recognized by the Vietnamese government.
Hoa Hao Buddhism
In 1939, in the village of Hoa Hao, Tan Chau district, Chau Doc province (today known as An Giang province), a young man not yet 20 years old announced that he had lived through several incarnations of suffering and was sent down by the Buddha to “save all living creatures”. From that moment, Hoa Hao Buddhism was born and the young man became the religion’s founder.
That young man was named Huynh Phu So; legend has it he was born emaciated and sickly, but upon his return from the Bay Nui area, he made a complete transformation, speaking eloquently, and possessing an excellent command of Buddhism.
Concerned about the large following that Hoa Hao Buddhism had, the French colonial authorities accused Huynh Phu So of being mentally ill, had him psychologically treated in Saigon, then put him under house arrest in Bac Lieu.
If the Cao Dai religion came into existence today, it’s very likely the authorities would find every way to eliminate it due to its mystical nature.
The Cao Dai religion emerged in the South during French colonial rule. This religion has its roots in an activity that is still seen as superstitious to this day: seances. According to the religion’s history, the first followers of Cao Dai were able to connect to souls that conveyed a request from the Jade Emperor to establish the religion.
Cao Dai’s mission is to unify the “Triple Schools” of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. On top of this, it also fuses five larger religions (Five Branches) into one, including Buddhism, Daoism, Catholicism, and Confucianism. Because of this, Cao Dai worships 8 individuals who represent the Triple Schools and the Five Branches.
Curious Fragrance of Treasure Mountain
“Curious Fragrance of Treasure Mountain” is a religion that emerged in the middle of the 19th century. It was founded in the Mekong River Delta by a man whose identity is still unclear, a man named Doan Minh Huyen, born in 1807.
According to Tran Van Dong, folk tales claim that Doan Minh Huyen was able to attract many followers because he was able to heal people using natural water; he would give sick people ashen water and fresh flowers to consume as an offering to the Buddha. Doan Minh Huyen also announced a Long Hoa Festival, where Maitreya would appear and receive practitioners.
Curious Fragrance of Treasure Mountain is a religion whose foundation is Buddhism; however, unlike Buddhism, it does not require followers to leave their homes (to become monks or nuns), eat vegetarian, or set up costly altars; rather, its followers simply worship a red sheet of fabric.
Translated by Will Nguyen
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