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Report on Freedom of Religion in Vietnam – October 2019

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• Focus:

  1. Tay Nguyen highlands – the government continues to uphold oppressive policies against religious groups that refuse state control.
  2. In the southern region – Six Hoa Hao Buddhists were assaulted by security forces on their way to prevent the roof re-tiling of An Hoa Tu temple.
  3. In the southern region – Hoa Hao Buddhist Nguyen Hoang Nam goes on a hunger strike at Xuan Loc Prison Camp.
  4. In the central coastal provinces – the government prepares to take over the educational premises of Tuy Hoa Protestant Church (in Phu Yen) at the end of November 2019.
  5. The state grants recognition to the Vietnamese Pentecostal Gospel Church.

• Changes in laws regarding religion:

There have been no changes and no new state regulations related to the administration of religion.

• Events involving religious organizations:

1. Tay Nguyen highlands – the government continues to uphold oppressive policies against religious groups that refuse state control.

Dega Protestantism and the Ha Mon religion continue to be the primary targets of elimination by security forces in the Tay Nguyen highlands.

The government believes both religions are being controlled by FULRO – an armed organization that fought for the autonomy of minorities in the Tay Nguyen highlands but which weakened and disbanded in the 90s – to oppose the state. The government believes that Dega Protestantism was established by former members of FULRO to incite people to demand autonomy in the Tay Nguyen highlands and assert the Ha Mon religion is the heresy that incites and entices many individuals among ethnic minorities.

The reality is the government solely controls the discourse surrounding these two religions. Journalists do not have the freedom to investigate the activities of religions in the Tay Nguyen highlands, and the region has become the most strictly controlled in terms of religious activities.

According to the government’s Committee for Religious Affairs (which belongs to the Ministry of the Interior and directly administers tasks to do with religious security), the Ha Mon religion began developing in 1999 in the two provinces of Kon Tum and Gia Lai, with approximately 3,500 followers. The followers of the Ha Mon religion conduct their religious activities in small groups in private residences, similar to Catholic protocol, rather than in a government-sanctioned church. The activities of the Ha Mon religion were seen by the authorities as disruptive of order and security and needed to be halted. In 2013, the founder of the Ha Mon religion, Ms. Y Gyin of the Bana ethnic group, was sentenced to three years in prison along with seven others who were sentenced to a maximum of 11 years in prison, for undermining national unity (Article 87 of the 1999 Penal Code).

According to the Gia Lai Newspaper, the police of Phu Thien district in Gia Lai province asserted that FULRO was secretly operating in 81 hamlets and villages in the district and needed to be wiped out. District police believe that activities which involve crowds, like weddings, funerals, and birthdays, need to be strictly monitored, as these events serve as covers for unauthorized religious activities that oppose the state.

After the large-scale protests in the 2000s (and up to 2012) related to religion and land, the government’s oppressive activities have spread to religious groups. The government refuses to accept any religious activities that lay outside of its control. Religious groups, principally Protestants and Catholics, have suffered severe government oppression as they demand their right to freedom of religion.

According to our sources, in the last two months or so, approximately three families fled across the border from the Tay Nguyen highlands to Bangkok because of religious oppression. Currently, there are more than 500 individuals of ethnic minorities who are refugees in Bangkok, Thailand and another group of more than 20 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The common forms of government harassment towards religious groups in the Tay Nguyen highlands include:

  • Halting any activities involving groups of people, even if they are not religious in nature
  • Preventing individuals from leaving their home hamlet or village
  • Monitoring the daily activities of all individuals
  • Placing individuals under house arrest on days in which there are religious activities
  • Regularly coming to homes to interrogate individuals or interrogating those who recently returned from other areas
  • Illegally arresting and holding people in custody
  • Torture, beatings
  • Refusing to carry out administrative procedures for a number of families
  • Hunting down and imprisoning those who flee across the border for religious reasons
  • Punishing individuals by giving them jail sentences

2. Six Hoa Hao Buddhists were assaulted by security forces on their way to prevent the roof re-tiling of An Hoa Tu temple

At approximately 2 AM on October 7th, 2019, on the day that the roof of An Hoa Tu temple was going to be re-tiled, six Hoa Hao Buddhists (Vo Van Thanh Liem, Le Thanh Thuan, Nguyen Thanh Tung, Cao Thi Thu Ba, To Van Manh, and Le Thanh Truc) were ambushed as they were on the way to An Hoa Tu temple to prevent the roof re-tiling. As the six arrived at the Thuan Giang ferry landing, approximately a kilometer away from An Hoa Tu temple, they encountered a group of individuals who were there waiting for them. This group proceeded to beat the six Buddhists in order to prevent their arrival at the temple.

Mr. Vo Thanh Liem, age 79, spoke to RFA regarding the assault: “Today [October 7th, 2019] they took the roof tiles off the church, but the church itself remained untouched. Yesterday, they stacked [the tiles] outside the gate, same today. As we arrived at the Thuan Giang ferry landing, about 40-50 individuals blocked us, beating Mr. To Van Manh, Mr. Le Thanh Thuc, and Ms. Nguyen Thi My Trieu; my niece Vo Thi Thu Ba had her phone smashed. Realizing that they were going to beat me as well, I poured gasoline on myself and threatened to end things on my own terms, after which they left. They used long sticks, beating people so hard, the sticks smashed to smithereens.”

Other Hoa Hao Buddhists also saw that a crowd of security forces was watching over the stacks [of tiles] around An Hoa Tu temple as the roof tiles were being replaced. On October 9th, 2019, Hoa Hao Buddhist Le Tan Tai was held down and assaulted by security forces, who took his phone after believing that he was planning to record the roof re-tiling of An Hoa Tu temple. Tai said he was further slapped in the face by a female plainclothes police officer. Leaders of Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism were also kept under house arrest during the days of the An Hoa Tu temple roof re-tiling.

The conflict surrounding the renovation of An Hoa Tu temple demonstrates the government’s overreaching interference in the internal affairs of a religion. Religious groups that do not accept government control are not only vulnerable and unable to freely operate but are also assaulted for expressing their opinions. Religious groups that accept state control are protected by security forces, are provided budgets, are allowed to carry out religious activities, and become a force to help the state manage religion as a whole. This disparity in treatment tends to exacerbate rivalries between the different branches of a religion.

3. Hoa Hao Buddhists dispute the re-tiling at An Hoa Tu temple

After disagreement regarding the roof re-tiling of the An Hoa Tu temple, the followers of Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism (PHHB) continue to oppose the Hoa Hao Buddhism Central Management Board – which has supervisory rights over An Hoa Tu temple and is the only Hoa Hao Buddhist organization recognized by the government – regarding the replacement of bricks that are still intact at the home temple.

The followers of PHHB assert that the recent activities regarding the renovation of An Hoa Tu temple are a gradual attempt to completely change the original state of the home temple. They state that this will alter the home temple’s historical markers.

4. Hoa Hao Buddhist Nguyen Hoang Nam goes on hunger strike at Xuan Loc Prison Camp in Dong Nai province

According to RFA, the wife of Mr. Nguyen Hoang Nam, a Hoa Hao Buddhist and a prisoner serving his sentence at Xuan Loc Prison Camp, reported that Nam went on a hunger strike for six days, from October 11th – 17th, 2019 to protest his transfer from the area for political prisoners to a cell for drug-related criminals.

Mr. Nguyen Hoang Nam, a 37-year-old Hoa Hao Buddhist, chose to practice his religion independent of the state. He was sentenced to four years in prison in 2018 for disturbing public order, along with four other Hoa Hao Buddhists, one of whom was sentenced to one year of prison for obstructing officials. According to Human Rights Watch, these verdicts were intended to punish those Hoa Hao Buddhists who demanded religious freedom and refused state control.

Current conditions in prisons are deplorable, though on the whole, political prisoners are able to enjoy better conditions than normal criminals. However, they can be punished by being transferred to cells with less desirable conditions.

The following prison conditions need to be improved:

Using the same water source for eating, drinking, showering, and washing clothes

Meals that are low-quality, unclean, or lack essential nutrients

Prisoners being unable to maintain daily bodily hygiene

Prison cells which are hot, lacking in sunlight, or overcrowded

Prisoners not receiving sleeping nets and suffering mosquito bites

Unreliable health care

The price of food and commodities that prisoners can buy at the canteen being 2 to 3x the market price

Prisoners being overworked

5. The government prepares to take over the educational premises of Tuy Hoa Protestant Church (in Phu Yen) at the end of November 2019.

According to the Tuy Hoa Protestant Church of Phu Yen province, the provincial government issued a notice that it was reclaiming a piece of church land in November 2019. The land, which contained the educational premises of a church at 65 Nguyen Hue, Tuy Hoa city, Phu Yen province, was earmarked for the construction of a pre-school.

The piece of land is under 1000 square meters and includes classrooms and school grounds; it has since belonged to the church before 1975. The church agreed to let the local government borrow the grounds in 1978 to open an elementary school and a pre-school. From then on, the government refused to return the land, creating a deed and merging the piece of land with the school in 2014. At the beginning of 2019, the municipal government issued a decision to construct Hoang Yen Public Pre-school on the piece of church land, without any negotiations on compensation.

The church reverend, the Tuy Hoa Protestant Church, and parishioners all opposed the city’s decision. According to RFA, the church opposed the decision by unfurling protest signs. Afterward, provincial police called the reverend down to the station many times to confiscate his banners and threatened to expel him from the province.

Currently, the Tuy Hoa Protestant Church remains concerned about the fate of their piece of land, fearing that it will be reclaimed unconditionally and lost permanently at the end of November 2019.

6. The state grants recognition to the Vietnamese Pentecostal Gospel Church.

Ten years after being permitted to operate, the Vietnamese Pentecostal Gospel Church was recognized by the state as a religious organization on October 24th, 2019, in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Vietnamese Pentecostal Gospel Church was established in the south in 1972. However, after 1975, the church stopped operating after suffering government oppression; followers were forced to practice in their own homes. In 1989, the church was reinstated and operated under close government supervision. It was not until October 2009 that the government agreed to legalize the church by issuing it a permit to operate.

7. Conference held for the 2019 third quarter briefings re: the state administration of faith and religion in the cities and provinces of the central coast and the Tay Nguyen highlands

On October 9th, 2019, the government’s Committee For Religious Affairs along with the People’s Committee of Khanh Hoa Province organized a conference for the 2019 third quarter briefings regarding the state administration of faith and religion in the cities and provinces of the central coast and the Tay Nguyen highlands. The conference brought together the home affairs offices of 17 provinces and cities.

Although it was a conference related to the administration of religion, the Internal Security Office and the Military Region 5 Command also attended.

According to Khanh Hoa radio and television, the administration of religion in the final months of 2019 will focus on: continuing the roll-out of the Politburo’s Directive #18 regarding religious tasks in new situations; stepping up the check of land-use certificates for religious premises, and discovering and handling new religious phenomena that adversely affect local order and security in a timely manner.

The Politburo’s Directive #18 regarding religious tasks in new situations is a directive that still has not been announced to the public. This conference reveals that the government still views unauthorized religious activities as contrary to the law, attempting to tie them to such concepts as “heresy”, “spiritual deviation”, “superstition”, and “disruption of security and order”.

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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.

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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 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 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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