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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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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

Religion Bulletin – May 2020

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

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

The Government’s Hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Individuals Do Not Have the Right to Publish Religious Materials

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Religion 360°]

At Least 22 Falun Gong Proselytizers Arrested

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Government Refusal to Issue a Passport to a Catholic Priest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[On This Day]

Vietnamese Montagnards Who Fled Vietnam to Cambodia Rejected for Political Asylum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Did You Know?]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Caused the Reduction of Followers?

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

1. The harsh government control over these two religions

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

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

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

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

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

2. Young People Distance Themselves from Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Religion

Religion Bulletin – March 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

In this report, we will learn about the hotspot of the Central Highlands region in Vietnam where the government is intent on terminating FULRO (the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races) and other new religions via [Religious HotSpot] and [The Government’s Hand]. Also, “The day the Honorable Master Huynh disappeared” and the current police tactics in suppressing this celebrating day will be discussed in [Religion 360°] and [On This Day]. In the [Did You Know?] section, you will receive some information explaining the history of the indigenous people in the Central Highlands.

The Religious HotSpot

The Central Highlands – Region:

·      Area: 5.400.000 hectares

·      Provinces: Kon Tum, Gia Lai, Dak Lak, Dak Nong, and Lam Dong

·      Ethnicities: More than 30 (Indigenous groups and other ethnic groups migrating from the north of Vietnam)

·      Population: 5.6 million in 2019

·      Major religions: Catholicism and Protestantism

·      New religions: Ha Mon, De Ga Protestantism, Montagnard Evangelical Church Of Christ, Buu Toa Three Sects, etc.

·      Significant Issues: land rights, new religions and the right to autonomy.

·      Popular criminal codes from the Penal Code 2015 are often used in prosecuting people regarding religious freedom: Sabotaging implementation of solidarity policies (Article 116), Activities against the people’s government (Article 109), Organizing, coercing, instigating illegal emigration for the purpose of opposing the people’s government (Article 120); Illegal emigration for the purpose of opposing the people’s government (Article 121); and Disturb public order (Article 318).

Today, the Central Highlands region consists of five provinces, Dak Lak, Dak Nong, Gia Lai, Lam Dong, and Kon Tum. The Central Highlands’s area is about 54,000 km2, estimated at 16.4% area of Vietnam. Map courtesy of the East West Center.

According to the Police Department in Ho Chi Minh City’s newspaper, on March 19, 2020, the Gia Lai police arrested three individuals who follow the Ha Mon religion who were hiding in the forest: Ju, 56,, Lup, 50, and Kunh 32. The Gia Lai police declared that these three people were suspects who escaped and continued to urge people to rise against the government.

From left to right: Lup, Kunh and Ju after their arrest. Photo courtesy of: Tran Hieu.

These three arresteed men all come from Kret Krot Village, H’Ra Ward, Mang Yang District, Gia Lai Province. In April 2016, there were also two additional persons sentenced to 6 and 7 years in prison in a case involving five people who were connected to De Ga Protestantism. 

According to the newspaper Nationality and Development, many people who lived in Kret Krot Village have joined Ha Mon religion since 2016. The government described the Ha Mon religion as based on the same beliefs as Catholics, except the followers do not worship in churches, which were places that the authorities allowed people to worship according to their religions. However, Ha Mon practitioners only worship at home in smaller groups. In 2012, there were more than 3,500 people from Bana and Sedang ethnicities practicing Ha Mon in three provinces, Gia Lai, Kon Tum, and Dak Lak. The government also categorized Ha Mon as a superstitious religion that would negatively affect the lives of the people since it would cause them to just pray and refuse to work. Authorities also designated this religion as destroying the national unity because the followers would force other people to practice the same faith. 

More than that, the authorities also classified Ha Mon as a joint force with FULRO to rise against the government in Tay Nguyen.

During the past few years, the government continued its persecution of people who were deemed to be connected with FULRO in Tay Nguyen. In 2019, there were two individuals who were sentenced to 10 and 7 years in prison in Gia Lai Province. Furthermore, during the same time, the government also suppressed and harassed the followers of different religions that the government banned in the Central Highlands.

The harassment and torture of indigenous people in the Central Highlands by the government had caused many of these people to flee to Thailand for political asylum. At this time, there are more than 500 indigenous people from Vietnam’s Central Highlands currently seeking asylum in Thailand.

According to Political Analysis magazine published by the National Politics of Ho Chi Minh Institute, the government accused FULRO and De Ga Protestantism recently renewed their activism and with new religions, such as Supreme Master Qing Hai and Bo Khap Brau, they have organized strikes and probably even violent chaos in the future.

The History of the Unsettled Mountainous Region 

Central Highlands is located in a mountainous area of Vietnam, distancing itself from the rice delta. Since the Vietnam War, the Central Highlands has been an unsettled land where the indegineous groups did not accept the migration of the Kinh ethnic (the majority ethnicity in Vietnam) to  the highlands. The migration of Kinh ethnicity after 1954 has caused the indigenous groups to lose their land and to have their culture assimilated.

This map details the different ethnicities in Indochine, separating each by language (Monroq Publisher – Paris, 1917). The green section is the area of Bana, Ma, Stieng, Lat, and Co-ho ethnicities. The gray section is for the Gia-rai people, which shares the same language with the Cham, E-de, Raglai, and Churu. The light red area is the former region of  Annam.   

FULRO was formed in the 1950’s to fight for the indigenous people’s right to autonomy in the Central Highlands, also for the Cham people in the coastal provinces in Central Vietnam and as well as the Khmer Krom in the south. However, this front was known for creating many significant conflicts in the Central Highlands before 1975, when it was fighting for indigenous people’s right to autonomy on lands, culture, and politics.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, a few media reports stated that this front continued its fight with the new regime but later moved its operation to Cambodia to hide. In 1992, 400 people – who were the members of this front – were relocated to Western countries for political asylum.

According to Human Rights Watch, beginning in the 1980’s, the new regime in Vietnam continued a suppressive policy to eradicate religions while allowing massive migration to the Central Highlands. With an increased population, hunger and famine followed, effectively reducing the voices of the indigenous people.

“A lot of Montagnard people began to see that they were poor and underdeveloped. They felt that their lives were below the standards of those people who lived in the delta areas, the foreigners, and even the indigenous ethnic groups who came from the highlands in the north,” according to a special report in 1998 written by Neil L. Jamieson, Le Trong Cuc, and A. Terry Rambo. “The lack of money, food, and the right to receive natural resources, public access (to education, healthcare, information), these people face the risks of losing all of their most valuable resources: their confidence and dignity. They not only lack money and resources. In the end, the highlands area is always underdeveloped compared to the delta plain. The problem is that nowadays, there are more people who come to realize that they are poor.”

Until the 2000’s, demonstrations calling for religious freedom often happened in the Central Highlands. The authorities and their media outlets accused FULRO of organizing these demonstrations, using land rights and religious freedom to rise against the government. In the end, starting from 2004, the government also accused FULRO of organizing various groups to practice De Ga Protestantism and using religions to mobilize people to oppose the regime.

Religions in the Central Highlands

In the 1950’s, there were American missionaries who came to Vietnam and converted indigenous people in the Central Highlands to follow Protestantism. The indigeneous people practiced Protestantism along with the Catholicism that the French introduced earlier, but they also kept their traditional polytheism which was passed from generation to generation in the past centuries. 

After 1975, the government classified religions and beliefs being practiced in Tay Nguyen as illegitimate because they were deemed to be superstitions just like other prohibited religions. 

However, the number of people who followed Protestantism in Tay Nguyen increased dramatically, increasing by about  432 percent from 1975 to 1999 to 228,618 followers. While they were forbidden from practicing their religions, these followers gathered to practice their religious beliefs in locations far from the government’s watch. Beginning in the end of the 1990’s, the authorities started to allow the people to attend a few churches that the government allowed to operate. However, many others continued to practice their religion privately because they did not want to go to the churches that were organized by the government. Because of their poverty and a feeling that they were being suppressed, coupled with their petitions about land rights that were not being resolved, a few religious groups organized protests and demonstrated against the government in the 2000s. 

Kpă Hung, 44, stated that he did not have any trust in the government. Kpă said that the government arrested him three times and the last time resulted in a 12-year-imprisonment in 2004 because he participated in demonstrations. “They tortured me and they said that was because I believed in Protestantism and Jesus Christ,” said Kpă, “and they would beat me up and torture me because they said that it was just like in the movies about Jesus Christ.”

Kpă Hùng in a village in Cambodia where he traveled with his family before they came to Thailand. Photo courtesy of: Cambodia Daily

“The day of protesting was just to have transparency, and to have the Vietnamese government  correct its mistakes about corruption,” he said, explaining his reasons for joining the demonstrations in the 2000s. “But the government would never agree to change!” 

Due to its geography and the control of the government, media and international observers could not access this area. The indigenous people of the Central Highlands who are currently seeking asylum in Thailand, have stated that every month, a few families escaped from there to Bangkok to apply for political asylum because the Vietnamese government suppressed their religious freedom or because they have lost their lands. The outdoor trials involving religions and FULRO are still widely happening in the Central Highlands.

The Government’s Hand

Life for Indigenous People under the Government’s Hand

In the past years, the government continued to maintain a harsh policy against indigenous groups. Any member of these groups that raised his or her voice to protest this policy in terms of the practice of religion without government approval would receive a heavy prison sentence.

During one of our investigations into the Vietnamese Montagnards living in Bangkok, Siu Wiu, a 43-year-old asylum seeker in Thailand, could still recall how he was sent to a re-education camp in 2004. At that time, he was being detained with 180 indigenous people from different ethnicities. In 2008, Siu Wiu kept encouraging people from his village to demonstrate to demand religious rights, land rights, and the release of indigenous people from prison. Siu Wiu was sentenced to 10 years in prison after this protest.

In 2017, Gia Lai Province prosecuted five people who were accused of receiving instructions from members of FULRO living overseas to conduct activities against the government. The authorities concluded that these five people were preparing to oppose the government’s great unity program. However, although the conclusion was that they only attempted a crime, the sentences given were very harsh. On April 5, 2017, the People’s Court of Gia Lai Province sentenced Rơ Ma Đaih, 31, to 10 years in prison, Puih Bop, 61, and Ksor Kam, 55, to nine years in prison, and Rơ Lan Kly, 58, and Rơ Lan Kly, 55, to eight years each.

The trial of Rơ Ma Đaih and four others on April 5, 2017. Photo courtesy: Danang Police Department’s newspaper.

During the last year, we have been  gathering information on the most common tactics used by the government in its suppression of religious activities by religious groups that it does not recognize. We have also gathered details on how the government terminated activities that it deemed connected to FULRO in the Central Highlands. 

Harassment and Suppression of People who Practiced Religion privately

Sen Nhiang, 34, of the Jrai ethnicity, escaped to Thailand in 2014 when the authorities in Ia Le Ward, Chu Puh District, Gia Lai Province, closed down a village church and arrested people who practiced their religion independently.

Before that, Sen practiced his religion privately with a group of people where he had to leave his house at 3:00 o’clock in the morning to avoid the police who watched his house. Police also surveilled his house, refusing to allow him to leave on the days he wanted to practice his religious belief and even on the days that he wanted to farm on his land. Sen was always afraid that the police would arrest him. 

During the three months after Sen made his escape, the police often came to his house and threatened his wife, asking her to contact him and tell  him to return to Vietnam. For many nights, the police also stayed over at his house and waited for him to come back as they thought he was hiding in the woods.

Also during the same months, three members of Sen’s group were sentenced to eight years, nine years, and 11 years respectively when they were found guilty of allegedly destroying the nation’s “great unity.”

Jen (the name was changed to keep this person anonymous) stated that his father escaped from Chu Puh District, Gia Lai Province, to Bangkok in 2013. In Vietnam, Jen’s mother was frequently questioned by the police because the government wanted to information about her husband. “Every month, they would ask me to go to the committee’s office, they assaulted me and they defamed me,” she said. “They questioned me about whether my husband would call me from Thailand or not, which vehicle he used, and what did he go to Thailand to do.” After Jen’s father escaped from Vietnam, Jen quit school because the school fees skyrocketed. There were also other women, who are currently living in the asylum center in Thailand also said that the police kept surveillance on their homes after their husband fled Vietnam.

Refusal to Provide Identification Papers

In the asylum center in Thailand, many of the Vietnamese Montagnards do not have proper identification papers because the Vietnamese government refused to provide those to them. This is an effective punishment to those who continue to practice their religion independently.

When Sen Nhiang got married, he could not register his marriage. In the end, he was forced to pay 2 million Vietnam dong (approximately US$90) to the local committee to get the marriage certificate.  

When they do not have identification papers, indigenous people are unable to travel far to work because they would not be able to follow the rule on registering for a temporary household registration. A lot of the people who are seeking asylum in Bangkok did not possess passports when they escaped Vietnam, and so had to pay from US$500 to US$1,000 USD to get out of the country illegally. This method is one  way the government exerts its control over people and reduces their chance to leave Vietnam.

Arbitrary Detention and Torture

From our interviews with the indigenous asylum seekers who currently live in Thailand, we have learned that they were detained arbitrarily and tortured in different prisons.

Nay Them, 36, said that he was arrested and detained for 32 days in 2008 before the government released him. In the temporary prisons he was beaten until he was unconscious because the police wanted to force him to confess about his brother-in-law who had organized protests and who hid in the forest. Nay told us that the police of Phuoc Thin tied him to a chair and beat him with a log and also used a taser on him. The police beat him up many times before he was released.

Nay Them and his daughter in Thailand in 2019. Photo courtesy: Luat Khoa magazine

Tay Nguyen is the highlands with mountains where many of the Montagnard villages are far away from the province’s financial districts and main cities, so that the people did not have connections with other human rights defenders to speak up about their arrests. For many years, Tay Nguyen is deemed as an unwelcoming place for foreign journalists. These were the reasons that the situation of arbitrary detention has not been mentioned in the news and also on social media. 

Public Guilt Admission Meetings and Outdoor Trials

After the demonstrations happened in the year 2000, the government continued to organize the “public guilt admission” meetings and used “outdoor trial” as its method to strictly warn the people to stay away from religious practice, not to escape Vietnam and also stay away from opposing the government.

On November 22, 2019, the police of Krong Buk District of Dak Lak Province organized a meeting to criticize people who they deemed to be in relation with FULRO in front of 300 residents in Cu Blang village, Pong Drang Ward.

On May 7, 2019, another “guilt admission conference” was organized with 150 villagers. At this conference, Kpa Nam, 36-year-old, admitted his guilt in public because he had joined FULRO and promised that he would not follow instructions from FULRO.

Kpa Nam was a person that was involved in the case of Rah Lan Hip, 39-year-old, and got accused of “damaging the nation’s unity policy.” Rah Lan Hip was tried in an “outdoor trial” on August 9, 2019 where he was sentenced to 7-year-imprisonment.

In 2013, The People’s Court of Gia Lai Province tried 8 people also in an “outdoor trial” where the defendants were accused of damaging the nation’s unity. In 2017, this court also sentenced 5 other people in another “outdoor trial”.

In the third Universal Periodic Review of Vietnam in 2019, the government accepted the recommendation from Denmark, calling to “abolish immediately at all levels the exercise of outdoor trials to ensure the right to presumption of innocence, effective legal representation and fair trials.”

Religion 360°

Hoa Hao Buddhism Commemorate 73 Years Its Founder Huynh Phu So “Disappeared”

In March 2020, a few Hoa Hao Buddhists organized a 73rd commemoration of the day their founder and master, Huynh Phu So, disappeared. The Hoa Hao Buddhists call this “the Day our Honorable Master disappeared”.

The followers of Hoa Hao Buddhism believed that their founder, Huynh Phu So, went missing on April 16, 1947, in Dong Thap Province during a meeting with the members of the Viet Minh Front – an organization that the Vietnam Communist Party formed in the south of Vietnam during the French occupation. The disappearance of Huynh Phu So has never been fully investigated, and some of the Hoa Hao Buddhists believe the Viet Minh assassinated him at that meeting.

“The day our honorable master disappeared” is one of the big three ceremonies of Hoa Hao Buddhism. After 1975, the new government prohibited followers from commemorating this day publicly, even though Hoa Hao Buddhism was recognized as an official religion in 1999. This commemoration is only recognized by the followers of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism Sect, a religious organization that is not recognized by the government. 

The website of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Sect announced that followers celebrated the commemoration in their homes in An Giang Province. The followers commemorated this day by decorating their ceremonial altars in their homes, preparing altars in their yards, and putting banners in front of their homes to prepare for the ceremony.

An altar placed in the front of a Hoa Hao follower’s home. Photo courtesy of: Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Sect

Even though the followers celebrated that day in peace, the police still set up posts to observe them and prevented followers from organizing the commemoration together. A member of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Sect, Le Quang Hien, described how the police put up a post 500 meters away from the center of the sect to disrupt the travel of the followers on March 17, 2020.

The police post 500 meters from the center of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Sect. Photo courtesy of: Le Quang Hien.

On This Day

The List of Police’s Obstructions during the Commemoration of “The Day Master Huynh Disappeared”

In the end of February 2010, RFA reported that the police were involved in an altercation with local people who participated in a ceremony at Quang Minh Temple, which was an independent temple of Hoa Hao Buddhism. The participating members who came to the ceremony stated that they could not enter the temple because the police stopped them. This was the location where the yearly commemoration of “the Day the Master Huynh Disappeared” was often celebrated.

As RFA reported, on February 28, 2010,Tran Kim Long stated that the police assaulted him when he tried to enter the Quang Minh Temple. Long said that he recognized a few officers in that group who worked at the Cho Moi District Police Station in An Giang Province.

Vo Van Diem, the caretaker of the Quang Minh Temple, stated that on February 28 that followers and the police of Cho Moi District got involved in an altercation. Diem said that the police did not provide any written decision for the government forbidding followers to participate in the ceremony, only telling the followers that the government had not agreed to allow the people to have ceremonies in this temple.

In the same RFA news report, the news agency said that in a telephone call that the local police refused to answer RFA’s questions about the altercation while another police officer denied the incident happened.

In March 2014, when Quang Minh Temple was organizing the commemoration of “the Day Master Huynh Disappeared”, the police and followers again got into another altercation.

Vo Van Buu told RFA that he was assaulted by two strangers on March 25, 2014 when he was waiting for the bus after the police prevented him from entering Quang Minh Temple. Buu also said that a few days before, police stopped followers from entering the temple to prepare for the ceremonies.

Buu also stated that the police stationed forces in different areas to prevent followers from organizing themselves for ceremonies, such as in Long Giang Ward (Cho Moi District). The police also stormed Nguyen Van Vinh’s house  seizing everyone’s cell phones and escorting people present there back to their homes, after which they refused to let them leave their houses. In Vinh Long Province, the police did not let Ha Tan leave his house. In Dong Thap, the police prevented Nguyen Van Tho from leaving his home on the “Day Master Huynh Disappeared.”

In 2016, also on this day of celebration, a few followers stated that they were beaten up  by police, who blocked them from leaving their houses.

Le Cong Thu, a Hoa Hao Buddhist in Long Dien B Ward, Cho Moi District, An Giang Province, told RFA that on April 1, 2016 he was attacked by a group of people, including police, after traffic police stopped him to verify his papers while he was on his way  to a ceremony commemorating “the Day Master Huynh Disappeared.” Thu also stated that during that same time, Tran Thanh Giang and Vo Van Buu, who lived in the same district as him, were harassed by strangers and had shrimp paste thrown at them. 

On April 22, 2016, two other Hoa Hao Buddhists – Nguyen Ngoc Tan and. Nguyen Thi Lien, were stopped and attacked on their way home after participating in the commemoration at the house of another member of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Sect.

Did You Know?

The Questions about the Enigmatic Central Area

How many indigenous ethnicities in Tay Nguyen?

In the early 20th century, when the Central Highlands was still quite difficult to access,researchers believed that the indigenous population of this region was between 300,000-500,000 people, with three major tribes: Bana, Sedang, and Jrai. Moreover, there were also people of Lat, Ma, Stieng, and Sre in the Lang-biang Plateau and the Gia-rinh Plateau. The Mnong people also lived in the southwest part of Dak Lak Plateau and the northwest part of Lang-biang Plateau.[2]

Today, there are more than 20 indigenous ethnicities in the Central Highlands. Furthermore, there are other ethnicities that migrated from North Vietnam who now live in this region  together with the indigenous people.

What is the ancestry of the indigenous people in Tay Nguyen?

There has not yet been an accurate definition for the ancestry of the indigenous groups in the Central Highlands. However, researchers agree that these ethnicities have been assimilated by the Cham people and become subsidiaries of the Champa Kingdom. They once lived along the coastal areas but later yielded to the Cham and moved to the high mountain of Truong Son in the Central Highlands.

A French researcher, Jacques Dournes, believed that the difficulty in accessing the mountainous area had caused the ethnicities to form their own languages just as the legend continued to be passed on. The indigenous people told Dournes that “many years ago, the ancestors spoke the same language, but eventually they could not understand each other anymore when they traveled far from each other.”

When the Cham people lost power, Vietnamese took control of the area, but the Montagnards still lived freely in their region. The mountains, forest, rivers, creeks, and animals still belonged to the Montagnards, who decided when  they would pay tribute to the Vietnamese-Annam court. After the French arrived, this area was studied in more detail.

From  top to bottom, left to right. A woman and man of Chinese descent in Saigon, and a Cambodian woman. The bottom: Vietnamese woman, Honorable Phan Thanh Gian, and two men of the Stieng ethnic group. Photo courtesy of: Hippolyte Arnoux và Emile Gsell, published in 1880.

Why Were the Indigenous People of the Central Highlands Called Montagnards?

“Montagnard” which means “Highlander,” or “Mountain Man” in French, was the term that the French used when they colonized Vietnam to describe the indigenous people in the Central Highlands with more than 20 different ethnicities. These ethnicities had lived in the forests and mountains of the Central Highlands before the Kinh ethnicity (the majority ethnic group in Vietnam) set foot there. The Ede, Jrai, and Bana had a larger population than the K’ho, Sedang, Stieng, Ma, etc. After 1954, the Republic of South Vietnam continued to call these ethnicities Montagnards. Following 1975, the word “Montagnard” was no longer used, with the new government classifying these groups as “minor ethnicities”.

Which religions do the indigenous people of the Central Highlands follow?

For many generations, the indigenous peoples practiced polytheism, They believed that the many gods that they worshipped would protect them if they lived in peace with nature in the inhospitable mountainous area. All of the activities of the indigenous people here focused on their polytheistic beliefs, including childbirth, marriage, finding land to farm, harvesting, pandemics and death and funerals.

At the end of the 19th century, Western missionaries came to the Central Highlands where they hid from the Vietnamese court because promoting Catholicism was punishable by death. As such, the missionaries converted the minor ethnic groups in this area to Catholicisims, and so Christianity flourished in the Central Highlands during the French colonization. In the 1950’s, Protestantism became more popular in the Central Highlands when American missionaries arrived.

How many indigenous people follow Protestantism today?

According to Political Analysis magazine published by the Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics, in 2018, there were 450,000 indigenous people in the Central Highlands, with the migrating ethnicities from the north of Vietnam currently following Protestantism.

This is the number of followers who practice religions approved by the government, which consists of 1,665 groups, 300 sections, and 120 churches and praying centers. The minor ethnicities that practice Protestantism have significant numbers which include: E De (133,593), Gia Rai (82,604), Bah Nar (35,309), K’Ho (74,864), M’Nong (23,284), and Xe Dang (6,473).

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