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 email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.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).
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Religion Bulletin, April 2021: The United States Proposes Putting Vietnam On The List Of Countries Of “Particular Concern.”
The Vietnamese government is found to have systematically violated freedom of religion.
United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: Proposal to put Vietnam on the list of countries of particular concern
In its latest report on religious freedom, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) proposed reinstating Vietnam onto the list of countries of particular concern (CPC).
Governments that engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom are placed on the list of CPC. For countries on this list, the U.S. Congress will introduce non-economic policies before taking economic measures to stop violations.
USCIRF assessed that Vietnam’s religious freedom conditions in 2020 were as bleak as those in 2019. This is because the Vietnamese government enforces its Law on Faith and Religion, which contravenes international human rights standards and systematically violates religious freedom.
The organization listed numerous suppression and obstruction of religious freedom in Vietnam in 2020 involving independent religious groups and those recognised by the government.
Ethnic minority groups in mountainous areas that follow new religions and sects, Buddhist dignitaries, independent Cao Dai adherents, Protestants, Catholic clergy members, and prisoners of conscience are victims of the Vietnamese government’s strict religious policies.
Specific instances of religious suppression in 2020 that USCIRF cited:
- Suppressing religious activities conducted by ethnic minorities Hmong and Montagnard in the Central Highlands.
- Limiting the religious activities of independent Hoa Hao Buddhists.
- Interfering in the funeral of Venerable Thich Quang Do, the fourth patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church.
- Obstructing the Unified Buddhist Church’s relief efforts in Thua Thien – Hue Province.
- Harassing independent Cao Dai followers, attempting to take over their temples, and forcing them to unite with state-recognized churches.
- Harassing and attacking clergy members of Thien An Abbey over a land dispute.
- Subjecting prisoner of conscience Nguyen Bac Truyen to poor prison conditions and limiting his access to medical care; refusing to provide the prisoner of conscience Le Dinh Luong a Bible.
- Using Article 34 of the Law on Faith and Religion to interfere in the election affairs of a state-recognized religion.
Deputy Minister of Home Affairs: “False religions” must be stopped
At the beginning of April 2021, Vu Chien Thang, deputy minister of the Ministry of Home Affairs and head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, affirmed the need to stop “false religions” from illegally operating and affecting social life.
The Ministry of Home Affairs deputy minister stated that factions, sects, and illegal religious phenomena had appeared in many locations.
Afterwards, the head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs presented two solutions to deal with new religions.
First, local religious committees have to coordinate with other organizations, such as the police, to stop illegal religious activities in a timely manner.
Second, state-recognized religions have a responsibility to direct citizens towards their organizations.
That there is no place for new religions in Vietnam has been the government’s consistent message for many years.
In April 2021, Tuyen Quang Newspaper also reported that Tuyen Quang Province was currently seeing many new religious activities of a superstitious nature. These religious activities were being used to oppose the government.
The activities of new religions are never presented from multiple viewpoints. Instead, the press covers these religious phenomena from the government’s vantage, which predominantly opposes religious activities not recognized by the state.
New religions are multiplying in Vietnam by the day, but the government’s hardline view pushes many followers to practice surreptitiously and without legal registration.
Vietnam has regulations regarding the registration of religious activities, but the majority of them are dependent on the subjective views of the government and their acceptance of the religion.
The government asserts three reasons for the abandonment of new religions. First, new religions contain superstitious activities. Second, new religions have different tenets and conceptions from state-recognized religions, ruining customs and distorting culture. And third, new religions (such as Falun Gong) have a political agenda.
Greater Unity Newspaper: Investigate party members and state cadres that participated in the Humanity Club
In April 2021, the state press continued to investigate the activities of the Humanity Club (HC), a spiritual organization operating as a private enterprise.
We summarized notable events related to this organization in a recent bulletin. The Government Committee accused the HC of Religious Affairs and other state organizations of propagating superstitions and defrauding members.
This time, the Greater Unity Newspaper (which belongs to the Vietnamese Fatherland Front and aligned with the Vietnamese Communist Party) confirmed that some Party members and low-level and high-level state cadres were members of this club.
“Information obtained by Greater Unity reveals that the list of HC participants includes the former vice chairman of Hanoi city and even leaders who currently hold important government positions,” the Greater Unity Newspaper claimed.
Furthermore, the paper stated that some lecturers and cadres (without naming specific individuals) from a roster of universities, academies, and schools have participated in the club.
The paper also asked that Party and State organizations “quickly deal with offenders” who had participated in and had propagated a superstitious organization.
Followers of the Ba-ni religion protest their merge with Islam
At the end of April 2021, the Ba-ni religious community strongly protested on social media the requirement that they list their religion to be Islam or “other” when applying for new ID cards.
The Ba-ni religion is not recognized by the state as Buddhism and Catholicism are. Those who follow the religion are lumped together by the State with those who follow Islam.
Ba-ni religious followers are ethnic Cham, a long-standing indigenous group in Vietnam. Cham Ba-ni practitioners state that their practices and rituals are different from those of Muslims. Thus, they do not accept the merging of their religion with Islam.
Government vague in requiring faith certifications when citizens declare their religion on new ID cards
Vietnam’s new identity cards do not indicate the religions of their owners. However, the government is requiring that people declare their religion on their ID applications.
At the beginning of 2021, the government began issuing citizens new ID cards fitted with chips. Police in several provinces and cities have mandated that citizens present their faith certifications when they declare their religions.
This mandate has alarmed many religious followers, who practice their religion without faith certifications.
On April 24, 2021, Ho Chi Minh City authorities announced that citizens could declare their religions when applying for new ID cards without faith certifications.
At present, other provinces have yet to make similar announcements.
Nguyen Phuc Nguyen, head of the Buddhist Department under the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, stated to Giac Ngo Newspaper at the end of March 2021: “There is nothing troublesome about requiring Buddhist faith certifications.”
On April 14, 2021, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs confirmed that different locations had different requirements for religious declarations and new ID cards.
Nghe An: Government blocks two groups from the World Mission Society Church of God from operating
On April 12, 2021, Nghe An provincial authorities reported to the Government Committee for Religious Affairs that religious activities were still being exploited to oppose the government in the province.
The information above was brought up during a summary conference in Nghe An, marking three years since implementing the Law on Faith and Religion and its attendant 2017 decree.
Provincial authorities stated that the state’s management of religion was not tight enough, allowing some individuals to exploit religious activities to oppose the government.
The statement did not identify any religion in particular, but the situation on the ground reveals that the authorities were alluding to the dignitaries and followers of Catholicism.
In 2020, Father Dang Huu Nam was transferred out of My Khanh Parish, and his pastoral duties were stopped. Father Nam is known for leading parishioners to sue the Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Company after the central coast environmental disaster. Authorities had long demanded his transfer and the cessation of his pastoral duties.
On April 7, 2021, VOV Newspaper reported that Anh Son suburban district police in Nghe An Province had obstructed proselytizing activities at a private residence in Phuc Son Commune. The activities involved six adults and six children from the World Mission Society Church of God, a religion the government fiercely suppresses. Police dispersed the meeting and confiscated exhibits, computers, and proselytizing materials.
On April 19, 2021, the authorities blocked another group from the World Mission Society Church of God from conducting religious activities in an apartment in the city of Vinh. The People’s Public Security Newspaper reported that the police had brought approximately 11 adults and five children to the Hung Dung Ward police station for investigation. Religious documents and objects were confiscated, and local authorities were instructed by police to “supervise and educate” those involved.
This year’s commemoration of “Virtuous Master’s Disappearance Day” again interrupted by the authorities
In 2020, the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church reported that An Giang provincial authorities once again prevented followers from congregating to mark “Virtuous Master’s Disappearance Day”.
Beginning on April 4, 2021, authorities set up two checkpoints on the road leading to the headquarters of the Central Directors Committee of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church in Long Giang Commune, Cho Moi Suburban District, An Giang Province.
After being blocked from their headquarters, many of the church’s dignitaries moved the prayer site to another location.
Furthermore, on April 5, 2021, the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church’s Communications Department reported that security forces had tailed the church’s directors.
Other Hoa Hao Buddhists celebrated at home by setting up altars and hanging flags and banners. There have yet to be any reports of police harassment and obstruction at private residences during this year’s commemoration.
The Hoa Hao Buddhist Church, the only Hoa Hao Buddhist organization recognized by the government, has never organized for this holiday, which is among three major holidays for Hoa Hao Buddhists.
[Did You Know?]
The difference between the Ba-ni Cham and the Islamic Cham
According to researcher Inrasara, Islam began to influence the Champa kingdom in the 16th Century. During that time, Islam arrived by way of wealthy Arab merchants who had left China to spread the religion southward.
As it made its way into the kingdom, Islam entered into large and persistent conflict with indigenous Cham inhabitants who followed Hinduism. By the time of King Po Rome’s reign (1627 – 1651), Islam had indigenized to become the Ba-ni religion.
Today, Cham people who follow Islam in the areas of An Giang, Tay Ninh, and Ho Chi Minh City; Cham people who follow Ba-la-mon (a Hindu religion) and the Ba-ni religion mainly reside in the two provinces of Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan.
The 2019 census only recorded the number of followers of Islam and Ba-la-mon, providing no figures for the Ba-ni Cham.
According to statistics from April 1, 1999, Vietnam had a total of 152,132 ethnic Cham.  Among them, Ninh Thuan had 61,000 people; Binh Thuan 29,312; An Giang 30,000; Binh Dinh and Phu Yen 20,000; Ho Chi Minh City 5,000; Dong Nai 3,000; Tay Ninh 3,000; and Binh Phuoc and Binh Duong 1,000. According to the Nation and Development Newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs, there were approximately 31,000 Ba-ni Cham in 2018.
Ba-ni Cham has different religious activities from Islamic Cham. They believe in Allah, but they also worship the gods of rain, the seas, and the mountains, as well as their ancestors. They have lost the tradition of going on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Vegetarianism and daily prayer are carried out in September and only by laypeople. The influence of matriarchy has caused Ba-ni Cham to focus more on the karơh ceremony for women than the katat ceremony for men (both are initiation ceremonies the Ba-ni religion reserves for boys and girls when they reach puberty).
 Inrasara, Journeys and Home, page 16, Writers Association Publishing House.
 Inrasara, Cham Wisdom, page 106, Knowledge Publishing House.
Religion Bulletin, March 2021: More Ethnic Montagnards Under Scrutiny For Religious Activities In Phu Yen
Map and data source: Phu Yen Province People’s Committee
Phu Yen police: “Where are the papers certifying this group site?”
In March 2021, the Youtube page DAK LAK NEWS published a clip showing the authorities and commune police arriving to stop the religious activities of Montagnards in Khit Village, Ia Lam Commune, Song Hinh District, Phu Yen Province.
More than 10 ethnic Montagnards, including seniors, women, and children, sat and listened to the allegations as police prepared to file a report against them.
Based on a government representative’s recitation of the document, the incident occurred at an unspecified date. Police vehemently objected to a phone user recording the meeting.
Police repeatedly and loudly asked: “Where are the papers certifying this group site?”.
This is likely a case of the police and the authorities attempting to prevent religious activities at “unauthorized” congregation sites, in accordance with the 2016 Law on Religion and Faith.
According to this law, when registering group religious activities, registrants must declare to local authorities the religious activities and festivals to be organized. The local authorities can then either approve or deny the permit for group religious activities.
In January 2021, Phu Yen provincial authorities organized a public interrogation of five ethnic Montagnard people for following the Protestant Church of Christ (UMCC) in Ia Lam Commune, Song Hinh District.
That was not the only interrogation session ethnic Montagnard Protestants have faced in Phu Yen.
Another group of Protestants under scrutiny in Phu Yen Province
At the beginning of April 2021, Public Security News reported that Phu Yen provincial police and Song Hinh district police put detained four ethnic Montagnard for public interrogation following UMCC. The public interrogation took place in Song Hinh village or, Song Hinh district.
According to the article, Ma Lang, Ma Sing, Ma Duyen, and Ma Phep were accused of following UMCC, connecting with individuals overseas to carry out unauthorized religious activities, and providing information on social issues in order to lower Vietnam’s reputation before the international community.
During the public interrogation session, Ma Lang stated that he would leave UMCC.
The article also accused the human rights organization BPSOS of “spreading propaganda, developing armed forces, and enticing” numerous ethnic Montagnards into following UMCC. Currently, there is no information on any other form of punishment meted out to the four ethnic Montagnards.
Phu Yen will likely be a religious flashpoint in 2021. The recent suppressive activities demonstrate that the government is putting pressure on ethnic Montagnard Protestants, especially followers of the Protestant Church of Christ.
A Hanoi club accused of spreading superstitions
On March 23, 2021, Greater Unity Newspaper (Báo Đại Đoàn Kết), an organization of the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, launched a series of articles on a club that the newspaper asserted was spreading superstitions and deceiving its members.
The reported club, named the Humanity Club (HC), has operated in Hanoi since July 2019. The club is legally registered as a limited liability company.
Greater Unity Newspaper accused the Humanity Club of spreading superstitions regarding spirits, collecting and modifying the teachings of other religions to propagate to members, and forcing members to raise money for charity.
Greater Unity Newspaper also cited former members who now opposed to the club.
After Greater Unity Newspaper’s series on the Humanity Club, state organizations began intervening. Below is the official timeline of events:
- March 23, 2021: Greater Unity Newspaper launches reports on the Humanity Club.
- March 27, 2021: Secretary of the Hanoi Party Committee demands the Hanoi People’s Committee begin an investigation to clarify and verify the information.
- March 29, 2021:
- The Government Committee For Religious Affairs confirms that the Humanity Club’s activities spread superstitions.
- The Office of Publishing, Printing, and Distribution suspends publication of the book “God Bestows upon Mankind an Intellectual Foundation” (book of Dharma) used by the Humanity Club.
- March 30, 2021: The Government Committee For Religious Affairs confirms that the book of Dharma has elements of superstition, causes fear and confusion among readers, and negatively impacts citizen morale.
- March 31, 2021: the Ministry of Public Security announces an investigation of the Humanity Club.
- April 1, 2021: The Humanity Club announces a temporary suspension of operations and moves out of its headquarters.
- April 2, 2021: The Hanoi Committee For Religious Affairs announces that it will conduct an interdisciplinary inspection of the Humanity Club.
According to Vietnamnet – a state-owned newspaper – a club member stated that the club had, of its own volition, returned all money it had received from the individual on April 7, 2021, including dues and other donations.
The club’s website and Facebook page announced a temporary suspension of operations in order to find a new venue. It has yet to publish any response to the accusations of Greater Unity Newspaper and other government bodies.
Bac Kan: Two groups from the World Mission Society Church of God prevented from practicing religion
According to Youth Newspaper, on March 27, 2021, Bac Kan city police blocked two groups of the World Mission Society Church of God from carrying out religious activities and confiscated a number of religious materials.
The first group consisted of six people and operated at a private residence in the Tong Neng Cluster, Huyen Tung Ward, Bac Kan City. The second group included five people and operated from a hostel in Duc Xuan Ward, Bac Kan City.
Bac Kan city police stated that this church was not recognized by the government. It accused the church of organizing group religious activities, “complicating social order and muddling the religious lives of citizens.”
According to VietCatholic News, the World Mission Society Church of God was established in South Korea and arrived in Vietnam in 2001.
In 2018, the state press and the Vietnamese government began paying attention to the organization, putting pressure on the church’s operating groups. The Vietnamese government sees the World Mission Society Church of God as a cult.
An Hoa Parish: Pray for the land seized by the state
On March 29, 2021, An Hoa Parish (in the city of Da Nang) organized a prayer session for a piece of parish land that the government was partitioning and selling.
According to Thai Ha Media, the piece of land is owned by An Hoa Parish. Before 1975, it was the parish’s Gioan XXIII School.
An Hoa Parish was established in 1960, and the majority of parishioners are northerners who moved south in 1954.
After 1975, the Gioan XXIII School, along with other parish structures, including a printing press and a livestock farm, were requisitioned by the government. For years, the school was left abandoned, and the land on which it sits is now being partitioned and sold.
An Hoa Parish stated that it had sent 12 complaints to Da Nang authorities from May 23, 2019, to January 16, 2021, but never received any kind of response. On January 16, 2021, An Hoa Parish reported that it rejected the Da Nang Office of Natural Resources and the Environment’s proposal regarding the parish’s complaints. The parish did not elaborate on the content of the proposal.
Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church: Determined to celebrate “Virtuous Master Huynh’s Disappearance Day”
The Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church announced that it would, by all means, celebrate “Virtuous Master Huynh’s Disappearance Day” this year, even if it meant facing government suppression.
“Virtuous Master Huynh’s Disappearance Day,” also called “Virtuous Master’s Disappearance Day,” is a holiday to commemorate the work of Huynh Phu So, the founder of Hoa Hao Buddhism, and his disappearance after a meeting with the Viet Minh on February 25, 1947. To this day, no one knows what actually happened to him.
After April 30, 1975, Hoa Hao Buddhism was banned. It was not until 1999 that the government allowed the religion to operate again, through a newly-formed church tightly controlled by the state. This new church has never celebrated “Virtuous Master’s Disappearance Day”.
Hoa Hao Buddhists still do not know when the state will allow them to openly celebrate this important holiday.
In years past, the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church still celebrated the holiday, though under tight supervision. Activities had to be limited as much as possible.
Practitioners were allowed to hang up signs and set up altars, but only in their private residences. Other Buddhist holidays, however, are allowed by the government to be celebrated publicly on the streets and with large gatherings.
Ministry of Home Affairs: the government is paying special attention to the religious activities of indigenous peoples
The year 2021 will remain a difficult one for indigenous peoples, as the government remains highly concerned about their religious activities.
The Ministry of Home Affairs reported that currently, there are approximately 2.8 million indigenous people who are religious. Among them, the majority follow Buddhism (mainly Khmer) and Protestantism.
In a conference on the religious activities of indigenous peoples, the Ministry confirmed that the government was paying particular attention to the topic.
The Ministry of Home Affairs stated that there remained activities that took advantage of religion to incite protests and destabilize security and order, and also noted the emergence and operation of many new religious phenomena in a number of ethnic minority areas.
In the conference, Vu Chien Thang, deputy head of the Ministry of Home Affairs and head of the Government Committee For Religious Affairs, stated that moving forward, the Government Committee For Religious Affairs would maintain closer cooperation with the National Assembly’s Committee For Ethnic Minority Affairs regarding the religious activities of indigenous groups.
Without participating in state-controlled religious organizations, the indigenous community has almost no other way to engage in religious activities. The government continues to see those outside their control as threats to national security.
The Collision Of Religion And The Vietnamese State
The Separation of Church and State is a concept that has been accepted and promulgated by several democratic countries in the modern era. While the seeds of this idea were planted during the late Middle Ages and the Reformation, it was only during the early years of the establishment of the United States of America that this idea started to blossom.
While this concept is often construed to simply mean that religion should not intertwine with politics, the more comprehensive meaning is as follows: “it is the right to practice any faith, or to have no faith [at all].” As such, the state has no right to interject, interfere, or hinder an individual’s practice of his or her beliefs; ideally, no laws or statutes will be passed that will limit a person’s free exercise of his or her faith.
The Vietnamese Communist Party, however, has chosen to take a radically different approach towards religion.
Legal Initiatives For Vietnam (LIV) released its legal research in September 2020, penned by Vo Quoc Hung Thinh, in which the author presented the many difficulties, challenges, and hurdles that religious organizations face when they deal with the Vietnamese state.
The writer also highlights the existing institutionalized discrimination against religions in Vietnam and gives us a glimpse into how the state’s direct interference affects believers as well.
Faith and Law
Several documents and resolutions have been passed by the VCP that perfectly illustrate its stance towards religious organizations.
Vo Quoc Hung Thinh noted in his research that in its Resolution 297/CP Concerning Policy on Religion (1976), the Vietnamese government, at least on paper, claimed to acknowledge the right of freedom of religion and supposedly guaranteed equality under the law.
However, it also emphasized, “that religions shall not be ‘exploited’ to bring harm to the Socialist State.” This resolution then states that the faithful “shall be educated to ensure the spirit of socialist patriotism” and that “ ‘[r]eactionary’ elements hiding inside religions shall be eradicated.”
This resolution seems to assume that religious organizations are going to be used to subvert state authority. And while it is possible for this to happen, this is not something specific for religion itself; any coalition or gathering of people can fulfill this role just as well or even better than a Sunday Bible Study group; to focus on religion is discriminatory and goes against the concept of equality under the law.
Vo Quoc Hung Thinh also noted in his legal research that Resolution 40 –NQ/TW, which focused on religion management in the new situation (October 1, 1981), mentioned several religions that existed in the former Republic of Vietnam (1955-1975) and discussed the “state of socialist enlightenment” among practitioners who belonged to them.
For instance, regarding the Catholic Church that existed in the former Republic of Vietnam, the current Vietnamese government believed that the followers of this religion were “vulnerable to anti-communist propaganda.”
Another example would be that of the Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam (UBSV). The resolution stated that the leaders of this religion were already somewhat “re-educated” but that the party needed “to abolish UBSV and unify Buddhism in Vietnam under the supervision of the Communist Party.”
While this resolution document is quite outdated and old, through it, we can catch a glimpse of how the VCP deals with religious groups.
The Communist Party monitors both followers and spiritual leaders in Vietnam, gathers data about them, and directly interferes in the teachings and belief systems of religion. This runs contrary to the right of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.
Vo also noted that Resolution 25 – NQ/TW, which focused on the National Central Committee on Religion Management (2003), was drafted after the Doi Moi era when Vietnam wanted to join the World Trade Organization.
This resolution, therefore, removed most of the aggressive language used in prior legislation but kept several “core principles” intact. This particular document stated that “any religion must be recognized by the State and religious activities shall be subject to [the] State’s regulations and supervision.” It also maintained that there were still “reactionary elements” hiding in various religious groups and that the government shall prepare to defeat any of them.
All three of these resolutions illustrate, that despite the passage of time, not much has changed in the way the VCP thinks about religious organizations. They are still seen as threats to the Party’s power, and as such, have to be destroyed or controlled. And despite what the VCP might claim, the Party does not respect freedom of belief nor provide these groups equal protection under the law.
Faith and Red Tape
For religions to be formally recognized in Vietnam, and for them to also have some semblance of protection against state forces, they have to register and be approved by the government.
Human Rights Watch reported in October 2020 that failure to do so can lead to the arrest, imprisonment, interrogation, and torture of the leaders or followers of these religions. Hence, for the sake of self-preservation, it is in their best interest to comply.
However, this process is far from convenient.
In order to be recognized, religious groups in Vietnam first need to obtain a Certificate of Religion Operation. Five years later, they then need to formally apply for official recognition. Only upon completion of these two requirements are they, at least on paper, afforded all the rights, benefits, and protections that they should have been given 10 years earlier.
This process, which is explained in detail in Vietnam’s Law on Religions and Beliefs 02/2016/QH14 (LBB), passed on November 18, 2016, is also vulnerable to abuse by the Vietnamese authorities.
LIV’s research paper also highlights the case of the religious group An Dan Dai Dao (ADDD), which was established in 1969. It is a sect of Buddhism which had a network of 14 temples and thousands of followers before 1975. After Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, the new ruling Vietnamese Communist Party accused ADDD of working with the Central Intelligence Agency.
ADDD was also not granted registration, which led to its properties being taken away by the government; their followers were also forced into hiding.
In 2003, adherents tried to jumpstart their religion once more due to the perceived reforms going on in Vietnam. However, they were once again persecuted by the state.
In 2013, Phan Van Thu, the leader of ADDD, was sentenced to life imprisonment while 21 other leaders were sentenced to a collective total of 299 years in prison and 105 years of house arrest. To this day, the ADDD situation holds the record of having the highest sentence ever imposed in a political-religious case in Vietnam.
Those incarcerated are currently dealing with abuse and maltreatment, and are faced with the very real possibility of death.
In denying the ADDD sect the right to register, the Vietnamese state branded the group as criminals and treated them as such despite ADDD’s lack of involvement in any political activities.
The followers of this religion have faced persecution for more than 40 years for simply practicing their faith and holding firm to a belief they deem essential to their human existence. This situation casts a bright light on the black bleeding heart of the VCP and exposes the lengths the government is willing to go to destroy its own people.
Faith and Freedom
Even state-approved religious organizations have to constantly deal with the ever-watchful eye of the VCP.
LIV research also states that these organizations are required to get the state’s permission and approval for various things such as hosting religious events whether inside or outside their designated place of worship or for something as simple as a change in leadership within their organizations.
The locations where religious structures can be built also require the state’s consent. In effect, rather than portraying strength, the VCP presents itself as being unhealthily obsessed with religious groups, their leaders, and the many people who are part of them.
This is not at all surprising; as Marx, the father of the hammer and sickle, once stated “religion is the opium of the people.”
In Communism, religion is seen as something undesirable, as something taboo, and as something that must be purged. We’ve seen this in the history of many Eastern and Central European countries when they were under the rule of the former Soviet Union.
Vietnam is going through the same motions. Yet, we’ve also seen that after the fall of the USSR, religion never truly went away.
In religion, people find hope; people find something greater than themselves that they aspire to attain, whether it may be the afterlife, heaven, nirvana, or enlightenment. In faith, they find purpose; they find direction and guidance to help them navigate the tumultuous sea of life with the company of those who choose to travel the same path.
In belief, they find freedom.
And this is what the VCP fears the most: that the people will no longer be dependent on them for subsistence and survival. They fear for a time when their countrymen start to dream or come to know of a world outside the Party’s tiny dictatorship. They fear a populace that holds another being in higher regard than the crumbling corpse of Ho Chi Minh.
The VCP fears becoming obsolete. Yet in the end, that is exactly what it fated to be.
Long after Vietnam has risen above the shackles of authoritarianism and long after it has reached a future of true and genuine democracy, the Party will be gone.
But religion will be there to stay.
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