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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).

Land Rights

Thien An Abbey – 45 Years Under The Government’s Fist

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Photo source: Thien An Abbey. Graphic: Luat Khoa.

“Thien An” means “heavenly peace”, but the Catholic monks here have never lived in peace.

In the 45 years since Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, the monks of Thien An Abbey have only known hard labor and study, and resistance against forces hell-bent on taking their land by any and all means. 

Thien An Hill today is no longer covered by sweeping pine forests; under the government’s fist, the trees have all withered away. The authorities have coercively taken the land by using thugs. The monks defend themselves using the only weapon they have: prayer. 

Once sacred and picturesque, the area has now become anything but. How did this come to pass?

Thien An Abbey is born on Thien An Hill

1940 – 1943: The abbey comes into existence

In 1940, Father Romain Guilauma, a French missionary, purchased a piece of land on today’s Thien An Hill. The place resembled a miniature Da Lat and was only about 10 km away from the center of Hue. Father Guilauma built a thatched cottage on the land to receive monks from the Order of Saint Benedict. The land is currently situated in Cu Chanh Village, Thua Thien – Hue Province.

Antonin-Fernand Drapier, the French Resident Superior of the Holy See, said a celebratory mass upon the opening of the abbey on June 10, 1940. The abbey was given the name “Thien An”, meaning “heavenly peace”. 

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From 1940 to 1943, monks studied under the thatched roof of this cottage. They also dug lakes and planted orange groves. Source: Thien An Abbey.

1943 – 1965: Digging Lake Thuy Tien, planting pine forests 

During this time, monks expanded the abbey’s footprint, building structures, cultivating the land, and raising livestock to achieve self-sufficiency.

The abbey built a chapel and a three-story building with 28 rooms in 1943. In 1956, the abbey began construction on a second three-story building, with 38 rooms on the upper two floors.  

The pine forests on Thien An Hill were almost certainly planted by monks during this time period. Furthermore, according to the Hue Festival, monks also dug two large lakes (Upper and Lower Thuy Tien), which provided water for the entire area.

From then on, these lakes and pine forests became one of Hue’s hidden getaways and the area began to be referred to as Thien An – Lake Thuy Tien.

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Archbishop Philipphe Nguyen Kim Dien blessed the church cellar and the stone altars in 1965. Source: Thien An Abbey.

1965 – 1975: Re-issuing a copy of  the “parcel map”

In 1969, Abbot Thomas Chau Van Dang asked the Thua Thien provincial Land Office (under the Republic of  Vietnam) to reissue “copies of relevant land registers and maps”, lost after the violent Tet Offensive in 1968.

The abbey stated that the Land Office provided it with “a copy of the parcel map”, that showed an area of 107 hectares.

According to the map, abbey land bordered Upper Duong Xuan Village to the north, Bang Lang and Kim Son villages to the south, Minh Manh Road to the east, and Bara Dam and Cu Chanh villages to the west.

Monks have stated that these 107 hectares of land are predominantly pine forests, punctuated by a fish farm, a dam, an elementary school, an orphanage, Duc Me (Mother Mary) Hill, and Thanh Gia (Cross) Hill. 

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Monks of Thien An Abbey in 1966. Source: Ngy Thanh/PBase.

Four decades of unrest

1975 – 2000: Abbey land is turned into an amusement park and private villas are also built on the site

After the Communist victory in 1975, religious establishments no longer had a voice. They had to follow the orders of the revolutionary government, no matter how backwards these orders were. 

In January 1976, the head of Hue’s Office of Agriculture and Forestry asked the abbey to “cede” a school it no longer used to house workers. The office began using the school before the abbey had agreed to cede the property.

Afterwards, the abbey said, the government garrisoned troops on abbey land and asked the monks to hand over its dispensary, orphanage, and one hectare of land. The abbey faced with no choice and had to agree. A fish pond was also later requisitioned. 

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The front (above) and back (below) of the abbey’s elementary school before 1975. Source: Thien An Abbey.

The land dispute over Thien An Hill took on another layer of complexity when the central government became involved. 

In November 1999, the People’s Committee of Thua Thien – Hue Province recommended that the government confiscate Thien An Hill to construct an amusement park. A month after, Vietnam’s prime minister decided to take over more than 49 hectares of the abbey’s land and rent it to the Ancient Capital Hue Travel Company (a state-run business) to build the Thuy Tien Lake and Thien An Hill Amusement Park.

In the process of confiscating the abbey’s land, monks stated, the government wrongly used an order for uncultivated land, which meant the government could confiscate lands without providing the abbey with any compensation or advance notification; as such, the abbey was neither compensated nor notified that the land had been taken. 

The abbey petitioned the government regarding the wrongful confiscation of the land, stating that the government lacked jurisdiction according to the Land Law at the time.

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Source: Thien An Abbey.

Also in 1999, Boi Tran Villa, a restaurant and an exhibition hall for an individual, Ms. Phan Thi Van’s paintings, was constructed. The abbey said that the villa’s land was previously the abbey’s orange grove, which the Tien Phong Forestry School had partitioned off and sold.  

The forestry school later became the Tien Phong Forestry Company, owned by the People’s Committee of Thua Thien – Hue Province.

2000 – 2010: The state “does not recognize” the 107 hectares of abbey land

Before the abbey’s petition was even addressed, the Thuy Tien Lake amusement park opened in 2001, with more than 70 billion dong (US$3million) in investment. 

In 2002, Vietnam’s State Inspector General addressed the abbey’s petition, responding that: “The State does not recognize Thien An Abbey’s land usage rights for the 107 hectares of land and pine forest on Thien An Hill.” 

What’s even more strange is that while the State Inspector General pointed out that “the entirety of the land and pine forest on Thien An Hill” had been given to the Tien Phong Forestry School in 1976, the abbey was completely unaware of this.

The abbey continued to oppose the Inspector General’s conclusion through more of its petitions to the government, stating that such conclusion did not focus on resolving the abbey’s disagreement according to the prime minister’s decision. 

The Thuy Tien Lake Amusement Park had begun admitting people from the public in the middle of 2004. However, by 2008, it was suffering heavy losses. The provincial People’s Committee later allowed another company to lease the amusement park. 

In December 2008, the government issued a directive for provinces and cities to review and return to religious organizations all properties that were not being used effectively; however, none of Thien An Abbey’s properties were returned. 

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A corner of the Thuy Tien Lake \Amusement Park, abandoned after only a few years of operation. Souce: Lolivi.

2010 – 2015: Another villa in the “special-use forest”

The government designated Thien An Hill a “special-use forest” but continued to build villas within it.

In 2010, the Cat Tuong Quan Retreat was constructed. The business venture was pursued by another individual, Ms. Ta Thi Ngoc Thao, aiming to provide a space for rest, meditation, and Zen study. The abbey stated that the retreat’s land was previously the abbey’s orange grove that the Tien Phong Forestry School had partitioned off and sold. 

In 2011, the Thuy Tien Lake Amusement Park was closed down due to unprofitability.

Thien An Abbey reported that in 2013, the Thua Thien – Hue Province People’s Committee issued papers certifying Tien Phong Forestry Company’s land usage rights, which included a number of the abbey’s structures, including an internal road, a chapel, a dormitory, and a building that the Hue Office of Agriculture and Forestry had borrowed since 1976.

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Cat Tuong Quan Retreat seen from above. Source: Tripadvisor.

2015 – 2017: Conflict escalates, a statue of Jesus smashed 

From the beginning of 2015, peace was shattered on Thien An Hill as the gentle lands became anything but.

The abbey said that beginning in January 2015, the government proposed multiple times that the abbey accept a measly 18 hectares of land so that their claims would be entered into the official registry. The abbey refused.

In May 2015, monks discovered that a statue of Jesus belonging to the abbey had been smashed and scattered in the wilderness. 

At the beginning of 2016, a group that included police, cadres, employees of the Tien Phong Forestry Company, and reporters entered the abbey to investigate the chopping down of numerous pine trees. Afterwards, the monks were rounded up by investigators allegedly for the crime of deforestation. The monks stated that an article in the Vietnam Law Newspaper slandered the abbey, falsely accusing it of deforestation and obstructing officials

In March 2016, a statue of Jesus that had just been put up was pulled down by a group of women, civil defense officers, and cadres mobilized by the government.

In the middle of 2016, the abbey reported that the Thuy Bang commune authorities led about 200 individuals accompanied by a large excavator to halt road construction linking the abbey to a partially-completed garden. The Thuy Bang Commune People’s Committee afterwards issued the abbey a form stating that it had trespassed on special-use forest land by constructing this road.

In March 2017, authorities continued to mobilize people to prevent the abbey from leveling land in areas the abbey claimed. 

That same month, unknown persons carved large V’s into numerous pine trees near the abbey’s dam, causing them to slowly wither and die.

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Many of the abbey’s pine trees had deep V’s etched into their bark, causing them to slowly die. Source: Thien An Abbey.

In May 2017, the government continued to allow numerous individuals to arrive at the abbey and disrupt renovation work on the abbey’s claimed land. 

At the end of June 2017, a statue of Jesus and the Holy Cross was resurrected only for the government to pull it down again. A number of monks were injured in the incident, but were unable to get to the hospital for treatment because police had set up traffic barriers blocking exit from the abbey. 

After that scuffle, the provincial People’s Committee met with abbey representatives, but the conflict remained unresolved. The committee stated that the prime minister’s statement in 1999 and the State Inspector General’s decision in 2002 were “faultless and should remain as is”. 

***

On July 25, 2017, the abbey reported that the provincial People’s Committee had responded to a number of the abbey’s grievances regarding the piney hill:

First, the abbey’s school building was demolished according to the government’s 1976 Decision 188/CP because the school was a “remnant of land possession and colonial exploitation…”

Second, the land which the Cat Tuong Quan Retreat sat on originally belonged to the Tien Phong Forestry School, which transferred it to a residential household in 1984; this entity then passed it onto another household, which then passed it onto the retreat. 

Third, the owner of the Boi Tran Villa purchased land for his/her villa by combining purchases from two different households: one from the household that passed the land to the Cat Tuong Quan retreat and the rest from another household.

Fourth, regarding another household that was supposedly using abbey land, the committee stated that this household was sitting on land that the forestry school had granted to the family in 1984 to start a garden and build a house.

The abbey argued that the committee’s explanations were not convincing, especially since land survey records remain conspicuously missing.

***

On December 18, 2017, commune authorities blocked monks from setting up a Christmas welcome gate on an internal road leading into the abbey. 

Approximately one week later, the abbey reported that Phan Ngoc Tho, the vice-chairman of the Thua Thien – Hue Province People’s Committee, proposed that the Order of Saint Benedict and the Provincial Vietnamese Order of Saint Benedict no longer designate Father Nguyen Huyen Duc as the abbey superior and that he should be transferred out of the province. 

2018: Year of repeated forest fires 

In January 2018, Thuy Bang commune police asked the abbey to provide a list of individuals who resided at the abbey in any form to help with on-site corroboration.

At the beginning of March 2018, after monks felled a tree to prevent a fire, police and traffic officers, forest management, and government cadres all joined forces to obstruct the felling, ultimately confiscating the pine tree. After this event, five incidences of forest fire occurred one after the other. 

On March 4, 2018, a portion of the abbey’s claimed pine forest caught fire. After the fire, four other forest fires occurred on May 10, May 22, May 23, and July 4, 2018.  The abbey claimed that the fires destroyed about 8 hectares of pine trees that were about 60 years old.

The landscape of the fire on July 4, 2018, taken from the Abbey’s bell tower.

In June 2018, Phan Ngoc Tho became the chairman of the Thua Thien – Hue Province People’s Committee after his predecessor retired early.

On July 18, 2018, the abbey reported that a group of employees from the Tien Phong Forestry Company had entered the burned land on July 4 to plant pine trees but were stopped by the abbey.

In December 2018, the abbey continued to demand the Tien Phong Forestry Company return the school it had borrowed from the abbey. 

2019 – 2020: Strains continue to worsen

On the night of April 19, 2019, about three hectares of old pine trees that had grown for more than 60 years burned completely. According to the abbey, Tien Phong Forestry Company regularly claims that it manages the land but it did nothing to stop the burning.

The fire happened on April 19, 2019. Source: Thien An Abbey Facebook.

The abbey reported that this fire and the previous five fires were ignored by firefighters and that the government, which has released no public information about the events, failed to carry out an investigation into the damage.

In May 2020, Thua Thien – Hue provincial authorities announced that they would transform the dilapidated Thuy Tien Lake Amusement Park into a “cultural park to serve the community, a state-of-the-art creative space, a sculpture garden.”

About a month afterwards,  approximately one hectare of the abbey’s pine forest was hacked to pieces. Many large pine trees were sawed into, leaving deep scars that would kill the trees slowly without felling them.

In July 2020, the abbey continued to send official documents asking for the return of the elementary school that the Tien Phong Forestry School borrowed from the abbey.  

***

Over three consecutive days, from August 10-12, 2020,  when the entirety of Thua Thien – Hue Province was on-guard against COVID-19, a crowd of approximately 40 people held up signs and shouted over loudspeakers at the site of a toppled statue of Jesus, demanding the abbots halt their work and return the land to them.

Abbots recognized these individuals as committee cadres, members of the Thuy Bang commune women’s association, and familiar security and surveillance officers. 

Protests of this nature cannot be organized without the backing of local authorities. The ongoing dispute between the abbey and the government continues to escalate with no prospects of good results. We will continue to update the latest developments of this dispute in the coming months. 

Protest against Thien An Abbey on August 10, 2020. Source: Thien An Abbey Facebook.

This article was written in Vietnamese by Thai Thanh and previously published on Luat Khoa Magazine. The translation is done by Will Nguyen.

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Religion

Religion Bulletin – August 2020

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Discover the four common tactics the Vietnamese authorities use to suppress religious organizations in [The Government’s Reach]. In [Religion 360°], we continue coverage of the parishes resisting the government acquisition of schools borrowed after 1975, along with other news. Learn a bit about the Khmer Krom movement in [On This Day], where we discuss the arrest of a former Khmer temple head in Tra Vinh.

If you have any suggestions or would like to join us in writing reports, please email us at: tongiao@luatkhoa.org or editor@thevietnamese.org

[The Government’s Reach]

Four tactics the Vietnamese authorities use to suppress religious organizations 

For years, the government has used multiple tactics to suppress religious organizations it does not agree with.  The authorities refer to their actions as “professional”, but in common parlance, these actions are more “cloak and dagger”. The following are the four most common tactics used by the government to suppress religious organizations.  

  1. Organizing crowds to protest

The land dispute at Thien An Abbey continued to escalate in August 2020. On August 10 and 11, a group of about 40 individuals organized a protest to speak out against Thien An Abbey for sitting on their and the government’s land. Protestors used large signs and loudspeakers to threaten and insult monks while standing on the disputed land. According to the  abbey, the crowd’s organizers were cadres of the Thuy Bang Commune People’s Committee, along with a number of police, as well as cadres from social organizations such as the Women’s Association. 

Crowds protest at Thien An Abbey on the afternoon of August 11, 2020. Source: Good News to the Poor.

In May 2017, an enormous mobilized force of between 1,000 to 3,000 people organized a week-long protest to speak out against Father Dang Huu Nam, the head of Phu Yen Parish in Vinh Diocese. This force criticized the clergyman’s words against the government and his actions when he assisted parishioners in suing the Ha Tinh Formosa Co. a year after the company caused a marine environmental disaster in 2016. 

A protest opposing Father Dang Huu Nam in May 2017. Source: People’s Police

In Vietnam, protests like these cannot be organized without the backing of the government. They’re put together to smear and lower the prestige of religious organizations that the government does not approve of.

  1. Using state media 

The protests against the monks of Thien An Abbey were reported in detail by the Thua Thien – Hue Province state media. After the protests, Thua Thien – Hue newspapers published two articles on August 18, 2020 and August 26, 2020 accusing the monks of surreptitiously taking land and falsely slandering the authorities with accusations of oppression. Hue Radio-Television broadcast a report on the protests as well. State journalists have previously blamed the monks of Thien An Abbey for being “aggressive and uncooperative with the authorities”. 

The protests opposing Father Dang Huu Nam were also reported in-depth by scores of other state journalists. More significantly, Vietnam Television (VTV) conducted a live national broadcast on the evening of March 24, 2017, regarding priests in Phu Yen Parish. The VTV report accused the Phu Yen priests of disrupting order and security by inciting parishioners to submit litigation against the Ha Tinh Formosa Co.. 

The Vietnamese state closely monitors media organizations, and journalists are not allowed to report on news that could adversely affect government interests. No independent television and radio stations are permitted to operate.

Religious organizations today normally have to establish their own media channels or use social media to speak up for themselves. There are currently two Catholic websites actively operating: “Good News to the Poor” and “VietCatholic,” but both are blocked in Vietnam.  Independent media, such as VOA, RFA, BBC, and RFI, are also blocked in Vietnam. 

  1. Using hired thugs

According to the monks of Thien An Abbey, this land dispute has lasted more than 20 years and has always involved unidentified, aggressive individuals who assault the monks. Over many years, Thien An Abbey has faced numerous aggressive acts, including glass shards strewn across the football field, pine trees being cut down, statues of Christ being stolen and smashed, stalking, and threats—none of which are investigated by local authorities. 

An attack on monks in July 2017, which the authorities did not investigate. Source: Good News to the Poor.

The Vietnamese authorities are well-versed in using hired agents to create physical scuffles in order for police to then respond with violence.

On February 14, 2017, according to VOA, police infiltrated a group of people who were mobilizing to sue the Formosa Co. These infiltrators threw rocks in the direction of riot police and instigated violence, giving police a pretext to suppress the movement, injuring about 50 parishioners. Police also instigate and/or stage scenes of violence in order for state media to record negative images. 

Hired agents who were not part of the contingent hurled rocks in the direction of riot police in order to instigate violence.  Source: VTV.

In October 2019, six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists were stopped by a mob blocking the road and were severely beaten as they were on their way to An Hoa Temple to stop the re-tiling of that temple’s original roof. The matter was not investigated by the police. 

The government use of hired thugs to instigate violence and threaten activists and religious groups is commonplace in Vietnam—and a serious problem.

  1. Harassment using administrative regulations unrelated to religion

In 2018, Thuy Bang Commune police asked Thien An Abbey to provide a list of individuals who lived at the abbey in order for police to carry out direct inspections and corroborations.

In June 2017, Thua Thien – Hue provincial police set up a traffic blockade to prevent parishioners and monks from entering Thien An Abbey. Simultaneously, a large scuffle broke out at the abbey itself, injuring many monks who were unable to get to a hospital because of the traffic blockade. 

This administrative harassment may seem insignificant but sometimes it is part of a larger trap to ensnare religious organizations and activists.

In February 2018, six Hoa Hao Buddhists were sentenced to between two years of probation and six years in prison for interfering with traffic police who had prevented residents from attending the death anniversary of a fellow follower. The six were convicted of obstructing officials and disturbing public order when they protested and argued with traffic police who were purposefully checking the papers and confiscating the vehicles of those attending the anniversary.

Local authorities regularly misuse administrative regulations as tools to punish and entrap religious organizations and to hinder activities. Authorities in a number of locations in the Central Highlands refuse to issue paperwork to independent worshippers, such as identity cards, passports, marriage licenses, and land use deeds, as punishment. 

[Religion 360°]

Thi Nghe Parish asks for help as the authorities unilaterally change the usage rights of a parish school 

In August 2020, Thi Nghe Parish in Ho Chi Minh City asked citizens for support in demanding the return of their school, which the authorities had initially borrowed and later permanently altered the usage rights to. 

Phuoc An – Thi Nghe Private School before 1975. Source: Ogden Williams Collection.

Vietnam does not recognize the right to land ownership. Land belongs to the state and citizens are granted usage rights.

Before 1975, Thi Nghe Parish contributed money to build Phuoc An Private School for approximately 4,000 students. After 1975, when private schools were abolished, the parish lent the state two three-story structures and another single-story building to function as a school (named Phu Dong Elementary School).  

In 2019, when the parish was conducting a survey to build an underground parking structure for parishioners, it discovered that the authorities had granted usage rights to Phu Dong Elementary School in 2013; for six years, the parish was unaware that the school structures no longer belonged to them.  

After more than a year of petitioning, in July 2020, Binh Thanh District authorities responded, stating: “Phu Dong Elementary School, including border walls, are state property to be managed by Phu Dong School.”

Land policy from the 2000s granted local authorities the ability to delineate to themselves the (continued) usage of religious grounds already being used by the state. If the state continues to use these religious grounds for public purposes, then religious organizations cannot ask for the return of their properties.

Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation demands the return of a school building it lent to the authorities 

At some point in the last 44 years, the Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation’s Giuse School became a Dong Nai Province medical center.

Nuns in the congregation stated that before 1975, 1,000 students came to study at the school every year, at both the elementary and middle school levels. In 1976, the congregation lent the school to the authorities for five years to train cadres.

After five years, not only did the authorities refuse to return the school to the congregation, they further borrowed two rowed structures and a 6.482 square meter plot of land. These grounds were handed over to Bien Hoa General Hospital, which was then granted usage rights in 2004. 

St. Giuse School, currently of Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation. Photo source: Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation.

Recently, the Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation is in need of activity grounds for newly-joined nuns and as senior facilities for older nuns, hence it has asked for the return of the school building it lent to the government. But similar to the situation in Thi Nghe Parish, such returns are difficult to achieve if the authorities do not voluntarily choose to do so.

Dak Nong Province announces that it must “deal with” many new religions in the region

In August 2020, the Dak Nong Newspaper, belonging to the Dak Nong Province Communist Party, reported that many new religions were operating illegally in the region. 

These new religions are referred to as “strange” or “heretical” religions. According to the Dak Nong Newspaper, approximately 10 of these “strange, heretical religions” have penetrated the province. Among them, the Gie Sua religion has the most followers, with 232; Falun Gong has 96; Hoang Thien Long 71; the World Mission Society Church of God 53; and the Tien Thien religion 24.

The Dak Nong Newspaper reported that the government will resolutely eliminate these “strange, heretical religions” from the province, and will ask residents to denounce anyone following or spreading these unsanctioned religions.

State journalists report that the Gie Sua religion was founded by an ethnic Hmong in the United States, who changed Protestant rites, such as worshipping on Sunday instead of Saturday, not recognizing the lord Jesus’ name, and not celebrating Christmas or Easter. 

According to Nghe An Newspaper, the Hoang Thien Long religion involves the spiritual worship of martyrs and “Uncle Ho” to treat diseases.

The Khanh Hoa Newspaper states that the World Mission Society Church of God was a religion based on the tenets of Protestantism and was introduced from South Korea into Vietnam in the 2000s. 

The Tien Thien religion has yet to be reported on by state media. Information available online indicates that this religion is based on the teachings of Daoism. 

Individual punished for spreading Falun Gong beliefs

State media reported that at least one person has been punished for spreading Falun Gong practices in August 2020.

According to the People’s Police Newspaper,  Hai Duong provincial police arrested Ms. Le Thi Thoa, 61, as she was “illicitly spreading Falun Gong” in an alleyway in the city of Hai Duong. She was fined 300,000 dong (US$13).

Ms. Le Thi Thoa was arrested by investigators and punished administratively. Source: People’s Police.

Though the government has not made any formal pronouncements about Falun Gong, local authorities uniformly see it as heretical and forbid people from promoting the  movement.

A number of religious prisoners unable to receive foodstuffs, medicine, and supplies due to COVID-19

Hua Phi, Cao Dai leader and member of the Inter-religious Council of Vietnam, told RFA that the authorities were not allowing religious prisoners to receive foodstuffs, medicine, and supplies due to COVID-19.

Near the end of July 2020, COVID-19 resurged in a number of cities in Vietnam, and detention centers and prisons temporarily discontinued outside visits. These detention centers became disease hotspots, such as in Da Nang, where outside visits and deliveries for prisoners were temporarily halted.

However, in other cities and provinces, a number of families of non-political and non-religious prisoners were still able to send in medicine and supplies. 

Current regulations allow these detention centers autonomy in determining visitation and outside delivery policies. There’s a high possibility that these centers are using COVID-19 as a pretense to punish religious prisoners. 

Authorities finally recognize Lai Chau Parish as a religious organization after more than 13 years of applying 

On August 21, 2020, the Lai Chau Province People’s Committee permitted the Hung Hoa Diocese to establish the Lai Chau Parish as a legal religious organization.

According to Father Phero Pham Thanh Binh the Epsicopal See of Hung Hoa Diocese had been requesting that the authorities recognize Lai Chau Parish as a legal religious entity since 2007, a request that has only just now been accepted.

The 2016 Law on Faith and Religion stipulates that an organization granted a certificate of registration must operate for at least five years and meet a number of other requirements before it is officially recognized as a religious organization. In actuality, however, the authorities often drag their feet in granting legal status to any religious organization. 

Hung Hoa Diocese manages parts of the north of Vietnam, including the entirety of Phu Tho, Yen Bai, Lao Cai, Lai Chau, Dien Bien, and Son La provinces, a portion of Hoa Hinh, Ha Giang, and Tuyen Quang provinces, as well as the city of Hanoi. 

According to the head of the Hanoi Episcopal See, Giuse Vu Van Thien, Hung Hoa Diocese has faced many difficulties, because the religious policies are different from province to province: “Some policies are relaxed, but some others are difficult. Some of the policies have limited government interference, but some are overbearing. And there are others that even have cadres announcing white zones which means there are no religions in that locality at all”. 

[On This Day]

The imprisonment of a Khmer temple’s former head and the Khmer Krom Movement

At the end of July 2010, Tra Vinh provincial police imprisoned Thach Sophon, the former head of a Khmer temple, after investigating him for a case that occurred in April 2010. 

Thach Sophon was arrested July 29, 2010, two days after he left the priesthood. The government stated that his arrest stemmed from an incident in April of that same year, in which the temple he headed held a suspected burglar in captivity for a night before bringing him to police. More than a month after his arrest, he was  still not  allowed to see his family or any lawyers. 

According to RFA, the human rights group Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF), which advocates for the rights of Khmer living in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region, raised objections to Thach Sophon’s detention. The federation stated that he was arrested because the government suspected he was linked to the Khmer Krom movement. In 2006, the federation said, a disciple of his was accused of anti-state propaganda but was able to escape to Thailand before being detained. Another disciple confirmed that Thach Sophon had been monitored by the authorities since 2005.

In September 2010, Thach Sophon was sentenced to nine months of probation for illegally detaining another person. 

These events pushed many human rights groups to suspect that the authorities intentionally arrested Thach Sophon to interrogate him about the Khmer Krom movement. When this proved unsuccessful, they framed him with a case that occurred three months earlier.  

The Khmer Krom Movement

The Khmer Krom movement picked up strength during the 2000s and still operates, though it no longer draws as much attention. It is a movement that peacefully advocates for the rights of local Khmer living in Vietnam, including Khmer monks. Many Khmer Krom organizations participate in the movement, but the predominant one is the The Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF), whose website is currently blocked in Vietnam.

The Khmer Krom movement advocates for human rights in Vietnam for the Khmer ethnicity, including their freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of information and the press, land rights. It also includes medical right, the environment, and local culture.

However, the Vietnamese authorities still see the movement as a seditious one that unites Cambodian citizens and Khmer living in the Mekong Delta against the government. In August 2010, Vietnam requested that Cambodia resolutely shut down this movement. In 2014, many large protests broke out demanding human rights for Khmer living in Vietnam. 

The temporary confiscation of a Khmer monk’s passport after an alleged violation of the Cybersecurity Law in February 2020

In February 2020, Long Phu district police in the province of Soc Trang interrogated a 36-year-old Khmer monk of Cambodian citizenship named Seun Ty, confiscating his passport for two weeks.

“They interrogated me and pressured me to confess to violating Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Law after I shared a Radio Free Asia (RFA) interview with Mr. Tran Manrinh, a representative of KKF,” Seun Ty told Voice of America. ‘They used this action to accuse me of violating the Cybersecurity Law.”

Long Phu district police had threatened to bar him from entering Vietnam or fine him 30 million dong (US$1,298). After human rights organizations forcefully spoke up, his passport was returned after two weeks. 

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Religion

Vietnam: What Does The Government Committee For Religious Affairs Do With More Than 64 Billion Dong Every Year?

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Leaders of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, from left: Committee head Vu Chien Thang, and deputy heads Nguyen Anh Chuc and Tran Thi Minh Nga. Photo source: Government Committee for Religious Affairs.

This article was first published on 06/21/2020 in Vietnamese by Luat Khoa Magazine with Thái Thanh as the author. The English translation was first published by the US-Vietnam Research Center at the University of Oregon.

***

In simplest terms, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs is the “church” of all churches in Vietnam.

As you read this article, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs is burning through its 64.9 billion dong (US$2.8 million). Though details of its budget are not made public, we know only 60.7 billion dong are used for committee activities. 

At the local level, Luat Khoa has read through all 2020 budget estimates for Vietnamese provinces and cities, but only 14 provinces have enumerated the amounts distributed to their provincial and municipal religious committees. 

In 2020, the religious committees of these 14 provinces and municipalities were provided 33.965 billion dong. If this number is extrapolated to include all 63 cities and provinces, the approximate total would reach more than 152.840 billion, equivalent to about 60 percent of the 2020 budget for Vietnam Television (VTV).  

Phu Tho Province has earmarked 600 million dong of a budgeted 1.885 billion dong (~78,000 USD) to celebrate festivities and welcome religious dignitaries.  

In Thanh Hoa, the provincial religious committee is allotted 5.14 billion dong, five times the amount given to the province’s SOS Children’s Village; what this money is used for, however, is not publicly disclosed. 

(Source: estimated 2020 provincial budgets; Unit: million dong”)

The numbers above do not include the budgets provided for hundreds of religious affairs offices at the urban district, district, and provincial city levels. 

But what do the Government Committee for Religious Affairs and local religious offices do anyway, and are they worthy of taxpayer money? 

Back then, back then…

According to the Government Committee on Religious Affairs, the forerunner to the committee was established in 1955 as the “Central Committee on Religion”, directly responsible to the prime minister’s office. 

At the time, the task of this committee was to: “Network with religions, and in particular, implement their abilities to mobilize”.

But given the partition of the country at the time, in what ways did this committee “network” with and “mobilize” religions?

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has written in The History of Vietnamese Buddhism that in the north, no Buddhist periodicals were allowed to be published, no Buddhist institutes were allowed to accept disciples, no prayer books were printed, orphanages were shuttered, monks under the age of 30 had to give up their robes and don army fatigues or peasant garb to produce (for the state), churches no longer had anything with which to practice and their land had to be “donated” to the state in order to build socialism. [1]

Monks who disagreed with the government were quickly isolated until their deaths, as happened with the Venerable Thich To Lien, Venerable Thich Vinh Tuong, and Venerable Thich Tri Hai.

In 1975, this northern tradition of controlling and subjugating religion was applied to the south. Scores of self-immolations by monks and nuns occurred to protest the discriminatory religious policies of the new government. Arrested monks were sent to re-education camps, tortured, and some even died in prison, such as the Venerable Thich Thien Minh. Others were confined to wheelchairs after their time behind bars, such as Venerable Thich Tri Quang.

Up until the late 1980s, the government saw religion and popular faiths as impediments on the path to socialism. Hoa Hao Buddhism and the Cao Dai religion were seen as “heresies”, tools of foreign countries.

It was not until the 90s that the Communist Party of Vietnam began to accept that religious morality was compatible with “Doi Moi” policies.

The Government Committee on Religious Affairs at the time had the dual task of controlling and utilizing the power of religion; ancestor worship was no longer seen as superstition. Boat people were called to return home to pay respects and send foreign currency to relatives.  

By the late 1990s, the Cao Dai religion and Hoa Hao Buddhism were both begrudgingly accepted by the state after millions of followers had suffered more than 20 years of government discrimination.  

And now, and now…

Three recent activities carried out by the Government Committee on Religious Affairs give us a good overview of what the body does currently, outside of its tasks of issuing regulations and controlling the publication of religious works.

The first has to do with Dinh Quang Tien, the head of Cao Dai Affairs, meeting with the Tien Thien Cao Dai Church to prepare for the All-sect Congress of Nhon Sanh Representatives.

According to the Government Committee on Religious Affairs, during this meeting, Mr. Tien directed the church’s internal affairs, “building regulations regarding public dignitaries and functionaries and regulations resolving petitions and complaints; and publicly electing dignitaries with sufficient qualifications for the Church’s Senate, Standing Committee, and Chambers.”

The second concerns deputy head Tran Thi Minh Nga chairing a seminar on “Deviance within Religious Activities in Vietnam Today”, with the participation of the Fatherland Front, the Ministry of Public Security, and the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Travel.

Not only does it control religions within the country, but the Government Committee on Religious Affairs also extends its arm overseas.

On June 18, 2020, leaders of the Government Committee on Religious Affairs and the State Committee on Overseas Vietnamese held a meeting regarding the religious activities of the five million Vietnamese living overseas.

During this meeting, the Committee confirmed that the latter organizes annual trips overseas to “meet with communities, understand their sentiments and aspirations, exchange views with local authorities, and suggest ways to help Vietnamese communities with religious and spiritual activities”.

On the Committee  website, its regularly-posted activities include organizing conferences and visiting local and overseas locations to conduct business with religions and the relevant city and provincial authorities. However, this committee does not publicize its budget as other bodies do.

In its 2020 budget estimate, this committee is the only body in the Ministry of the Interior to provide 1 billion dong for environmental protection activities. A portion of this money appears to be earmarked for the “National Conference on the Role of Religion in Protecting the Environment and Responding to Climate Change”.

Today, the Government Committee on Religious Affairs has become the “Church” of all churches in Vietnam, at once interfering in the internal affairs of religions while also trying to determine the “religious standards” for society.

Different from democratic countries, where religious organizations operate independently, religious organizations in Vietnam that want official recognition must operate as though they were a government body. On that front, the Government Committee on Religious Affairs functions as an intermediary for the state to control religious activities. 

Laudable “achievements” that have yet to be lauded 

The Government Committee on Religious Affairs also has its share of achievements which have not been shared on its website.

Currently, in Thailand, there are more than 1,000 Montagnards who are religious refugees. They fled their villages in the Central Highlands with their  families and went to Thailand after being harassed and oppressed, and some were even jailed for many years for wanting to practice their religions freely or demanding the return of land to locals. Some went separately with their families, while others traveled together in large groups; some even had the misfortune of falling victim to human trafficking networks.

In Dien Bien, the authorities forced residents to sign a pledge renouncing the “Gie Sua” religion. A lieutenant colonel from a provincial border guard post stated that he went from house to house, rationalizing the reasons, and then asked residents to sign a pledge renouncing the religion. 

The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam,established in 1964, was no longer recognized by the government in 1975. Leading members of the church were closely monitored; Venerable Thich Quang Do was under surveillance until his death, and Buddhist temples regularly faced harassment from the authorities.

In An Giang Province, independent Hoa Hao Buddhists organize every year to mark the day the religion’s founder disappeared from his home. Many scuffles have broken out between independent Hoa Hao Buddhists and police, with many followers handed lengthy jail sentences  for “obstruction of officials”.

Independent Cao Dai followers are struggling with “state-run Cao Dai” to protect the former’s remaining temples. On June 18, 2020, in the city of Tuy Hoa, Phu Yen Province, “State-run Cao Dai” tried to confiscate the Hieu Xuong Temple, which belonged to independent followers.

From 2009 to 2019, the number of followers of the Cao Dai religion and Hoa Hao Buddhism has decreased dramatically.

The Cao Dai religion has lost approximately 76 percent of its followers. Of approximately 2.4 million followers in 2009, only 556,234 remain, according to the 2019 Census

Hoa Hao Buddhism has lost nearly a third of its followers compared to numbers from 2009. Follower count has decreased from 1,433,252 in 2009 to 983,079. During his return to Vietnam in 2007, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh suggested that the state dissolve both the Government Committee on Religious Affairs and the police division overseeing religion because they did more harm for religion than good.

He stated that this police division and the Government Committee on Religious Affairs were erroneous emulations from China and lamented that the Vietnamese government still held onto them. 

Reference:
[1] Việt Nam Phật giáo Sử Luận (Translated: The History of Vietnamese Buddhism), Nguyễn Lang (pen name of Thich Nhat Hanh), p. 744.

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The original Vietnamese version of this article is on Luat Khoa Tap chi. Translated by Will Nguyen.

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