The Report on Religious Freedom in Vietnam is published on the first Monday of each month. If you would like to contribute information to the report, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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).
2020: 10 Religious Problems That The Vietnamese Government Doesn’t Want You To Know About
Vietnam makes no progress with freedom of religion, which remains tightly controlled.
Vietnam is among countries with the greatest diversity of religions, but it is also among those that suppress freedom of religion most heavily.
In 2020, ethnic Thuong in the Central Highlands, Hoa Hao Buddhists, independent Cao Dai practitioners, and followers of new religions in the northwest all had to pay the price for exercising their freedom of religion.
1. No place for new religions
Vietnam possesses a great diversity of religions, but the government is quite strict with new ones.
Recently, a woman introduced me to Phap Mon Dieu Am. She advised me to eat vegetarian and call a phone number to receive “messages that will be imprinted on your heart”.
Phap Mon Dieu Am is a new religion, and the Vietnamese government prohibits spreading it.
Authorities worry that new religions will destabilize security and spur anti-government activities. All new religions are referred to generally as “heresies.”
In the northwest region, especially Dien Bien Province, two new religions have sprouted, known as the Gie Sua and the Ba Co Do religions.
The province has initiated criminal proceedings against three people for “acting to overthrow the people’s administration” and “harboring criminals” in relation to the Gie Sua religion.
Dien Bien police also acknowledged that it has pressured residents to sign forms giving up their new religions.
“We went from house to house, explaining things to the residents and asking them to sign pledges giving up the Gie Sua religion, to not believe in the propaganda about establishing “the Mong Kingdom,” Major Vu Van Hanh told the Dien Bien Phu Paper in February 2020.
“As of today, the Na Co Sa border defense post has gotten 55 households/325 individuals to sign pledges giving up their heresies”, he said.
Despite the government’s threats, other new religions continue to silently operate across the country.
The Government Committee For Religious Affairs stated in 2015 that there were approximately 60 instances of new religions in Vietnam.
And yet, throughout Vietnam, people could sometimes unexpectedly hear information about these strange, new religions like Phap Mon Dieu Am, Thanh Hai Vo Thuong Su, Gie Sua, Ba Co Do, Hoang Thien Long, Phap Mon Di Lac, Buu Toa Tam Giao, or Hoi Thanh Duc Chua Troi Me…
2. Ethnic Thuong living under strict religious policies
Since 1975, the Thuong ethnic group has been beleaguered as they have never been in their history.
After the government forced them to give up their traditional faiths, many converted to Catholicism and Protestantism. However, the Thuong have not been able to escape government harassment and are not allowed to freely organize their religious activities.
Peaceful civil activities such as gatherings and protests are all seen as linked to heresies.
Dega Protestantism, Ha Mon, and the Protestant Church of Christ are all seen as heresies that mislead the masses.
In March 2020, three Ba Na followers of the Ha Mon religion that had absconded into the jungle for seven years were arrested on suspicion of spreading anti-state propaganda. In June, rather than being charged, the three underwent criticism sessions before the people.
In July, another ethnic Thuong underwent a public criticism session for illegally crossing the border to Cambodia many times, propagating “heresy”, and distorting state policies.
Thuong refugees in Thailand have stated that members of their ethnic group from the Central Highlands escape across the Vietnamese border every month. Currently, there are a little over 500 Thuong refugees in Thailand.
3. Interfering in the internal affairs of religious organizations
The arms of the state reach deep into the internal affairs of religions.
In June 2020, the Government Committee For Religious Affairs ordered the Tien Thien Cao Dai Temple to “create regulations for active dignitaries and functionaries, as well as regulations to resolve letters of petition and grievance, and the selection of dignitaries to be applied to its followers”. These regulations should be the internal matters that the religious organizations voluntarily manage, but the government is directing them to comply with specific instructions.
In Phu Yen Province, local authorities and the Tay Ninh Holy See Cao Dai Great Temple, Vietnam’s largest Cao Dai organization, tried to take over the independent Phu Lam Cao Dai temple in June 2020.
In a conference marking 25 years of state management of the Cao Dai religion, “the church of churches,” i.e. the Government Committee For Religious Affairs, stated that it will increase its research to study more closely the Cao Dai religion and to manage this religion, preventing it from further splintering and having internal conflicts between the religion’s own organizations.
In June 2020, the Diocese of Vinh decided to retire Dang Huu Nam, a clergyman well-known for his civil society activities. After the decision, the People’s Daily and many anonymous pro-government web pages stated that the removal was well-deserved because of Nam’s anti-government activities.
4. Arresting Falun Gong practitioners
As of October 2020, at least 66 Falun Gong practitioners have been arrested and punished administratively for storing or distributing flyers regarding the religion. You may yourself see in public spaces a number of people practicing Falun Gong, numbers which are growing by the day in Vietnam.
However, distributing flyers or practicing Falun Gong with others at home are considered violations of the law. In Quang Tri, a high school principle was harshly disciplined for inviting a large number of people to his home to practice Falun Gong.
In July 2020, police arrested 28 people for attending a lecture on Falun Gong at a residence in Ha Tinh Province.
Local authorities state that spreading Falun Gong violates the law because the religion has yet to be recognized by the state.
But Falun Gong practitioners disagree with this.
“Our connections are very loose,” a Falun Gong practitioner stated in an interview with Luat Khoa. “We don’t organize into associations or anything like Catholicism or Buddhism.”
LIV, the organization that manages Luat Khoa magazine, has archived information regarding Falun Gong practitioners that have been arrested. This list is a part of a database on freedom of religion in Vietnam, which can be found at: https://www.liv.ngo/data/
5. Controlling publishing
Arrested Falun Gong practitioners have been administratively punished based on a decree regarding publishing. Specifically, they were punished for distributing flyers without government approval.
Publication policies are particularly strict when it comes to religion or politics.
In 2012, the government stipulated that the borrowing or gifting of publications between citizens requires government permission.
The Government Committee For Religious Affairs manages the Religion Publishing House and is the department in charge of censorship for religious publications.
Control of publishing certainly exercises a heavy influence on the development of religions, and it is impossible to avoid the idea that the government censors with a heavy hand to purposefully limit this development.
6. Punishing individuals
In February 2020, Vietnam’s longest imprisoned monk Venerable Thich Quang Do passed away.
Before 1975, Venerable Quang Do actively mobilized for the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. After 1975, he continued to lead this delegation, despite fierce government suppression that continued until his death.
Many other religious dignitaries remain subject to the government’s control and punishment.
In January 2020, the head of Song Ngoc Parish Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc stated that he was banned from holding mass beginning in August 2019. Father Thuc is widely known by the public for his civil society activities among central Vietnamese fishermen after the Formosa environmental disaster. Between 2017 and 2019, the government banned him from traveling overseas twice.
In February 2020, a Khmer monk named Seun Ty had his passport confiscated for two weeks, with the government threatening that he had violated Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Law. In May 2020, authorities refused to issue a passport to Nguyen Van Toan, a clergyman that often publicly criticized the government.
After issuing complaints about discriminatory treatment, including instances of torture, families of a number of imprisoned religious activists stated that they had lost touch with their loved ones behind bars.
The government disapproves of religious activists linking with diplomatic missions of their own accord.
The authorities ordered four religious activists in the Central Highlands, Pastors Nguyen Ngoc Khanh, Y Kuan E Ban, Y Quy Bdap, and Y Khen Bdap to come in for questioning after they met with an American delegation regarding religious freedom.
7. Obstructing freedom of association
In 2020, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church continued to operate without legal recognition. As in previous years, members of the group were prevented by police from conducting ceremonies at their headquarters in March and July.
A number of members of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam stated that the government interfered in the February 2020 funeral of Venerable Thich Quang Do, stripping them of the right to manage the event. The attempted seizure of the Phu Lam Cao Dai Temple also demonstrates that the government does not accept the idea of practitioners there operating independently.
8. Seizing property and possessions
The government has moved from seizing religious properties after 1975 to now “re-appropriating” them.
In 2020, Thi Nghe Parish in Ho Chi Minh City and the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine Siena Tam Hiep in Dong Nai Province stated that the usage rights for two schools that the government previously borrowed were quietly transferred to state entities.
Policies from 2003 related to land and properties of religious organizations helped local authorities gain usage rights over religious properties that they were “borrowing.”
Currently, religious organizations do not have the legal grounds to demand their properties back if the government refuses to return them.
Religious organizations that possess large pieces of land can also become targets of harassment.
In Thua Thien – Hue Province, Thien An Abbey and provincial authorities are in conflict over the abbey’s land and property. The abbey’s 107 hectares of land has been continually chipped away by the government since 1975, without notification nor compensation.
In June 2020, Thien An Abbey’s forests were attacked by individuals who cut down trees and sawed deeply into the roots of many conifers.
On August 13, 2020, an area household mobilized a group of men to hammer down stakes and put up barbed wire on a part of Thien An Abbey’s land.
Another problem is that religious organizations are not allowed to sell or purchase land and must wait on the government to provide it.
In Ninh Binh Province, members of the Dong Dinh Parish were extremely upset when local authorities refused to give their land to their church. After the parishioners had donated the land to the government to pass to the church in accordance with the law, commune cadres announced that they would not turn the land over to the church but instead, would build a flood-prevention dyke between the current church land and the land parishioners had given to the government.
9. Religious organizations hit with reprisals
Letters police sent to members of Phu Lam Temple inviting them in for questioning. Photo: Cao Dai Orthodox Preservation.
In August 2020, a crowd that included residents and commune cadres protested for two days on land disputed by Thien An Abbey, local households, and the government. The crowd hung up banners and used loudspeakers to decry the monks “taking their land.”
In Phu Yen Province, after supporting the unsuccessful takeover of Phu Lam Temple, provincial authorities invited five members of the temple in for questioning. Authorities threatened these members, telling them that they had to accept the government’s takeover order.
In 2020, Central Highland provincial authorities accused the Protestant Church of Christ of using religious activities to incite people to oppose the government. Many members of this church were taken in for interrogation.
10. Controlling the press
The Vietnamese government maintains a monopoly over all official media. With regard to religious issues, Vietnam’s journalists present information according to government instruction. In February 2020, Tuoi Tre Newspaper had to remove an article about Venerable Thich Quang Do’s career.
In June 2020, many publications simultaneously posted articles rejecting accusations in a 2019 international report regarding religion issued by the United States. In August 2020, the monks of Thien An Abbey issued a rebuttal to a report by Thua Thien – Hue Radio and Television, stating that it was untruthful and smeared the monks.
In recent years, all official newspapers in Vietnam have criticized the Falun Gong movement and its ‘impropriety.” These publications have only conveyed government views rather than the views of its adherents.
Two Catholic webpages, Good News To The Poor and VietCatholic, remain blocked in Vietnam, as are many press organizations that speak up for religious freedom, such as VOA, RFA, BBC, RFI, and Luat Khoa Magazine.
There are no private television or radio stations that operate freely in Vietnam.
Religion Bulletin – October 2020: Authorities Forbid Thien An Abbey Clergyman From Returning Home
Religious activists in Vietnam are paying a heavy price, sometimes putting their lives on the line.
The former head of Thien An Abbey has been prevented from returning home after traveling to Europe to treat a suspected poisoning. Check out [The Government’s Reach] to find out how the government punishes religious activists. For the first time, figures for the number of Falun Gong practitioners in Vietnam are available; see them in [Religion 360*]. In [On This Day], a reminder of how the government installs surveillance cameras in many temples, and how the assault of six Hoa Hao Buddhist practitioners last year remains uninvestigated.
If you have any suggestions or would like to join us in writing reports, please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Religion Bulletin, October 2020:
- The Government’s Reach: A history of punishing religious activists
- Clergyman prevented from returning to home to Vietnam after treatment for a suspected poisoning
- Thua Thien – Hue province rejects Father Anthony Nguyen Huyen Duc as head of Thien An Abbey
- Methods used to suppress religious leaders and activists
- Religion 360*
- Dien Bien province continues to pressure residents to give up new religions
- Two people in Ca Mau arrested and punished administratively for spreading Falun Gong
- Lam Dong province television: More than 8,300 Falun Gong practitioners in Vietnam
- Government Committee for Religious Affairs acknowledges some Cao Dai organizations “operate independently, splinter in resistance”
- “Familiarizing the law” to religious practitioners
- On This Day
The Government’s Reach: A history of punishing religious activists
Clergyman prevented from returning home to Vietnam after treatment for suspected poisoning
The former head of Thien An Abbey – Father Anthony Nguyen Huyen Duc – is still waiting for the Vietnamese government to allow him to return home.
After a period of leading Thien An Abbey’s resistance against the government’s land reclamation attempts, Father Duc traveled to Europe to seek medical treatment after a suspected poisoning.
After his second medical treatment in Germany, he returned to Vietnam in September 2019, only to be told by police to return to Europe.
“Right when I returned to Hanoi, I was questioned by police. High-level officers asked that I return to Europe because they could not ensure my safety or my life if I stayed in Vietnam, that it would be extremely adverse for the Thien An community if I stayed at the abbey,” the organization BPSOS reported, quoting from a letter Father Duc sent to leaders of the Order of St. Benedict.
The German committee requested that the Vietnamese government return the abbey’s confiscated property, cease its violence, protect and respect sacred religious objects, and uphold the right to freedom of religion.
BPSOS quoted Father Duc who stated that doctors in Europe also believe he had been poisoned.
Duc believes he was poisoned during the 2016 Lunar New Year at Thien An Abbey, when a person invited him to drink their tea and coffee.
“Right after the person left, I immediately felt sharp pains in my neck and head, aches down to my bones, my jaw became extremely sensitive and teeth came loose, I was unable to walk… a large (3 cm diameter) patch of my hair fell out…. Afterwards, I asked the sitting head Father Bruno for permission to travel to Europe,” BPSOS published, quoting from a letter written by Father Duc in August 2020.
Thua Thien – Hue Province rejects Father Duc as head of Thien An Abbey
In past years, Thua Thien – Hue provincial authorities did not accept Father Duc’s presence at Thien An Abbey.
In December 2017, they requested leaders of the Order of St. Benedict to remove him as head of the abbey.
The authorities stated that Father Duc had allowed many unauthorized construction projects on disputed land, organized clergy appointments without permission, and obstructed government work.
After the government’s requesting letter, Father Duc took time off to travel to Europe for medical treatment. Leadership of the abbey was passed to another person.
In a May 2019 document, provincial authorities accused Father Duc of “distorting the situation, and inciting ethnic hatred and opposition against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” while he was getting medical treatment overseas.
Methods used to suppress religious activists
Religious activists like Father Duc have long endured many forms of harassment and suppression. Below are the systematic methods in which religious activists are suppressed, methods which are sometimes openly carried out by police, and at other times, by anonymous individuals.
- Smear tactics
In February 2018, many anonymous pro-state web pages published information alleging that Father Duc had entered a hotel with a woman.
According to the Catholic webpage Good News To The Poor, Father Duc’s stay at the hotel occurred in September 2017
Accordingly, Father Duc had arranged to meet with a group of overseas Vietnamese from Canada at the hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. This meeting was facilitated by a woman who was acquainted with both sides.
When Father Duc checked into his hotel room, approximately 100 plainclothes and uniformed police officers poured into the hotel in a prostitution raid. Father Duc was interrogated in a room. Police ultimately forced the woman to sit next to Father Duc and took a picture of them together.
Rumors intended to smear individuals are regularly posted on anonymous pro-state websites and shared with the public. The source of these rumors is one big question mark.
There are reasons to believe that Vietnamese police are directly involved. In 2008, after Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s Letter #31 spoke of religious freedom and politics in Vietnam, the first students of Hanh’s Plum Village met with difficulties.
In August 2008, Plum Village students were expelled from Bat Nha Monastery and continuously harassed in a variety of ways.
During the Bat Nha Monastery affair, the People’s Public Security Daily — the official mouthpiece for police — published an article citing a number of anonymous sources regarding the romantic relationship between Zen Master Nhat Hanh and Nun Chan Khong, as well as the dictatorial way in which Nun Chan Khong controlled Plum Village.
The article was published precisely when Plum Village was receiving public support in the Bat Nha Monastery affair.
According to the webpage Good News To The Poor, in September 2017, a car driving Father Duc’s delegation was purposefully rammed by a pick-up truck after they visited Father Dang Huu Nam – who advocated parishioners sue the company Formosa for polluting the central Vietnamese coast. Father Nam stated that this same pick-up truck had purposefully rammed his vehicle many times.
In October 2019, six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists were ambushed and attacked by a group of people on the road to An Hoa Temple. These six practitioners were planning to prevent a roof re-tiling at the temple but were attacked before arriving. A practitioner threatened to cut his own throat and set himself on fire as they were being attacked by unidentified individuals.
The individuals who assault religious activists are often unidentified plainclothes people, and police normally do not pursue any kind of investigation after such incidents are reported.
In December 2015, Father Dang Huu Nam stated with Good News To The Poor that his vehicle was blocked by a group of 20 individuals, who pressured him to get out of the car and then proceeded to surround him and beat him.
“As the crowd of thugs beat me, the police chief of An Hoa Commune stood by on the side of the road and did nothing,” Father Nam told Good News To The Poor.
In June 2018, according to a Cali Today article, Mr. Hua Phi, an independent Cao Dai dignitary in Lam Dong, was beaten and his beard shaved. He stated that an individual identifying himself as police brought in dozens of others who entered his residence, “covering his head and beating” him repeatedly. The incident occurred just three days before he was to have a dialogue with the Australian Embassy regarding human rights issues.
- Accusations of disturbing public order
Religious activists in Vietnam must be very careful in their conflicts with the authorities. Five out of six Hoa Hao Buddhists are in jail because of their clash with traffic police in April 2017.
These six practitioners, four of whom are from the same family, had opposed the traffic police confiscating the vehicles of those arriving at their house for a death anniversary. The tug-of-war between the two sides quickly turned into a case of disturbing public order and obstruction of officials.
In recent years, many social activists have been charged with disturbing public order in their conflicts with police.
- Travel bans
Being prevented from returning home, as discussed at the beginning of the article with the case of Thien An Abbey’s clergyman, is rare. More frequently, religious activists are forbidden from traveling overseas; either the government confiscates their passports or they are not issued one at all.
In May 2020, Father Nguyen Van Toan was denied the issuance of a passport; he is a frequent and public government critic.
In February 2020, a Khmer monk named Seun Ty had his passport confiscated for two weeks. Police accused Mr. Seun Ty of violating the Cybersecurity Law.
In 2017 and 2019, authorities refused to allow Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc, head of Song Ngoc parish, to travel overseas.
The issue of travel bans on religious and social activists remains unresolved.
Dien Bien Province continues to pressure residents to give up new religions
From the end of September to the beginning of October 2020, many state newspapers reported on the Gie-sua and Ba Co Do religions “raging in Dien Bien Province”.
The Voice of Vietnam (VOV) newspaper, a government mouthpiece, stated that in Dien Bien Province, 112 individuals returned to the Gie-sua religion after giving it up previously, while 294 others were currently following the Ba Co Do religion in Muong Nhe district.
Ms. Nguyen Thanh Huyen, vice-chair of the Public Relations Commission of the Dien Bien Provincial Committee stated that the government would push people who followed unrecognized faiths to give up their religion.
“A number of mountain villages have regulations and conventions, one of which states that anyone who participates in these religions [Gie-sua, Ba Co Do,…] will not receive [the benefits] of the regime and its policies”, Ms. Huyen stated to VOV.
Dien Bien provincial authorities reported that the Gie-sua and Ba Co Do religions operate differently from one another but shared the same goal of establishing an autonomous Mong state.
Muong Nhe district police chief Major Vu Van Hung added that authorities were using Protestant dignitaries to push people to give up these “heretic religions”.
“We’ve organized groups penetrating into households that follow these religions, courting group leaders and putting Protestant dignitaries in influential areas so that villagers will give up their religions. But the most economical method must be us using our resources to prevent unauthorized proselytizing online. Only then will we be effective,” Major Hung stated to VOV.
Two people in Ca Mau arrested and punished administratively for spreading Falun Gong
Vietnamese police continue to arrest practitioners of Falun Gong for spreading the religion.
The Ca Mau Daily reported that Ca Mau city police administratively punished two individuals on October 1, 2020 for distributing Falun Gong flyers without permission.
Two individuals with the initials N.T.G and N.T.H were arrested on September 21, 2020 after distributing approximately 65 flyers to parents and students in front of a school’s gate. Police confiscated from the two 177 flyers and 30 books on Falun Gong.
According to statistics from Luat Khoa, at least 66 Falun Gong practitioners have been arrested and administratively punished for spreading the religion since the beginning of 2020.
Lam Dong Province television: More than 8,300 Falun Gong practitioners in Vietnam
On October 22, 2020, Lam Dong Radio and Television broadcast a report stating that across the country, there were more than 8,300 Falun Gong practitioners. Lam Dong Province, in particular, has about 110 practitioners.
The news was particularly noteworthy, as up to this point, no one had an accurate count of Falun Gong practitioners in Vietnam. However, Lam Dong Radio and Television did not cite the source of this figure.
According to the report, Lam Dong Province had a number of party members, veterans, and teachers who practiced and spread Falun Gong. Among them was a deputy commune head.
The report stated that spreading the practice in Lam Dong Province was both illegal and harmed the people.
“Falun Gong is a religion that opposes science, convincing people that you can treat sickness without going to the hospital, it distracts people from finding livelihoods”, Lam Dong Radio’s reporters noted.
Provincial radio and television stated that those spreading Falun Gong in Lam Dong were being sent materials from other provinces.
Government Committee for Religious Affairs acknowledges some Cao Dai organizations “operate independently” and “splinter in resistance”
On October 27, 2020, the Government Committee For Religious Affairs acknowledged that there were “Cao Dai organizations that operate independently and splinter in resistance” during a conference on religious management in Ben Tre Province.
However, the article described the conference without going into detail about the splintering or independent activities of the Cao Dai organizations.
As covered in Luat Khoa’s September 2020 Religion Bulletin, a number of independent Cao Dai temples are currently being pressured to merge with those temples being recognized by the government.
In recent years, the government has been helping state-recognized temples “take over” independent Cao Dai temples.
Although nearly all independent Cao Dai temples operate in a purely religious manner, the government views their independence as a security risk.
“Familiarizing the law” to religious practitioners
From the end of September through all of October 2020, the Government Committee For Religious Affairs organized conferences on “advocating the law to religious practitioners” in many locations: Hai Phong, Kon Tum, Gia Lai, Binh Dinh, and Bac Giang.
These conferences sought to familiarize Vietnam’s practitioners with the state’s strict religious management regulations. Furthermore, conferences in a number of provinces and cities also held exchanges on the teaching of two subjects, Vietnamese history and Vietnamese law, on the premises of religious organizations.
This is one way in which the state controls the people’s views over religions in Vietnam. Religious practitioners had to pay attention not just to legal regulations but also to the ways state bodies treat them.
Similar conferences are expected to take place across many other provinces and cities.
On This Day
Government installs camera in front of temple gates
In Ba Ria – Vung Tau Province, Venerable Thich Vinh Phuoc stated that authorities had installed a camera in front of Phuoc Buu Temple before he had left for the United States to advocate for religious freedom.
The government also installed a surveillance camera at another temple in Ho Chi Minh City.
“Since 2000, there have been many difficulties because Thien Quang Temple refuses to abide by the Buddhist Church of Vietnam (BCV). Their [BCV’s] management has been unbearable, stifling”, Venerable Thich Thien Thuan told RFA regarding the reason for the surveillance cameras.
Also in Ho Chi Minh City is Venerable Thich Khong Tanh. He is temporarily residing at Giac Hoa Temple, which also had surveillance cameras installed.
“When I asked, they explained that the cameras were simply fulfilling a responsibility to monitor,” Venerable Khong Tanh told RFA. “These surveillance cameras deter democracy allies and friends from coming.”
In recent years, the government has installed surveillance cameras to monitor all kinds of activists.
These activists have stated that the government wants to monitor who comes and goes from their residences, as well as the activists’ own routines. During special occasions such as visits from foreign delegations, security forces will prevent activists from leaving their homes.
After a year, police still have not investigated the assault of six Hoa Hao Buddhists
This October marks one year since the roof of Hoa Hao Buddhism’s An Hoa Temple was re-tiled. It also marks one year since six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists were beaten on the way to prevent this re-tiling.
The scuffle occurred on October 7, 2019, at the Thuan Giang ferry pier, about 1.7 kilometers away from An Hoa Temple.
The independent Hoa Hao Buddhists had all along opposed plans to re-tile the An Hoa Temple roof. However, the state-recognized Hoa Hao Buddhist Church moved forward with the plans anyway, ignoring the opposition.
The six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists involved include Vo Van Thanh Liem, Le Thanh Thuc, Nguyen Thanh Tung, Vo Thi Thu Ba, To Van Manh, and Le Thanh Truc.
Mr. Thanh Liem stated to RFA: “When we arrived at Thuan Giang ferry, there were about 40-50 people blocking us; they beat Mr. To Van Manh, Mr. Le Thanh Thuc, and Nguyen Thi My Trieu, and my granddaughter, Vo Thi Thu Ba, had her phone smashed. I saw that they were about to beat me so I poured gasoline on myself to threaten self-immolate, attempting to cut my own throat, and they ran off. They used long sticks and beat people so hard that the sticks were smashed to pieces”.
Today, more than one year after the scuffle, police still have not initiated an investigation into the matter.
Religion Bulletin – September 2020: The Fate Of Independent Cao Dai Temples
The September 2020 Religion Bulletin focuses on the Cao Dai religion, with information on the seizures of independent Cao Dai temples in [The Government’s Reach]; the assault on the Phu My Cao Dai Temple practitioners eight years ago in [On This Day]; and we introduce the Cao Dai sects that are exempt from having to join one unified organization in [Did You Know?]. [Religion 360°] brings you information regarding the arrests and punishment endured by Falun Gong practitioners, along with other news.If you have any suggestions or would like to contribute reports to the Religion Bulletin, please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Religion Bulletin, September 2020:
- The Government’s Reach
- Religion 360*
- A Summary of 25 years of state management of the Cao Dai religion
- Cam My District, Dong Nai Province, prosecutes Six Falun Gong proselytizers
- The city of Hai Phong suppresses Falun Gong proselytizing activities
- Eleven years of struggle to eliminate the Ha Mon religion in Mang Yang District, Gia Lai Province
- Pastor A Dao released early from prison
- On This Day
- Did You Know?
The Government’s Reach
The fate of independent Cao Dai temples
After a period of peaceful practice, Cao Dai practitioners are now facing harassment from state-backed Cao Dai groups who are attempting to take over their temples.
The case of Phu Lam Cao Dai Temple
Phu Lam Cao Dai Temple is located in Cluster 5 of Phu Lam Township, in the city of Tuy Hoa, Phu Yen Province. This temple was built in 1964 and restored in 1999.
The authorities assert that this temple is under the management of the Tay Ninh Holy See of the Cao Dai Great Temple*, the largest Cao Dai organization recognized by the state (in 1997) and also known as “Sect 1997”.
Phu Lam Temple overseer Cao Van Minh states that he and temple practitioners simply want to follow their own religious orthodoxy and that they do not accept the leadership of Sect 1997.
However, the Tay Ninh Holy See Cao Dai Great Temple stated that the Phu Lam Temple falls under its management and sent people to take over the temple with the backing of local authorities.
How did the forceful seizure of Phu Lam Cao Dai Temple transpire?
June 18, 2020:
Event 1: Overseer Cao Van Minh was invited to the Phu Dong Ward People’s Committee one morning for questioning; the committee firmly requested him to be there at 8:30 AM sharp.
Event 2: Local cadres and a group of the followers of the Tay Ninh Holy See, on orders from the Tay Ninh Holy See of the Cao Dai Great Temple, arrived to take over Phu Lam Temple.
Event 3: Overseer Nguyen Ha of Nhon Ly Cao Dai Temple, another independent temple in Binh Dinh Province, arrived to support fellow practitioners at Phu Lam Temple.
Event 4: A group of Phu Lam practitioners opposed the (Holy See’s) take-over order and closed the gates. The two sides engaged in heated arguments over the order.
July 28, 2020:
Son Thanh Dong Commune police (Phu Yen Province) invited Mr. Truong Minh Le, a Phu Lam Temple follower, in for questioning on July 30, 2020 regarding the public disturbance on June 18, 2020.
July 30, 2020
Son Thanh Dong Commune police (Phu Yen Province) continued to invite Phu Lam Temple practitioners in for questioning on August 4, 2020 regarding the public disturbance on June 18, 2020, including Mr. Huynh Tan Luc, Ms. Doan Thi Mieu, and Ms. Tran Thi Hong.
It seems that no practitioners of Sect 1997 were called in for questioning regarding the disturbance.
August 20, 2020
Overseer Nguyen Ha and fellow practitioner Nguyen Van Danh were invited in for questioning on August 21, 2020 by Quy Nhon city and Binh Dinh provincial police regarding their “religious activities.”
August 21, 2020:
Danh relayed that he was asked by police if he had accompanied Ha to Phu Lam Temple. Danh confirmed that he did not, and the interrogation moved to whether he had accepted gifts from a supply delegation – a charity event carried out by Hua Phi, a Cao Dai follower, whom authorities view as anti-state and who is also joint chairman of the Interfaith Council of Vietnam.
Ha said that police warned him not to come to Phu Lam Temple again, during Sect 1997’s next take-over attempt. Police also questioned him regarding his relationship with Hua Phi and the Venerable Thich Khong Tanh, a member of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and the Interfaith Council of Vietnam.
September 1, 2020:
Cao Van Minh receives an invitation letter from the Phu Dong Ward People’s Committee to come in for questioning on September 3, 2020.
September 3, 2020:
Cao Van Minh arrives at the Phu Dong Ward People’s Committee for questioning with Tuy Hoa City representatives (from the Fatherland Front, Women’s Association, and Office of the Interior) and Phu Dong Ward People’s Committee representatives.
The authorities state that Minh should accept the Holy See’s take-over order. Minh asserts that he will not organize any welcoming or acceptance of Sect 1997’s take-over order. Minh also asserts that his followers did not disturb public order on June 18, 2020, when Sect 1997 came to take over their temple.
Below is an excerpt from Nguyen Ha’s interrogation on August 21, 2020, as relayed by him personally:
Binh Dinh Province police: Did you enter Phu Lam Temple in Phu Yen Province recently?
Nguyen Ha: Yes.
Police: To do what?
Nguyen Ha: I came to emotionally support fellow practitioners, protect their beliefs and to close the gates to prevent a number of heretics from entering.
Police: Are you aware that the Tay Ninh Cao Dai Great Temple ordered Mr. Pham Xuan Thanh to Phu Lam Temple to administer it?
Nguyen Ha: Yes, that’s Thanh’s business. It has nothing to do with us.
Police: Thanh is recognized by the state, unlike what you all are doing.
Nguyen Ha: Whether the state recognizes us or not is the state’s business; I and fellow practitioners simply want to preserve the original teachings that God has laid out. The current Cao Dai religious organization, with state intervention, has destroyed the original teachings.
Police: If in the future, the Great Temple puts forth someone else to administer Phu Lam Temple, would you still come to support temple practitioners?
Nguyen Ha: Yes, I would.
Police: Who is Mr. [Hua] Phi to you?
Nguyen Ha: Mr. Phi and I are fellow practitioners who seek to protect the original teachings.
Police: Have you and Phi established any organization?
Nguyen Ha: We have not established any organization, only the Khoi Nhan Sanh Cao Dai Religious Committee to visit fellow practitioners around the country who have maintained the faith and to share among ourselves the difficulties of our spiritual practice. We also remind them to preserve the original teachings of Duc Chi Ton, and to not be swayed.
Police: Were you aware of Abott [Thich] Khong Tanh’s life history when you allowed him to come to Nhon Ly Temple to distribute presents for people?
Nguyen Ha: Venerable Thich Khong Tanh and I are fellow religious dignitaries; if he arrives at my temple, then naturally, I have to receive him.
Police: Are you aware of whether his life history is good or bad?
Nguyen Ha: Whether it’s good or bad is your business with him. As for me, I know he is a good person, which is why I have connected across religions with him. He always comes to Nhon Ly Temple with open arms, handing out presents for our older individuals both in and outside the temple. It is an act of great generosity, nothing unseemly for you all to oppose.
Police: Mr. Khong Tanh opposes the state…
Nguyen Ha: As soon as anyone disobeys the state, even if that person or their acts are good, it all becomes bad; you even try to accuse them of being anti-state so you can frame them. But if a person listens to the state, even if they are actually bad, they remain a “good person”.
Look at Pham Xuan Thanh [who was sent to take-over Phu Lam Temple] for example. Do you check to see what kind of practitioner he is before you appoint or promote him? This is how religious values are lost. And then you force us to accept your decisions; what is the meaning of this?
Police: Do you participate in the Interfaith Council of Vietnam?
Nguyen Ha: No.
Police: You do not participate now, but will you join in the future?
Nguyen Ha: Whether I participate or not is my business.
Police: We’re letting you know, if you enter Phu Lam Temple again and police handle you roughly, we won’t be able to help you. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Nguyen Ha: This whole time you’ve only helped those carrying out your orders; when have I ever needed your help?
The drive to eliminate all independent Cao Dai temples
Phu Lam Temple is one of a number of Cao Dai temples standing separate from Sect 1997. These independent temples assert that the state has interfered with religious practices and that they thus desire to operate independently.
When the religion was first established in 1926, Cao Dai practitioners all belonged to the Tay Ninh Holy See, but later in the 1930s and 1940s, the Cao Dai reigion splintered into different sects.
After 1975, the Cao Dai religion was forbidden to operate until the end of the 1980s. From 1995, the government began to recognize Cao Dai temples as religious organizations. Today, there are approximately 10 Cao Dai organizations that are legally recognized as temples. Besides these, there are approximately 20 other Cao Dai organizations that legally operate but are not considered as temples.
In recent years, independent temples such as Phu Lam Temple have been pressured by the authorities and other churches to “reunite” and return to the administration of the churches from which they splintered. The purpose of this coercion is to control religious activities, what the state refers to as “reorganizing and regulating” religious activities. Currently, there are no precise numbers on how many temples have refused to “reunite”. In 2007, the Government Committee on Religious Affairs stated that the Ban Chinh Dao Cao Dai Temple had 40 temples that had not reunited.
According to Mr. Cam Sinh, a Cao Dai practitioner of the Overseas Tay Ninh Holy See, beginning in 2013, the Vietnamese government enacted Resolution 92/2012/NĐ-CP regarding the Implementation of the 2004 Law on Faith, which led to many temple seizures and consolidations with state-recognized Cao Dai temples.
In 2012, Ms. Nguyen Bach Phung, a Cao Dai practitioner well-known for actively fighting for the independence of temples, stated that the government was interfering in the internal affairs of the Cao Dai religion and causing conflicts.
“This matter [of disputes has] occurred in many places, including Long Binh Temple in Go Cong, An Ninh Tay Temple in Long An Province, Phu My Temple in Binh Dinh Province, and An Nhon Temple. The state caused difficulties for practitioners when they went from house to house to pressure our people to join the state-approved Chuong Quan Council, Tuy Phuoc Temple in Binh Dinh, Phu Suong Temple in Phu Yen…”. Ms. Bach Phung stated that in a number of places, conflicts broke out between members of Cao Dai temples and independent temples.
Mr. Nguyen Dinh Thang, director of the organization Boat People SOS, stated that since 1997, the Vietnamese government has helped Sect 1997 “occupy” approximately 300 Cao Dai temples.
The take-over of these independent temples regularly met with opposition from the affected practitioners, opposition which police then used to frame practitioners for disturbing public order.
Summarizing 25 years of state management of the Cao Dai religion
On September 18, 2020, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs organized a conference to summarize 25 years of state management of the Cao Dai religion.
Attending the conference were cadres from the relevant central committees and cadres from the 35 provinces that have Cao Dai practitioners, totaling approximately 200 cadres altogether.
The Committee said that the state’s achievements in managing the Cao Dai religion had allowed Cao Dai establishments to renovate and build structures, practitioners to actively participate in charitable and purely religious activities, and prompted the majority of dignitaries, their activities, and Cao Dao practitioners to abide by the law.
The Committee also acknowledged that some Cao Dai dignitaries were moving to separate from state-recognized temples and religious bodies, that some temples were facing conflicts, and that a number of religious activities violated the Law on Faith and Religion.
The former head of the Committee, and currently deputy minister of the Ministry of the Interior, Mr. Vu Chien Thang, stated that in the future, the government needed to instruct state-recognized temples on the appointment of overseas Cao Dai dignitaries, increase research on Cao Dai management methods, and coordinate with other branches, such as propaganda, public relations, the Fatherland Front, the army, and the police to address the “complicated issues related to Cao Dai activities”.
Cam My District, Dong Nai Province, prosecutes 6 Falun Gong proselytizers
The Dong Nai Province People’s Committee news website reported that Cam My District recently prosecuted 6 Falun Gong practitioners for illegally spreading the faith.
This news website also stated that these individuals would completely cover their faces when entering people’s homes in the district to promote Falun Gong. These individuals had been previously warned to cease their proselytizing activities and not drag others into the faith.
Cam My District authorities stated that the Falun Gong movement was not yet recognized as a “faith or religious organization” and thus proselytizing activities were illegal.
The city of Hai Phong suppresses Falun Gong proselytizing activities
According to the People’s Public Security Newspaper, Hai Phong city authorities were closely monitoring groups of Falun Gong practitioners. The article stated that Hai Phong City Police Department had confirmed more than 10 groups, with approximately 160 individuals “practicing Falun Gong”.
The article said that from the beginning of 2020 until now, the Hai Phong City Police Department had prosecuted seven cases related to “mobilizing and illegally spreading the Falun Gong movement.”
Readers can find more details regarding the arrest and prosecution of Falun Gong proselytizers in our data regarding freedom of religion: https://airtable.com/shrYIDdMrohUbQztF
Eleven years of “struggle” to eliminate the Ha Mon religion in Mang Yang District, Gia Lai Province
In September 2020, the Mang Yang District People’s Committee of Gia Lai Province summarized the results of 11 years of struggle to eliminate the “Ha Mon heresy” that began in 2009.
According to the summary, the district prosecuted 10 individuals who followed the Ha Mon religion for disrupting national unity. Furthermore, authorities arrested 71 individuals, “campaigned to voluntarily turn in” 55 individuals who absconded to the jungle, and eliminated 15 groups with more than 242 followers of the Ha Mon religion.
According to the Vietnamese authorities, the Ha Mon religion operates in all of the Central Highland provinces and that Mang Yang District was merely one of many areas in which the religion operated. The authorities assert that the Ha Mon religion is heretical and is being used by members of FULRO to oppose the Vietnamese state.
The government’s “war” against the Thuong ethnic minority’s religious freedom in the Central Highlands is currently directed at three religious groups: Dega Protestantism, the Ha Mon religion, and the Protestant Church of Christ.
Pastor A Dao released from prison early
On September 18, 2020, Vietnamese authorities released early from prison Pastor A Dao, who had served four years of his five-year sentence for organizing illegal border crossings.
State journalists did not report on Pastor A Dao’s early release.
Pastor A Dao. Photo: Unknown.
Mr. A Dao, 39, is a well-known pastor among the ethnic Thuong refugees in Thailand. He was arrested on August 18, 2016 after returning home from a religious conference in East Timor. After he was arrested, he was held incommunicado for five days. Vietnamese police accused him of organizing illegal border crossings to Thailand for ethnic Thuong. Police stated that he coordinated with Mr. A Ga, a Protestant pastor, and at the time, a refugee in Thailand. Mr. A Dao rejected the government’s accusations.
On August 28, 2017, the Gia Lai Province People’s Court sentenced Pastor A Dao to five years in prison for organizing illegal border crossings. In January 2018, Mr. A Ga was arrested by Thai police and was extradited back to Vietnam, but the United States intervened and gave him and his family political asylum in the United States.
On This Day
Phu My Cao Dai Temple practitioners assaulted during a seizure in September 2012
For years, practitioners of independent Cao Dai temples have lived in fear, under pressure from both the government and other Cao Dai churches to “consolidate”.
On September 16, 2012, Phu My Cao Dai Temple practitioners in Binh Dinh Province publicly denounced the Tay Ninh Holy See Cao Dai Church (Sect 1997), accusing it of hiring thugs to attack them in their own temple. Mr. Nguyen Huu Khanh reported to RFA that a total of six practitioners of the Phu My Temple were assaulted that day.
“Because practitioners here follow the Chon Truyen Orthodoxy, and not the Chuong Quan Council – that is, they don’t follow “state-run” Cao Dai organization –, they [Sect 1997] came to seize our personal property and the temple of the Bao Thu Chon Truyen. They’re using the Chuong Quan Council, which is backed by the government, to break in to our temple”, Mr. Khanh stated as he explained why and how Phu My Temple practitioners were attacked.
Local police were on the scene during the scuffle but did not intervene and did not initiate an investigation or press charges.
Mr. Nguyen Ha, an independent Cao Dai practitioner and staunch defender of independent churches, stated that previously Phu My Temple had been under the administration of Sect 1997’s Chuong Quan Council, but after seeing that it was controlled by the government, the temple seceded, suffering the consequences.
Regarding the scuffle, the person who was in charge of Cao Dai affairs in the Government Committee for Religious Affairs stated to RFA: “They must resolve their own religion’s internal matters. The state merely guarantees order and security for them to carry out their religious protocols”.
Did You Know?
The Cao Dai religion in Vietnam has a number of different religious organizations, many of which are recognized by the state
Among religions in Vietnam, the Cao Dai religion appears exempt from having to organize a “unified” structure, as other religions must do.
Currently, the Cao Dai religion has approximately 10 religious organizations recognized by the state.
Meanwhile, within Hoa Hao Buddhism there exists many religious organizations but the state only recognizes one. Buddhism also has two sects; the Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam was established in 1964 and operates to this day, but the government only recognizes the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam established in 1981.
Not only are there 10 religious organizations recognized by the government but there are approximately 20 other Cao Dai organizations that operate legally and independent: Thuong De Cao Dai, Cao Thuong Temple, Nam Thanh Temple, Pho Thong Giao Ly Dai Dao Institution, Lien Hoa Cuu Cung Thien Dao Path of Study, Tan Minh Quang Temple, Huynh Quang Sac Temple, Thien Truoc Temple, and the Bau Sen Temple.
These Cao Dai temples and organizations historically branched out because of disagreements over religious practices. However, despite the splintering, the state and its temples are pressuring (independent) temples to return to their original church.
Below is information regarding the Cao Dai religious organizations and temples recognized by the Vietnamese government:
Tay Ninh Cao Dai Holy See
Year established: 1926
Current headquarters: Tay Ninh Holy See, Pham Ho Phap Highway, Long Hoa Ward, Hoa Thanh Township, Tay Ninh Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 1997
Number of practitioners: 1,510,000 (2011)
This is the earliest established, as well as the largest, Cao Dai organization today. The Cao Dai organizations that have emerged afterwards are all the result of internal disputes and splintering from the original Tay Ninh Holy See in the 1930s and 1940s.
After 1975, the Tay Ninh Cao Dai Holy See was seen as “heretical” and due to previous anti-communist activities, was forced to shut down. It was not until 1997 that the authorities officially recognized this organization. To this day, independent Cao Dai practitioners refer to it as “state-run Cao Dai”, to indicate that the entire organization is completely controlled by the state.
Ban Chinh Dao Cao Dai
Year established: 1934
Current headquarters: Ben Tre Holy See, 100c Truong Dinh, 6th Ward, Ben Tre Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 1997
Number of practitioners: 971,000 (2011)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 258 (2011)
The Ban Chinh Dao Cao Dai split from the Tay Ninh Holy See in 1934, and then split further into the Ban Chinh Ben Tre Cao Dai and Ban Chinh Do Thanh Cao Dai. In 1994, these two blocs reunited to form the Ban Chinh Dao Cao Dai. The Vietnamese state recognized this organization in 1997.
Tien Thien Cao Dai
Year established: after 1930
Current headquarters: Chau Minh Holy See, T884 Road, Tien Thuy, Chau Thanh, Ben Tre Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 1995
Number of practitioners: 79,000 (2011)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 132 (2011)
Tien Thien Cao Dai was established in My Tho after two dignitaries, Mr. Le Van Lich and Mr. Nguyen Huu Chinh, were ejected from Tay Ninh Cao Dai. After a period of changes, the Tien Thien Cao Dai split into two sects in 1963, Tien Thien Minh Duc and Tien Thien Chau Minh. In 1995, these two sects were “made whole again”, taking the name Tien Thien Cao Dai and receiving recognition from the Vietnamese government.
Chon Ly Cao Dai
Year established: 1931
Current headquarters: Chon Ly Cao Dai Holy See, 193 Nguyen Trung Truc, My An Hamlet, My Phong Commune, My Tho City, Tien Giang Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 2000
Number of practitioners: 7,000 (2011), 14,000 (2017)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 33 (2011)
This is the earliest sect to separate from Tay Ninh Cao Dai. Due to a disagreement, Mr. Nguyen Van Ca, who at the time was equivalent to an archbishop in the Catholic church, returned to My Tho to practice his own religion. In 1932, he established the Minh Ly Dao Cao Dai, which he later changed to the Minh Chon Ly Cao Dai or Chon Ly Cao Dai.
Minh Chon Dao Cao Dai
Year established: 1934
Current headquarters: Ngoc Sac Holy See, Xom So Hamlet, Ho Thi Ky Commune, Thoi Binh District, Ca Mau Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 1996
Number of practitioners: 30,500 (2011)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 49 (2011)
Minh Chon Dao Cao Dai was established by Mr. Tran Dao Quang after he split from Chon Ly Cao Dai over differences in religious practices. Quang, along with others, practiced independently in Bac Lieu, then founded Minh Chon Dao Cao Dai in 1934.
Bach Y Lien Doan Chon Ly Cao Dai
Year established: 1936
Current headquarters: Ngoc Kinh Holy See, #675, Hoa An Hamlet, Mong Tho Commune, Chau Thanh District, Kien Giang Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 1998
Number of practitioners: 4,500 (2011)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 13 (2011)
When they saw that religious practices had deviated from the original forms, a number of Chon Ly Cao Dai practitioners broke off and established a separate sect called Bach Y Lien Doan Chon Ly Cao Dai. The phrase “Bach Y,” which means white clothes in Vietnamese, stems from the fact that dignitaries of this sect all wear white.
Binh Duc Viet Nam Cao Dai
Year established: 1960 (predecessor was Viet Nam Cao Dai)
Current headquarters: Hoang Dao Heavenly Temple, Cho Hamlet, Area 4, Binh Duc Commune, Chau Thanh District, Tien Giang Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 2011
Number of practitioners: 7,000
Number of temples directly administered: 9 (2011)
Viet Nam Cao Dai originally splintered from Chon Ly Cao Dai. At the beginning, Mr. Nguyen Van Nam and others split from Chon Ly Cao Dai and practiced separately in a place called Ben Tranh, after which they returned to Binh Duc Commune in My Tho Province to found Viet Nam Cao Dai – the Central Church in 1960. The majority of practitioners at the headquarters in Ben Tranh moved to the headquarters in Binh Duc, hence the two names Ben Tranh Viet Nam Cao Dai and Binh Duc Viet Nam Cao Dai. The Vietnamese government recognized the Binh Duc Viet Nam Cao Dai in 2011. Viet Nam Cao Dai has produced its own holy texts.
Truyen Giao Cao Dai
Year established: 1939
Current headquarters: Trung Hung Temple, 63 Hai Phong, Thach Thang Ward, Hai Chau District, Da Nang City
Year recognized, post-1975: 1996
Number of practitioners: 47,000 (2011)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 124 (2011)
Truyen Giao Cao Dai mainly operates in central Vietnam. This sect was preceded by the Trung Ky Temple, established after efforts by the Tay Ninh Church to bring the religion to Vietnam’s central region. In 1956, after inaugurating Trung Hung Temple, the sect changed its name to Truyen Giao Cao Dai.
Cau Kho Tam Quan Cao Dai
Year established: 1937
Current headquarters: Central Holy See, An Thai Hamlet, Tam Quan Township, Hoai Nhon District, Binh Dinh Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 2000
Number of practitioners: 9,000 (2011)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 33 (2011)
Cau Kho Tam Quan Cao Dai took shape after a number of dissatisfied practitioners from Tay Ninh Cao Dai returned to Saigon to practice at Cau Kho Cao Dai Temple. In 1937, the Cau Kho Cao Dai sect, Viet Quang Center Church, was established. It is more commonly known as Cau Kho Tam Quan Cao Dai.
Cao Dai Chieu Minh Long Chau
Year established: 1956
Current headquarters: Long Chau Holy See, Thanh Loi Hamlet, Tan Phu Thanh Commune, Chau Thanh A District, Hau Giang Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 1996
Number of practitioners: 5,500 (2005)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 19
Chieu Minh Long Chau Cao Dai was established by followers of Chieu Minh Cao Dai, a sect founded by Mr. Ngo Van Chieu and based on practices to escape the mortal realm. The organizational structure of Chieu Minh Long Chau Cao Dai is simpler and looser than other sects.
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