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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).

Religion

Religion Bulletin, July 2021: Government Discusses Religious Resources In The Realm Of Social Welfare

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In other news: monks volunteer to look after the ill, prisoners of conscience at risk of COVID-19 infection.

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Photo: Government Committee for Religious Affairs (left), Giac Ngo Newspaper.

Dear readers,

We know you and your loved ones may be experiencing difficult days as the pandemic rages on. We hope you all remain safe and healthy. 

As all of Vietnam faces down the fourth wave of COVID-19, religious activities, as with other activities involving gatherings of people, carry the risk of spreading disease. This fact has caused the public to become more or less averse to religion. 

We should not forget that religious organizations have been a sizeable resource in helping the community through difficult times.

Over the past few weeks, Ho Chi Minh City has faced a crisis in social welfare, and religious organizations have stepped up to support the people. However, compared to other countries in the region and with the south before 1975, religious, philanthropic activities nowadays encounter many obstacles.

This July, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs organized a seminar on religious organizations’ resources and their relationship to social welfare. When will these religious organizations be able to conduct charity independently and without hindrance?

The Government’s Reach

The Government Committee for Religious Affairs discusses religious resources in the realm of social welfare


On July 13, 2021, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs convened a seminar with some researchers, religious dignitaries, and representatives of central ministries and branches to take stock of the resources religious organizations possess for social welfare and philanthropic activities. [1]

The seminar was organized as Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) faced a severe social welfare crisis due to the government’s tightening of social distancing guidelines to contain a COVID-19 outbreak.

The Government Committee for Religious Affairs stated that the seminar aimed to evaluate the ability of religious organizations to function as independent entities in charity and social welfare activities.

Nguyen Anh Chuc, deputy head of the committee, stated that these religious organizations’ activities were still unorganized and spontaneous.

“Because of this, there needs to be a clear and transparent legal corridor in social welfare work, as well as increased coordination between the Fatherland Front and religious organizations,” Chuc declared.

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Scene from a seminar organized by the Government Committee for Religious Affairs. Photo: Government Committee for Religious Affairs.

After 1975, social welfare and philanthropic activities conducted by religions were disrupted. Many facilities, such as schools, hospitals, relief organizations, and orphanages, were confiscated by the government and banned from operating.

Today, religious organizations are allowed to operate in preschool education (kindergarten) and vocational training, but only to a minimal degree. They have not yet been allowed to resume general education activities.

For nearly five decades, the government has asserted that religious organizations must focus strictly on religion and help the state implement policies establishing national unity. This view has led to policies that precisely control the participation of religious organizations in other areas.

Article 55 of the 2016 Law on Faith and Religion permits religious organizations “to participate in educational, training, medical, social welfare, philanthropic, and humanitarian activities in accordance with relevant laws.”

However, the 2016 law and other codes and legal documents do not regulate specific charitable and social welfare activities, nor the level or conditions of participation for religious organizations. The legal recognition of religious organizations is still minimal, and they are not allowed to set up their organizations for charitable activities. 

Furthermore, the state strictly controls the resources of religious organizations in charity and social welfare activities. For example, religions seeking to fundraise domestically or accept foreign aid must undergo very complicated procedures.

In reality, charity and humanitarian activities are the core values of many religions. Currently, religious organizations still maintain a few charitable activities but only on a small scale. Current policy does not allow them to operate on a larger or more professional scale, as before 1975.

Read more: After five decades of prohibition, will the doors to professional charity by religions be opened?

Central Propaganda Department issues instructions for propaganda regarding ethnic groups and religions

The articles you read and the television programs you watch about religion may be part of a state propaganda campaign.

On July 19, 2021, the Central Propaganda Department issued guidelines for state agencies and press organizations on propaganda about ethnicity and religion. [2]

According to the guidelines, propaganda about ethnic groups and religions will focus on cadres, party members, and residents in areas deemed “complicated and sensitive” (remote, upland, and border areas with many religious practitioners). The substance of the propaganda will include the state’s policies and achievements in matters of religion and ethnicity and its rebuttals to the accusations of independent press and human rights organizations regarding religious and ethnic issues.

The propaganda will be issued comprehensively overall mass media, in newspapers, on social media, in the streets, and even during religious sessions.

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An article from Lam Dong Newspaper with the headline “Fulro – the black record of a criminal organization.” It is one of the many propaganda articles on ethnicity and religion that were published in April 2021.  Photo: screenshot.

The guidelines also state the Ministry of Information and Communication has the task of controlling mass media on ethnic and religious issues and must strictly punish those who provide incendiary or false information.

The Ministry of Education and Training is responsible for inserting propaganda on ethnicity and religion into the educational curriculum at every level of study.

The guidelines assert that it is necessary to fight against and criticize activities that “propagate false religions, incite practitioners to oppose the regime, […] practice superstitions, […] and distort the truth on democracy, ethnic equality, and freedom of belief and religion in Vietnam.”

The Vietnamese government maintains complete control over ethnic and religious affairs. Upland areas with large ethnic minority populations are subject to more stringent rules than urban areas. Even though the government recognizes the religious activities of ethnic minorities, they must be reported and are closely monitored.

Religion 360*

Risk of COVID-19 infection for prisoners of conscience in prisons and temporary detention centers

According to The 88 Project, Vietnam currently holds in its custody 179 prisoners of conscience. Another 37 are in temporary detention, waiting to be tried for “crimes” related to their political activities or freedom of speech. Among those serving their sentences or in temporary detention, 59 cases have to do with freedom of religion. [3]

As COVID-19 rapidly spreads across many locations, prisons and temporary detention centers also face a high risk of infections. The most recent example involves an outbreak among detainees at the Chi Hoa Detention Center in HCMC; on July 7, 2021, the HCMC Department of Health reported 81 cases of COVID-19 there, including 45 cadres and 36 inmates. [4]

Before that, on the evening of July 6, the press had reported a prison riot at the same detention center. [5] According to information provided by the government, the riot was caused by an inmate who created a scene while the detention center was conducting COVID-19 screening. The press reported that riot police were mobilized to the detention center to handle the disturbance and that people in the surrounding area heard gunshots coming from the detention center.

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A regiment of riot police leave the Chi Hoa Detention Center on the night of July 6, 2021. Photo: Dinh Van / HCMC Municipal Committee.

On July 7, some inmates were transferred to the T30 Detention Center in Cu Chi Suburban District to implement social distancing. [6] However, the authorities have not released any further information on the COVID-19 situation at the Chi Hoa Detention Center.

The government has stated that prisons and detention centers across the country were strictly implementing COVID-19 prevention measures. [7] Nonetheless, the disease has spread throughout Hanoi, HCMC, and the Mekong Delta, bringing with it concerns of infection in areas of dense incarceration, particularly given that more than 500 suspected cases of infection were discovered at the Bo La Drug Rehabilitation Facility in Binh Duong Province at the end of July 2021. [8]

The government has not made any announcements on vaccinating criminals or prisoners. Currently, all temporary detention centers and prisons have stopped inmate visitations.

More than 1,000 practitioners, monks, and nuns volunteer to look after COVID-19 patients in Ho Chi Minh City

As of July 20, 2021, more than 1,000 practitioners, monks, and nuns of Buddhism, Catholicism, and Protestantism have volunteered to serve at field hospitals in HCMC. [9] This number continues to grow.

On July 22, about 300 more volunteers of different religions set out to COVID-19 treatment hospitals in the city of Thu Duc to support patient care.

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On July 7, 2021, 299 more volunteers of different religious organizations began spreading themselves out across three field hospitals in HCMC. Photo: Vatican News.

Before this, the Vietnamese Fatherland Front Committee in HCMC had called on “all classes of people, religious organizations, and compatriots” to support the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, [10] marking a rare occasion where the government officially sought the support of religious organizations.

The COVID-19 pandemic still rages in HCMC. The current number of infected persons has exceeded 100,000 and continues to increase. According to the Ministry of Health, as of August 6, 2021, more than 2,000 people have died.

New Religions

You may not have heard of the activities of new religions, but that does not mean these religions don’t exist. New religions are developing all over Vietnam. Before judging their activities, we should first understand how they suffer daily harassment from the state and the press.

7 Falun Gong practitioners punished for gathering during lockdown

On July 7, 2021, Tuoi Tre News reported that seven Falun Gong practitioners were administratively punished by the authorities of Tan Hung Commune, Cai Be Suburban District, Tien Giang Province, for gathering while the province was implementing social distancing. [11]

According to the article, on June 24, 2021, six people gathered at a household in the commune to practice Falun Gong together. Each person was fined 7.5 million dong ($328) for violating local pandemic regulations.

The sanction of this Falun Gong group was not an isolated incident. In 2020, when pandemic regulations were not applicable, the government continuously banned this group from operating and sanctioned them for various other reasons. [12]

Local authorities and the press heavily condemn the Falun Gong movement, and they have seen it as a “false religion” that gravely affects people’s health. However, the religion has developed across many provinces and cities, and many practitioners claim that they benefit from its practice.

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Three of the seven Falun Gong practitioners were administratively punished on June 24, 2021, in Tien Giang. Photo: provided by police.

Since the beginning of 2021, the government’s obstruction of Falun Gong activities has not appeared in media as much as in 2020. Reasons may include the government’s increased propaganda activities hindering the religion’s practice and the complications surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the end of May 2021, the press heavily covered the case of infections at the Phuc Hung Missionary Church in HCMC. On May 29, 2021, Go Vap District police issued a decision to move ahead with prosecution for the crime of “spreading a dangerous and infectious disease to others.” [13] As of the end of July 2021, police have not released more information about this case.

Chairman of Mang Yang Suburban District, Gia Lai Province: no followers of the Ha Mon religion remain

If you’ve been following previous religious news, you’re probably familiar with the fact that the government considers the Ha Mon religion in the Central Highlands a “false” one. The religion is currently facing extinction in Gia Lai Province.

In July 2021, a Mang Yang Suburban District representative told Dan Viet newspaper that the district no longer had anyone who followed the Ha Mon religion. According to Le Trong, chairman of the suburban district’s People’s Committee, “those who were lured and deceived into following the false Ha Mon religion were educated and mobilized to return to their families” and received local support “to reintegrate into the community.” [14]

Trong also revealed how the government propagandizes and mobilizes, including “evaluating impoverished and borderline-impoverished households.”

According to Trong, villagers will “evaluate impoverished and borderline-impoverished households (those who previously followed the false religion in particular, and the entire population in general)” according to the principles of democracy and fairness. From there, the locality will come up with “suitable approaches,” such as bank loans and participation in agricultural expansion programs and models, etc.

The statement indicates that the Mang Yang Suburban District government has used the household poverty line to force families to give up the Ha Mon religion. This act is contrary to official regulations. [15] The household poverty line is based on per capita income and deprivation in accessing essential social services.

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Y Gyin, the founder of the Ha Mon religion, was sentenced to 3 years in prison during a May 2013 preliminary trial held in mobile court. Photo: Quang Hoi/ Border Defense Newspaper.

Over the years, many Central Highland Montagnards who belong to unrecognized religious groups have attested that the local authorities punish them economically by not approving impoverished household designations and bank loan applications, stripping them of social welfare benefits, or refusing to provide administrative services such as ID card provisions and marriage registrations.

The Mang Yang Suburban District People’s Committee chairman has also stated that the government has encouraged the children of families who follow the Ha Mon religion to continue going to school.

Several witnesses have told Luat Khoa that local authorities in the Central Highlands increase tuition fees for families who belong to unrecognized religious groups as a form of punishment.

In July 2021, the People’s Army Newspaper also reported that “the Ha Mon religion no longer existed on Gia Lai land.” [16] The Ha Mon religion uses Catholic teachings as life precepts; practitioners do not go to church but practice rituals at home. In 2011, the religion had 1,357 followers in Mang Yang Suburban District.

New religions in Dak Nong

The Dak Nong News reported that the province saw numerous activities carried out by new religions and that provincial authorities were tackling these religious groups. [17]

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Dak Nong province is shaded red on this map of Vietnam. Photo: TUBS.

Religious activities considered illegal in the province include “building structures for the purpose of unauthorized religious activities; improperly using the name of the ‘Vietnamese Protestant Church’ for associations and groups, and causing difficulties in the state’s management of religion.”

The newspaper cited two cases in the Dak Nia Commune, Gia Nghia Suburban District, accused of conducting for-profit religious activities but did not provide any evidence. In both cases, it was alleged that temples were built without government permission.

Furthermore, the provincial Religious Affairs Committee reported that land was being illegally donated and transferred to build religious facilities, that religious activities were being self-organized without the participation of a state-recognized sangha, and that group religious activities were unregistered with local authorities. 

People following new religions are becoming increasingly common in Vietnam. However, it is challenging for these religions to meet the strict government requirements for recognition according to the Law on Faith and Religion.

Tuyen Quang police: alerting the people not to follow “religion seeking to firmly establish the rule of law at its heart”

After Hai Duong Province, Tuyen Quang provincial police also alerted people to the activities of the “religion seeking to establish the rule of law at its heart firmly.” [18]

Police reported that the religion attracted participants through live videos on social media, including content that criticized political, social, and religious situations.

Like Hai Duong provincial police, Tuyen Quang provincial police on social media urged people not to listen to the shared information and invitations to join the religion. Police claim the religion’s statements violate state laws, propagate superstitions, and take advantage of beliefs for personal gain.

“Subjects of the ‘religion seeking to establish the rule of law at its heart’ firmly have taken advantage of the right to freedom, democracy, and freedom of speech, as well as taken advantage of belief and religion to operate illegally,” the Capital Security Newspaper said, citing the announcement by Tuyen Quang provincial police.

Information on this religion has been removed from popular social media platforms in Vietnam, such as Youtube and Facebook.

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The Tumultuous And Tragic History Of Hoa Hao Buddhism

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Hoa Hao Buddhists conducting a ceremony at the Hoa Hao Buddhists Club, Santa Ana, California, United States. Photo: hoahao.org.

If you ever visit An Giang Province, in the Mekong Delta Vietnam, you might be surprised by how a number of families practice Buddhism there. They follow Buddhism, but they do not pray to statues or depictions, but rather, a wooden board painted crimson, placed squarely in the center of the altar.

If you look closely, you’ll see individuals dressed in brown, their hair placed in high buns, worshipping Buddha in the simplest of ways at home – without the knocking of wooden bells or the reading of scriptures, but rather, only with the placement of flowers, incense, and water. 

These people are practitioners of Hoa Hao Buddhism, a religion built on a Buddhist foundation but with completely different practices from any other school of thought. 

From humble beginnings, the founder of Hoa Hao Buddhism brought to the inhabitants of the Mekong River Delta a simplified Buddhist philosophy, suitable for their impoverished circumstances. Not long after its establishment, the religion would quickly catch fire in the hearts of countless citizens.

Hoa Hao Buddhist clergy don’t cut their hair as in other schools of Buddhism. They also don’t have splendid and majestic temples; rather, they advise their adherents to practice at home and to worship simply, diligently perform good works, simplify weddings and funerals, and live with responsibility towards the nation.

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A map of the 13 provinces of the Mekong Delta today. The shape of An Giang Province has four distinct sides, so it is often called the Long Xuyen quadrilateral (Long Xuyen being the provincial capital city). An Giang Province shares a boundary with Cambodia and borders Dong Thap, Kien Giang, and Can Tho provinces. Photo: Gocnhin.net.

Huynh Phu So – the Muhammad of the Mekong Delta

As we know, at the beginning of the 20th Century, the Nguyen Dynasty ceded the entirety of southern Vietnam to French rule. In the Mekong Delta, nearly all residents were farmers, but they had to lease land from landowners at exorbitant prices, leading to arduous existences. [1] The people suffered in poverty under France’s oppressive politics that favored the landlord class.

Numerous anti-French peasant movements broke out around this canal-crisscrossed land, and the French authorities established a system to closely monitor civil activities.

Religions are often born out of thrilling or mysterious events that are able to win over large amounts of people. 

In 1940, in the area of Chau Doc, the French began taking notice of an unusual young man who announced the establishment of Hoa Hao Buddhism and who became the head of a religion at only 19 years of age. Followers came from all over and even the most notable figures became disciples. [2]

That young man was Huynh Phu So, who has been described as having a slender figure, a luminous face, and an articulate manner of speech.

In a 1942 speech written by Huynh Phu So himself, and preserved by apostles to this day, the young man stated that he himself had spent many lives saving people and that this life was a continuation of the Buddha’s sending him down to “save sentient beings.”

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Hoa Hao Buddhists attend the opening of festivities on May 17, 1971, marking the anniversary of the religion’s founding. Photo: Hoa Hao Buddhism Family.

The religion’s Central Management Board records Huynh Phu So as having established the religion after travelling with his family to the region of the Seven Mountains (Thất Sơn), today a part of An Giang Province and seen by many as a sacred area that also gave birth to the Buu Son Ky Huong [Strange Fragrance of the Treasured Mountain] religion.

According to Sấm Giảng (Huynh Phu So’s teaching books), Master Huynh Phu So expressed in a verse comprised of hundreds of rhyming sentences that he was the successor of the Buu Son Ky Huong sect.

Thus, the principle “study Buddha, cultivate man” and the foundational “Four Great Gratitudes” (Gratefulness to one’s parents and ancestors, gratefulness to one’s nation, gratefulness to the three treasures [the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha], and gratefulness to one’s compatriots and mankind) of the Buu Son Ky Huong sect became core values of Hoa Hao Buddhism.

In terms of communication, Huynh Phu So would convey everything simply and easily, and as a result, his religion was easily absorbed by the masses. The article “Principles of Religious Practice”, written by Huynh Phu So in 1945, summarizes in just 10 pages the religion’s philosophy and guides people on how to live a good life from his point of view.

The religion’s philosophy attracted poverty-stricken farmers by offering them the possibility of a good life and showing them how to practice Buddhism, even in conditions of deprivation.

“Meditate without action rather than with offerings of food,
Buddha would never want sentient beings to bribe.

Because our crops were flooded this year,
we should quickly dispense with superstition.
Try to maintain the three cardinal guides,
Completed virtue is what is precious.”
(Excerpted from “A crazy person’s disregard for the people”)

Moreover, Hoa Hao Buddhism’s philosophy was able to reconcile individual and family lives with responsibility for the nation, based on the foundation of the “Four Gratitudes,” providing people with the rationale for becoming practitioners.

“The monk decided to close the pagoda doors,
Drew his golden sword, mounted his horse, and charged into danger.
After he settled scores with the enemy nation,
The Zen pagoda returned to Buddhist homage!”
(The Words of Huynh Phu So)

The concept of the “Four Gratitudes” brought Hoa Hao Buddhism to life, making it both dear to the people and compatible with the conditions of deprivation at the time. 

Beyond his ability for eloquence, Huynh Phu So was also celebrated for his rare ability to treat the illnesses of his followers, who saw him as both a prophet and a fighter for national independence.

Fighting for national independence

In 1942, the Japanese intervened to bring Huynh Phu So to Saigon for refuge after a period of strict house arrest by the French that began in 1940. In Saigon, he quietly linked up with followers to advocate for Vietnam’s independence, which was consistent with both his religion’s principles and the zeitgeist at that time.

In 1944, Hoa Hao Buddhism established a paramilitary force called Bao An [Peace Protection] Group to maintain the security of Hoa Hao Buddhist villages in the Mekong Delta.

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Hoa Hao Buddhist soldiers practice martial arts in July 1948. Photo: LIFE Magazine.

With Huynh Phu So’s profile and his large number of parishioners, Hoa Hao Buddhism had a notable voice in the independence movement in the south. With the aim of creating a political voice in society, Huynh Phu So and a number of intellectuals established in 1946 the Vietnamese Social Democracy Party – abbreviated as S.D. Party.

In the beginning, besides linking up with different religious and political organizations, Hoa Hao Buddhists also connected with the Viet Minh to advocate for Vietnamese independence. However, it was not long before a serious conflict erupted between the two groups.

This conflict would eventually lead to Huynh Phu So’s mysterious disappearance. On April 16, 1947, Huynh Phu So went missing during a meeting between the Viet Minh and Hoa Hao Buddhists in the area of Dong Thap Muoi (Plain of Reeds). To this day, his disappearance remains a mystery. 

According to an article written by Nguyen Van Tran, and published in the overseas newspaper Viet Bao Online in 2016, the author cited a letter related to Hoa Hao Buddhism and Huynh Phu So that was stored at National Archive Center #4, under the Ministry of Home Affairs Department of State Documents and Archives. The letter, dated April 17, 1947, confirmed that the Viet Minh’s Long Xuyen Administrative Committee held Huynh Phu So in their custody but the letter did not state clearly what happened to him after that.

To Hoa Hao Buddhists today, the day Huynh Phu So went missing is referred to as “the day Virtuous Master disappeared,” or “the day of Virtuous Master’s Longevity Calamity.”

According to author Nguyen Long Thanh Nam, who was active in Hoa Hao Buddhism, and who worked for the government of the Second Republic (the Republic of Vietnam), the animosity between Hoa Hao Buddhists and the Viet Minh only worsened after Huynh Phu So’s disappearance. A number of Hoa Hao Buddhists changed sides and worked with the French to oppose the Viet Minh. According to Nam, in the approximate period from 1947 to 1955, Hoa Hao Buddhism became a competent military force with the help of the French. This fact would also lead to the religion facing strong repression from Ngo Dinh Diem’s government, which sought to consolidate military forces.

After Ngo Dinh Diem’s period of discriminatory treatment towards religions, Hoa Hao Buddhism was strengthened and developed under the Second Republic (1967 – 1975). At that time, exiles who had faced repression under Ngo Dinh Diem, such as Nguyen Long Thanh Nam, returned home to restore the religion. It was also during this time that Hoa Hao Buddhism split into two sects: the new sect was led by Luong Trong Tuong, while the original sect was led by Huynh Van Nhiem. In 1972, another sect splintered from the original group, led by Le Quang Liem. These divisions, however, did not hinder the development of the movement. 

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Hoa Hao Buddhists attend opening festivities on May 17, 1971, marking the religion’s founding day. Photo: Hoa Hao Buddhism Family.

In 1975, as their religious activities proliferated, Hoa Hao Buddhist groups also operated six high schools, a university, and two hospitals. 

However, after the upheaval of April 30, 1975, which saw the fall of the government of the Republic of Vietnam in the south, the vibrant religious scene in the south darkened under the shadow of the victors.

Scene of darkness after April 30

From the day Huynh Phu So disappeared, Hoa Hao Buddhists fiercely opposed the Viet Minh; thus, from April 30, 1975, onwards, the religion was completely banned from operating.

Author Nguyen Long Thanh Nam cited an article published in the Liberated Saigon (Sài Gòn Giải phóng) newspaper on August 9, 1975, to describe the government’s policy towards Hoa Hao Buddhism after the events of April 30. 

The Liberated Saigon article stated that the leaders of the religion, Luong Trong Tuong and Huynh Van Nhiem, “opposed religion, the nation, and the revolution.” It also described a three-day high-level meeting of some Hoa Hao Buddhist leaders in Thot Not Suburban District, Can Tho Province. At the end of that meeting, this group announced the dissolution of the Management Committee, S.D. Party’s Executive Committee, specialized organizations, as well as social workgroups. This meeting was held to accompanying the request of the government to prevent further assemblies of people in that area.

Author Nam also cited an article translated into Vietnamese from the Los Angeles Times (published in 1978), which stated that leaders and practitioners of Hoa Hao Buddhism who had participated in politics were all sent off to re-education camps.

In December 1998, a UN special rapporteur on freedom of belief and religion, Adbelfattah Amor, released his report following a formal visit to Vietnam in October 1998.

In his report, the rapporteur stated that he was not able to meet any Hoa Hao Buddhists, either formally or privately.  Non-state sources had informed him that after April 30, 1975, the government closed more than 3,500 Hoa Hao pagodas, as well as more than 5,000 worshipping centers, where the Hoa Hao Buddhists often held their social and religious activities.

Amor concluded that Buddhist, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and Muslim religious organizations could not be established nor operate independently of the government. The existence of registered religious groups at the time served more as the government’s tools of social control than citizens exercising their religious freedom.

In 1999, Hoa Hao Buddhism fundamentally split into two sects. One sect, the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church, was permitted by the government to operate and is headquartered at An Hoa Temple in  Phu My Town, Phu Tan Suburban District, An Giang Province.

Many Hoa Hao Buddhists do not participate in this sect, stating that the management committee is controlled by the government and does not operate according to t proper religious principles.  

The remaining other sect is not recognized by the government as “official” and is headquartered at the Hoa Hao Buddhist Family Group no more than 3 km from the An Hoa Temple. The activities of the independent Hoa Hao Buddhists are forbidden. 

In August 1999, the overseas newspaper Viet Bao Online reported a conflict between the two sects in An Giang Province involving the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church being the only sect recognized by the state. The “official” church was able to organize public festivals and events but did not organize a holiday around “the Day of Virtuous Master’s Longevity Calamity,” nor did it read sermons during any holidays.

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Hoa Hao Buddhist Bui Van Trung during his preliminary trial on February 9, 2018, in the An Giang Province People’s Court. For allegedly disturbing public order, he was sentenced to six years in prison, while five other Hoa Hao Buddhists were sentenced to between two to six years. Photo: RFA.

In 2014, Vietnam continued to invite special rapporteurs from the UN to evaluate the country’s level of religious freedom. The rapporteurs’ report maintained that the oppressive situation independent Hoa Hao Buddhists faced had not changed appreciably. Their freedoms continued to be obstructed, and they were often followed, arrested, beaten, and imprisoned. 

Every year, the United States’ Report on International Religious Freedom touches on the Vietnamese government’s harassment of independent Hoa Hao Buddhists and its restriction of their activities. The 2012 report stated that the government allowed only 5 of 10 of Hoa Hao Buddhist religious texts to be published and that it banned the reading of Huynh Phu So’s writings in public. Beyond the charges of repression of independent Hoa Hao Buddhists, the 2018 US report documented that the government continued to ban followers from celebrating any holidays related to the life of Huynh Phu So.


References:

[1] Vietnam during the French colonial era, Nguyen The Anh, Culture – Literature & Art Publishing House, p. 227.
[2] On the historical roots of Hoa Hao Buddhism, Pascal Bourdeaux, Dang The Dai Dich.


This article was written in Vietnamese by Tran Phuong and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on August 3, 2019. Will Nguyen did the English translation.

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The Coconut Monk’s Adventure Between Religion And Politics

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The Coconut Monk in the 1970 documentary Sad Song of Yellow Skin, directed by Michael Rubbo.

A mentally ill old man or an anti-war monk?

In 1968, the south of Vietnam had just moved past a period of long-running political unrest that had society shaken and stirred. The people were fed up with the promises and realities that the government brought their way. The fears of both the Communist and the Nationalist sides were not so different. To survive, people had to gird themselves and pray that spiritual forces would deliver them from the war’s uncertainties.

Moving beyond the religious sphere, many southern monks openly opposed the increasingly brutal war. International journalists began paying attention to priests and spiritual leaders, who possessed enough credibility and representation to express the general population’s suffering.

In the spring of 1968, journalist John Steinbeck IV, the 22-year-old son of internationally-renowned American writer John Steinbeck, followed his friends down to My Tho (in today’s Tien Giang Province) to meet an enigmatic Zen Buddhist monk, the Coconut Monk, a person whom some of the officials in the southern government saw as a mentally ill, troublesome old man.

Upon arriving in My Tho, Steinbeck’s group climbed onto a motorized boat and headed to the Coconut Monk’s sanctuary in the middle of the My Tho River. The roar of Steinbeck’s boat and the crashing waves were no match for the wind chimes, constructed from the used metals of tank ammunition, that were reverberating from Con Phung (Phoenix Island), the Coconut Monk’s island. At his pagoda, he and his disciples transformed the shells of wartime bombs and bullets into objects of peace. He even raised a cat and a mouse together to prove that the north and the south could live in peace with one another despite their differences.

Stepping onto the pagoda, Steinbeck saw before him 200 followers dressed in brown, their heads wrapped in head cloths, prostrated towards the setting sun. On a platform of flowered tiles, where followers conducted their ceremonies, colorful cement dragons wound around nine pillars erected in the courtyard. The nine columns represented the tributaries that form the Mekong River delta, a region of rare abundance.

The lower part of the pagoda appeared to rise from the middle of the river, its floor lined with a cement map of Vietnam about 20 meters in length. Scattered underneath were little model homes, the greenery designed to resemble miniatures of cities from north to south. Saigon and Hanoi were marked by two high cement columns on the map, allowing the two cities to be seen even when high tide submerged the map. Each day, the Coconut Monk would pray for peace in Vietnam by traversing the symbolic map from Saigon to Hanoi.

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The Coconut Monk’s followers conducted a ceremony on Nam Quoc Pagoda’s Nine Dragon Pavilion in 1969. Photo: Lance & Cromwell.

The Coconut Monk received Steinbeck in a yellow monk’s robe but dangled a Catholic crucifix on his chest. His head was not wrapped as his followers; instead, his ponytail was plaited and wrapped in a white cloth, which the Coconut Monk stated was in the style of Jesus’ crown of thorns. Occasionally, his plait of hair would be let down to his chest, whereby he would say he represented the image of the Maitreya Buddha.

At their first meeting, Steinbeck and the Coconut Monk experienced a special moment of inspiration. Originally an admirer of Buddhism and Daoism, Steinbeck stated that the day before, he looked at a map of Vietnam and saw that if a circle were drawn around the S-shaped expanse of land, it would resemble a Tai Chi symbol from the doctrine of yin and yang. In this Tai Chi symbol, Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake was the white dot in the black portion, represented by the land, while China’s Hainan Island was the black dot in the white portion, represented by the sea. The Coconut Monk then had his follower bring over a map he had drawn the day before that matched what Steinbeck had just stated, confirming a strange coincidence. Followers became increasingly surprised at the spiritual connection between the two. Steinbeck also felt something he couldn’t quite put his finger on when he stepped foot onto the enigmatic pagoda. 

Steinbeck would take a motorbike from Saigon down to Con Phung every weekend and stay overnight from that fateful meeting onwards. He felt calmer there than any other place, which seemed completely isolated from the terrible war crisscrossing the south. Steinbeck wrote in his memoir that his days spent at the pagoda were the happiest time of his life.

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Front row from left: John Steinbeck, the Coconut Monk, and the director of Sad Song of Yellow Skin, Michael Rubbo, in 1970. 
Photo: Sad Song of Yellow Skin.

A letter to President Johnson

One morning, the Coconut Monk’s followers woke Steinbeck up while the sky was still dark. When he cleared the sleep from his mind, he saw that his motorbike was propped up neatly in a motorized boat. The Coconut Monk wanted Steinbeck to return to Saigon immediately to have lunch with his (Steinbeck’s) friends, reporters, at a restaurant in Cho Lon. Steinbeck quickly hit the road but could not dispel his worries, as he knew that the government never wanted this troublesome monk to step foot in Saigon.

That afternoon, the Coconut Monk stopped by the restaurant to see Steinbeck having lunch with his friends. Through a luxury Buick automobile window, the Coconut Monk told Steinbeck that he wanted Steinbeck to tell the reporters about his new movement. The monk stated that tomorrow, he would arrive at Independence Palace and march to the American Embassy (now at No. 4 Le Duan Rd. in Ho Chi Minh City) to deliver a letter explaining his plan for peace to then U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Having frequently witnessed how Saigon police dealt with protestors, Steinbeck knew this was a very dangerous plan. To protect his teacher, he chose to notify the embassy of the Coconut Monk’s plans, a decision that would prove extremely naïve. 

The next afternoon, with a coconut in one hand, the Coconut Monk stepped out of his car at a corner near Independence Palace. He was half-surrounded by people jeering or prostrating themselves and half-surrounded by plainclothes police. At that moment, police vehicles poured onto the street, blocking the monk’s path into Independence Palace. The Coconut Monk switched routes, going straight to the American Embassy despite police warnings.

As the crowds followed the Coconut Monk to the embassy, a contingent of Marines awaited him there. On the roof of the enormous blockhouse were approximately 40 Marines with their guns trained on the group of people below. In the air, a helicopter hovered overhead as the short, emaciated monk slowly and deliberately sat down on the sidewalk with his coconut. 

After more than 20 minutes, the embassy became aware of the military overreaction. It sent out an employee who accepted the monk’s letter but rejected his coconut because the American president was unable to accept gifts from foreign dignitaries. The monk returned to his island satisfied, escorted by the unwilling police. As a warning for the Coconut Monk never to step foot in Saigon again, the police arrested 30 of his closest followers after he left the city.

The letter the embassy received was an unprecedented petition. The Coconut Monk asked President Johnson to borrow 20 transport planes to deliver him, his followers, and materials to the 17th parallel—where Vietnam was divided into two enemy states. He and his followers would form a prayer group right in the middle of the Ben Hai River. He would sit at the center of this group and pray for seven days with no food or drink. On each side of the river would be 300 monks praying together with him.

No one knows if the letter ever reached President Johnson, but everyone knows that the Coconut Monk never gave up his dream of bringing peace to Vietnam.

From a warm-hearted uncle to the Coconut Monk

In Con Phung (Ben Tre) today, which was once the Coconut Monk’s territory, there remains a marble slab with a brief inscription describing the monk, which states:

“From 1928 – 1935, he studied abroad in France at the College of Physical Chemistry in Lyon – Caen – Rouen. After three years, he succeeded in his study. But for what? From 1935 – 1945, he returned home and climbed the mysterious That Son [Seven Mountains] to look for a path to peace, meditating on the principles of yin and yang and ‘no war, no violence.’ From 1947 – 1972, he worked for peace and was imprisoned once or twice. He lived without losing heart, wisdom, or courage. (His) Morality united Vietnam to live together with meditative hearts. Thich Hoa Binh (Love Peace), of divine rights and virtue”.

Articles about the Coconut Monk today confirm that his name was Nguyen Thanh Nam and that he was the only child of a wealthy family in Ben Tre.

After he returned from studying overseas, Nguyen Thanh Nam married his wife. He opened up a factory producing soap out of coconut before leaving for the monkhood near the Seven Mountains, An Giang Province, in 1945. 

Three years later, when his body had taken on the form of an emaciated old man who pursued asceticism to the fullest, Nguyen Thanh Nam, aged 37, descended from the mountains and continued to meditate under a tree overlooking the Tien River for another two years. At that time, several people began noticing him, especially the fact that he only drank coconut water and only ate a bit of fruit for daily sustenance. 

Then in 1952, he built an Eight Trigrams platform in the middle of an irrigation canal using a 14-meter coconut tree. For the entirety of the next two years, people from all over came to see this strange man who meditated rain-or-shine. He never uttered a word and only wrote down what he wanted to communicate to others.

In 1963, the Coconut Monk and others purchased a large barge where he built the massive Nam Quoc Pagoda at Con Phung, in the middle of the My Tho River. At the pagoda, he allowed the construction of many structures, including a model of the Seven Mountains, an image of the Buddha laying his hand on the body of Jesus, an image of the Virgin Mary embracing Guan Yin, and a nine-story tower. This was the sanctuary of the Coconut Religion, also known as the Religion of Congeniality. 

His unusual methods of religious practice included taking a vow of silence, only drinking coconut water and eating fruit, abstaining from sugar and salt to keep the body pristine after death, persuading others to take up vegetarianism, performing good works, and praying for peace. People found the fact that he found religion near the sacred Seven Mountains irresistible. In 1974, in Dinh Tuong Province (today a part of Tien Giang Province), there were up to 3,516 followers of the Coconut Religion, while Protestantism only had 3,512.

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An erected image of the Buddha laying his hand on the body of Jesus at Nam Quoc Pagoda. Photo: Lance Nix.

Conducting politics or prayer?

Both the first and the second republics of (South) Vietnam did not kindly those calling for peace, whether they were a respectable monk or an ordinary farmer, a well-known journalist or a good-natured student.

It was precisely because of the government’s sensitivity that the Coconut Monk was forbidden from travelling to Cambodia to pray for peace in 1961. However, the authorities were unable to stop him from conducting the same activities in Saigon.

In December 1964, when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara came to Saigon, the Coconut Monk and his disciples looked for him while holding two cages, one holding a cat and another holding a rat. The Coconut Monk released the cat and the rat into one cage, but the cat did not consume the rat. The press wrote many stories about the event. Later on, Thich Nhat Hanh would retell the story in a children’s picture book with the ending: “If the cat and the rat can live in peace with one another, can humans do the same?”.

Many people, including the government at the time, believed that the Coconut Monk used the cover of religion to conduct politics. The evidence included the two times he ran as a presidential candidate in the 1967 and 1971 elections, where he raised a large number of campaign funds, supposedly from his followers. He also frequently organized press conferences and sought out and sent letters to political figures to call for peace in Vietnam. 

His activities were non-violent, but the Saigon government still found ways to crack down on him. Either he would be arrested, the Nam Quoc Pagoda would be raided, or his followers would also be arrested. Despite this, the Saigon government still allowed the Coconut Monk to freely practice his religion, as long as he stayed put at Con Phung and refrained from causing disruption and occupying the authorities. As Thich Nhat Hanh wrote at the beginning of 2010 regarding religious freedom in Vietnam: “During the colonial period, during the time of Diem and Thieu, religious practitioners did experience many difficulties, but they were never as tightly and unreasonably controlled as they are today [after 1975]”.

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Followers of the Coconut Religion in 1969 at the Nam Quoc Pagoda. Photo: Lance Nix.

Dying under the Communist sky

After 1975, all of the south fell under the control of communist totalitarianism. Religions were deemed superstitions, church properties and possessions were confiscated, and monks and religious dignitaries were imprisoned in re-education camps without trial. Vietnam became one of the most religiously oppressive countries on earth at the time. The Coconut Religion, then very new religion, obviously did not stand a chance against government eradication.

According to Phap Luat [Law] Newspaper, after April 30, 1975, the Coconut Monk was no longer allowed to practice his religion. After a period of time, he tried to escape over the border and was caught by the authorities. It wasn’t until 1985 that the government released the diminutive monk, who weighed less than 40 kg and reached less than 1.4 meters tall and allowed him to return home.

Due to government censorship, it is challenging to find complete information on the Coconut Monk’s activities after being released from prison.

After returning home to Chau Thanh Suburban District in Ben Tre Province, the Coconut Monk resumed religious activities and was visited by many followers. After a time, he established a local radio station and opened every broadcast with: “This is Phu An Hoa Radio, the voice of the Religion of Congeniality….”

The government asserted that the Coconut Monk’s radio station was superstitious and slandered the state, and so it confiscated his broadcasting equipment and questioning him and his followers.

Forbidden from practicing his religion, he and his followers moved to Phu Quoc Island in Kien Giang Province, but they were quickly and forcibly sent back to their homes. In May 1990, when his followers secretly transported him to Ho Chi Minh City to take refuge before returning to a follower’s home in Tien Giang Province, the police found him. A scuffle broke out between the two sides at a residential home, leading to the Coconut Monk’s death.

After that incident, the People’s Court of Ben Tre Province convicted the Coconut Monk’s followers of obstruction of officials, handing them heavy sentences. However, the details of that trial were never publicized by the press and kept secretive by the Vietnamese government.

In 1986, Steinbeck overheard overseas Vietnamese say that the Vietnamese government wanted to transform the Nam Quoc Pagoda into a tourist attraction in a Paris restaurant.

Later, Steinbeck would write in his memoir of the Coconut Monk: “When I saw him for the last time, we didn’t say goodbye. He touched his eye, indicating a rare tear. Then grinning, he pointed to the sky where he lived. Memories are obsolete, and I can’t forget.”

In February 1991, less than a year after the Coconut Monk’s unjust death, Steinbeck passed away during a surgical procedure on his spine. In Vietnam, the Coconut Monk was buried according to his will: his body was standing up. 

The Nam Quoc Pagoda later became a tourist destination, and the Vietnamese press continues to write stories smearing the Coconut Religion to this day.


This article was written in Vietnamese by Tran Phuong and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on February 9, 2020. Will Nguyen did the English translation.

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