Vietnam: Seven State Secrets About Religions That May Surprise You

Every government will have state secrets that it would like to keep confidential. However, the state secrets involving the freedom of religion in Vietnam prompt people to question the government’s transparency in its strict control of religions and religious organizations.

Vietnam: Seven State Secrets About Religions That May Surprise You
Major General Pham Van Vinh - deputy director of the Internal Political Security Department under the Ministry of Public Security, carried out a training on the Law on Protection of State Secrets to the police in Hai Duong Province, October 2020. Photo: Hai Duong Provincial Police Department.

Stories from the past that the government wants to continue keeping them secretive

In mid-April 1947, a prominent figure from the southwest of Vietnam disappeared after meeting with the Viet Minh. This mysterious disappearance created an eternal feud between the Hoa Hao Buddhist community and the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). The person who disappeared was Hoa Hao Buddhist founder Huynh Phu So.

Over the past 70 years, no official documents have been released about Huynh Phu So’s disappearance. Millions of Hoa Hao Buddhists are still waiting for an official answer about what happened to their founder. “The day the teacher went absent,” or the date of Master Huynh Phu So’s disappearance, is still a formal commemorative holiday in Hoa Hao Buddhism. However, from 1975 until now, the government has banned the public celebration of this daywithout explaining.

In a different and more recent event, a special task force consisting of high-ranking VCP military members was sent to the Central Highlands in April 2004to deal with the largest demonstration of the Montagnard people since 1975. Some 10,000 to 30,000 Montagnards protested against harsh government policies on land, religion, and ethnic groups in the region.

How violent were these protests, and how were they put down? We may not know for sure, but there have been reports about many Montagnards who escaped Vietnam and travelled to Cambodia on foot after these protests.

After the government quelled all of the protests, the Vietnamese state, international media, and human rights organizations released inconsistent information about the actual number of deaths. Furthermore, the Vietnamese government never published the total number of those injured or imprisoned during the protests; they refused to release the details of the trials and court hearings of those arrested. What happened in the Central Highlands in 2004 is still a mystery to the local people and the world.
Montagnards in the Central Highlands fled from Vietnam to Cambodia to seek refugee status in 2004. Photo: AP.

The wounds the government could have inflicted against these people will not heal until the truth behind the incidents should be transparent to the public.

Huynh Phu So’s unexplained disappearance and the crackdown in the Central Highlands in 2004 are just two of these wounds that remain unaddressed in Vietnam, and they will continue to fester for as long as they remain as such.

In 2020, Vietnam released a list of classified state documents, showing that the government kept confidential and secretive information on various religious groups.

Nevertheless, while releasing this information might have been good news, it actually brought more issues because it raised more questions than answers. The released list and the information on these state secrets on religious organizations will continue to be kept secretive by the government indefinitely.

The Law on the Protection of State Secrets in Vietnam

In 2018, Vietnam’s National Assembly passed the Law on the Protection of State Secrets. According to this legislature, state secrets are classified into three levels: top secret, secret, and confidential. The government will protect the top-secret information for up to 30 years, 20 years for secret information, and confidential information gets the least duration of protection: only up to 10 years.

Yet, the level of confidentiality of a secret does not matter much because the government can extend the protection of any state secrets indefinitely. Article 20 of the Law on the Protection of State Secrets gives the government the ability to continue extending the lifetime of any state secret.

It should also be noted that when the government declassifies formerly sensitive information, it does not mean that those content will be disclosed to the public in Vietnam. Only the state gets to decide what gets released into the public sphere. Therefore, the authorities announce that they have state secrets on a certain religious group. Still, they do not have to disclose what this information is, and they will continue to keep them as state secrets indefinitely.

In Thanh Tra (Inspection) magazine, Nguyen Phuong Vy of the Institute of Strategy and Science of the Inspector also believed the law regarding the scope of state secrets is too broad. She stated that, in effect, ordinary and non-sensitive information could also be classified as sensitive.

This can be particularly observed in the field of religion. Here are seven of the top religious state secrets in Vietnam that may surprise you.

  1. The VCP puts its members among the religious leaders. Who are these people? It’s a state secret.

Many people have been wondering whether or not the VCP assigns some of its members to be part of various religious organizations. Decision 1722/QĐ-TTg of the prime minister provided the government’s list of state secrets, released in November 2020.

This specific list confirms that the VCP does indeed have its members present in the leadership of many religious organizations. However, information about how these Party members are “selected, arranged, and enlisted” is not disclosed; this falls under the confidential tier of classified information  (Article 3, Clause 7, Section c).

Religious organizations are not state organs, but the party and the state can assign people to control them. This shows that the recognized religious organizations in Vietnam are not independent of the state and are under the government’s influence and coercion.

  1. The state uses “advocacy work” to identify critics against it, but how much does that work cost in tax money? That’s another secret!

Vietnam uses the special term “advocacy work within the religions” to define how the government should mobilize religious dignitaries to support the state. The goal of this process, according to Dan Van magazine, is to “fight, educate, differentiate, and narrow down the number of people who have opinions or beliefs that oppose, disagree or contravene the policies of the party and the law of the State.”

According to the information we have, the government has never disclosed the budget for this group to the public. The amount of money spent on these activities is classified as secret information by the State according to Decision 960/QĐ-TTg dated July 7, 2020, issued by the prime minister.

  1. Information of meetings between the state and the religious leaders in the country is confidential.

Information about meetings between religious organizations, their leaders, and even certain members that have “influence” within a specific religion, with the government is considered the state’s top secret. The minutes of these meetings are also on the VCP’s list of confidential information.

This regulation is extensive, with no restrictions on what can be discussed in these meetings. Likewise, any gathering with state leaders from the provincial level upwards can be considered a state secret. There are also no specific regulations or definitions on who can be considered an “influential” member of a religious organization.

These ambiguities may cause problems for certain members of religious groups. They either must keep all of the information they have discussed in meetings with the state confidential, or they will face being accused of disclosing state secrets.
Six religious leaders are members of the 14th National Assembly. Photo: National Assembly Newspaper, Dan Van magazine
  1. Veterans’ and Farmers’ Associations are considered “special forces” of the government in working with religions. There are a lot of secrets involving their works.

It may be unclear to see the Veterans’ and Farmers’ Associations belong to the government’s organizations that work with religious leaders and religions in the country.

The Veterans’ Association’s list of state secrets, according to Decision No. 872/QĐ-TTg dated June 19, 2020, issued by former Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, affirms that one task of that association is to “enlist religious dignitaries in service of national defense and security.” They are also required to detect and report activities which “violate national security, social order, and safety.” Their reports on these topics to the government are classified as confidential.

The Farmers’ Association also has the added task of “reflecting and evaluating the situation of farmers having changes in ideology and awareness, and to monitor activities which may affect politics, national defense, security and society in the areas considered to be hotspots of ethnic and religious issues.” The reports and surveys regarding this task are also considered state secrets.

  1. The Vietnam Women’s Union places its members among religions within areas that the government has considered to be “religious hotspots”

The state also gave The Vietnam Women’s Union, like the Farmers’ Association, a mission in areas considered by the government to be religious hotspots.

According to the list of state secrets of the Vietnam Women’s Union, Decision No. 1222/QĐ-TTg – issued by former Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc – identified that the Vietnam Women’s Union has provided “reports related to evaluating and commenting on the mobilization of union members in ethnic and religious hotspots” and maintained their confidentiality.

In addition, this association also deploys its “key members” into areas that the government considered to be ethnic and religious hotspots. The list of these key members is also classified as confidential by the state.

  1. Information that the state has on educational activities organized by religious organizations which “affect national security” are classified as state secret.

According to the list of state secrets in education and training (Decision No. 809/QĐ-TTg, dated June 10, 2020, issued by former Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc), information on the educational activities of religious organizations “influencing politics, defense and security” is confidential.

The state has always considered the educational activities organized by religious organizations to be sensitive information.

Since 1954 in the north and after 1975 in the south, religious organizations have been banned from participating in activities in the field of general education. The educational activities within these organizations are also controlled and monitored by the State. According to the Law on Belief and Religion, the state requires all religious organizations that if they want to teach law and history, they will have to follow strictly with the guidance of the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Education and Training.

  1. How the state handles what it claims to be “complex religious matters” in Vietnam is top secret.

The “handling of complex religious matters” is classified as top secret in both the VCP’s state secrets list and the state secret list maintained by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The Ministry of Home Affairs considers the information it has on the “complex religious issues” to be more secretive and confidential than the information about the government’s personnel list.

For these “complex religious matters”, because they are listed as utmost top-secret, even if the state does not extend the duration of the protection clause when it expires, yet it will take 30 more years from now for this information to be publicly released.

If we think back about the story about the crackdown in the Central Highlands in 2004 mentioned earlier in this article, which the state considers a complex religious situation, the public may not know about the story’s facts until at least 2034.

Currently, Vietnam does not have any law that defines how a religious issue can fall under this “complex matter” category; it all depends on the perspectives of the VCP and the state.

This article was written in Vietnamese by Thai Thanh and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on January 27, 2021. The English translation was done by Jade NG.

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