The Vietnamese Government’s Oppression of Religion

The government oppresses religion to control further and stabilize its regime.

The Vietnamese Government’s Oppression  of Religion
Graphics: Luat Khoa Magazine.

This article was published in Luat Khoa Magazine on May 24, 2023. Lee Nguyen translated this into English.

Religious groups in Vietnam face constant government oppression.

In late December 2022, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken placed Vietnam on the U.S. Special Watch List for religious freedom.

In March 2023, the Vietnam Government Committee for Religious Affairs released a White Paper attempting to counter the U.S. claims about the lack of religious freedom in the country.

Despite government claims about the existence of religious freedom in Vietnam, the following month, authorities in Cao Bang Province forcibly coerced many Hmong people to renounce the Dương Văn Mình religion.

That same month, 70 international organizations and religious freedom experts sent a letter demanding that the U.S. secretary of state speak out against the Vietnamese government's oppression of religious groups.

And by early May 2023, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reported that religious freedom in Vietnam was increasingly deteriorating.

After the U.S. placed Vietnam on the Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list for religious freedom from 2004-2006, the country made slight improvements in its treatment of religious groups. However, the current situation in Vietnam indicates that government repression has become increasingly severe.

Vietnam’s System of Religious Control

Several surveillance systems have been placed all over the Central Highlands. If any unusual religious activity is caught on these cameras, police officers will immediately arrive at the scene.

Many ethnic minorities live in remote areas of the region, and they face severe control by the Vietnamese government. These are also the places that heavily suppress religious freedom.

The state aims to preserve the current religious landscape by preventing the formation of new religious groups that challenge the authority which only recognizes the 16 officially recognized organizations. These organizations are under extensive state control, including interference in appointing religious leaders.

Compliance with government arrangements is crucial for these religious representatives to maintain their position in the regulated religious environment. However, this control raises concerns about religious freedom and limits diversity of expression. Balancing stability and autonomy is essential for fostering an inclusive society that respects individual rights to religious practice and encourages diversity.

In addition, the police constantly monitor and prevent the emergence of any new religious groups. Vietnamese law states that religious activities can only be held in authorized locations, and followers cannot discreetly gather in their homes for religious observances.

Meanwhile, the demand for participation in diverse religions beyond those officially recognized by the state is increasing. However, these alternative belief systems are suppressed and subjected to administrative penalties while their followers are forced to abandon their faith.

In addition to the jurisdiction of state management agencies, most political and social organizations, such as the Vietnam Women's Union, Veterans Association of Vietnam, and the Viet Nam Farmer's Union, are given the task of monitoring and reporting on religious activities at the local level.

The media activities of religious groups are also comprehensively controlled. Only registered religious organizations are authorized to operate media outlets under certain conditions.

Religion functions as an entity that is separate from the state. However, the government prohibits religious organizations from directly buying and transferring land use rights. Religious groups have to navigate through a series of approval and allocation procedures by the state, which is a blatant example of how the government exercises control over religion through land allocation rights.

In April 2023, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Marc E. Knapper emphasized various religious freedom issues to the Vietnam Government Committee for Religious Affairs, including simplifying religious activity registration procedures and addressing the many obstacles created by local government units.

Religious Freedom Enhances Social Freedom

Members of religious groups are at the forefront of practicing individual freedom, making them pioneers in fighting for the rights of the people.

Religious followers exercise freedom of thought when they voluntarily place their faith in a particular religion. They exercise freedom of speech and expression when interpreting, discussing, and propagating religious doctrines through various media outlets. They utilize freedom of association to gather members and form religious communities. They exercise freedom of religion by promoting their religious organizations. Likewise, they can use their religious groups to participate in the political system.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states these rights belong to all individuals, regardless of religion or ethnicity.

Article 30 of this declaration states, “Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein”.

However, the Vietnamese government permanently restricts and controls these rights because it believes they will affect national security, social order, and regime stability. This makes religious followers the primary target of the government.

In truth, the Vietnamese government only guarantees these rights within limited boundaries and only for licensed religious organizations that have undergone proper screening to ensure that their actions do not negatively affect the status quo of Vietnamese politics.

For religious groups that do not have the state’s blessing, the government frames their activities as risks to national security. This is used as justification to suppress or eliminate these organizations.

From Religious Freedom to Political Freedom

Preserving political freedoms, such as the right to establish political parties, can be closely linked to the assurance of religious freedom. Both religious and political organizations share certain similarities in their formation and operation. However, the fundamental difference lies in the fact that religious doctrines guide religious organizations, while political organizations aim to attract individuals who share common political ideologies.

The rights that empower individuals to exercise their religious freedom also play a significant role in their political liberties. Thus, in a society where political freedoms are suppressed, the guarantee of religious freedom is also compromised. Regrettably, Vietnam is a poignant example of such a situation, where religious freedom remains more of an illusion than a tangible reality.

Within Vietnam, the exercise of political liberties faces severe restrictions due to the lack of platforms for the free press, fair elections, and freedom of speech. Despite these oppressive conditions, a resounding call for religious freedom resonates among most people. Their fervent struggle for the right to practice their religion without hindrance extends beyond the confines of religious liberties alone. Instead, it encompasses a broader fight to preserve all Vietnamese citizens' civil liberties and human rights.

In this ongoing battle, the faithful lead the charge, recognizing that the quest for religious freedom intertwines with the pursuit of other fundamental rights. They stand as staunch advocates, not only for their own religious beliefs but also as champions for the collective rights and freedoms of all individuals within the nation.

The aspiration for religious freedom serves as a driving force that empowers individuals and acts as a catalyst for broader social change. By striving for religious liberty, they laid the foundation for recognising and protecting various civil liberties, ensuring that all Vietnamese citizens could exercise their rights freely and without fear of reprisal.

In the pursuit of a genuinely democratic and inclusive society, the struggle for religious freedom serves as a critical cornerstone. The path towards a more just and equitable Vietnam can be paved through the realisation of this fundamental right. By championing the cause of religious freedom, individuals are simultaneously advocating for the greater realization of political liberties, creating a society where the rights and voices of all citizens are acknowledged, respected, and protected.

The fight for religious freedom in Vietnam is not merely an isolated battle but a vital component in the broader struggle for advancing civil liberties and human rights. It is a testament to the unwavering dedication of individuals who recognize the interdependence of various freedoms and are committed to securing a better future for all Vietnamese citizens.

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