Civil Society Groups Propose Recommendations for Vietnam Ahead of Periodic Human Rights Review Representatives of four non-governmental organizations on Feb.
Vietnam: The Faces We Should Not Forget on Human Rights Day
On Human Rights Day,  Dec. 10, we would like to use the stories of Dang Dinh Bach, Tinh That Bong Lai’s Buddhist practitioners, and Nguyen Van Chuong to wrap up and paint an overall picture of the human rights situation in Vietnam in recent years. Their precarious conditions point towards the country's shrinking civil society space. At the same time, they exemplify the Communist regime's hostility to autonomous religious groups and its defective criminal justice system.
In 2021, the Vietnamese government arrested the leaders of several non-profit organizations and accused them of “tax evasion” - the launch of its crackdown on the country’s civil sector. Dang Dinh Bach, a Hanoi-based community lawyer and director of a social advocacy group, was arrested. He is now serving a five-year sentence in prison.
Last year, members of “Tịnh Thất Bồng Lai,” also known as Thiền Am Bên Bờ Vũ Trụ (A small monastery on the edge of the universe),  an independent Buddhist monastery in Vietnam’s southern province of Long An, were detained and charged with “abusing democratic freedoms.” Its monks, nuns, and the children raised by its orphanage have been smeared in the state media for months ahead of their trial, repeatedly condemning adherents for “committing fraud” and “incest.” In the same year, they were convicted and sentenced  to various prison terms; the evidence was a short video clip published on social media that allegedly defamed a state-affiliated monk.
This August, the authorities announced the execution  of Nguyen Van Chuong, prompting public outrage. Chuong was a death-row inmate wrongfully convicted of homicide in a 2007 murder incident. He had been held in prison for nearly two decades despite Chuong’s repeated claims of innocence and the lack of credible evidence to indict him. After receiving too much public opposition, the authorities halted Chuong's execution. His life is currently up in the air.
Unlike other eminent Vietnamese human rights activists, Bach, Tinh That Bong Lai practitioners, and Chuong are ordinary citizens who became the victims of injustice in Vietnam. Despite having different social backgrounds, their sufferings point towards one fact: anyone could become a target of an authoritarian regime.
Vietnam signed a free trade agreement with the European Union in 2019, in which the government agreed to consult with local civil society, including Bach’s organization, to monitor and roll out development projects. After successfully securing the deal, Hanoi became more emboldened and started to crack down on these nonprofit organizations, using “tax evasion” charges. Although most jailed civil society leaders had their sentences reduced and have already been released, partly due to international pressure, Bach continues to suffer in prison.
Tran Phuong Thao, Bach’s wife, told The Vietnamese Magazine that she believed her husband received a harsher sentence than other NGO leaders because of “his resolute attitude of not compromising, not admitting guilt” when he was innocent. Meanwhile, during his detention, Bach continued to speak out for prisoners' rights, Thao said, provoking the ire of the authorities. As a result, he has been seriously assaulted and is being subjected to terrible abuse and coercion in prison.
Such an uncompromising attitude is also reflected in the case of the Buddhist practitioners of Tinh That Bong Lai, especially its head monk - Le Tung Van. For years, the monastery has operated as an independent orphanage and a spiritual sanctuary for Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương followers, a Buddhist sect popular in southern Vietnam. They refused to join the state-controlled Vietnam Buddhist Church (VBC), claiming that this organization did not genuinely represent their faith.
In September 2022, the police illegally collected the DNA samples of Van and other practitioners at the monastery to investigate the alleged crime of “incest,” violating their privacy rights. But as of December 2023, the investigators still have not released the investigation results.
Attorney Dang Dinh Manh, one of the defense lawyers of Tinh That Bong Lai, told The Vietnamese Magazine that the government's message through its repression of the monastery is that they don't welcome and will punish religious establishments that do not voluntarily join the VBC. "The incident of Thiền Am Bên Bờ Vũ Trụ is a typical religious persecution committed by the Vietnamese government,” Manh added.
Other religious sects across Vietnam now share the same perilous fate as Tinh That Bong Lai, predominantly Christian and Protestant groups in the country's Central Highlands. Many of them are forced to become part of state-approved religious groups; others are disbanded while their leaders are living in exile. Moreover, a majority of the Christian and Protestant followers in Vietnam come from ethnic minority groups, prompting concerns over the government's discrimination towards indigenous populations.
Also this year, the public's call for an overhauling of Vietnam's criminal justice system and the abolition of its death penalty was kindled after the family of Nguyen Van Chuong, a wrongful death row inmate, received a notice from the Hai Phong People’s Court announcing they would soon execute Chuong, who was convicted of murder, divulged that the police brutally tortured him to make him give fabricated testimony. Chuong’s harrowing death penalty exemplifies the fates of other wrongfully convicted death-row prisoners in Vietnam, including Le Van Manh, who was executed last September, and Ho Duy Hai.
Nguyen Truong Chinh, Chuong's father, told The Vietnamese Magazine that after more than four months, the government kept its silence and had not yet disclosed whether it would halt Chuong's execution. “My family and I lived in fear because when they were silent, they could execute him on any day. Le Van Manh, another wrongful death-row inmate, was executed on Sept. 22, 2023, four days after the government notified Manh's family that it would execute him.” He added on Human Rights Day, he wanted more people to know that “Vietnam has no human rights.”
Right now, Dang Dinh Bach, Tinh That Bong Lai monks and Nguyen Van Chuong continue to languish in prison while their unjust convictions and incarcerations are receiving less and less public attention. Therefore, on Human Rights Day, we would like to focus on these people, highlight the urgent need to push for their release, guarantee their safety and safeguard their legitimate rights.
In prison, Bach asked his wife, Thao, to help him spread these words to the international community on his behalf. Thao agreed to share them with The Vietnamese Magazine:
“I have accompanied the journey of seeking justice with abused and marginalized communities across Vietnam.
I witnessed so many miserable people being deprived of their land and livelihoods, and being banned, bullied, and deprived of information so that they could not have the opportunity to speak up and seek justice and human rights when they had to face environmental pollution and social injustice.
I hope the voice of the international community will contribute to eliminating this situation and stop the politicization of human rights issues as well as the government's conduct of imprisoning human rights activists in Vietnam.”
 United Nations. (n.d.). Human Rights Day | United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/observances/human-rights-day
 Nguyen, J. (2022a, July 15). The case of Tinh That Bong Lai Temple: What you need to know. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2022/07/the-case-of-tinh-that-bong-lai-temple-what-you-need-to-know/
 Nguyen, J. (2022b, July 23). Tinh that Bong Lai practitioners sentenced to combined more than 23 years in prison. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2022/07/tinh-that-bong-lai-practitioners-sentenced-to-combined-more-than-23-years-in-prison/
 Tran, Q. (2023, August 5). Nguyen Van Chuong: A Wrongful Conviction in Vietnam's Criminal Justice System. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2023/08/nguyen-van-chuong-a-wrongful-conviction-in-vietnams-criminal-justice-system/