This article was published by F18News on: 14 July 2005
VIETNAM: Three fundamental causes of persecution remain
By Magda Hornemann, Forum 18 News Service
Despite three new legal documents on religion since last November, government harassment
of religious communities has not eased. Prison sentences on Mennonite pastor Nguyen Hong Quang and a colleague were confirmed
in April, two Hoa Hao Buddhists were given prison sentences and massive fines the same month for distributing the teachings
of their movement's founder, while Hmong Protestants in the north-west were beaten by local officials and had their properties
confiscated in May. The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and numerous Protestant churches remain outlawed. A comparison
of the situation five years ago and today shows no change in the fundamental causes of persecution: the restrictions on unregistered
religious activity, the interference in the activity of registered religious communities and the lack of a transparent line
of command from the central government to local officials which allows local violations to continue. If religious freedom
is to improve, these three causes of persecution will be crucial benchmarks of change.
Over the past year, Vietnam has implemented three new legal documents on religion: a new ordinance
on religious affairs and two prime ministerial decrees on how that ordinance should be implemented. The ordinance officially
went into effect in November 2004 and ostensibly replaced the 1999 prime ministerial decree as the controlling government
document on religion – hence the ordinance's importance (for an analysis of the ordinance see F18News 21 September 2004
http://forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=415 ). This piece of legislation, along with the two implementation decrees –
one of which specifically addresses Protestant Christian issues - was hailed by Vietnamese officials as an indication that
their government was taking greater strides toward protecting people's right to "believe or not believe" in religion.
during this 12-month period, the government continued to violate religious freedom. On 8 June 2004, just days before the religious
affairs ordinance was promulgated, Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang, a leader of the non state-sanctioned Mennonite Church, was arrested
on charges related to an altercation in March 2004, when police allegedly entered the Mennonite church in Ho Chi Minh City
(Saigon) where Quang had lived and worked, and harassed other church workers. Pastor Quang was sentenced to three years in
prison in November 2004, the month when the religious affairs ordinance went into effect. In April 2005, a court upheld Pastor
Quang's sentence and that of his associate, the Mennonite evangelist Pham Ngoc Thach.
In late September 2004, according
to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of local officials and police in the Central Highland province of Kon Tum arrived at the home
of another Mennonite pastor, Nguyen Cong Chinh. They confiscated his belongings and burned his home and chapel, which were
later bulldozed. Two months later, a court in the province of Dak Nong, also in the Central Highlands, sentenced 17 ethnic
minority Protestants to up to 10 years in prison for undermining national security for joining an April 2004 protest against
religious repression and land confiscation. In May 2005, Hmong Protestant Christians in Vietnam's north-western provinces
told Radio Free Asia that they were beaten by local officials and that their properties were confiscated.
between the Catholic Church and the government remain tense as the communist regime continues to interfere in the training,
appointment and assignment of priests. Father Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly, who has become one of the most prominent Vietnamese
dissidents in recent years, was released from prison in February 2005 as part of the government's general amnesty to 8,000
prisoners and the same month, the government approved the appointment of Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet as Archbishop of Hanoi, replacing
the ailing Cardinal Pham Dinh Tung. Yet the government's record of interference in church affairs had prompted the Archbishop
of Hue to tell Asia News in November 2004 that the new religious ordinance will continue to limit the Catholic Church's ability
to conduct its own affairs.
During the same period, the state has maintained its control over non-Christian religious
communities and committed violations against members of those communities. In June 2004, just as the new religious ordinance
was promulgated, a Hoa Hao organisation in the United States reported that the Vietnamese government elevated a state-appointed
administrative committee – headed by a long-time communist – that has been managing the religious community. The
re-named Central Administrative Council arbitrarily replaced the charter of the religious community with a new one and changed
the regulations governing the Hoa Hao Ancestral Temple, which is perceived by many Hoa Hao Buddhists to remain the property
of the family of the religion's founder, Huynh Phu So.
In February 2005, according to the same US-based Hoa Hao organisation,
two Hoa Hao Buddhists, Tran Van Hoang and Tran Van Thang, were arrested at their home in the province of An Giang for the
unauthorised distribution of compact discs and cassettes containing Huynh Phu So's teachings. In April, the brothers were
handed prison sentences of nine and six months respectively, while Hoang was also fined 20 million dongs (8,247 Norwegian
kroner, 1,040 Euros or 1,260 US dollars) and Thang 10 million dongs. These are astronomical sums, given that Vietnam's annual
per capita GDP is only some 500 US dollars. In August 2004, according to Agence France Presse, a cleric of the indigenous
Cao Dai religion was arrested for illegal preaching.
In addition, the government has continued to outlaw the Unified
Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), the dominant Buddhist organisation before the communists reunified the country in 1975.
In May 2005, according to the Paris-based International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB), police interrogated several young
monks in the Nguyen Thieu Monastery, where the UBCV Patriarch, the Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, is under "pagoda arrest".
They were accused of disseminating special messages by the patriarch and his deputy, the Venerable Thich Quang Do, commemorating
the birth of the Buddha and threatened with expulsion if they did not immediately cease all affiliations and contacts with
Such continued harassment has led many critics of the new religious ordinance to conclude that it is simply
"old wine in new wineskins". Truong Tri Hien, a former leader of the unregistered Mennonite Church in Ho Chi Minh City now
in exile, argued that the three documents contain considerable contradictions which provide opportunities for local officials
to interpret and enforce these regulations at their own discretion (for Hien's personal commentary, see F18News 6 July 2005
http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=598 ). Put simply, Hien and others argue that the government's policy on religion
remains unchanged - and repressive.
While difficult to challenge this assessment of the regulations, it may be premature
to conclude that government policy will not be affected by them. After all, the ordinance only went into effect seven months
ago, and the two decrees even more recently. It is difficult to imagine how any government can reverse policies and practices
that have been in existence for nearly thirty years with one stroke of the pen, let alone a government that has had very strained
relations with the religious communities.
Moreover, even if policies are easy to change, mindsets are not. Communist
party and government officials mostly remain trapped in the anti-religion mindset. Furthermore, even if any of the officials
were remotely sympathetic to the plight of religious believers, they would likely still give priority to their personal political
and professional interests. More time may be required before it is clear how far these regulations will eventually effect
real changes in the state of religious freedom.
However, how much time is sufficient to reach a solid conclusion about
the impact of this latest round of regulations? Given that it was approximately five years ago in April 1999 that the government
last promulgated a prime ministerial decree on religious affairs, five years may be a useful reference point to make such
an assessment. Moreover, it was around this time in 1998 that the United States became the first – and so far only –
country to enact a law that required its government to issue annual reports on the conditions of religious freedom across
the globe, and Vietnam's religious freedom conditions very quickly became the focus of US congressional attention, particularly
when the two countries signed and ratified their Bilateral Trade Agreement.
Five years ago, the UBCV was already a
banned religious organisation. The patriarch was already under pagoda arrest and the second-ranking leader of the group was
under regular surveillance by the government. Government officials harassed UBCV monks, preventing them from conducting charitable
acts such as flood relief. Some were not even permitted to renovate the pagodas where they lived. Ultimately, in 2001, the
Venerable Thich Quang Do was placed under house arrest in punishment for trying to organise other monks and nuns to take the
UBCV patriarch from his place of confinement in Quang Ngai province to Ho Chi Minh City for medical care.
the patriarch has been allowed to seek medical care outside his place of confinement and met the prime minister in 2003, who
reportedly told the patriarch that his confinement and that of the Venerable Thich Quang Do resulted from "mistakes" by local
officials. Following this meeting, the government terminated the detention order against the patriarch. Yet, after UBCV leaders
met to discuss UBCV affairs, both the patriarch and the Venerable Thich Quang Do were re-confined to their residences, where
they remain today, while some of the other monks who participated in this meeting were sentenced to long-term administrative
About five years ago, the government had just conferred recognition on Cao Daism (1997) and Hoa Hao Buddhism
(1999) (for an analysis of the backgrounds of these indigenous Vietnamese religions see F18News 28 July 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=378
). The key pre-condition for state recognition of both religions was the establishment of state-appointed administrative organs
for them. By all accounts, these state impositions faced strong resistance. In fact, in 2000, some Hoa Hao Buddhist leaders
attempted to establish a management organ apart from the state-approved one, leading to the imprisonment of several Hoa Hao
Buddhists. Adherents of Cao Daism have also been arrested and imprisoned, including two in October 1998 who tried to meet
the visiting United Nations Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance. They were held for two years.
The issue of
management has not been the only issue confronting Hoa Hao Buddhism and Cao Daism. Hoa Hao Buddhists have repeatedly complained
that the government has refused to publish all the writings by the founder of the religion. They have also felt that the communist
regime has never provided a satisfactory explanation for his death, which many Hoa Hao Buddhists suspect was at the hands
of the communists. Adherents of Cao Daism have complained that the government has not permitted them to conduct the necessary
rituals for selecting their clerics. However, for adherents of both faiths, the key complaint against the state, aside from
the state's imposition of the management organs, is that it has not returned properties confiscated after 1975.
the Catholic Church in Vietnam has had better relations with the Hanoi government than other religious communities, partly
because of the significant role Catholicism has come to play in Vietnam's modern history. It is also a reflection of the communist
regime's desire to normalise relations with the Vatican. The Vatican and Hanoi had long worked on an agreement over the procedure
for appointing bishops. Nonetheless, the government retains inordinate control over selecting seminarians and assigning priests
to parishes. This state interference has left the Church complaining of too few priests to serve the growing Catholic community.
The Catholics also face the problem of confiscated properties, many of which remain unreturned.
These issues were already
on the agenda in talks between the Vietnamese government and the Catholic Church when Father Ly, viewed by some Vietnamese
Catholic clerics as a maverick, was arrested for joining other Vietnamese religious leaders in trying to establish an interfaith
organisation independent of the state. In the eyes of the communist regime, his crime was compounded soon after when he submitted
written testimony about the state of religious freedom to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
in Washington. Eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison, his recent release was most likely the result of extensive foreign
pressure on the Vietnamese government.
For Protestant Christians, the situation five years ago was grim. Although the
state finally recognised the Evangelical Church in the south in 2001, the unregistered house church community faced constant
harassment from local officials. Although some unregistered Protestant leaders, including Pastor Quang, were "invited" to
visit the head of the Religious Affairs Committee in 2002, the meeting yielded no positive results. Pastor Quang was indeed
eventually arrested and imprisoned. In the meantime, religious minorities in the Central Highlands and the north-western provinces
were actively repressed, with a steady flow of reports detailing the gruesome means by which local and provincial officials
forced the religious minorities in these areas to renounce their faith. Demonstrations from 2000 by the Central Highlanders
culminated in mass marches in February 2001, whose main grievances against the state were the confiscation of properties and
the denial of religious freedom. These demonstrations resulted in an overwhelming state crackdown that landed numerous Central
Highlanders in prison while forcing others to flee across the border to Cambodia.
This brief overview has demonstrated
the remarkable similarity between the state of religious freedom five years ago and today. None of the issues then on the
agenda has been resolved. Not only has the government failed to end attempts to control and repress religious communities,
some have even argued that the regime has found new instruments of control, in part through the newly-promulgated religious
ordinance. Some Protestant leaders maintain that the government is now employing the Evangelical Church of Vietnam in the
south as a means to control Protestant congregations in the Central Highlands. In effect, the regime is attempting to curtail
Protestant activities there by only allowing congregations registered as part of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam in the
south to function.
Although this overview leads to the depressing conclusion that the communist regime has failed to
improve its policy and practice toward religious communities, it has also yielded a few benchmarks by which foreign governments
and organisations can assess how much genuine progress in protecting religious freedom will have taken place five years from
First, it is clear that the communist regime must end its ban on certain religious communities and restrictions
on the activities of any religious community simply because it has not been approved by the state. One of the fundamental
causes of harassment of individual communities is the very fact that the regime has demonstrated no willingness to cease or
at least restrain its arbitrary power to deny state recognition to some religious groups. Without change in this fundamental
policy, no changes in regulations will bring about genuine religious freedom.
Second, the regime must also be willing
to cease its control over state-sanctioned religious communities. No genuine religious freedom can exist unless religious
communities can determine their own affairs in accordance with their own wishes and regulations. The new religious ordinance
is unlikely to help promote religious freedom as it continues to stipulate the state's prerogative in determining who may
lead religious communities and what those communities can do.
Finally, there is no clear and predictable line of authority
in which the central government is ultimately held accountable for all official policies and practices, allowing harassment
of religious communities to continue unchecked at local level. In the new religious ordinance and its predecessor, the provincial
and local governments have been conferred powers to manage religious affairs in their areas. While this is rational - central
government would not be burdened with the minutiae of administering state policies on a local level - this approach is filled
with potential pitfalls: the central government can always attribute religious freedom violations to over-zealous or corrupt
local officials, as did the prime minister to the UBCV patriarch. Without ensuring that the central government will ultimately
be held accountable for religious freedom violations, it will be difficult to advance genuine religious freedom in Vietnam.
38 of the new religious ordinance stipulates that should any provisions of the ordinance conflict with stipulations in international
treaties that Vietnam has signed, "the regulations prescribed by the international treaties shall prevail". Vietnam has acceded
to a number of human rights conventions guaranteeing religious freedom, including the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights. Whether or not the Vietnamese government means what it says when it claims to want to implement religious
freedom will depend on whether it can meet these three crucial tests.
For a personal commentary on the
latest legal moves, arguing that the Vietnamese government should be judged by its continuing attacks on its own citizens'
religious freedom, and pleading for action to be taken against to government to force it to abide by international human rights
standards. see F18News 6 July 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=598
For an analysis and commentary,
arguing that trade alone will not bring religious freedom and advocating consistent foreign pressure to support the Vietnamese
people's struggle for religious freedom, see F18News 2 February 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=242
an analysis of the Ordinance on Belief and Religion, see F18News 21 September 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=415
a report on state interference in the indigenous Vietnamese religions of Cao Daism and Hoa Hao Buddhism, see F18News 28 July
VIETNAM 22 YEARS AFTER UNIFIED UNDER COMMUNISM
Before April 30, 1975, the propaganda system of the Communist
regime in Ha Noi had concentrated great efforts to depreciate the non-Communist regime in South Vietnam. It tried the best
to prove that everything done by the South Vietnamese government was wrong or false or corrupt.
After 22 years, the Hanoi government has done nothing better
than what the South Vietnamese had in 1955 when the late President Ngo Dinh Diem came to power.
1. Though annual economic growth is reported at 8 to 9 percent
during the last few years, the gap between the rich and the poor gets larger and larger. The South Vietnamese peasants' life
are much worse than during the war. This year, despite the fact that rice production in the Mekong delta greatly increases,
the farmers earned much less. Hanoi is selling rice at very low price for hard currency and the farmers suffered. Meanwhile,
people in many mountainous areas particularly in North Vietnam are frequently facing starvation.
In 1975, South Vietnam was better than the Southeast Asian
countries in every aspect though it was in war especially in freedom of speech. Now those countries are taking advantages
of Hanoi's ill management to exploit cheap labor and natural resources, not much different from what the French colonialist
regime had done before 1945.
2. Corruption becomes out of control and it seems that there
is no way to stop it. Everyone in Vietnam admits that corruption now is at least a hundred times more than under the former
Saigon government. Authorities at any branch, any level are squeezing bribes from all walks of life, businesses of all sizes,
in all kinds of services. The poorest - sidewalk peddlers, cyclo drivers - are not spared. The lowest bribe is a filter cigarette,
the highest is unknown, but certainly both extremes exceed those in the former regimes.
3. Education suffers a serious downgrade, both in culture
and in ethics as well as knowledge in science and technology. Communist high ranking cadre Tran Bach Dang has admitted that
South Vietnamese students in 1975 were much more polite than those in North Vietnam.
Social evils such as prostitution, drugs, sex related diseases,
gambling, organized crimes, homicdes are rising several times higher than when America troops were still in South Vietnam.
4. The South Vietnamese regime had a relatively stable judiciary
system with every efficient law and regulation for a free economy. Since April 30, 1975, the communist regime has revoked
all laws in South Vietnam without replacing the new ones, because they had none. Handful of newly enacted laws and regulations
since 1985 are ambiguous and can be amended overnight without notice. The more and more worsening red tape fosters corruption
and hinders economic reforms and management, and foreign investment.
South Vietnam representatives in various international conferences
were often elected to be chairmen or vice chairmen of the presiding panels. South Vietnam foreign ministry was also entrusted
with drafting the UN convention governing the rights over the waters and continent shelves. It is impossible to say when the
Hanoi government will be capable to be given some similar tasks..
5. Environment protection has been ignored or just belittled.
Forests were destroyed at least 4 times (estimated in 1982) than that defoliated by American and South Vietnamese armed forces
in war. Abuse of quick lime as insecticide in North Vietnam seriously reduced the population of birds and particularly fishes
in most water bodies. South Vietnam suffers the same by ill planned irrigation canals.
6. Since the 1980's, Hanoi government restored almost everything
that it had abolished in South Vietnam in 1975. A few examples, in education: re-establishing the school surveyors in charge
of discipline and study; re-establishing the "baccalaureate part I and part II" (high school diploma part I after 11th grade
and part II after 12th grade) ; restoring school uniform. However, while Hanoi is building up large national revenues, money
allocated to education are below 11 percent of national budget, or around $7 per student a year.
7. Before 1975 in SVN, only the central government ran national
reconstruction lottery, selling less than 700.000 tickets a week. It was attacked bitterly by Hanoi propaganda. Since 1976,
dozen provinces have been running lotteries and selling several million tickets a day, each drawing prizes daily.
7. South Vietnam has many times won various Asian sports championship
in tennis, table tennis, soccer. For the last. 22 years under the Hanoi regime, sports have suffered a lot. Teams and individual
athletes won no prize. A German soccer coach who had been training the South Vietnamese national soccer team before 1975 returned
to Vietnam a few years ago in a contract to train a national team but he resigned a few months ago because a disagreement
with the communist authorities and , understandable, because of despair over the ill management and political interference.
Most of the matches in Vietnam today end up with politically
8. If the Communist leaders in Hanoi had kept their promise
of reconciliation after April 30, 1975, had had not locked up several hundred thousand former South Vietnamese officers and
civil servants in concentration camps for years, their Communist regime would certainly face little opposition and would have
built a prosperous Vietnam, far better than any Southeast Asian countries.
YOUNG VIETNAMESE LIVING IN FOREIGN COUNTRIES!
You are young patriots who may think a lot about Vietnam,
your mother country.
The best way you should do to help our beloved nation and
people is to liberate Vietnam from the Hanoi dictators by the most peaceful way possible and conforming to the laws of the
countries you are living..
Join any Vietnamese party or movement or organization that
aim at democracy, freedom and human rights for Vietnam among the Vietnamese émigrés. You will be the main force unifying the
Vietnamese patriots abroad in struggling for the better Vietnam.
BELIEVE IN OUR VICTORY.
Before November 1991, who could have thought that the formidable
Soviet Union would collapse without shedding a drop of blood, even after the disintegration of the Eastern European Communism?