What Religious Freedom Means in Vietnam
By Michael Benge*
June 12, 2011
For many Vietnam veterans, Memorial Day was for remembering not only those Americans who died in the Vietnam War, but also our counterparts -- the Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians who died fighting for freedom, and for all who still suffer persecution under the brutal communist regimes of those countries.
It seemed that Vietnam's wave of human rights violations and religious persecution might have peaked with the arrest and detention of over 1,500 activists for democracy, human rights, and religious freedom prior to the nation's 11th Congress of the Communist Party, but the brutal communist regime may have outdone itself with last month's reported slaughter of over 75 ethnic Hmong Christians. Hundreds more were wounded and/or arrested and taken to undisclosed locations.
An estimated 9,000 Hmong, mainly Catholics and Protestant Christians, gathered in the Muong Nhe district in North Vietnam's Dien Bien province on May 1 to honor the beatification of Pope John Paul II. According to Catholic sources, the late "Polish Pope," who had opposed both fascist Nazis forces and communist totalitarianism, is a source of inspiration to many Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, and Hmong Christian believers due to the courageous moral conduct of his life and his powerful call to "be not afraid" in challenging social injustice and Stalinist-type regimes around the world.
The religious services honoring the pope evolved into peaceful protests by Hmong seeking religious freedom and the cessation of human rights abuses, institutional corruption, social injustice, and land-grabbing. Dien Bien is one of Vietnam's poorest provinces, located in the remote and mountainous area bordering Laos and China. The province's estimated 170,000 Hmong represent 35 percent of its population (1.24% of VN's total), with the Hmong earning less than a tenth of the average annual income of the Vietnamese.
As was the case during similar protests by Montagnard Christians in 2001 in the Central Highlands, and in true fascist form, communist officials overreacted by deploying thousands of troops, special police, and MI-24 "Hind" helicopter gunships. All outside communication was shut down, the electricity was cut off, the province was cordoned off to prevent anyone from entering or leaving, and all news media and foreigners were banned from the area. Some Hmong demonstrators were able to escape into the nearby mountains, where they were hunted by heliborne "Dac Cong" Special Forces units. Some of the fleeing Hmong are reported to have been summarily executed when caught. At least two Hmong mountain villages and several enclaves suspected of harboring fleeing protesters were attacked by the gunships armed with rockets, cannons, and Gatling guns. It is not known how many were killed or wounded.
Ethnic cleansing "is a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas" (Commission of Experts Established Pursuant to United Nations Security Council Resolution 780). With the Montagnards in 2001, and currently with the Hmong, the Vietnamese communist regime is guilty as sin of ethnic cleansing.
Article 70 of the 1992 Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam provides that "the citizen shall enjoy freedom of belief and religion; he can follow any religion or follow none. All religions are equal before the law. The places of worship of all faiths and religions are protected by the law. No one can violate freedom of belief and of religion[.]"
However, Article 70 contains this caveat: "nor can anyone misuse beliefs and religions to contravene the law, and State policies." This caveat is further defined in the Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions, not to mention the Constitution (Government Decree 22/2005) and Government Decree 26/1999 that is based on a directive of the Communist Party (No.37 CT/TW).
The laws cited above are full of ambiguities and contradictions and provide no criteria as to what is considered "misuse," but they fundamentally state that all religions, religious denominations, churches, clergy, and religious activities must be approved by the central government in order to be legal. Ethnic minority Christians are regularly harassed, beaten, and tortured in attempts by communist officials to force them to renounce their beliefs in God. The Vietnamese government is now proposing amendments to the already harsh existing laws that will further restrict freedom of worship and all church-related activities.
Vietnam requires that the bestowal of religious titles ("Bishop" and "Cardinal" in particular) must be approved by the government, which on several occasions has rejected candidates proposed by the Vatican. Vietnamese officials will not allow Catholic priests to serve the four Catholic communities in the Dien Bien region in what is called a "white zone," in which the level of religious restriction is the highest in the country.
Anyone who participates in unauthorized religious activities, including outdoor prayer services, protests, or demonstrations, is guilty of "undermining Vietnam's national unity," a crime that carries a prison sentence of ten years or more. Even if the Hmong Christians had not held peaceful protests, the mere fact that they conducted open-air prayer services to honor the beatification of Pope John Paul II makes them subject to arrest and imprisonment.
During the Hmong protests, the Vietnamese communist propaganda machine had agitprop specialists, communist church clerics, and secret police out in force mingling with the protesters. Some propagandists declared that they were "awaiting God to take them to the Promised Land," while others claimed to advocate the establishment of an autonomous Hmong kingdom. These disinformation themes gave Vietnamese authorities an excuse to label the protestors as "cult members," "irredentists," "extremists," and "anti-revolutionary activists," thereby justifying the use of armed force against Hmong Christian believers.
These themes have been repeated over and over again by Hanoi's state-run media and, unfortunately, many foreign news media willing to parrot their propaganda. The Vietnamese communists subscribe to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels' theory that if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.
Human rights groups have called for investigations into the atrocities, and the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi has also vowed to investigate the matter. However, the truth may never be known. A trickle of information has come from VietCatholic and Vatican news services, and from some local NGOs that somehow circumvented the shutdown of communications. The Vietnamese communist apparatus restricts free travel and controls all media, and the communist officials and their puppet clerics are the only ones allowed to speak to foreign officials and news reporters. Outsiders are closely watched by the police. Foreigners are not allowed to freely travel in the area and must always be accompanied by government chaperones.
The State Department will no doubt mention the persecuted Hmong Christians in its Annual Report on Human Rights. Yet State has continually refused to do anything that might be deemed punitive, such as designating Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern regarding religious persecution, which might upset the delicate feelings of the communist regime. Needless to say, President Obama seems oblivious to the ongoing religious persecution and human rights abuses.
In other words, the band plays on.
* Michael Benge spent eleven years in Vietnam as a Foreign Service Officer and five years as a POW. He is a student of Southeast Asian politics. He is very active in advocating for human rights and religious freedom and has written extensively on these subjects.
Vietnam Human Rights Network