Vietnam – Still Fighting for the same freedoms, 30 years on
By Paul Marshall
Since what happened in Vietnam 30 years ago is a hot topic these days, it's worth asking what's happening there now. The answer is not edifying: The Communist government is currently engaged in a massive crackdown on two overlapping bodies, its ethnic minorities and its religious believers.
Proclaiming a new era of openness, on June 18, the national assembly's standing committee passed an "ordinance regarding religious beliefs and religious organizations," due to come into effect on November 15. (Translation here.) The authorities say the ordinance will guarantee "citizens' freedom of belief and religion," and Article 1 does affirm, "The government guarantees the right of freedom of religious beliefs and of having a religion for its citizens. Nobody is permitted to violate this freedom." However, this is followed by 40 articles that gut this guarantee almost completely.
Hence, Article 8.2 reads, "It is forbidden to abuse the right to freedom of religious belief and religion to undermine peace, independence and national unity...to disseminate information against the State's prevailing laws and policies; to sow division among the people...to spread superstitious practices and to commit any other acts which breach the law." To identify such "superstitious practices," this officially atheist government has, like China's, set itself up as the interpreter of right theology and has labeled Vang Chu's evangelical church and the Degar Protestant church as "heretical."
Two weeks ago, the Vietnamese Evangelical Fellowship, an association of unregistered house churches, asked that the ordinance be withdrawn and, earlier in August, three Catholic priests and human-rights activists, Fathers Chan Tin, Nguyen Huu Giai, and Phan Van Loi, released a critique:
In these 41 articles, there are 39 articles that have as their content requirements of "getting permission" or "getting approval." Thus, the kind of freedom of religion in this Ordinance is "freedom, but must ask permission," or "freedom, but must register." The phrases "but must ask permission," or "but must register" have changed the word "freedom" which goes before them into a meaningless and empty word. In order for everybody to easily understand this kind of freedom, let's look at a simple illustration. An owner of a house commanded all his servants, saying, "In principle I grant you the freedom to do anything at all you want to do. I only have one requirement. Whatever you want to do, you must let me know ahead of time, or get my permission first. Then if I give permission, you can do it." Then that owner went around and proudly boasted to other owners, "In my household, all the servants are free to do whatever they want. I permit them to do so."...
In reading the Ordinance, we perceive it to be a tool of the State to oppress people of faith.... Therefore, we wholeheartedly agree with Cardinal Pham Minh Man when he publicly said, "It would be best if this Ordinance were not issued."
In Vietnam, such public criticism takes great courage. Father Tin is 84 years old and has already spent years in "village arrest," a form of internal exile. Fathers Giai and Loi are colleagues of one of Vietnam's best-known religious prisoners of conscience, Father Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly. After a two-hour closed trial in 2001, Ly was given a 15-year sentence for "undermining national unity" for the "crime" of giving testimony to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom about religious repression in Vietnam.
Ly is not alone. Mennonite pastor and human-rights activist Nguyen Hong Quang was arrested on June 8 for "inciting others to interfere with officers doing their official duty" after protesting illegal land confiscation by corrupt officials. Five colleagues — Elder Nguyen Hieu Nghia, Evangelist Nguyen Thanh Nhan, Evangelist Pham Ngoc Thach, Evangelist Nguyen Van Phuong, and Le Thi Hong Lien, were also imprisoned. If Quang is charged, as he may be, with "possessing and distributing materials harmful to the State," he could face a 20-year sentence.
Another significant recent development was the release in August, by the World Evangelical Alliance, of a document titled "The Deep Distress of the Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam." This statement, written by an indigenous Vietnamese church worker and a foreign missionary, declares: "There is no ideology left in Vietnamese communism. Vietnam's poorest people see in their political masters only greed, avarice and the ruthless abuse of power to maintain their supremacy.... In the last decade many thousands of Hmong and Dao Christian believers have been fined, beaten, and hundreds have been imprisoned." The authors list names of believers currently in prison, some charged with "illegal gathering and disturbing public order" after meeting to worship in a private home. They also detail cases such as that of "Vang Seo Giao of...Ha Giang Province, who had been a member of the Communist Party and became a faithful Christian. Mr. Giao was beaten to death in 2003 because he would not recant his faith. His body was tossed into a river and official reports said 'he drowned while crossing the river intoxicated.'" In a similar incident, "Mua Bua Senh of...Lai Chau Province...was beaten to death by officials for refusing to give up his Christian faith."
Religious persecution is only one part of the government's pattern of repression. Vietnam is on Freedom House's "Worst of the Worst" list, which includes only the world's 15 most repressive societies. It is also a recipient of U.S. non-humanitarian financial assistance, and its trade agreement with America must be reviewed annually. If we do want, as the administration has said, our aid and trade to promote democracy, then we need to start making use of both these arrangements.
Last month, by a vote of 323-45, the House of Representatives passed the Vietnam Human Rights Act, which blocks any increases in non-humanitarian aid to Vietnam. Three years ago the Senate quashed a similar House initiative, and the Voice of Vietnam, the government's offical broadcaster, has urged it to do so again. The Senate should ignore Hanoi's entreaties and speedily support the Act, not least as one small way to honor Swift-boat and other veterans, of all U.S. political parties — by continuing to press for the freedoms for which they fought.
— Paul Marshall is senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom. He is author of Islam at the Crossroads and God and the Constitution: Christianity and American Politics.