Religion and Vietnam’s Party State

Vietnam’s state supervision of religion is considerably less oppressive than it was during the years of "building socialism" and propagating atheism as the approved belief system. But that doesn’t mean free by any means.

Hanoi's authoritarian regime insists that it has no issue with religious practice per se. What bothers the government are efforts to exploit religious belief to subvert its rule or, it says, to upset social and cultural norms.

Thus, although Vietnam's Party/State in its capitalist roading, globalizing reincarnation now sees religions playing a useful role in combating social evils and aiding the poor, seemingly it has never considered just setting them free. Active micromanagement is built into Hanoi's Leninist DNA. No community of believers, indeed, no voluntary organization of any kind may exist outside the supervisory orbit of the all-powerful party. The religions Hanoi likes are arranged in tidy hierarchies and run by people who understand the importance of staying in close and deferential touch with the Government Committee for Religious Affairs [GCRA].

The GCRA [all presumably atheists, since adherence to a religion is incompatible with CPV membership] is a fount of data. Ninety-five percent of Vietnam's populace "have some forms of belief or religious life," it says, but only 27 percent are "religious followers," that is, members of Vietnam's [at last count, twenty-nine] licensed "religious organizations." Almost all the rest presumably are people whose spiritual life focuses solely on family and village ancestral cults; these devotions, the Party/State reasons, are not religions but rather expressions of Vietnamese tradition.

Vietnam has in its population of about 90 million, the GCRA further reports, 11 million Buddhists, 6.2 million Catholics, 4.4 million Cao Dai, 1.4 million Protestants, 1.3 million Hoa Hao and a sprinkling of Muslims, Bahai, Hindus and others. [Cao Dai, dating from the 1920s, blends Eastern and Western religious thought. Hoa Hao is a reform Buddhist sect that arose in the Mekong Delta circa 1940]. GCRA additionally recognizes a number of Mother Goddess and spiritualist cults.

As noted above, as long as recognized religious groups color within the lines drawn by the State, they are generally unbothered. The incidents that attract the foreign press and trigger condemnation by international human rights groups occur on the frontier where religious practice and what the regime regards as subversive politics meet. Typically they involve religious communities that have not yet negotiated the arduous and lengthy process of securing state recognition.

A few examples illustrate the nature of these 'no go zones:'

  • In May, 2013, millenarian fever roused Hmong highlanders. Tens of thousands assembled in a remote location to await the miraculous establishment of a pan-Hmong kingdom straddling the present borders of Vietnam, Laos and China. Hanoi's reaction was unsympathetic, vigorous repression. Western missionaries working among the 350,000 Hong that have converted to evangelical Protestant Christianity in the past two decades were quick to deny their flocks' involvement. Some commented that the regime's obstruction of proselytizing by established Protestant sects rendered the Hmong susceptible to 'false teaching.' --

  • Early in 2012, police in a province on Vietnam's central coast rounded up members of the "Bia Son Council for Public Law and Affairs." Twenty-two were tried and sentenced to long prison terms for "aiming to subvert the people's power," specifically by propagating a "reactionary gospel" of a new utopian state in which science, nature and humankind would be harmoniously balanced. --

  • Thich Nhat Hanh was in the 1960s a young leader of Buddhist protests against the Diem regime in South Vietnam and an anti-war campaigner. After 1975, now in France, he founded a popular Zen movement. In 2005, the Hanoi regime persuaded the now famous "guru of mindfulness" to visit his homeland. Nhat Hanh came again in 2007. -- Greeted by crowds of admirers, the monk was, needless to say, testimony to Hanoi's more relaxed management of religious communities – until, in January 2008, he called for dissolution of the regime's religious police branch. Things went quickly downhill thereafter. "Citizens" [actually thugs mobilized by the police] laid siege to Nhat Hanh's several hundred young believers at the Bat Nha pagoda in Dalat. By the end of 2009, all had all been forcibly dispersed. --

  • A few miles south of Da Nang City, to clear land for a five star 'eco-resort," local authorities have worn down the residents of Con Dau, a seaside village that's been Catholic for centuries. The villagers fought to preserve their parish church, their ancestors' graves and their homes. They prayed that their bishops would argue their case with the state. Instead, their priest has been reassigned and their homes and fields expropriated. For their property, the villagers have received only a small fraction of their land's worth when re-developed.

There are frequent reports of assaults by local police and unofficial bully boys on 'house churches' in Vietnam's upland provinces. Collectively known as 'Degar Christians,' these are unrecognized congregations of minority tribesmen, totaling perhaps a million of Vietnam's 90 million citizens. Often they have no formal affiliation to a larger group, registered or otherwise, though most of the house churches are readily recognizable as being within the evangelical Protestant tradition.

Anthropologists explain recent extraordinary growth in Christian belief in the highlands as a natural reaction to cultural disruption, pervasive discrimination by the ethnic Vietnamese majority and its encroachment on traditional tribal lands. The Vietnamese authorities perceive a hidden agenda, however: dangerous Degar aspirations to autonomy or even an independent state.

The dissonance that such incidents reveal between Hanoi's concept of a conditional right to practice religion and the unqualified norm embodied in the UN Charter on Human Rights [to which Vietnam is a signatory] has framed Western assessments. It led directly to an extraordinary fiasco just a year ago, in late July 2014. Heiner Bielefeldt is the UN Human Rights Council's Special Rapporteur on Religion. Presumably hoping to improve its image, the regime agreed that Bielefeldt might lead a 10-day mission to Vietnam.

The fact-finding visit began well enough, but by midpoint Bielefeldt had experienced firsthand and received, he said, credible information that individuals he wanted to meet in Gia Lai and Kontum provinces [Central Highlands] and An Giang [a Delta province that's home to sizeable Cambodian and Cham minorities] were being "heavily surveilled, warned, intimidated, harassed or prevented from travelling by the police."

The proponents of Bielefeldt's visit in Hanoi ought to have taken care to get the party politburo's prior approval. Evidently they did not or, at the least, the word to lay off was not passed to the provinces. Bielefeldt called the police tactics "clear violations" of the terms of reference agreed for his visit. His subsequent report to the Human Rights Council was broadly condemnatory. It laid special emphasis on the regime's "generally dismissive, negative attitude toward the rights of minorities and individuals practicing religion outside the established channels."

Notwithstanding Western complaint, including a swelling chorus of calls in the US for Vietnam to be reinstated as a "country of particular concern" – that is, put under renewed threat of economic sanctions – there's no evidence that Vietnam is considering modification of its fundamental paradigm: religion is a problem to be managed. A basic law on Belief and Religion is under active discussion in Hanoi's corridors of power. Indications are that it will simply reorganize and give greater authority to the jumble of decrees and circulars currently in force.

David Brown is a former US diplomat with extensive experience in Vietnam