By: David Brown

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.