The Case against Vietnam

In 2001, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Ms Thanh T. Phan responded to AFP’s question about the Geneva Vietnam Commission on Human Rights accusation that “Vietnam is systematically legalizing religious repression” as “deliberately slandering Vietnam”. Such statement can be found at the archives ( She further elaborated that “Freedom to adhere to or not to adhere to a religion or religious belief of all Vietnamese citizens is clearly stipulated in Vietnamese laws and ensured in practice.” It has been 8 years since the statement made. However, with recent erupting of freedom suppressions in various parts of Vietnam, one has to wonder how truth is that statement? Vietnam’s knack for greed led to jungle laws that reap corruption.

Since the 1990’s, Vietnamese around the world, particularly those in the US, have pumped millions USD home to assist charitable activities, churches, and temples for rebuilding the ravaged nation. Apparently, after the 1975 reunification, the regime failed miserably to bring prosperity to the liberated people of Vietnam. Only after the government decided on the barely open-door policy that foreign aids began to flow in.

What is frustrated and appalling is that local officials everywhere were pocketing part of humanitarian aid, the locals termed such bribery as “tien cafe” (coffee money). The corruption within the Vietnamese government is sickening to imagine since its people faced so many hardship. Such effect has pathetically lived up to the Transparency International’s 2008 rating of 121 for corruption perceptions index (lower CPI is better), an increase from 111th rank in 2007 in comparison to other countries around the globe.

So Phan’s statement that “There is an increasing number of newly-built, repaired and restored churches, pagodas and places of worship.” is very misleading and most ambiguous. It is a cover-up for the injustices. The rosy surface attempts to impress western travelers, including US government or Vatican representatives with signs of religious liberty for Christianity and other religions. However, what observers will not see or hear is the tremendous hidden cost of controlling people’s religious activities. So is freedom of religion a basic right or a privilege with a price tag? Is Vietnam a country of freedom, or should it be labeled as “greedom” since greed dominated those in control?

In a democratic society, laws served as means to regulate orders and protect the people. If one reverses the word “laws”, the term becomes “swal”. The word “swal” is an obsolete implementation of the word “swell” according to the Webster dictionary. This obsolescence may as well apply to “forest of laws” in Vietnam since they failed to serve the people. Like its brethren China, it is more appropriate to say that Vietnam plays by “jungle laws”.

Since 1954, when North Vietnam declared the state to be socialism by platform, the local Church began its journey of suffering. In the name of common goods, the Marxist state preempted many church facilities and land. Seminaries and convents were closed, and Hanoi nunciature (the 2.5 acre property in dispute) were seized by the government. After 1975, the reunification of Vietnam motivated the state to confiscate more Catholic-based schools, hospitals, monasteries and religious buildings in the south. The Church suffered tremendously in terms of missionary and evangelization work. Thousands of religious people such as seminarians, brothers, and nuns were forced home. In the regime’s mindset, the Church of the poor or the Church who care for 5000+ abandoned HIV patients is a threat. It is a threat because the Church practice principles that contradict their Marxist views. What the Vietnamese government failed to understand is that the Catholic sees the image of God in humanity. Thus, she exists to serve the poor and the needy, not the State.

The clash between the Church and the Vietnamese government occurred because of the corruption and abuse by the irresponsible civic leaders. The UBND (People’s Committee), using eminent domain concept, intended to sell Church’s land to private investors for exploitation. This grossly injustices forced the Archbishop Kiet Q Ngo to respond strongly since the end of 2007. Instead of lawfully reaching a just solution, the Hanoi officials aggravated gentle church goers as these Catholics protest by praying and organizing vigil services at the disputed sites. Many dissenting Catholics harassed by the police and hired thugs, icons and statues of Mary and saints vandalized to intimidate the faithful. Even AP chief bureau Ben Stocking was beaten and held in police custody for 2.5 hrs.

Last year, Hanoi paid gangsters to terrorize the Redemptorists missionary who were at the center of the second land dispute. The Viet mafia made obscene and life threatening phone calls to the religious order. Then recently, the world witnessed the Christian persecution at Tam Toa church in Vinh diocese. Policemen watched as hired street thugs beat priests and laity in broad day light. Mobster-like actions of government officials are inconsistent with PM Dung T. Nguyen’s promise of “new and important step towards the normalization of bilateral relations” with the Vatican in his 2007 trip.

Religious liberty is talked about, but is not guaranteed in Vietnam. For a small country that worked so hard to gain membership into WTO and ASEAN, its government falls short of living up to the international trust and respect. Vietnam needs to walk the talks by honoring the Catholic Church’s right to her properties, as well as others throughout the land.

The Church of the poor should not be feared and retaliated. Rights to pursue religious belief only inspire moral actions in the people, and lead to the State’s advantage.

Now is the time for the world body to pressure Vietnam, and influence democracy in this once ravaged nation. Re-enlist Vietnam back to the “Country of Particular Concern” is a start, while trading and financial restrictions need to be considered as alternatives.