Vietnam's Constitution nominally allows for freedom of belief and religion, but only 'lawful religious organizations' are protected by law. Sanctioned religions include Buddhism, Cao Dai, Catholicism, Hoa Hao, Islam and Protestantism. Followers of religious denominations that do not enjoy official status faced particular problems throughout the year.
In June, authorities demolished two Christian churches built by ethnic Hmong in Dien Bien province. One of the churches belonged to an unregistered church group, the Vietnam Good News Mission, while according to UNPO, the other belonged to the registered Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North). In early January 2013, authorities began tearing down a monastery in Hanoi, according to Asianews.it, a Catholic news website.
In late December, Vietnamese police arrested Le Quoc Quan, a Catholic lawyer who was an outspoken advocate for democracy and freedom of religion. In August, police conducted a mass raid on Degar Christians in Kontum, a highland province. According to the Degar Foundation, more than 30 mostly elderly people were injured when they could not disperse quickly enough. In November, the group reported that police arrested six Degar Christians in a separate raid. Degar refers to the indigenous peoples of the central highlands, who were called Montagnards by the former French colonial administration.
Buddhist orders not sanctioned by the government also faced harassment. In June, police beat a monk from the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, after arresting him for not wearing a helmet while driving a motorbike, according to RFA. The US Ambassador to Vietnam, David Shear, later met with the leader of the church in an apparent show of support.
But the US's own stance on Vietnam's treatment of religious minorities is mixed. During 2012, the USCIRF once again recommended that Vietnam be designated as a 'country of particular concern' (CPC) by the US State Department – countries that display severe violations of religious rights, which could then be subject to US government sanctions. But Vietnam has not been included on the State Department's final CPC list since 2006. Some observers have attributed this discrepancy to the United States' renewed strategic interests in Asia, which include a warmer relationship with Vietnam.
A controversial new government decree on religion approved in late 2012 may see the situation worsen for religious minorities. Decree 92 include new requirements to obtain legal status, including a provision stipulating that applicants must not previously have 'infringed on national security'. Such broad wording seems likely to increase the ways in which authorities can crack down on unsanctioned groups.
Meanwhile, freedom of expression continued to be tightly controlled during the year. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Vietnam had locked up 14 journalists by December. These included journalists who reported on religious minorities and other sensitive topics.
Land conflicts continued to be a contentious issue through the year. In July, authorities jailed three activists who were outspoken about land issues. Land in Vietnam is owned by the state, which grants usage rights to individuals. For Vietnam's indigenous peoples in particular, uncertainty over land-ownership is a pressing concern.
Vietnam is in the early stages of preparing for REDD – Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, the UN-backed initiative that applies financial incentives to preserve forest areas. But with uncertain tenure rights, this has the potential to be a future flashpoint. A 2012 briefing paper by the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) warned that pilot projects in Vietnam showed that much work remains to be done to ensure that indigenous peoples are properly included in meaningful consultation. A 2012 study by a local NGO, Culture Identity and Resources Use Management, noted a wide gap between rights in Vietnam's forestry laws, and the reality for indigenous peoples on the ground.
As part of its submission to the UN CERD, which reviewed Vietnam in 2012, UNPO warned that land disputes are seeing indigenous communities literally losing ground to Kinh people, who form Vietnam's ethnic majority:
'Indigenous groups ... report that large tracts of fertile farms and valuable forest lands have been confiscated and reallocated to ethnic Kinh without fair compensation. In many instances, the indigenous families are relocated to areas that lack access to basic infrastructure and services, including schools and healthcare facilities.'
Health outcomes among ethnic minority and indigenous groups are continually lower than those of the general population. In the Khmer Krom community – ethnic Khmer who live in southern Vietnam – accessing basic health care can be problematic. In its CERD submission, the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF) said many Khmer Krom have difficulty accessing government-subsidized health care and are treated as 'second-class citizens' even when they are able to.
In its CERD submission, the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) said the introduction of user fees for health care two decades ago has led to 'alarming disparities' between ethnic minorities and the overall population. These include significant differences in infant mortality and poverty rates. And a WHO bulletin from December 2012 warned of 'increasing ethnic inequity' in maternal health care in Vietnam. While women in Vietnam were more likely than in past years to receive proper antenatal care and give birth in a health facility, ethnic minority women were at greater risk of not receiving such treatment. The WHO stated that:
'Inequity in maternal health care utilization has increased progressively in Viet Nam, primarily along ethnic lines, and vulnerable groups in the country are at risk of being left behind. Health-care decision-makers should target these groups through affirmative action and culturally sensitive interventions.'
In its concluding observations on Vietnam, the UN CERD said it is 'deeply concerned at the sizeable socio-economic gap between disadvantaged ethnic minorities and the majority Kinh, even when they live in the same mountain area'. For many marginalized communities in remote locations, this economic gap compounds the inequality in accessing health care. Anand Grover, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the right to health, noted in a July report on Vietnam:
'The poor and near poor, especially those in rural and mountainous areas predominantly populated by ethnic minorities, are often burdened by additional expenditures on food, travel and accommodation in order to access basic health services. In many instances, these expenditures amount to more than the cost of the health services sought.'
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