Events of 2015

The government's draft Law on Belief and Religion was speedily pushed through for approval in 2015, much to the worry of Vietnam's ethnic and religious minorities. Religion is tightly controlled in Vietnam, mostly through the Ordinance on Belief and Religion (2004) and its implementing Decree 92 (2013). But now the first national legislation regulating religion will go beyond these provisions, tightening the state's control over all forms of religious belief and practice. On 17 April, a draft of the law was sent to religious organizations for comments. Various religious organizations expressed concern about the draft, including the Interfaith Council of Vietnam, which noted that it entrenches bureaucratic obstacles to practising a faith and limits freedom of religion for the purposes of state control. The first articles of the draft espouse freedom of religion, but the remaining articles effectively limit the practice of religion according to the whims of the government, allowing it to 'intervene in the internal affairs and administration' of 'religious organizations'. The draft is set to be passed in 2016.

Changes were also made to the Penal Code in 2015. While reductions in the use of the death penalty were welcomed by human rights advocates, the changes generally increased restrictions on human rights – provisions the government has used to imprison numerous peaceful minority rights advocates or religious leaders in the name of national security. For example, Section 79, 'carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people's administration', revised as Section 109, now includes provisions that apply to those who may be preparing to commit such a crime. Section 79 was used to imprison a pastor of the unregistered Mennonite group informally known as the Cow-Shed Church, Duong Kim Khai, whose work included filing complaints against land seizures. He was released in August this year, after serving four years of a five-year sentence. Changes to the Penal Code are set to come into force by 1 July 2016, and will almost certainly continue to be used excessively against minorities.

In the meantime, Vietnam's minority and indigenous communities continue to suffer persecution by state authorities. Hundreds of indigenous people from the Central Highlands, collectively known as Montagnards, fled Vietnam during the year to seek asylum in Cambodia. Systematic religious and political persecution of this mostly Christian community is well documented by human rights groups, but denied by both the Vietnam and Cambodian governments. HRW released a report in 2015, drawing on interviews with Montagnard asylum seekers in Cambodia and Thailand to document official surveillance, harassment and abuse of community members for practising religious 'evil ways' and having politically 'autonomous thoughts'. Dozens were forcibly returned to Vietnam, with reports that some have subsequently gone missing from their villages.

When it is not actively persecuting its minority communities, the Vietnam government still tends to view its minority and indigenous populations from a paternalistic standpoint as 'primitive' and in need of more civilized practices. As a result, while the state has provided some services such as bilingual education and access to health care, these programmes are not always implemented in a culturally appropriate manner. For example, ethnic minority women report serious discrimination in government hospitals and health centres, with few medical practitioners speaking their language or being sensitive to cultural practices, such as those who request having their husbands in the birthing room.

Further, Vietnam's growing tourism industry has posed problems for the cultural rights of its minority and indigenous communities, including government control and interference in practices to maintain the interest of tourists. In her report to the UN HRC that was released in January of this year, the former Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Farida Shaheed, focused extensively on the tourism industry's impact on minorities. She notes how communities are asked 'to perform, rather than live their own cultures, either by artificially retaining specific aspects of cultural practices or modifying those practices to satisfy tourist demand, such as altering food or accommodation patterns, or foreshortening their customs'.

Vietnam's country report to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights demonstrates its lack of respect for the cultural rights of minorities and indigenous peoples. Rather than allowing communities to maintain and develop their practices the way they see fit, the government details how its policies aim to 'preserve selectively' and 'phase out the obsolete', including 'superstition, tradition of votive papers and social evils'. For example, ethnic Hmong were recently sentenced to two years for practising reformed funeral practices that, though less costly, were condemned by authorities as an 'evil practice'.

The physical heritage of Vietnam's minorities and indigenous people is also under threat, religious buildings in particular. In southern Ho Chi Minh City, parishioners of the Thu Thiem Catholic Church were led by nuns from the Lovers of the Holy Cross convent to stage a rare protest in October against government plans to destroy their heritage school building. The nuns expressed how the building and its use is part of their cultural identity as a religious community. Similarly, the Buddhist Lien Tri Pagoda, located in an area in the city targeted for redevelopment, is currently facing the threat of destruction – a step presented by its chief monk as a measure intended to target them due to their status as an unregistered religious organization. By striking at the heart of a community's identity, the destruction of cultural heritage sends a message about the power of the authorities, a clear warning to the community against the assertion of other rights.

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