Vietnam: Social Media as a Catalyst For Change

“What do you think is religious freedom?”

That’s the question posed in a video by the Association to Protect Freedom of Religion (APFOR), a Vietnamese organisation which aims to help “everyone in Vietnam fulfil their right to freedom of religion”.

By Hội Bảo Vệ Quyền Tự Do Tôn Giáo – What do you think is religious freedom

“A fundamental human right,” says one young interviewee.

“People have the right to express their beliefs and live according to certain religious doctrines,” comments another, this time a mechanic.

“True freedom of religion means different religions can be spread,” adds a construction worker.

The video goes on to include comments from independent researchers, legal professionals and religious followers, ending with an invitation to the viewer to share her or his own thoughts on Facebook.

APFOR have since produced another video, equally well-made and insightful, this time looking at a new draft law on religion and belief which is likely to be passed in Vietnam in 2016.

By Hội Bảo Vệ Quyền Tự Do Tôn Giáo – The right to religion, have to wait for approval?

Vietnam’s controversial draft Law on Belief and Religion

This second video was posted on Facebook in November 2015, just as the draft law was being debated at the National Assembly. It’s already proving to be a controversial issue. In a welcome move towards some degree of engagement, the government solicited feedback on the fourth draft of the law from religious organisations in spring 2015. The Government Religious Committee held several meetings with registered religious groups to discuss the law, and unregistered or independent groups have also publicised their analysis of the draft law, as have Vietnamese lawyers and international civil society organisations.

The main criticism is that, like the Ordinance and Decree which came before it, the draft focuses not on the protection of the individuals to have, adopt and manifest a religion of their choice, but on the control and management of religious activities by the State. The current registration system employs what has been described by religious groups as an ‘ask-and-receive’ mechanism which requires religious groups to apply for registration for a whole range of activities, large and small, and to operate as a religious organisation. The authorities have the power to accept or reject the application. Unregistered religious communities say this allows the government to “screen out” religions or beliefs and makes government approval a pre-condition for the respect of citizens’ freedom of religion.

Social media used to galvanise support for rights issues

The circulation of the draft law has, with or without the authorities’ intention, both generated interest in the topic of religious freedom in Vietnam and demonstrated the ability of religious and civil groups to organise, strategize and respond to these developments. Although activists emphasise the obstacles they face in persuading citizens to speak up (pressure to stick to the Party line; lack of media coverage), the fact that religious groups have produced detailed analyses and petitions on the draft law is in itself a telling sign that civil society in Vietnam is developing rapidly. Despite, or perhaps because of restrictions on mainstream media, social media is thriving, and activists are finding creative ways of using it to galvanise support for rights related issues. At the same time, religious communities are joining together across denominational divides (and in some cases with people of other religions and beliefs) to stand together for freedom of religion or belief.

“Despite, or perhaps because of restrictions on mainstream media, social media is thriving, and activists are finding creative ways of using it to galvanise support for rights related issues.”

Many challenges remain, but the observant and constructive analyses put forward by communities in Vietnam, and input from the international community, have opened up among officials a debate about religion and the state. At least one National Assembly deputy has questioned a regulation in the draft law requiring religious institutions to be in operation for ten years or more before they can be officially recognised. Other deputies have said that “purely religious activities” should be decided by religious institutions themselves, and that the law should “align the domestic legal framework with international conventions”. However, others have called for more detailed regulations on banned religious practices, underscoring a divide between those calling for more detailed and stringent regulations and those who want to extend and promote freedom of religion or belief.

Civil society points the way forward

It may be too soon to tell which school of thought will have the greatest influence on the final version of the law, but the videos and commentaries from religious and civil society groups on Vietnam are in themselves a demonstration of the need for and growth of a healthy, vibrant civil society in Vietnam. Religious and civil groups are coming together, overcoming their differences to find creative ways to challenge social problems: a government with its citizens’ best interests at heart can only stand to benefit from this kind of social engagement.

By CSW’s Vietnam Desk Officer