Unregistered and unrecognised: the plight of Vietnam’s Duong Van Minh community

One year ago today, on 12 December 2021, hundreds of persons in medical protective suits and plainclothes, and police, some armed with shields and batons, disrupted the funeral of Duong Van Minh, the ethnic Hmong founder of an eponymous religious community in Northern Vietnam.

The authorities claimed they were there to force people to take COVID-19 tests, despite no infection having been reported in the area.

Police in Tuyen Quang province arrested and beat at least 36 people as they attempted to attend the funeral. Seven more were arrested a day later, on 13 December, when they went to protest the police action. On 15 December, police announced over loudspeakers that five more people had to surrender. These five were subsequently arrested and accused of assaulting officials.

In total, at least 48 people were arrested.

Registration for religious groups is complex and open to abuse

On 1 January 2018, Vietnam’s first ever Law on Belief and Religion came into effect. The Law requires religious groups to register for permission for a broad range of activities, and the registration process is complex and open to abuse by officials prejudiced against a particular religion, belief, organisation or individual.

Groups which remain unregistered – either because they’ve chosen not to register for reasons of conscience or have had their applications rejected or ignored – can be subject to harassment, intimidation and violence. Individuals in remote areas who are both ethnic and religious minorities often suffer the most severe abuses.

The Duong Van Minh – a primarily ethnic Hmong religious community which is unregistered with the government – is therefore doubly vulnerable. 

Unabated and systematic harassment

The Duong Van Minh (DVM) religious community, a group based largely in northern Vietnam, is still not recognised by the Vietnamese government. Its followers have suffered years of unabated and systematic harassment and abuse by the Vietnamese authorities.

In January 2017, for example, authorities destroyed funeral sheds belonging to the group and arrested and tortured seven people for two days. At a meeting with provincial authorities on 7 January 2017, high ranking officials accused DVM followers of ‘opposing the party and the state’, stating that the building of the funeral sheds is illegal.

On 12 July this year, state owned media Cong an Nhan dan published an article about ‘Project 78’, the aim of which is to ‘fight, prevent, and proceed to eliminate the illegal Duong Van Minh organization,’ in Bac Kan province.

Article 24 of the Constitution of Vietnam states that ‘everyone shall enjoy freedom of belief and of religion’. Project 78, which sets out a state policy of persecution against the Duong Van Minh, is a total violation of this guarantee.

Duong Van Minh followers on trial

In two separate closed-door trials between 18 and 24 May 2022, Vietnamese authorities sentenced 15 Duong Van Minh followers to prison sentences of up to four years, following their arrest at Minh’s funeral in December 2021.

They were convicted on charges of ‘resisting officers on duty’ under Article 330 of the Penal Code and ‘violating regulations on safety in crowded areas’ under Article 295.

According to Voice of America, relatives said that the authorities refused access to lawyers engaged by the victims’ families. Many of the relatives were not informed of the trial date; they were only allowed to listen to proceedings through loudspeakers outside the courtroom.

Armed raids while they slept

At 3am on 2 August 2022, Vietnamese authorities raided several Duong Van Minh houses in the Bao Lam district of Cao Bang province in the north of the country. They were armed with guns and shock batons.

Whilst people were still sleeping, the public security officers and police gathered at the homes of Duong Van Minh followers, where they demolished Duong Van Minh funeral objects, took down altars, and threatened the confiscation of any religious objects not handed over.

Pictures of former Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese flags were reportedly hung in and on homes by the perpetrators.

Calling for action, demanding change

One year on from Minh’s funeral, the persistent harassment of DVM followers continues.

The community’s vulnerable position (as an unregistered religious group which is both an ethnic and religious minority) and the systematic abuse they subsequently face from Vietnamese authorities is sadly not unique. Violations of the right to FoRB for Montagnard ethnic minority Protestants in the Central Highlands, and Hoa Hao Buddhists in the Mekong Delta region, to name just two examples, also continue to be reported.

CSW calls on the government of Vietnam to cease its persistent harassment of the Duong Van Minh and release the Duong Van Minh followers who have been unjustly imprisoned since May. The government of Vietnam bears a responsibility to respect and protect the right to FoRB for all religious communities in Vietnam and ensure that everyone is free to believe.

By CSW’s East Asia Team