A gap between policy and practice: In Vietnam, many indigenous communities are forbidden to use their own language

‘We had a Christmas celebration with banners in different languages such as Jarai [and] Ede. The authorities did not like it, so they forbade us from using the banners in our languages.’

Christian from an indigenous people group in Vietnam

Article 5 of Vietnam’s constitution states that ‘every ethnic group has the right to use its own language and system of writing, to preserve its national identity, and to promote its fine customs, habits, traditions and culture’.

And the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is a party, states that persons belonging to minority groups ‘shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language’.

But in Vietnam, there is a flagrant gap between policy and practice.

Despite protections in both domestic and international law, there are numerous reports of violations of the right to practice and preserve indigenous language in Vietnam.

In many instances, these violations are perpetrated against religious individuals or communities.

Forbidden to use their own language

To use one’s mother tongue in indigenous communities in Vietnam – particularly for the practise of a religion or belief – carries a high risk.

In most regions, the use of both spoken and written indigenous language during religious services has been severely limited, or outright prohibited, by the Vietnamese authorities. Unregistered religious groups conducting services in indigenous languages are extremely vulnerable to intimidation and harassment from the state.

In CSW’s recent report on the intersection between freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) and indigenous rights, titled Belief and belonging, several participants shared experiences of non-authorised books in native languages being confiscated and religious adherents being monitored, harassed, fined, and in some cases arrested.

One individual described their experience of police officers ‘destroying chairs, tables and stage during the Spring festival’ when their group tried to hold a religious meeting in their own mother tongue.

Although there are some cases of registered religious groups being able to conduct services and use religious materials in indigenous languages, this is far from the norm – particularly for unregistered religious groups who have chosen not to register with the authorities for reasons of conscience or have had their application for registration rejected or ignored. In the rare instances where churches, temples or monasteries are permitted to use written materials in their mother tongue, there are still restrictive conditions in place: all religious content, books, lectures and speeches in Vietnam have to be pre-approved by the authorities and the censorship committee.

‘[The government always suspects] that we use our language to teach other things and that our intention is antigovernmental’.

Khmer Krom representative

The Khmer Krom are an indigenous group located primarily in South-Western Vietnam, who speak the Khmer language. Like many indigenous religious communities, Khmer Krom Buddhists have experienced numerous violations of their right to language and their right to FoRB.

Frequently, Khmer Krom Buddhist monks are supervised by the government whilst conducting their religious ceremonies, and the content of religious books and teaching materials in Khmer language is strictly controlled and restricted by the authorities. Several Khmer Krom temples have been threatened with demolition, and in some cases these threats have been enacted.

Since 2019, all the Khmer Krom monasteries in the Mekong Delta region have had their stamps – used to stamp official documents – replaced with Vietnamese language stamps. Khmer language stamps are prohibited.

Several years ago, the government introduced a program of Khmer language classes in schools, whereby the native language should be taught for two to three hours per week in public schools where Khmer Krom students are the majority. Despite this positive step in policy, in practice program implementation had been inconsistent, and the state reportedly forbids students from bringing Khmer textbooks from Cambodia to Vietnam to supplement the poorly-written state materials which they are provided with.

In response to the inadequacy of this program, and in an attempt to preserve their mother tongue, several Khmer Krom Buddhist monks teach Khmer in their temples. Such efforts have been met with opposition from local authorities, and several religious teachers have reportedly been subjected to intimidation and imprisonment.

These restrictions on indigenous language – imposed upon Khmer Krom Buddhists, Montagnard Christians, Hmong Christians and many other indigenous religious groups – are deeply rooted in government suspicion. Ostensibly, they are an attempt to prevent ethnic minority religious communities from delivering political messages.

The Communist Party of Vietnam has long been distrustful of large gatherings of indigenous people, suspecting them of seeking to build their own independent state or plotting to overthrow the government.

Research suggests that non-registered religious communities who are thought to have connections to foreign countries, especially Christians, are held in particularly high distrust.

‘Thanks to advocacy on freedom of religion or belief, there is some improvement.’

An indigenous Christian

There are some signs of hope. One Belief and belonging participant shared: ‘We can now use our language a bit in some church meetings. For example, some people are allowed to use the Bible in their language including Ede. In some churches, they can use their language. Sometimes they can even use banners in their language. But it is case-by-case, not an overall improvement. It depends on the local government. It is not a consistent policy.’

The progress made in this community is encouraging. But such accounts are rare, and even in instances where there has been improvement, the progress described is not enough.

The rights of religious adherents from indigenous communities to practice and preserve their own language, including in the public and private practise of their faith, must be protected. And the international community must hold the government of Vietnam to account for its failure to uphold the right of its citizens to freely practice their religion or belief, in any language that they choose.

By CSW’s East Asia Team