IS IT just another clash between religious groups and Communists, or a real challenge to the government? As in China, Vietnam’s leaders have never been tolerant of religions and, as in China, they are now confronting a cult with worrying partners abroad. Not the Falun Gong here, but Christians. For several months, officials and police have cracked down on Protestant ethnic groups in the remote central highlands. In Dhalak and Gia Lai provinces, they have torn down makeshift churches defended by stone-throwing youths. Many people have been injured and, according to one report, eight have been killed.
Although the protests are unusually large, the apparent problem is not new. Vietnam’s secular party leaders find religion a pain, so seek to keep the country’s 8m Christians in check. Most are Roman Catholic, as a result of French colonial rule. But there are also 250,000 Protestants, mostly among the ethnic minorities who make up roughly 15% of the population of 80m. For all denominations, party officials grant, or withhold, permission for churches to be built, and meddle in the appointment of clergy. This week, for example, the government said it would extend official recognition to the Evangelical Church of Vietnam. That gave legal status to the group, which represents about 250 protestant congregations.
Buddhism presents bigger difficulties. The party is envious of the large congregations that still flock to temples, despite decades of official discouragement. Around half of Vietnam’s people are Buddhist. In March a Buddhist sect was outlawed when its leaders organised a rally in Ho Chi Minh City. The authorities said they were planning mass suicide, pointing to the self-immolation of a woman in the sect. She was protesting at the arrest of a Buddhist leader, Le Quang Liem, an octogenarian.
Buddhist monks are routinely detained. As in its dealings with Christians, the Communist Party interferes with the running of the Buddhist order, claiming the right to appoint abbots at monasteries. Despite government assertions that Vietnam allows generous and growing religious freedom, Human Rights Watch, a monitoring group based in New York, suggests in a recent report that it remains sharply curtailed.
But religion only partly explains the troubles in the central highlands. The government blames foreign agitators, especially Americans, for stirring up the hill folk. To a limited extent, foreigners do indeed hold some influence. The hill tribes, collectively known as Montagnards, had close ties with American forces before the unification of Vietnam in 1975. Today, many have relations in the United States, where the Montagnard Foundation, in South Carolina, campaigns on their behalf. The executive director, Kok Ksor, admits that he advises protesters by telephone on how to confront the officials peacefully and in unity.
Land, he says, is a bigger problem than religion. “If somebody takes our land away, they take our life away.” The hill tribespeople say that large numbers of lowland Vietnamese are migrating to higher ground and threatening their traditional way of life. Lowlanders, who see ethnic minorities as backward, are clearing land and forest to make way for plantations of coffee, which does well in the cooler climates higher up, and for other cash crops, all of them valuable for the export market.
Such deforestation in the hills is a contributory cause to the floods that now strike Vietnam nearly every year. And clashes over the land itself have generated unusually open dissent in many parts of the country. In the past few years, disgruntled, land-hungry farmers have marched into Hanoi, the capital, and into the largest town, Ho Chi Minh City, to stage demonstrations, sometimes lasting for several weeks at a time.
While acknowledging that such protests take place, the government tries to play them down, though its television station did show a few seconds of footage of the recent riots. State-controlled newspapers blame “reactionary elements” for causing trouble. But party leaders are preparing for their five-yearly congress, which is due to begin on April 19th. That big political set-piece makes the party even more than usually sensitive to signs of protest.
In a typically communist response, a propaganda unit from the army has been sent to the highlands to “educate” the tribespeople. Meanwhile, local authorities have been forced to admit “errors”, and a minister for ethnic affairs, Hoang Duc Nghi, has been ticked off. A party newspaper, Nhan Dan, last week scolded officials who have “stayed away from the people and have not really understood all the difficulties they face”. The government seems to be trying to meet some of its citizens’ grumbles, but complaints about land or religion, or both, are likely to continue until well after the party congress is finished.