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Freedom of Religion: Country Studies - Vietnam

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 7 Political Rights, 5 Civil Liberties (Not Free)


Vietnam, like the People's Republic of China, is a one-party Communist state with an oppressive police apparatus, controlled media, government domination of religious institutions, and limitations on individual liberties. In this "socialist republic," workers and peasants are generally exploited and have no ability to represent their interests independently. Also like China, Vietnam has reformed its economy under a policy called doi moi (renovation), allowing aspects of a free market and attracting foreign investment. Since 1986, its GDP has nearly quadrupled, ranking 57th in the world at $61 billion in 2006. But per capita income remains low. In a country of 85 million people, nominal GNI per capita was $690 (169th in the world), approximately that of Nigeria (see above). The PPP GNI per capita was $3,300, or 150th in the world.


Although ethnically and linguistically distinct from China, Vietnam was greatly influenced by more than 1,000 years of Chinese imperial rule that began in 111 BC. The ouster of the Chinese in the 10th century and subsequent resistance to Chinese domination contributed to a strong sense of Vietnamese nationalism. France colonized what is now Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos—known collectively as Indochina—in the second half of the 19th century, but was forced to withdraw in 1954, leaving behind separate governments in South and North Vietnam. The war that followed, in which the United States sided with the non-Communist South, ultimately resulted in the unification of the country under the Communist North. The severe repression that followed caused one of the worst refugee crises since World War II and resulted in thousands of deaths.

There have been many religious influences on Vietnam (Buddhist, Confucianist, Taoist, Catholic, Protestant) but very few periods of true religious freedom. The Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) harshly suppressed religious groups believed to represent a threat to the government, and North Vietnam's Communist Party expelled foreign clergy and ensured political control over all religious organizations. Today, the Communist government continues to oversee state-affiliated religious structures, and independent sects or congregations are subject to crackdowns by the authorities.


The Chinese Millennium

The Vietnamese are ethnically related to the other peoples of Southeast Asia but were strongly influenced by interaction with the Chinese to the north. In 208 BC, Vietnam's Red River delta region was conquered by a Chinese general who established his own kingdom, but the area was then overrun by China's Han dynasty in 111 BC. During the subsequent millennium of Chinese rule, imperial administrators developed the country's system of roads, ports, and irrigation and imposed a strict Confucian system of law and government. Chinese elites cooperated with the local ruling classes to control the land, and a thriving maritime trade opened the region to Indian influence and the spread of Buddhism.

The End of Chinese Rule

There were repeated rebellions against Chinese rule, but they met with little success. Finally, in AD 939, the local general Ngo Quyen overthrew the Chinese and established an independent state. After a series of short reigns and a failed Chinese invasion, the Ly dynasty (1009–1225) was established, and the country was renamed Dai Viet. During this period, Buddhism was established as the state religion, and Dai Viet began to expand steadily southward along the coastal plain, pushing back or overrunning the Indian-influenced Chams and other ethnic groups. The Tran dynasty (1225–1400) succeeded the Ly, continued the expansion south, and fended off a series of Mongol invasions from China in the 13th century.

Local dynastic rule was interrupted in 1400 when a general seized power and introduced reforms that threatened the wealthy elite, including land redistribution and free education. In response, landowners appealed to China's Ming dynasty, which conquered Dai Viet in 1407 and temporarily restored Chinese imperial rule.

The Le Dynasty, the Tay Son Rebellion, and the Establishment of "Viet Nam"

In 1418, landowner and former court scholar Le Loi led another rebellion and defeated Ming forces in 1428. He established the long-lasting Le dynasty, which remained in place at least nominally until 1788. By the mid–18th century, Dai Viet armies and settlers had pushed southward almost to modern Vietnam's borders. However, beginning in the 16th century, the country was divided between two warlord families, the Nguyen in the south and the Trinh in the north. Both maintained a pretense of loyalty to the Le dynasty and waged a protracted civil war to reunite the country.

Led by three brothers, peasants rose up in the famous Tay Son rebellion (1771–1802) to end high taxation and redistribute the land and wealth of the ruling class. The Nguyen and Trinh families were defeated and killed, and the Tay Son brothers divided the country into northern, central, and southern provinces. Although they maintained nominal Le rule at first, the dynasty was abolished when the reigning emperor fled to China and brought about an unsuccessful Chinese invasion. With the country strained by famine and disorder, the brothers finally succumbed to the French-backed forces of Nguyen Anh, a survivor of the massacre of the Nguyen ruling family. He seized control of the country in 1802, assumed the name Gia Long (a symbolic combination of Gia Dinh and Thang Long, the southern and northern capitals later known as Saigon and Hanoi), and moved the capital to centrally located Hue, near the last Tay Son capital. When he renamed the country Nam Viet, though, Chinese rulers insisted that the name be transposed to Viet Nam so as to differentiate it from the kingdom established by the Chinese general Trieu Da in 208 BC.

French Expansion

Gia Long's rule reestablished the privileges of major landowners and imposed onerous taxes, forced labor, and obligatory military service on the peasants. Neo-Confucianism and other aspects of the Chinese state system were adopted once again, while the practice of Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religions was abolished. The imperial government, particularly under Gia Long's successors, also began to crack down on the growing numbers of Roman Catholic converts in the country. Portuguese missionaries had first arrived in the 16th century and were followed by French clerics, leading to France's participation in Gia Long's rise to power. However, the French and Catholic influence came to be seen as a threat to the Confucian regime, and imperial authorities moved to expel French advisers and execute missionaries and local Christians. The missionaries appealed to Emperor Napoleon III of France for assistance, and intervention was also encouraged by French business interests and officials concerned by the expansion of other European powers in the region. Napoleon ordered an invasion in 1857, and by 1862 the Vietnamese emperor Tu Duc had agreed to a treaty ceding conquered territory centered on Gia Dinh (renamed Saigon by the French); this southern region was known as Cochinchina. A French protectorate was imposed on neighboring Cambodia in 1863, and in 1883 northern and central Vietnam became French protectorates under the names Tonkin and Annam. The territories were organized into the Indochinese Union in 1887, and Laos was added in 1893.

French Colonial Rule and Resistance

Some Vietnamese initially accepted the reduction of the Nguyen dynasty to symbolic status under the French, as it had failed to protect the people from invasion and a series of deadly natural disasters. Catholic Vietnamese, having been persecuted by the imperial government, welcomed French intervention. However, French governors quickly alienated the Vietnamese public and the scholar-official class by replacing the existing bureaucracy with a French-run colonial system. French policies also increased landlessness among the peasantry and concentrated property and wealth in the hands of French settlers known as colons. The economy was reorganized to extract raw materials for export, including rice, minerals, and rubber. Local industry was discouraged so that Vietnam would serve as a market for French-made products.

Armed resistance movements developed soon after the beginning of French rule, initially aiming to restore the precolonial system but later adopting European republican and nationalist ideas. In 1925, Ho Chi Minh and colleagues in the Communist movement created the Revolutionary Youth League, which later became the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), the most consequential of the anticolonial groups. The Communists staged an unsuccessful peasant revolt in 1930–31 but survived the crackdown that followed. During most of World War II, French colonial personnel collaborated with Japanese occupation forces to control Indochina, and Ho's Communists formed a unified resistance movement, known as the Viet Minh, with other leftist and nationalist groups. It placed national liberation above all other goals (including socialist revolution) in order to gain the widest possible support. Meanwhile, in 1945, the Japanese dispensed with the French administration and established an "independent" Vietnamese puppet government under the Nguyen emperor Bao Dai.

Ho Chi Minh

Independence, Division, and the First Indochina War

The Viet Minh took control of the north and parts of the south at the end of the war, announcing the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. It faced resistance from armed religious sects in the south that had been encouraged by the Japanese and from other non-Communist, nationalist elements. The temporary postwar occupation of the north by Chinese nationalist troops and the south by British forces also weakened the ICP-led Viet Minh's position. The British released and rearmed French soldiers in the south, allowing them to retake many of the Viet Minh–held areas. In early 1946, Ho was forced to agree to Vietnam's incorporation into the Indochinese Union and a continued French troop presence. The French declared Cochinchina a separate republic, but the Viet Minh was able to consolidate its control over the north at the expense of other nationalist factions.

Friction between the Viet Minh and the French in the north led to open fighting by the end of 1946, marking the beginning of the First Indochina War. As the conflict continued, the French in 1950 unified the country under Bao Dai as the nominally independent Associated State of Vietnam, which remained in the Indochinese Union. The Bao Dai regime was recognized by the United States, Great Britain, and other anti-Communist powers, while the Viet Minh government was recognized by the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union. The French began to receive substantial U.S. financial assistance but lost control of the countryside to Viet Minh guerrillas. The capture of the strategic French outpost at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 cost the Viet Minh army 25,000 lives, but it convinced France to withdraw from Vietnam and end the war. A cease-fire agreement negotiated in Geneva divided the country at the 17th parallel, with French forces and the Bao Dai government withdrawing to the south and the Viet Minh to the north. Planned elections aimed at forming a single national government were never held.

The Vietnam War (Second Indochina War)

Bao Dai's nationalist and anti-Communist prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, began to govern in the South with U.S. assistance. In 1955, he organized a referendum that made him president of a new Republic of Vietnam, removing Bao Dai as head of state. Diem, a Roman Catholic, used authoritarian tactics to maintain control, ordering arrests of nearly 100,000 alleged Communists and sympathizers, suppressing the religious sects in the countryside, and cracking down on Buddhist political dissent in the cities. However, his actions provoked fierce opposition and failed to halt the advance of Communist-led "Viet Cong" guerrillas. A U.S.-authorized military coup ousted and killed Diem in 1963, leading to a series of short-lived governments. In the North, Ho Chi Minh forcibly collectivized agriculture, embarked on an ambitious industrialization program with Soviet and Chinese aid, and co-opted or crushed internal opposition. The northern government also worked to organize and support the national liberation movement in the South.

The government's coercive attempts to transform South Vietnamese society led to one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II...

The United States had been steadily increasing its contingent of advisers and pilots assisting the South Vietnamese army, but in 1965 it began bombing the North and deploying combat troops to the South as the Saigon government's position deteriorated. The number of U.S. troops in the country reached 525,000 in 1968. That year, Communist forces launched a coordinated series of attacks known as the Tet offensive in an effort to force the United States into a negotiated withdrawal. As with Dien Bien Phu, they suffered heavy losses, and in this case the territory they captured was quickly retaken. But the scale of the campaign (attacks on more than 100 cities and towns, among other targets) demoralized the American public, which questioned how the large U.S. force could have failed to prevent it. U.S. leaders soon realized that the country was unwilling to commit the additional troops needed for victory, and a gradual pullout began amid ongoing fighting and drawn-out peace talks in Paris. While the 1973 Paris peace accords nominally guaranteed the independence of the South in exchange for U.S. military withdrawal, the North continued its campaign until the South collapsed in 1975.

Post-1975 Vietnam

The reunification of the country, renamed the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, was followed by the forced relocation of millions of people, the internment of hundreds of thousands of others in "reeducation camps," and the imposition of socialized agriculture and industry. The government's coercive attempts to transform South Vietnamese society led to one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II, as roughly one million people fled by land and sea over the next decade.

Under new leadership, Vietnam in 1986 embarked on a reform program called doi moi, allowing some private property and economic activity. Further reforms, similar to those in China, have helped propel Vietnam's economic growth and reduce poverty, but the Communist Party of Vietnam retains its tight grip on political power. The ruling philosophy is reflected in a statement by Communist Party general secretary Le Kha Phieu at the party's August 1999 Central Committee Plenum:

Our people won't allow any political power sharing with any other forces. Any ideas to promote "absolute democracy," to put human rights above sovereignty, or support multiparty or political pluralism... are lies and cheating.

Freedom of Religion


The history of religion in Vietnam, as in most countries, is characterized by state efforts to impose certain beliefs and practices on the population. Confucianism, a set of ethical and spiritual beliefs that developed in tandem with the Chinese imperial system, was the official religion during the 1,000 years of Chinese rule that began in 111 BC. Buddhism, which filtered into the country as a popular religion during Chinese rule, was adopted as the de facto state religion after it regained independence in the 11th century, and remained the principal religion thereafter. However, the Nguyen dynasty attempted to impose a strict form of Confucianism in the 19th century.

Roman Catholicism was first introduced by Portuguese missionaries, and the French Jesuit Alexandre de Rhodes made numerous converts in the 17th century. (Rhodes is also credited with the systematization of the Vietnamese language in a romanized alphabet, called quoc ngu, which is used today.) Though he was expelled, later missionaries were tolerated, and by 1841 the Catholic Church reported a total of 450,000 converts. Under French rule, Vietnam was generally a place of religious pluralism, including new, politicized offshoots of the main religions that opposed both French colonial rule and communism. Both the syncretic faith Cao Dai (a blend of Catholicism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism), founded in 1926, and the neo-Buddhist sect Hoa Hao, formed in 1939, adopted extreme nationalist stances and found themselves at odds with a number of successive governments.

Official Religion in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

The constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam as well as its 2004 Ordinance Regarding Religious Belief and Religious Organization appear to promise freedom of religion. The 2004 ordinance, for example, declares: "The State guarantees freedom of religious belief and of religion for its citizens." However, the U.S. State Department in September 2004 designated Vietnam a "Country of Particular Concern" for its especially severe violations of religious freedom. The regime has made incremental improvements since then, and the designation was lifted in November 2006.

As in other Communist countries, Vietnam's constitutional guarantees of human rights and freedoms are generally trumped by Marxist-Leninist principles like "democratic centralism," which forbids dissent once a decision has been made by the party leadership. Priority is given to the goal of social transformation as laid out by the party, and individual rights are set aside to the extent that they present obstacles to official directives. Vaguely worded provisions in the constitution and other laws effectively cancel out human rights pledges by prohibiting behavior that undermines national unity, defames public officials and policies, or otherwise violates existing regulations. Article 205a of the penal code states:

Any person who abuses freedom of speech, of the press or of religion, or wrongly uses the rights to assembly, association or other democratic rights to encroach upon the interests of the State, social organizations or citizens shall be subject to a caution to non-custodial reform for a period of up to two years, or to a term of imprisonment of between three months and three years.

In the case of religion, Vietnam has created the Office of Religious Affairs to govern all religious practice. It oversees approved religious institutions, regulates their use of property and resources, and requires each religious organization to register with the local, provincial, and national authorities. Security officials enforce the vaguely formulated language in the penal code and other laws whenever they see the need, generally restricting religious groups to a narrow field of activity.

There are many registered religious institutions, including Buddhist and Christian groups and the syncretic Cao Dai sect. But these are mainly government-created or controlled versions of traditional religious organizations; even the Roman Catholic Church has traded away some of its autonomy, particularly over clerical appointments, to continue its presence in the country. Each of the official religious organizations agrees to accept the government's authority over its internal affairs and is affiliated with the Fatherland Front, an umbrella group for social movements linked to the Communist Party.

Adherence to religion is believed to be high, with about 70 percent professing religious belief. Some 50 percent of the population identifies as Buddhist. Ten percent are Catholic, approximately 2 percent are Protestant, and the rest consist of followers of Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and other faiths.

Unofficial Religion in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

The traditional or independent factions of religious groups are denied registration and must practice their faiths outside the law. These include the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), some Hoa Hao and Cao Dai groups, and many Protestant congregations that refuse to join the official churches. Most independent Protestant worshippers are believed to be ethnic minorities.

The traditional or independent factions of religious groups are denied registration and must practice their faiths outside the law.

The unofficial religious groups are denied the right to maintain educational centers, train clerical officials, and operate places of worship. Leaders and individual members of these groups have been imprisoned, congregants have been pressured to renounce their faith or switch their affiliations to officially registered churches, and local officials have mounted campaigns of general harassment against their private religious services.

In one well-known case, five Hoa Hao members were imprisoned in An Giang province in 2000, reportedly for planning an unauthorized gathering to mark the anniversary of the sect founder's death. Four of the five had also signed a letter protesting government abuses. They received sentences of between one and three years in prison for "having abused their right to democratic freedoms, disturbing social order and opposing public authorities." Hmong and other ethnic minorities living in highland areas have reported frequent police harassment and attempts to force them to renounce their faith. The authorities are believed to be holding many prisoners for reasons connected to their religious beliefs, but the exact number is uncertain, and the government maintains that it holds no such prisoners.

The state's actions indicate that there is no true freedom of religion in Vietnam, despite the guarantees found in the constitution and other laws. Just as political activity is controlled by the Communist Party, religious practice is carefully organized and monitored by the government, preventing the emergence of independent groups that could challenge its unchecked authority.