Thursday, February 7, 2013

Vietnam Looks to Amend Religious Laws

Freedom of religion, much like freedom of speech, is subject to interpretation by the government

Vietnam is considering amendments to its constitution in an apparent bid to bend freedom of worship laws to better fit the needs of the state, which in the past year has arrested Catholic, Protestant and Buddhist religious leaders.

Protestant pastor Nguyen Trung Ton was arrested in January 2012 on unknown charges, according to Human Right Watch. Three Catholic Ha Mon Montagnard activists—Blei, Phoi, and Dinh Pset—were arrested in March. Two Hoa Hao activists, Nguyen Van Lia and Tran Hoai An, were arrested in April and July. Also in April Protestant pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh was arrested and charged with "undermining national unity." At least 15 Catholics affiliated with Redemptorist churches in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, including bloggers Le Van Son and Ta Phong Tan, were arrested in July, August, and September.

Freedom of religion, as with other fundamental rights, is supposedly constitutionally protected. As evidenced by the government's actions, however, "protection" is not always guaranteed. Built-in loopholes in the constitution, as well as government decrees, provide the state with certain grounds on which to overrule human and civil rights of citizens. Where the line is blurred between the government's support and absence of support for religious freedom occurs at the reading of the law.

Freedom of religion is set out in Article 70 of the 1992 Constitution and amended in 2001, which states that citizens have the right to freedom of belief and religion, and may practice or not practice any religion. All religions are equal before the law and public places of religious worship are protected.

Presently, however, new amendments (linked site in Vietnamese) are being considered but have not yet been implemented. When Article 70 is compared to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which addresses the right to religion, the two articles appear fairly similar. Article 18 states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to change religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Thus, at a glance it would seem that Vietnam indeed recognizes and encourages the diversity of its citizens in protecting their varied beliefs and religious practices. Of course, the devil is in the details. The third section of Article 70 states that freedom of religion cannot violate Vietnam's state laws and policies. Such a statement would seem reasonable enough, except state laws and policies are less than clearly defined limits. Despite the fact that the constitution has set out to protect religious freedoms, the constitution is designed to ensure power and control of the state rests in the Communist Party.

As if to eliminate any question of where power resides, Article 15 of the proposed 2013 amendments (to replace Article 50 of the original) states, translated from Vietnamese:

"In the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, human rights, civil rights and the State's recognition, respect and protection, are guaranteed by the constitution and laws. Human rights and civil rights can only be limited in cases where it is necessary for reasons of national defense, national security, public order, safety, morals, and health of the community (italics ours)."

This vague terminology provides the government with room to maneuver. What constitutes "national security" or "public order?" What are these morals and "health" of the community that gives the state power to overrule human and civil rights?

By design, these terms appear to offer a sense of fairness, to give the state the appearance of being practical with respect to religious freedoms. After all, religious extremism is indeed a valid reason for restricting certain religious freedoms; however, the absence of specificity allows the State to crack down on religious practices and activities, as long as it can be justified by the reasons listed above.

A Grey Zone
Under the one-party rule of the Communist Party, the default religion is none at all although, about 20 percent of Vietnamese do practice one. By far the largest religious organizations are Buddhist and Catholic, which account for the bulk of religious practitioners in Vietnam.

While a degree of religious freedom is afforded to the people, this freedom is not unconditional. The government is known to harass and observe religious practitioners. Those practitioners belonging to religious organizations not sanctioned or banned by the government risk being arrested for a myriad of reason, and placed under house arrest.

The story of Father Nguyen Van Ly, the well-known democratic rights activist, imprisoned again after serving 16 months under house arrest, is a cautionary tale for those who speak out against the government.

Where the state and religion comes into conflict is over power. If power should reside in the Christian god then the authority of the state is brought into question. The constitution states that the Communist Party is the vanguard of the people, and that the people must be loyal to the motherland. Power resides in the party, and god, or whatever spiritual deity or deities the people choose to believe in, has a place only if its authority is secondary to the party.

The state's opposition to religion is not necessarily a matter of ideology, but one of practicality. Where religious activities begin to threaten the party legitimacy, the state will intervene under the guise of national security or public order to stifle such activities.

Clearly, religious freedom remains a work in progress, and it is likely to remain that way until political and constitutional reform occur. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that some Vietnamese, despite the potential risk of harassment, enjoy relative freedom in exercising their religious beliefs.

Indeed, as religion is a matter of faith, and faith is subject to an individual's experience, some could argue from a certain perspective that freedom of religion exists. Yet, what can't be denied is that this "freedom" is not free, and restrictions put in place are not necessarily to the benefit of the people but for the state's control. Where these restrictions are then at times arbitrarily imposed upon religious practitioners, religious freedom in Vietnam remains an illusion.  (Khanh Vu Duc is a Canadian lawyer who researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel)

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