By Andrew Symon
Are hardliners in Vietnam’s Communist Party-led government now calling the tune? That is one interpretation for the recent crackdown on large-scale demonstrations led by Vietnamese Catholics who have demanded a return of former church property nationalized in Hanoi when the communists first took power over 50 years ago.
Religious protesters have been beaten, arrested and harassed, according to a variety of news agency reports. The US-based rights group Human Rights Watch has described it as the harshest crackdown on Vietnam’s Catholics in decades. Catholic organizations outside of the country have joined the criticism, although the Vatican has not yet commented publicly.
The crackdown is in marked contrast to the authorities’ tolerant and restrained approach towards similar vigils held in December and January by Catholic parishioners seeking the return of disputed properties, including the site of the former Vatican diplomatic mission near the St Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi’s city center and the nearby Thai Ha church and monastery.
Earlier vigils came to a peaceful end when the Vatican in Rome urged Vietnam’s Catholics to avoid provoking confrontation, while government authorities promised to discuss the return of the properties. But tensions have mounted between hardliners and moderates inside Vietnam’s leadership, particularly over how to handle rising inflationary pressures in the economy and the overall economic reform direction.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, viewed widely as a moderate, has led Vietnam’s rapid economic reform drive and has responded to various foreign investor calls to move towards a more rules-based economic system, including over property rights. Dung has recently come under conservative criticism for moving too quickly and a hardline camp has played on his previous softly-softly approach in handling earlier Catholic protests as evidence he is both soft on security and over-eager to bow to foreign demands.
Now, the government’s newly adopted hardline approach is stoking instability. A new round of Catholic protests began in August, beginning with 100 or less devotees taking part in prayer vigils, in response to the failure of any advance in the discussions with the local government authorities over the contested holy sites. In late August, police arrested at least eight peaceful demonstrators on the grounds of the Thai Ha Church of the Redemptorist monastery, which was founded in the 18th century to assist the urban poor. News reports said that police beat parishioners with electric batons to disperse a a subsequent vigil calling for the release of those detained.
On September 19, in a clear statement of the government’s hardening position, construction workers backed by hundreds of police officers and clearance crews bulldozed the former nunciature’s perimeter walls and old gardens – but left the colonial residence of the former delegate of the pope – to make way for a park and public library.
An Associated Press reporter was beaten by police after being arrested for taking photos of the building work and his camera was confiscated.
Local Hanoi authorities have also declared their intention to turn the greater 17,000-square-meter Thai Ha Redemptorist property into a public park and have offered the Church the use of three alternative properties for religious purposes. The offers have been declined, however. By September 21, as many as 10,000 devotees stood off against the authorities.
That same evening hundreds of men, some in Communist Youth uniforms, according to reports, attacked Thai Ha Church, harassing and even spitting on priests and their parishioners. Police reportedly watched idly as the mob harassed parishioners, destroyed an iron cross erected in the nunciature’s garden and removed a sacred statue of the Pieta.
On the same day, more than 5,000 Catholics gathered for a prayer vigil in southern Ho Chi Minh City to show their support for the parishioners in northern Hanoi.
Four days later, state-owned buses delivered a pro-government mob that attacked Catholic demonstrators at the site of the nunciature and denounced Hanoi’s Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet. Kiet, who has publicly defended the rights of the Catholic protesters and visited the families of arrested parishioners, now faces government restrictions on his movements. Other clerics and parishioners have been summoned for interrogations.
In the state-controlled media allegations have been made that Kiet “has committed illegal and unpatriotic acts” by inciting the protests and represented a threat “to public safety and national unity”. Underscoring the government’s harder line, authorities have apparently taken extreme propaganda measures by publishing criticisms of Kiet in children’s magazines. The current issue of Thieu Nien Tien Phong (Pioneer Children) magazine, produced for primary school children, includes an article by a Catholic primary student who writes that she lost her Catholic belief due to Kiet’s words and behavior.
Kiet has in response criticized the Vietnamese government’s monopoly control over the country’s mass media. “The reason why you don’t see or hear the opinions of the Office of the Archbishop in the mass media is that such means of communication belongs to the government, and that we don’t have any right to use it to express our viewpoints,” Kiet was reported saying in religious-oriented publications.
After the Hanoi People’s Committee, a governmental authority answerable to the Communist Party, recommended punishing Kiet and four other priests for inciting riots and disrespecting the nation, among other charges, the Vietnam Conference of Bishops issued public statements in defense of the clergymen and raised concerns about religious freedom and the right to property.
For their part, government officials have repeatedly claimed that the Church gave them the land decades ago, but Catholics dispute that claim. Supporters of the government’s policy, writing in the local state-controlled press, point out that the nunciature’s land was before the Church’s construction occupied by the Bao Thien pagoda. The shrine was destroyed in 1886 by “French imperialists” to build a church, seminary and building for the Vatican’s representative to Vietnam, the commentators wrote.
After the end of French rule in 1954, the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, now the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, took over management of the land. Under Vietnamese law, there is no privately held property and land is managed by the state for all of the people. The state may decide to allocate land for different uses, including for religions such as the Catholic Church.
Premier Dung was reported in the state-run Vietnamese News Agency in early October saying that the Catholic protesters and Archbishop Kiet had overstepped the mark and were often acting illegally. At a meeting with the Vietnam Episcopal Council after the conclusion of its second annual conference, Dung said that Vietnam’s constitution and current laws state clearly that land belongs to the people under the unified management of the state.
He also said that the allocation of land to any organization for religious purposes had to be performed in line with the law and cited a number of localities, including Ho Chi Minh City, which has allocated land to the municipal bishopric to build a center serving its activities, where this policy has been successfully implemented.
Others included the central highlands province of Dac Lac, where more than 11,000 square meters of land were handed over to the Buon Ma Thuot bishopric, the central city of Danang’s allotment of 9,000 square meters of land to the Danang bishopric, and the central province of Quang Tri’s allocation of over 15 hectares of land to the La Vang parish.
Dung said Kiet had demonstrated a lack of respect and cooperation with the Hanoi administration and that his words “challenged the state, hurt the nation, and disregarded the country’s position and the status of Vietnamese citizens in their interrelation with the world”.
“If those activities do not come to an end, they will have an adverse impact on the good ties between the State and the Church and the relationship between Vietnam and the Vatican, which has been progressing positively,” Dung said.
He also said the government was willing to have dialogue with the Catholics and not use force to settle the issues over the two properties. In the subtext, Dung’s remarks spoke to the still-unreformed nature of property ownership in Vietnam’s otherwise fast transformation from a communist to market-based economy.
There are reports that land grievances are escalating throughout the country and it is thought that conservatives in the Communist Party leadership believe that if the Catholics are successful in challenging the state’s control over their property, it could unleash an unmanageable spate of similar demands across the country.
It’s still unclear what the recent crackdown on Catholics means for the country’s overall economic reform direction. What seems clearer is that Dung has acquiesced to conservative demands to take a tougher position exerting the state’s command over land ownership and in the process raises disturbing new fears of a wider crackdown on dissent and religion.
Andrew Symon is a Singapore-based writer and a frequent visitor to Vietnam. He can be reached on email@example.com