Religious freedom under threat in Vietnam

Religious freedom under threat in Vietnam

This month, Vietnam’s National Assembly will debate the Law on Belief and Religion. Religious leaders have voiced their concerns that this law will restrict religious freedom. Vietnam must tackle human rights abuses if it wants to safeguard its emerging economy.

This October, Vietnam’s Government Committee for Religious Affairs is finalizing the draft Law on Belief and Religion, before it is presented for debate at the National Assembly. This will be the fifth version of the draft law.

Previous drafts of the law have raised concerns amongst religious organizations and human rights societies that the law will restrict religious freedom in the country. As an emerging economy, it is vital that Vietnam remains an attractive option for investors. Human rights abuses are likely to have a serious impact on this.

The 4th Draft Law on Belief and Religion

According to recent figures, Vietnam has a population of approximately 90 million, with an estimated 24 million identifying with a religious faith, such as Buddhism or Catholicism.

Concerned over potential Western influence within Catholicism, and seeking to restrict the influence of religious groups in general, the Communist Party of Vietnam has sought to exert control over religious leaders, and prevent them from undermining party unity and security.

Thich Quang Do, the leader of banned group Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, has spent the past three decades in internal exile, prison and house arrest for his advocacy of religious freedom.

Vietnam’s Government Committee for Religious Affairs proposed new legislation on Belief and Religion in order to help bring domestic religious policy in line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Vietnam signed in 1982. The Committee claims that the new legislation will simplify the registration process for unregistered local groups or churches. It will also prohibit all acts of compelling other people to follow or relinquish a religion.  

On April 17th, 2015, the Committee for Religious Affairs sent the 4th Draft Law to 62 religious organizations, requesting they return their opinions on the law by May 5th.  On May 11th, the Interfaith Council of Vietnam responded to the draft law with a letter of protest. According to the Council, the government did not allow religions adequate time to provide a response to the request.

The Council also claimed that the law requires too many kinds of applications for the purpose of restricting religious freedom, includes ambiguous terms and articles which can be freely applied by the local authorities, and contains a lot of contradictory articles.  

The council requested that religions be considered independent civil organizations, independent to organize their personnel and structure, free to publicize their doctrine, allowed to possess land, and free to communicate with their followers.

Impact on the Vietnamese Economy

According to the World Bank, Vietnam is a ‘development success story’. Once one of the poorest countries in the world with a per capita income of approximately $100, the country now has a per capita income of over $2000.

The number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped from 50% in the 1990s to 3% today.  GDP has accelerated to 6.3% during the first half of 2015.

According to a US Department of State’s 2014 Investment Climate Statement, Vietnam has successfully attracted large volumes of foreign direct investment, sustaining levels of around $10-$12 billion per year over the last six years.

Investors are attracted by Vietnam’s growing consumer market, position near global supply chains and relative political and economic stability. Any evidence of human rights abuses is therefore likely to impact investor confidence.  

Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, recently called on Vietnam’s international donors to press the government to end policies that restrict religious freedom. According to Adams, “donors and other governments need to make ending these abuses a priority instead of seeing them as part of their ‘business as usual’ approach to a one-party state that refuses to engage in serious human rights reforms”.

Under pressure from human rights organizations, and with potential investors at risk, Vietnam is going to have to think carefully before implementing any law that restricts religious freedom. If it does not, its status as a developing success story could well be at stake.

About Author

Laura Southgate

Dr Laura Southgate is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University in Birmingham, United Kingdom. She has a PhD in International Relations from the University of Otago, New Zealand, and an MA in International Relations and Security, and a BA in Law and Politics, from the University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the international relations and security of Southeast Asia.