Hundreds of Vietnamese police and others dressed in medical protective suits raided the funeral of the ethnic Hmong founder of an unofficial religious group, beating and arresting nearly 50 of his followers who attended the ceremony, locals said.
Duong Van Minh, 60, died of lymphoma on Dec. 11. His family and followers carried his body from the medical facility where he died to his home in Ngoi Sen village in northeastern Vietnamâ€™s Tuyen Quang province for a funeral and burial ceremony.
After Minhâ€™s body was taken back home, local authorities set up checkpoints in the surrounding area to reportedly curtail the spread of the COVID-19 virus, but in reality meant to prevent his followers from attending the funeral, locals said.
â€œThey set up checkpoints surrounding all of the villages where Mr. Minhâ€™s followers live and blocked all the paths leading to Mr. Minhâ€™s village,â€ said a resident and follower who declined to be identified for safety reasons. â€œWhen we asked whether there were COVID-19 virus infections in the area, some mobile police officers said no, adding that they had just been asked to block the area.â€
Authorities asked Minhâ€™s family members to take COVID-19 tests, saying that the driver who transported the body had tested positive for the contagious respiratory virus. The relatives, in turn, requested taking the tests on Dec. 13, the day after the funeral, but authorities declined.
Instead, local authorities sent mobile police and staff in medical protective clothing to disrupt the funeral on Dec. 12 to â€œforce people to take the test,â€ resulting in the violent crackdown, locals said.
â€œAround 300 mobile police officers and others with shields and batons came to Mr. Minhâ€™s house in groups, one after another,â€ said the first resident. â€œThey shouted and threatened to arrest people filming them and chased down those holding mobile phones.â€
About 35 people were arrested except for Minhâ€™s family members and others who remained inside the house, prompting police to break windows and demand that they open the door, threatening them with electric batons, he said.
â€œThen a group of nurses came in to examine Mr. Minhâ€™s body,â€ he added.
The same day, more than 100 followers of the Duong Van Minh religion named for its founder went to see medical staff and protested what they considered a violation of their religious founderâ€™s body.
In response, authorities mobilized police and arrested nine more people, followers said.
On Dec. 15, police announced the names of four followers accused of allegedly assaulting officers on official duty via village loudspeakers and called on them to turn themselves in. Four people were later arrested when they showed up at the communeâ€™s headquarters, they said.
None of those arrested have been released.
â€œI think the authorities treated us that badly just because of our beliefs,â€ said the first resident. â€œThe police have seen us many times, and they are very keen on eliminating our religion and not allowing us to follow it. The police have said that in many places.â€
RFA could not reach the office of the chairman of Tuyen Quang Province Peopleâ€™s Committee for comment.
It wasnâ€™t the first time that some of the followers of the Duong Van Minh religion had been arrested.
â€œThose who have been arrested had been threatened many times before,â€ the resident said. â€œThe police said those who taught our fellow villagers to practice the religion would all be arrested, leaving no one on the loose,â€ he said.
Authorities took advantage of the funeral to arrest other believers in a bid to eradicate the unofficial religion, he added.
As of Dec. 20, authorities have informed the relatives of some of the people arrested that their family members would be prosecuted for resisting officers on official duty.
Founded in 1989, the Duong Van Minh religion promotes the removal of old and costly funeral customs that require that killing of cattle for seven days and seek to make Hmong faith customs surrounding funerals and marriages more modern and hygienic.
Followers of the religion have come under severe repression by authorities, and many have been charged with â€œabusing freedom and democratic rightsâ€ and imprisoned. Over the years, authorities have destroyed dozens of their religious structures used as funeral homes.
Vietnamâ€™s state-run media has called the belief a false religion, arguing that it leads people to create groups that are not in line with the policies of the central government and the Communist Party of Vietnam and has accused its followers of inciting local people to oppose those guidelines and of trying to establish a Kingdom of Hmong.
Major General Sung Thin Co, a Hmong member of Vietnamâ€™s national assembly, told fellow representatives at a session on March 26 that local authorities and police had made â€œa hasty decision on the Duong Van Minh religion,â€ causing clashes with Hmong people.
There are roughly 8,000 ethnic Hmong practitioners of the Duong Van Minh religion in four provinces in the northern mountainous region of Vietnam, according to the government.
Reported by RFAâ€™s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Anna Vu. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.