Police in northern Vietnam this month raided eight centers of an ethnic religious group described by authorities as an illegal separatist organization, a charge the group denies, sources say.
On Aug. 2, public security officers and police armed with guns and shock batons raided separate locations of the Duong Van Minh religious group in the Bao Lam district of Cao Bang province, sources told RFA.
“The local authorities came at 3:00 a.m. when people were still sleeping,” said one witness to the raids, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “They gathered at the houses that keep funeral and ritual objects and demolished them.”
“We were given no notice that the raids would take place,” he said. By early morning, all local establishments of the group had been destroyed, he added.
Authorities then ordered followers of the Duong Van Minh religion to take down altars kept in their homes for family use and to surrender any items used for worship, saying police would use force to confiscate any objects not handed over, local sources said.
“Almost all families were determined to protect their houses and altars and did not let authorities’ representatives inside,” one follower said, also declining to be named because of safety concerns.
“Some asked the officials whether they had any documents allowing them to come in or orders telling them to demolish the houses. The police responded that they had confidential documents and orders but were not allowed to let local people see them,” he said.
Police then broke down the doors of the families’ homes, destroyed altars and hung pictures of former Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh in their place. Vietnamese flags were also placed at the houses’ front doors, sources said.
Calls seeking comment from the People’s Committees of Cao Bang province and Bao Lam district rang unanswered this week.
The Duong Van Minh sect was founded in 1989 with the stated goal of promoting the elimination of outdated, expensive and unhygienic funeral customs. There are are at least 8,000 ethnic Hmong practitioners of the religion in four provinces in Vietnam’s northern mountains.
The religion is not officially registered, and government authorities say the sect is conspiring to establish an independent Hmong state and break away from Vietnam, a charge the group denies.
Police have been working for the past year to eliminate the sect, according to state media reports, and an Aug. 9 article published on the website of the Cao Bang Broadcasting Station said that Bao Lam district authorities were now fully mobilized to suppress the religion.
Largest campaign to date
Speaking to RFA, Vu Quoc Dung—executive director of VETO!, which monitors religious freedom in Vietnam—called the August raids the largest campaign carried out against the Duong Van Minh religion to date.
“It was a systematic campaign, as it mobilized all agencies and associated unions as participants,” he said.
“And the government this time applied the same measures in different places, such as forcing locals to sign a commitment to leave the religion, removing altars, banning worship gatherings on Sundays and burning or demolishing the Duong Van Minh religion’s funeral houses.”
Dung said the campaign to eliminate the Duong Van Minh religion is being directed by leaders at all levels of the Communist Party of Vietnam, and the crackdown has now been conducted across four northern provinces, affecting around 10,000 followers.
Followers of the religion say they are determined to protect their beliefs, however.
“There was widespread discontent among followers after authorities broke into their houses without showing any legal documents or orders, and many are saying that local authorities have broken the law by doing this,” one Duong Van Minh follower told RFA. “Many now plan to reinstall their altars and file complaints against those acts.”
Vietnam’s government strictly controls religious practice in the one-party communist country, requiring practitioners to join state-approved temples and churches and suppressing independent groups.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in a report released April 25 recommended that the U.S. government place Vietnam on a list of countries of particular concern because of Vietnamese authorities’ persistent violations of religious freedom.
Translated by Anna Vu for RFA Vietnamese. Written in English by Richard Finney.