Viet Nam: Hoa Hao Buddhism [Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo], including regional distribution of followers and whether there are regional differences in treatment by authorities (2018–April 2021) [VNM200498.E]

Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada

1. Overview

Sources state that Hoa Hao Buddhism was founded in 1939 (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 108; Research Professor 14 Mar. 2021; HRW 8 Feb. 2018), by Huynh Phu So [Huỳnh Phú Sổ] (HRW 8 Feb. 2018; UK 9 Sept. 2019, 107), who is also known as the Grand Master or Virtuous Master (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 107).

A report on a fact-finding mission (FFM) to Viet Nam by the UK Home Office, conducted between 23 February 2019 and 1 March 2019, indicates that Hoa Hao Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in Viet Nam, behind Buddhism, Catholicism and Caodaism [Cao Daism, Đạo Cao Đài] (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 26). According to the US Department of State's International Religious Freedom Report for 2019, based on US government estimates, the total population of Viet Nam was 97.9 million as of mid-2019; January 2018 statistics from Viet Nam's Government Committee for Religious Affairs (GCRA) found that 1.5 percent of the Vietnamese population was Hoa Hao Buddhist (US 10 June 2020, 2). According to the notes published in the UK Home Office FFM report based on interviews with "[d]iplomatic sources" and information provided by the sources after the meetings, official estimates place the population of Hoa Hao Buddhists at 1.3 million, but "unofficially" the population was estimated at "over" 2 million (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 36, 46). In notes published in the UK Home Office FFM report, Hoa Hao Buddhist "managers" interviewed by the UK Home Office FFM team stated that there were 8 million Hoa Hao followers (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 108–109).

Sources indicate that the Vietnamese government recognizes 39 religious organizations (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 25) or 38 religious organizations and 1 Dharma practice (US 10 June 2020, 4), and that Hoa Hao Buddhism is a recognized religion (US 10 June 2020, 4; UK 9 Sept. 2019, 26). Sources note that the government recognized Hoa Hao Buddhism in 1999 (HRW 8 Feb. 2018; Research Professor 14 Mar. 2021). Sources report that "[s]ome" (Australia 13 Dec. 2019, para. 3.18) or "a large number of" (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 26) Hoa Hao Buddhists belong to unrecognized or unregistered organizations (Australia 13 Dec. 2019, para. 3.18; UK 9 Sept. 2019, 26).

Both the diplomatic sources and the Hoa Hao Buddhist managers cited in the UK Home Office FFM report stated that there are three Hoa Hao sects (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 47, 108). The Hoa Hao Buddhist managers added that there are three sects of Hoa Hao Buddhism: pure (the sect of the Hoa Hao Buddhist managers), neutral and state-recognized; all three sects practise in "'the same'" way (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 108). The diplomatic sources indicated that some Hoa Hao Buddhists choose not to belong to an organized sect, but that a "very small number" of individuals belong to the unregistered group (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 47). The Hoa Hao Buddhist managers stated that out of a total of 8 million Hoa Hao Buddhists, there are "'less than'" 400 followers of the state-recognized sect, "'around'" 400 followers of the pure sect, and the remaining are followers of the neutral sect (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 108). The Hoa Hao Buddhist managers note that one of the principles of the pure sect is to "'stand up against dictatorship'" and added that the pure sect followers are "'fully devoted to the teachings of the [V]irtuous [M]aster and want to struggle to regain their legitimate interest'" while the followers of the neutral sect "'support the pure sect'" but "'do not want trouble with the government'"; the state-recognized sect is led by members of the Communist Party of Viet Nam (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 108–109). A report on religious freedom for August 2019 by The Vietnamese, an online publication based in Viet Nam founded by a group of Vietnamese activists and journalists (The Vietnamese n.d.), states that the pure Hoa Hao Buddhist sect is a non-recognized religious organization and that its members "are not allowed to organize their worshipping ceremonies publicly" since "only" the Central Executive Committee of the Hoa Hao Buddhist Organization has "the right to organize such activities" (The Vietnamese 14 Oct. 2019). Further and corroborating information on the neutral sect of Hoa Hao Buddhism could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

1.1 Regional Distribution

As cited in the UK Home Office FFM report, the diplomatic sources noted that Hoa Hao Buddhists "are almost exclusively concentrated in the Mekong Delta" (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 47). In correspondence with the Research Directorate, a research professor and historian of Southeast Asian religions at the Paris-based École pratique des hautes études (EPHE) [1], who has conducted research on the history of Hoa Hao Buddhism [2], indicated that the [translation] "heart" of Hoa Hao Buddhism is located "around" the districts of Phú Tân and Chợ Mới and the cities of Long Xuyên and Châu Đốc in An Giang province, as well as the neighbouring provinces of Đồng Tháp, Kiên Giang, Cần Thơ and Vĩnh Long (Research Professor 14 Mar. 2021). Additionally, the same source stated that there are Hoa Hao practitioners in Ho Chi Minh City, which is primarily due to the migration of followers rather than the spread of the religion among the urban population; overseas communities also began appearing at the end of the 1970s, particularly in the US and Australia (Research Professor 14 Mar. 2021). The Research Professor added that there are [translation] "very few" Hoa Hao followers in central Viet Nam and "almost no followers" in northern Viet Nam (Research Professor 14 Mar. 2021).

As cited in the UK Home Office FFM report, the diplomatic sources stated that non-registered Hoa Hao Buddhists "often" live in "very remote" areas, which are "difficult" to access, and observed that it is difficult to determine their numbers, how the communities communicate with each other or whether there is a communication network between them (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 46). The Research Professor similarly indicated that, [translation] "except for those living in the Mekong Delta," Vietnamese people "generally kno[w] very little about Hoa Hao religious life" (Research Professor 14 Mar. 2021).

1.2 Religious Practices, Traditions and Holidays

Information on the religious practices of Hoa Hao Buddhism was scarce among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

The Research Professor indicated that, to their knowledge, some elements of Hoa Hao religious activities take place in private and a [translation] "large part of religious life takes a secular form" (Research Professor 14 Mar. 2021). As cited in the UK Home Office FFM report, the Hoa Hao Buddhist managers stated that followers practise their religion at home (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 108). A country information report on Viet Nam by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) published in June 2017 notes that Hoa Hao Buddhism emphasizes practising the religion at home or while tending land, since "most followers are farmers" (Australia 21 June 2017, para. 3.17). The same source adds that the Hoa Hao Buddhists prefer "grassroots aid work over temple worship or elaborate ceremonies" (Australia 21 June 2017, para. 3.17). A PhD thesis on Hoa Hao Buddhist charity work submitted in September 2020 by Vo Duy Thanh, a PhD candidate at the Department of Anthropology at the Australian National University, based on field work conducted in Hoa Hao regions of the Mekong Delta from 2016 to 2018, indicates that once the religion was recognized by the State, Hoa Hao Buddhists began providing community services, including "free food, shelter, clothing, herbal medicine and rural transport infrastructure" (Vo Sept. 2020, v, 18).

The Hoa Hao Buddhist managers cited in the UK Home Office FFM report indicated that followers are expected to wear beige uniforms when they practise the religion, but that they also "'have to adapt'" to their surroundings, which may include changing into plain clothes if they travel or attend another event (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 108). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

The Hoa Hao Buddhist managers reported that there are three festival days or special occasions marked by Hoa Hao Buddhists per lunar year [3] and these are 18 May, the anniversary of the formation of Hoa Hao Buddhism; 25 November, the birth date of the founder; and 25 February, the date on which the founder "'disappeared'" (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 108). Vo similarly states that important Hoa Hao festival dates include the anniversary of the religion's "Inauguration Day" on 18 May and the anniversary of the founder's birthday on 25 November (Vo Sept. 2020, 207).

2. Treatment of Hoa Hao Buddhists by the Authorities

According to another country information report on Viet Nam by the Australian DFAT published in December 2019, there is a "considerable difference" in the treatment of recognized and unrecognized religious groups by the Vietnamese authorities (Australia 13 Dec. 2019, para. 3.18). The same source further states that "[f]or the most part" followers of recognized religious organizations can practise their beliefs "without significant interference," while followers of unrecognized religions organizations are "less likely to be able to do so" (Australia 13 Dec. 2019, para. 3.18). As cited in the UK Home Office FFM report, the diplomatic sources indicated that members of unregistered religious groups that are politically active or "are deemed to pose a threat for other reasons" have faced "harassment, arrest and detention" (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 45). The same source added that the authorities' actions are not "generally" motivated by "the religious aspects of the group or individuals," but rather by "the perceived threat they pose," although the actions may "appear" to target aspects of the religion (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 45).

According to the Research Professor, Hoa Hao activities which face difficulties [with the authorities] include the [translation] "collective expression of certain commemorations, pilgrimage practices and freedom of publication" (Research Professor 14 Mar. 2021). As cited in the UK Home Office FFM report, the Hoa Hao Buddhist managers stated that the "'government only targets those who are struggling for the legitimate interests of the Pure sect'" and added that it does not matter whether someone is associated with the Pure sect "'as long as [they] are struggling for the legitimate interests'" (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 110).

The annual report of Human Rights Watch (HRW) for the events of 2020 states that unrecognized religious groups, including Hoa Hao Buddhist groups, "face constant surveillance, harassment, and intimidation" and followers of these groups are "subject to public criticism, forced renunciation of faith, detention, interrogation, torture, and imprisonment" (HRW 13 Jan. 2021). The diplomatic sources cited in the UK Home Office FFM report indicated that there have been "numerous reports of persecution of individuals belonging to unregistered Hoa Hao groups," including six Hoa Hao followers who were jailed for "up to six years" for organizing an anti-government protest (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 46).

The Hoa Hao Buddhist managers stated that [when interviewed on 1 March 2019] 67 Hoa Hao followers were under house arrest (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 109). The same source observed that the arrests have "'normal[ly]'" been due to individuals resisting when the police prevented invitees from attending gatherings with Hoa Hao followers; the police viewed such resistance as "'inciting a disturbance'" (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 109). An October 2019 article by Radio Free Asia (RFA) [4] reports that, according to rights groups, authorities in An Giang province "routinely harass followers of the unapproved [Hoa Hao] groups," including banning public readings of the founder's writings and "discouraging" followers from visiting Hoa Hao temples in An Giang and other provinces (RFA 8 Oct. 2019). The same article notes that six members of an unrecognized Hoa Hao group were "beaten by plainclothes police" while travelling to protest the planned destruction of a Hoa Hao temple in An Giang province in October 2019 (RFA 8 Oct. 2019). The Annual Report 2019 of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) indicates that local authorities in An Giang province set up roadblocks and temporary police stations to prevent followers of the unrecognized Central Church of Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism from celebrating "important holy days," including the founder's birthday (US 29 Apr. 2019). A report on religious freedom for November 2019 by The Vietnamese cites the Vietnamese-language newspaper An Giang as indicating that a Hoa Hao Buddhist was sentenced to eight years in prison on 27 November 2019 for social media posts critical of the government (The Vietnamese 14 Feb. 2020).

2.1 Regional Differences

The December 2019 Australian DFAT report states that religious practitioners in "urban, economically developed areas are generally able to exercise their religion or belief freely," while religious practitioners in the rural areas of "some" provinces are "more likely to face restrictions and/or harassment" (Australia 13 Dec. 2019, para. 3.18). As cited in the UK Home Office FFM report, the diplomatic sources similarly indicated that "[l]arge cities," including Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, "tend to be more open in allowing religious observance without official interference" (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 45).

The Research Professor noted, regarding treatment by authorities, that religious policy regarding Hoa Hao Buddhists is [translation] "very uniform" since it applies to a particular region, the Mekong Delta, which is different from the situation for religions such as evangelical Protestantism, Catholicism or "even" Buddhism (Research Professor 14 Mar. 2021). In contrast, the diplomatic sources cited in the UK Home Office FFM report indicated that the treatment of unregistered Hoa Hao Buddhists "varies from locality to locality, depending on local relationships" (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 47). The same source further stated the following:

Small churches such as Hoa Hao, Cao Dai and [the Unified Buddhist Church of Viet Nam] have found different ways to co-operate with the local government. Some leaders take a more political stance and face harassment. Some leaders don't talk politics and, in some local areas, then they are ignored. Some highlight government abuses and then there is tension as they are seen as rebels. (UK 9 Sept. 2019, 47)

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.

Notes

[1] According to the website of the École pratique des hautes études (EPHE), it is a part of the Université Paris sciences et lettres (PSL) (EPHE n.d.).

[2] The Research Professor noted that they have not conducted research on the current situation of Hoa Hao Buddhists, but that they follow writing on the subject and are interested in the [translation] "political uses of history" (Research Professor 14 Mar. 2021).

[3] A Gregorian-Lunar calendar conversion table is available online (Hong Kong n.d.).

[4] According to its website, Radio Free Asia (RFA) is a media corporation funded by US Congress through the US Agency for Global Media, a US federal government agency that oversees all US civilian international media (RFA n.d.).

References

Australia. 13 December 2019. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). DFAT Country Information Report: Vietnam. [Accessed 12 Mar. 2021]

Australia. 21 June 2017. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). DFAT Country Information Report: Vietnam. [Accessed 19 Apr. 2021]

École pratique des hautes études (EPHE). N.d. "EPHE." [Accessed 15 Mar. 2021]

Hong Kong. N.d. Hong Kong Observatory. "Gregorian-Lunar Calendar Conversion Table." [Accessed 13 Apr. 2021]

Human Rights Watch (HRW). 13 January 2021. "Vietnam." World Report 2021: Events of 2020. [Accessed 16 Mar. 2021]

Human Rights Watch (HRW). 8 February 2018. "Vietnam: End Repression Against Religious Activists." [Accessed 25 Feb. 2021]

Radio Free Asia (RFA). 8 October 2019. "Hoa Hao Buddhists in Vietnam Beaten While Trying to Stop Temple Demolition." [Accessed 16 Mar. 2021]

Radio Free Asia (RFA). N.d. "Governance and Corporate Leadership." [Accessed 16 Mar. 2021]

Research Professor, École pratique des hautes études (EPHE). 14 March 2021. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

United Kingdom (UK). 9 September 2019. Home Office. Report of a Home Office Fact-Finding Mission to Vietnam. [Accessed 12 Mar. 2021]

United States (US). 10 June 2020. Department of State. "Vietnam." International Religious Freedom Report for 2019. [Accessed 12 Mar. 2021]

United States (US). 29 April 2019. US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). "Vietnam (Tier 1)." Annual Report 2019. [Accessed 16 Mar. 2021]

The Vietnamese. 14 February 2020. "Report on Freedom of Religion in Vietnam – November 2019." [Accessed 16 Mar. 2021]

The Vietnamese. 14 October 2019. "Report on Freedom of Religion in Vietnam – August 2019." [Accessed 16 Mar. 2021]

The Vietnamese. N.d. "About Us." [Accessed 16 Mar. 2021]

Vo, Duy Thanh. September 2020. Repaying the Debts, Remaking the World: Hoà Hảo Buddhist Charity as Vernacular Development in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. PhD Thesis. The Australian National University. [Accessed 19 Apr. 2021]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: Associate professor at a university in the US who has conducted research on politics and religion in Viet Nam; Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo – representative in Australia, representative in the US; professor emeritus at an Australian university who has conducted research on Vietnamese religion; The Vietnamese.

Internet sites, including: Amnesty International; Christian Solidarity Worldwide; ecoi.net; Defend the Defenders; Factiva; Fédération internationale pour les droits humains; Harmony Buddhism; Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo; South Asian Research Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences; UN – Human Rights Council, Refworld.