Attention to Vietnam’s handling of COVID-19 has increased in recent weeks, for good reason. With just over three-hundred cases and no deaths reported, Vietnam is on track to have one of the best pandemic response records in the world, despite the fact that the country borders China and has a population of over 97 million. Observers have begun looking for “lessons to be learned” from Vietnam, calling it the “coronavirus-fighting champ of the world.”
But there is another side to the story. Vietnam’s apparent success is built on an extensive system of surveillance and control that “few other countries have, or want to have.” Censorship in all its forms has reached unprecedented levels. And those who are already most marginalized are bearing the brunt of the government’s increasingly abusive policies.
In the process of combatting coronavirus, the Vietnamese government has doubled down on its repression of ethnic and religious minorities. These communities, full of children and young families, are now in deep danger of financial ruin, even if Vietnam continues to escape from the virus itself relatively unscathed. And if the virus does eventually sweep through these communities, at present, they have no capacity to slow its spread or care for those who fall ill.
For decades, the Vietnamese government has persecuted a large number of ethnic and religious minorities. Among these are the Cao Dai, the Khmer Krom Buddhists, the Hoa Hao Buddhists, the Unified Buddhists, members of the Duong Van Minh Sect, Catholics, and Protestant Hmong and Montagnard Christians. Vietnam’s oppressive ways have earned it a nineteen-year run on the list of the world’s worst religious freedom violators curated by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
The circumstances of the Hmong and Montagnard exemplify how the oppressive system operates. Members of these ethnic groups are denied the basic documents of residency and citizenship identification because they belong to churches that are not approved by the government. Residency documents are required for nearly all the necessary legal actions that arise in the normal course of life, including securing employment or housing and gaining access to basic services such as education and healthcare. Because they are denied residency documents, these Vietnamese are functionally stateless.
Being functionally stateless places these minority groups in an extraordinarily vulnerable position as COVID-19 sweeps the world. Vietnam has responded to the pandemic by bolstering their public health system and unrolling a robust relief package. But, without proper documents, oppressed religious minorities cannot gain access to the public health system or most social benefits. And because the government forces these minority groups to live in shanty-town villages that lack proper water and sanitation infrastructure, social distancing practices have become practically meaningless.
To make matters worse, the Vietnamese government has blocked these religious minorities from receiving economic aid. It has even punished some of them for merely inquiring about whether they might receive assistance. When the government locked down Dak Lak Province last month, for example, a group of Montagnard Christians whose livelihoods were consequently cut off asked local officials about eligibility for financial relief. The government responded to their inquiry by sending local officials door-to-door to collect from each household 20,000 VND—a sum large enough to feed an entire family for several days. Condemned to penury by their functional statelessness, these minority groups have quickly been pushed toward complete financial destruction by the measures Vietnam has taken to combat the pandemic.
There is also growing evidence that the government is using the present crises as a pretext to further crack down on religious activities that it has long opposed. On April 19, Y Djao Mlo, a deacon with the Good News Mission Church, held a private prayer service at his home with fourteen members of his family. In an alleged attempt to enforce social distancing regulations, ten government officials stormed his home and shut down the service. The next day, Mlo was fined 7.5 million VND, the equivalent of six months of his family’s income. Yet the order Mlo has supposedly violated had expired four days earlier, on April 15. And the order prohibited gatherings of twenty or more—not fifteen.
Vietnamese authorities have frequently made clear that the religious affiliation of Hmong and Montagnard Christians is the precise reason for their functional statelessness. In many instances, authorities have assured these minority groups that their rights would be restored if they were to renounce their faith. In 2008, for example, the Provincial Government of the Muong Nhe District in Dien Bien Province agreed to issue identity cards to Christian families who agreed to have “no religion” listed on their documents. Those who requested that their religion be indicated on their documents were categorically denied the necessary papers.
COVID-19 has given the Vietnamese government yet another tool to force minorities to choose between survival and fidelity to their traditions and beliefs. In response to these clear abuses, I signed a joint letter to President Donald Trump urging his administration to defend the rights of persecuted religious minorities. The Vietnamese government’s disregard for religious liberty sheds light on the system of control undergirding its coronavirus response and calls into question the extent to which that response can be a model for other countries.
Kelsey Zorzi is president of the U.N.ʼs NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief and director of advocacy for global religious freedom for ADF International.