Anti-Catholic violence designed to hide crisis and graft in Vietnam’s Communist Party
Hanoi (AsiaNews) – On July 20, 2009 police in Quang Binh province launched a surprised attack on the unarmed parishioners of Tam Toa—a struggling parish in the diocese of Vinh, Central Vietnam. Local Catholics were erecting a makeshift tent as a temporary place for liturgical services. The assault resulted in hundreds being injured, and dozens being taken away in police vehicles and detained indefinitely.
A week later, the diocese of Vinh reported the brutal beating of two Catholic priests by plain clothed police and thugs hired by the government. Fr Paul Nguyen was beaten by a group of men when he tried to save three women who were being attacked by the same men. As he was being beaten, resulting in some broken ribs and head injuries, about 30 uniformed police officers stood indifferent, looking on at the scene. The other priest, Fr Peter Nguyen The Binh, was beaten by a gang of armed men and thrown from the second floor window of the hospital where he was visiting Fr Nguyen.
In the city of Dong Hoi people wearing Catholic symbols have been attacked in the streets by plain clothed police and government-hired thugs. In particular one local woman, Ms Nguyen Thi Yen, and her 9 year old son were mercilessly punched and kicked. Some Catholic families have reportedly fled the city in search of safety.
In another case, Mr Peter Mai Van Truong, 48 (see photo), and his wife Ky Anh, from Dong Yen, were beaten half to death as they were traveling to Tam Toa to visit family. They were ambushed by a bunch of thugs who recognized them as being Catholic. After beating them the thugs stole the couple’s motorcycle, his motorcycle license, money and camera; all this in broad daylight and before the indifferent eyes of uniformed police officers.
The situation of violence in Dong Hoi has led some Catholics to believe that the Church in Vietnam is being made a scapegoat because of a power struggle currently taking within the Communist Party. Some evidence suggests that the government has decided to employ the same methods used in China during Cultural Revolution to stifle growing criticisms against it.
A number of ambiguous developments in Vietnamese politics may help shed some light into the harsh treatment the Vietnamese government is meting out against Catholics.
In an era of open markets, when government officials have plenty of opportunities to get rich overnight through shady deals, the danger of graft looms ever strong. The rich, who belong to the same socio-political class as the party brass, are allying themselves with those willing to do anything to buy the hearts and minds of those public officials more interested in thicker wallets than in the welfare of the public, or even the security of the country. The PMU18 scandal is case in point.
It all started out with sport betting. The executive director of PMU18, a government agency that handles US$ 2 billion in foreign development aid for construction projects, began placing some bets.[i] At least seven million dollars from the PMU18 was embezzled this way for gambling purposes.
The scandal reached such proportions that even party leaders had to intervene (to stop it) because it could threaten the survival of the system.
The amount of money at stake was an eye-opener for the average Vietnamese of how pervasive graft was in Vietnam. In just one bet, according to the local press, US$ 320,000 was lost on a football (soccer) match between Manchester United and Arsenal on January 3, 2008.
The discovery of the bets led investigators to a trail of mansions, mistresses, luxury cars and protection money, which led in turn to the resignation in early April of Transport Minister Dao Dinh Binh and the arrest of his deputy Nguyen Viet Tien. Three other men implicated in the scandal, who were on a list of appointees for the Communist Party Central Committee later that month, were also forced to withdraw.
Unfortunately, what appeared to be serious investigation did not go far enough and was eventually called off. What is more, none of the main parties involved were found guilty. In fact, the two reporters who blew the whistle on the scandal found themselves behind bars instead of the accused. Worst of all, the star witness in this case, Mr Pham Tien Dung, died in his prison cell under mysterious circumstances.
As corruption spreads more and more criticism against the Politburo mounts even within the party. The whole nation and much more appear to be under the heavy burden of corruption.
Some time ago it was reported that Vietnamese authorities had given the go-ahead to bauxite mining in the country’s central region. At the same time the rumor mill began reporting that the Politburo had sold out the mines to China in a secret deal without Congress approval.
The bauxite plan came in for criticism from various directions. Opponents of the bauxite projects claimed that environmental and social damage from the mines would far outweigh any economic benefit it might produce. They also pointed out that it raised security concerns because of the long term presence of hundreds of thousands of Chinese working in the bauxite mines.
A Vietnamese Cardinal joined the chorus of critics. In a strong-worded pastoral letter dated May 31, the prelate condemned the type of exploitation of natural resources that damages the environment, urging Catholics to protest against new economic plans. He invited them to pray so that the government might show its concern for the welfare of the people, the land, and future generations.
Card Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man, Archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), said, after reviewing recent reports on the issue, that he had a pastoral duty to inform the faithful and raise their awareness about the danger of environmental damage in Vietnam. The Cardinal's letter was released a few days after Vietnam’s parliament decided to approve bauxite mining in the Central Highlands region and this despite widespread public protest.
The debate in Vietnam’s National Assembly took place after a public outcry by scientists, intellectuals and former high ranking military officials, including legendary Communist wartime hero General Vo Nguyen Giap, who came out against the bauxite mining plan even though it had been endorsed by the Politburo of the Communist Party of Vietnam.
Although criticism of the bauxite plan has come from a number of directions, state media appear to have decided to pick only on Catholics. Last month, Fr Peter Nguyen Van Khai, spokesman for the Redemptorist Monastery in Hanoi, and another Redemptorist, Fr Joseph Le Quang Uy, launched a public survey asking the Vietnamese to sign a petition calling on the government to reconsider the risky plan. The media tried to destroy them, accusing them of being "stupid" and "ignorant", causing egregious harm to national unity and the country’s development, and of plotting to overthrow the Communist regime.
In an attempt to defend the accused Catholic priests, the Cardinal said that open criticism of the bauxite projects are "healthy signs" of a democratic society. He urged the faithful to raise their voice in protest “through legitimate representatives and media” because “protecting the environment is our Christian's duty.”
Selling borderlands to Beijing.
Card Pham Minh Man was involved in another "clash" with the Vietnamese government over a very sensitive issue, namely Sino Vietnamese borders.
On July 24, the Archbishopric of Ho Chi Minh City and the Tri Thuc Publishing House held a conference on Vietnam- China border issues amid news that the Vietnamese Communist Party under pressure from its Chinese counterpart was going to make further concessions over its land and maritime borders with the People’s Republic of China.
The conference had been scheduled to take place in the hall of Bishop’s Palace. But at the last minute, under heavy pressure from the government, it was moved to another venue, in the much smaller pastoral care center, two kilometers away. Some key speakers, including the cardinal, also pulled out at the last moment. They could not attend the conference due to “other, much more important appointments”.
The border issue is an open sore in Vietnam-China relations. In November 2007, China formalized its annexation of the Paracel and Spratly Islands[ii] by incorporating the two archipelagoes into a newly formed administrative unit (Tam Sa) as part of Hainan province. When this decision became public, Vietnamese students organized unprecedented protests outside Chinese diplomatic missions in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. These protests lasted only two weeks as Vietnamese police quickly moved in to detain many of the organizers.
Patriotic protests by students called into question the legitimacy of Vietnam’s Communist government. Fifty years ago, China issued a declaration essentially claiming the entire South China Sea as an inland lake. Within days, on September 14, 1958, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong of North Vietnam sent a diplomatic note to his counterpart Chou En-lai, acknowledging China's claim. The motivation was obvious: Hanoi’s Communists badly needed China's military support in their war against US-backed South Vietnam.
Toward the end of the Vietnam War, China took advantage of South Vietnam's weakening military position and attacked the Paracel Islands. In the naval battle of January 19, 1974, and in subsequent Chinese attacks, 53 South Vietnamese sailors lost their lives defending the islands. The Saigon government protested the unprovoked invasion, while the Hanoi government expressed support for the Chinese move.
After the Communist takeover of South Vietnam in 1975, the Vietnamese government made even greater concessions to China. In 2000 alone, Vietnam gave up 700 km2 of its territory in favor of China.
The government in Hanoi relies on China for political support, and is slavishly copying Beijing's model of open economics and closed politics. For this reason it is reluctant to openly criticize China out of the fear that to do so it would condemn itself. Recently, China's renewed assertion of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea have stirred popular outrage at home and in the Diaspora because of Hanoi's silence vis-à-vis Beijing's stance and its disgraceful land and maritime border concessions to China.
In both the capital Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) hundreds of peasants have been protesting on a daily basis against the violent seizure of their land.
In a letter to the president and the prime minister of Vietnam, Bishop Michael Hoang Duc Oanh of Kontum wrote: “In this country many farmers and poor people have for years pleaded for the return of their properties but all in vain, as the authorities chose to persecute them rather than take care of them!”
Land disputes in Vietnam are on the rise as land values increase at an impressive rate. As corruption gets more and more pervasive, local authorities get bolder and bolder in seeking illegitimate, personal gain. They have come up with unfeasible projects just to have an excuse to confiscate farmland from peasants or buy it at a very low cost. Once the owners have been kicked off their land, state officials resell it at higher prices, or build hotels, restaurants, and night clubs as financial resources for government officials.
The authorities have also started looking at Church properties they had seized years before. This is the case of Church-owned land in Thai Ha, the nunciature in Hanoi, and monasteries in South Vietnam. Church property that is still under Church’s control has not escaped their greed.
Land and property disputes with Catholics have resulted in massive protests in Hanoi, Thai Ha, Ha Dong, Vinh Long, Hue, and An Giang. The government could face similar protests with other religions and sects.
In light of the situation, the Vietnamese government opted for brutal force in order to create a climate of fear and suspicion in society.
Recently, at least 30 dissidents have been reportedly arrested, including Le Cong Dinh, a prominent Vietnamese lawyer also involved in human rights cases. He was critical of bauxite mining in the Central Highlands, and was arrested by the Vietnamese government on June 13, this year on national security grounds for "conducting propaganda against the government". His arrest led to strong criticism from the international community against the government.
The violent persecution at Dong Hoi is another example of how the authorities strike at dissidents and all those whose interests come into conflict with those of the Party.
But there is something new on the horizon. The government has in fact come to rely on thugs whenever it is on a collision course with its citizens. These hoodlums work together as violent gangs forming a para-state “army” whose existence state media have never denied, seemingly pleased in their performance, describing their exploits in great detail.
They are not only tasked to terrorize Catholics but all groups in civil society. In so doing the ruling party is sending a message to the entire nation, telling everyone that it has strong support outside of the military among people who are willing to protect the Party by whatever means, violence included. In reality this “army” is just a tool in the hands of the Communist party.
Finally, there is something else that needs to be pointed out. The level of violence in Dong Hoi has been far greater than in Hanoi and Thai Ha. Here local authorities have pursued a stricter policy of religious persecution. They have never been shy about their goal which is to make Dong Hoi a “Catholic free zone” just like Son La and other places in the Central Highlands where Christian Montagnards live. Even though thousands of Catholics actually live in the area, their existence is thus being denied.
[i] The Project Management Unit 18 (PMU 18) is a division within Vietnam’s Transportation Ministry involve din construction and infrastructure development. Its annual budget comes largely from foreign countries like Japan, the European Union and Australia, and international organizations like the World Bank.
[ii] Mainland China, Vietnam Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines claim the two archipelagos. Experts note that under the sea floor there should be rich oil deposits.