Cablegate: Religious Freedom: Vietnam's Hoa Hao Under Pressure

Published: Tue 7 Jun 2005 04:14 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
070414Z Jun 05
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REF: HCMC 433 and previous
1. (SBU) Summary: A recent spike in tensions between Hoa Hao
dissidents and police in the Mekong Delta province of An Giang
highlights the divisions in Vietnam's Hoa Hao community between
the GVN-controlled Executive Committee of Hoa Hao Buddhism (ECHB)
and independent, unrecognized groups. The family of the spiritual
founder of the faith, Huynh Phu So, appears to disdain both sides.
The Hoa Hao Central Buddhist Church (HHCBC) led by Le Quang Liem
accuses the family of "selling out" their religion, and states
that it will continue to oppose the ECHB. The police are wary of
the Hoa Hao's -- and Liem's -- strong anti-Communist roots, and
treats Liem and his followers as a potential threat to the regime,
a role that Liem appears to relish. End Summary.
What is Hoa Haoism?
2. (SBU) Hoa Haoism was founded in the 1930s by Huynh Phu So, the
son of a village elder in the Chau Doc area of the Mekong Delta.
Doctrinally, the faith is a variant of Buddhism that stresses
individual worship as the means of attaining a richer spiritual
experience and salvation. So led the Hoa Hao into the National
United Front, a group of nationalist organizations seeking
Vietnamese independence. He would not accept Communist
leadership, which led to open conflict between the Hoa Hao and the
Communists. Many Hoa Hao believe that in April 1947 the Viet Minh
ambushed and executed So in the Mekong Delta city of Long Xuyen,
although his body was never found. Some Hoa Hao followers believe
So is still alive. Estimates of the number of followers of Hoa Hao
Buddhism vary widely, in part because the nature of the religion
emphasizes at-home practice, with minimal adornments, few
celebrations, and no dignitaries. The official GVN estimate is
two million followers, centered in the Delta's An Giang and Dong
Thap provinces. Hoa Hao dissident groups claim there are over
four million believers. Contacts in the official Hoa Hao
community stated that they had applied to Hanoi for permission to
conduct a formal census of followers and properties.
GVN-sanctioned Hoa Hao says all is well
3. (SBU) During a recent visit to the Mekong Delta, we met with
Nguyen Tan Dat, the standing Vice-Chief of the newly formed
Executive Committee of Hoa Hao Buddhism (ECHB). The ECHB is an
expanded, 21-person replacement for the Hoa Hao Administrative
Committee (HHAC), which was formed when Hoa Haoism was recognized
by the GVN in 1999. Dat was well aware of Vietnam's designation
as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), but said this was a
result of a lack of information on the part of U.S. authorities.
He claimed that Vietnam's religious freedoms "meet the needs" of
its Hoa Hao community. However, any believer who conducts
"illegal religious activity" must be subject to punishment. Asked
for an example of what illegal activity might be, Dat cited
failure to ask permission from the government to hold public
religious activities. He compared the situation of unrecognized
Hoa Hao sects like that of Le Quang Liem to the Branch Davidians,
asserting that even the USG restricts the activities of religious
groups which it considers to be suspicious.
4. (SBU) The ECHB was not pushing the GVN to return property
confiscated after 1975. While they are conducting an inventory of
their temples for "possible recovery," other formerly Hoa Hao-
owned facilities must now be considered "community property," the
ownership of which has been transferred for good. Dat summarized
the overall philosophy of the ECHB in a closing statement: "The
happiness and development of the people overall is more important
than human rights and religious freedom."
The Founder's Family: A Pox on Both Houses
5. (SBU) Dat escorted us to visit the founder's family in their
temple at Phu My town, An Giang province. There we met with Tu Be
and Bui Van Duong, the niece and nephew of the founder,
respectively. Dat and his deputies sat in on the meeting; thus we
were not surprised that the family's answers were bland and
conformed closely to Dat's earlier responses. However, their non-
verbal cues made it clear that there was little love lost for
either the GVN-recognized board or Hoa Hao dissidents. They said
that it was "inappropriate" to hold a large ceremony commemorating
the disappearance of the founder, as no one can be sure if he is
alive or not. While the family members stated that they are
acquainted with Hoa Hao dissident Le Quang Liem and that he was
welcome to worship at family-run events, they were unwilling to
talk in detail about him or his group. The only time the family
became truly animated and passionate was when they gave a brief
history of the founder and the faith's traditions and practices.
Dissidents uncompromising
6. (SBU) The "Hoa Hao Central Buddhist Church (HHCBC)," the Hoa
Hao dissident group of Le Quang Liem is firm in its opposition to
the GVN-recognized ECHB. Over the past few months, Liem and his
supporters have held a series of public gatherings in the Mekong
Delta. On May 4, Liem traveled to Dong Thap province to meet with
followers. The meeting was entitled: "The Event In Which
Believers Have Sworn To Sacrifice Their Life As Well As Their
Property For The Cause Of Hoa Hao Buddhism." The following day
the group released a statement, in which they criticized the ECHB
for slandering Liem. They alleged that Dat had been distributing
documents that state that Liem "opposes the Communist government,"
and that calls for the return of Hoa Hao property, commemoration
of the Founder's Disappearance, and public dissemination of Liem's
teachings violate Vietnamese law. (Per reftel, two followers of
Liem were arrested in March for illegally disseminating Hoa Hao
teachings that included commentary from Liem.) 126 "delegates"
from approximately 25 districts across the Mekong Delta attended
the meeting, which was closely monitored by police, but not
stopped. The delegates declared that they were willing to self-
immolate to protect "pure Hoa Hao," which they define as the pre-
1975 church.
7. (SBU) In early June, Liem's group organized another rally in
the Delta to commemorate the first death anniversary of Hoa Hao
dissident Ha Hai, who died from cancer two weeks after being
released from prison. Liem claimed that fighting broke out
between the police and over 100 Hoa Hao followers. The Hoa Hao
had posed for photographs with a sign that read: "hunger strike in
protest of the Communist GVN's repression of Hoa Hao Buddhism;"
the photographs have been transmitted overseas. One believer
threatened to self-immolate -- he poured gasoline over his body --
before the police backed down. On June 4 we received reports that
police were ransacking the homes of Hoa Hao followers in attempt
to seize the cameras that recorded the event. On June 6 we spoke
with the head of the Committee for Religious Affairs in An Giang,
who complained that the province had given Liem permission to hold
the event, but that the unfurling of banners critical of the GVN
and the use of loudspeakers to criticize the ECHB was a
8. (SBU) Concurrent with the rally, Liem's group released two
lengthy open letters that accused the Party of trying to wipe out
"pure Hoa Haoism by all dirty means." The letters call on the GVN
to cease its attacks on Liem, to halt its repression of Liem's
followers in An Giang province, to allow Liem's group to hold
whatever religious events it wishes, to reopen a the Hoa Hao
seminary closed after the war, and to return all properties
belonging to the Hoa Hao, seized after the war. The letters also
called on the GVN to dissolve the ECHB and to recognize officially
the day of the Founder's disappearance as a Hoa Hao holiday. The
letters concluded with a claim that 200 Hoa Hao have launched a
hunger strike and that six Hoa Hao believers are prepared to self-
immolate to protest the GVN's treatment of the Hoa Hao. Copies of
the letters and photographs were posted on June 4 on a Hoa Hao
dissident website.
Police nervous
9. (SBU) According to a confidential police report leaked to a
Vietnamese dissident website, a meeting of senior police leaders
from Southern Vietnam designated Liem as a "focus area" for
police. The report said that the police goal should be to
"restrict and educate" him. His group is regarded as a
"reactionary force," and among other efforts, the police
reportedly wish to restrict his ability to communicate with USG
10. (SBU) Comment: Over the past few months, authorities had
eased pressure on Liem somewhat, allowing him to travel from HCMC
to the Delta and allowing his group to gather to commemorate the
Founder's disappearance (reftel). Liem was well briefed on our
decision not to impose CPC sanctions and no doubt is aware of the
upcoming visit of PM Phan Van Khai to the United States. He also
has made it clear that he still feels deep enmity for the
Communists. Liem would know that organizing and filming his
followers with banners denouncing GVN treatment of the Hoa Hao
would cross a police redline. Similarly, his demand that the GVN
recognize the Founder's disappearance day, a move tantamount to
recognition of the Communist murder of the Hoa Hao founder, would
be interpreted as a political threat to the regime. We have made
it clear to Liem that while we support freedom of religion and
peaceful assembly, we did not condone violence and would halt all
contact if he were to encourage his followers to self-immolate.
It is notable that the founder's family isn't interested in
opposing the GVN and ECHB, despite entreaties from the dissidents.
11. (U) Bio note: The 84-year old Liem was the number three in the
Hoa Hao hierarchy prior to 1975. Since 1975, Liem has had
numerous confrontations with authorities as he campaigned for
"total independence" of the Hoa Hao Church. He also formed an
"interfaith council" with religious freedom activists Father
Nguyen Van Ly and United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) leader
Thich Thien Hanh. Most recently, he was under a restrictive
Administrative Detention order from 2001 to 2003.
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