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Thursday, 25 April 2019 08:52
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New phenomena in ethnic and religious relationship in the Northwest mountainous areas of Vietnam

(LLCT) - In recent years, due to the introduction and development of various religions, especially Protestantism and new religious phenomena, the spiritual and religious life of ethnic minorities in the Northwest of Vietnam has changed dramatically, bringing about new manifestations in the ethnic-religious relationship. These new manifestations have both positive and negative sides, posing potential risks to national unity and causing socio-political instability. Therefore, the ethnic and religious affairs of the State and Party must identify these early manifestations to propose timely solutions.

Keywords: ethnicity, religion, ethnicity-religion relationship, Northwest area.

The Northwest of Vietnam, an area of about 50,810 square kilometers, consists of provinces including Son La, Dien Bien, Lai Chau, Lao Cai, Yen Ba and Hoa Binh. This is an important strategic area in terms of security, defense, serving as the Northwest gateway of Vietnam. It is the home of over 30 ethnic minority groups. Most of these groups have polytheistic religions, which worship such gods as Heaven (called King Heaven, Phi Dam, Phi Then and Phi Pha by the Mong, the Thai, the Tay and the Nung respectively); ancestral spirits (or home ghosts); ghosts of the village/home community; and other ghosts, including the ghosts of land owners, the ghosts of water owners, etc.

 In recent years, together with the expansion of missionary activities of large religions and the appearance of many new religious phenomena, the spiritual and religious life of ethnic minorities in the Northwest area has changed dramatically. At present, there are large religions in the Northwest including Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism and about 20 new religious phenomena. The introduction and development of religions, especially Protestantism, in ethnic minority areas has led to many changes in the ethnic-religious relationship in this region. Some manifestations of the ethnic-religious relationship in the Northwest area influenced by religion can be generalized as follows:

First, ethnic-religious communities have been established. The development of large religions has shaped the ethnic-religious communities in the Northwest, particularly in ethnic populations affected by Catholicism and Protestantism. Previously, ethnic cultural values with common conventions of clans and races were fundamental to the connection of ethnic communities. Since the appearance of large religions, religious belief has become the main factor connecting ethnic groups.

The fundamental element for identifying ethnic-religious communities today is religious belief and religious practices in communities of the same faith. In certain provinces, such as Lao Cai and Yen Bai, Catholic communities of Mong ethnic people has long been established. Currently in this area there are more than 36 thousand ethnic minority Catholics that use a close and unified structure of administering religious practices in accordance with the religious administrative structure, which is diocese - deanery - parish -  sub-parish.

The introduction and development of Protestantism in the Northwest since the 1980s has also formed an ethnic-religious institution, especially among the Mong and the Dao communities. Religious belief has become the glue adhering individuals to form Dao and Mong ethnic groups with the same belief in God. However, unlike Catholicism, Protestant organizations do not have close links and unified management. Protestantism has no universal church for the whole religion, it consists of independent organizations with different structural forms depending on each denomination. Therefore, about 150 thousand of the Mong and the Dao religious followers in the area gather in activities of Protestant groups, but are under the management of several different denominations. Nevertheless, the belief in God is a large criteria marking difference between Mong and Dao Protestants and Mong and Dao that follow traditional beliefs.

While the most important sign for members of traditional Mong clans to recognize one another is the “same ghost” element, which is also the most important factor to create the linkage among members of the clan, for Protestants, faith in God is the most important sign that helps them to bond with one another and to create cohesion within the community. The cohesive community relationship of the Mong that have the same faith in God go beyond the boundary of clans, villages, and ethnic groups. There is always mutual support and sharing among them both materially and spiritually. If the Mong following traditional beliefs consider that only members of the same clan have wholeheartedly affection and can die in the houses of another, the Mong religious followers see that all the Mong, regardless of clans, are brothers, and have to take care of others and can die in the house of another(1).

In addition to the two large religions, Catholicism and Protestantism, in recent years Buddhism has also been trying to restore its presence among ethnic minorities in the Northwest, but the results have been modest. Although the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha has established local Buddhist Management Boards and built spacious temples in all six provinces of the Northwest, the attraction of Buddhism to ethnic minorities has been limited.

Second, ethnic-religious transnational and inter-regional relationships have been established.

The development of Protestantism in ethnic minority areas in the Northwest has enabled ethnic groups in this area to expand their exchanges with other ethnic groups who have similar religious beliefs, both in other regions of the country and from abroad.

We have once witnessed massive spontaneous migrations of ethnic minorities, specifically the Mong in the Northern mountainous area to the Central Highlands from 1991 to 2000. At present, it is estimated that about 20 thousand Mong people are living in the Central Highlands. The traditional ethnic cultural values, especially in the spiritual realm, has been faded and replaced by religious values, which has made religious beliefs the only factor that connects Mong religious followers in different areas (the Northwest and the Central Highlands), creating ethnic-religious links and cohesion.

In addition, the Mong’s transnational ethnic-religious relationship also needs special attention. After historical events, the Mong from China migrated to Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and the Northeast of Thailand. After 1975, many Mong migrated from Indochina to Western Europe and North America. Therefore, Mong people in Vietnam nowadays have strong ethnic relationships with Mong people in many countries and regions.

As Protestantism developed in the Mong community in the Northwest, it not only created an inter-regional ethnic and religious linkage but also a transnational ethnic and religious linkage (with Mong people following Protestantism in the Northwest of Vietnam and in Laos, China, and the United States). Particularly, attention should be paid to the ethnic-religious relationship of Mong people crossing the Vietnam-China border. From the early days when Mong people in the Northwest became Protestants, they have always been attached to events taking place concurrently with the Miao ethnic group in Guangxi, China. At the same time, in recent years in northwestern localities Mong people from Yunnan, China have illegally entered Vietnam to propagate Protestantism, attracting Mong people to China to learn religious teachings and receive religious books, causing many difficulties for state management.

In the coming years when the East-West Economic Corridor and the Asian corridor through NorthwestVietnam are opened, Mong people in the Northwest will certainly have more favorable conditions in having exchanges with Mong people in China. By that time, the ethnic-religious relationships of Mong people along the Vietnam-China border will likely be more complicated.

It can be said that inter-regional and transnational ethnic-religious relationships pose challenges for ethnic and religious affairs of the Party and State of Vietnam today.

Third, family and clan relationships have been altered due to the influence of religious elements.

Beliefs and religions in ethnic relationships, to some extent, may be factors contributing to socio-political stability as well as to the strengthening or cracking of community relations. Actually, the life of belief and religion in the Northwest in recent decades has clearly shown this.

The introduction of large religions in ethnic minority communities in the Northwest has led to the phenomenon of religious conversion within a part of ethnic minorities. The transformation of faith in part of ethnic groups has led to major confusion in ethnic relationships. Within ethnic groups following Buddhism, traditional relations have basically had no confusion. Within ethnic Catholics, these relations have had certain changes due to the difference in faith; however, this has hardly caused negative impacts. For ethnic Protestants, religion has had a great impact and caused much confusion to the traditional ethnic relationships.

 Protestantism has developed in the Mong and Dao communities, but its impacts on these two communities have differed. In Dao community, impacts of Protestantism have caused cultural fracture, while in Mong community Protestantism has had strong impacts on culture, morality, lifestyle, community relations, the economy, and society.

The traditional Mong community has a close communal relationship in a rather united family-clan-village structure. In a traditional Mong family, the husband and sons make important decisions and the role of the wife and women in general is very weak. The clan is a unique and prominent social relationship of Mong people. The Mong clan, in a narrow definition, consists of three to five generations bonded to the bloodline of the father; in the large definition, the clan can consist of many families residing in different areas that have the same symbol of faith, called the “same ghost” symbol. Each clan of Mong people has its own self-governing body, which includes the clan head, the person in charge of guest ghosts, grand-aunt, and shaman, with the outstanding role being that of the clan head. According to the Mong people’s customs, the customary laws control every place where the people of the clan reside. With these regulations of the customary laws, the linkage among the people having the “same ghost” within the Mong communities goes beyond administrative and territorial boundaries.

 Broader than the clan relationship of Mong people is the village relationship. Mong village organization is built on the basis of representatives of the clans. Villages have common conventions built on the customary laws of clans. The village self-governing institution operates based on the clan organization. The main relationship in the village is clan relationship and neighbor relationship. In traditional society, the village head is honoured by villagers and is always treated with respect. He is an important person in maintaining the customs and practices and is the spokesperson for the village, and he ultimately decides on punishments and reconciliation for disagreements and problems within the community.

However, traditional family, community, and village relations of Mong people have changed dramatically. In families of Mong people following Protestantism, the relationship between spouses has become more equal and women have partly grown their position in the family and society. They have participated in deciding affairs of the family and community and have been recognized by the family and community. This is a sign of positive change. However, the clan, village, and community relationship of Mong people is changing in a negative direction overall. For Mong religious believers, clans are no longer the linkage among Mong people. The role and position of the clan heads, the village heads, the village patriarchs, and commune chiefs has been severely reduced and has been replaced by that of pastors, the Protestant group leaders. Among answers to the survey question “Who is the most important person in the village/commune?”, up to 81% of Mong religious believers say pastors, group leaders, and denomination leaders are the most important; while only 9.6% say that the village patriarchs are most important and 9.4% said village chiefs were most important(2). Replying to the question “Who do you often get advice on important matters?”, 14.5% of interviewees said they seek advice from relatives, 3.0% asked commune chiefs, 3.1% consulted with shamans, and 70% consulted with leaders of Protestant groups, 4.2% consulted with local officials, and 5.1% consulted with their co-religionists(3).

With the reduced roles of clan head, village patriarch, and village chief, the cohesive relationships in the Mong clan have changed remarkably: there has been a split between Protestant believers and non-believers. For groups of Protestants, the code of conduct of the clan has been broken, causing contradictions with members that do not follow Protestantism. In the early period, when some Mong people abandoned the folk beliefs to follow Protestantism, the clan and village contradictions were extremely harsh. After some time has passed, especially since Protestantism was recognized by the State and was facilitated to operate in accordance with the law, these contradictions and conflicts have gradually reduced. Currently, in spite of having different faiths, brothers, friends, and neighbors are more harmonious in visiting eachother and helping one another during work, sickness, and in times of need.

The reality, however, is that due to differences in faith, the level of communication and intimacy between the Mong Protestant community and the Mong community with folk beliefs is much less cohesive than before. Mong Protestants have less communications with Mong people that follow folk beliefs and they are less likely to attend traditional community rituals. The level of concern, visitation, and mutual support both physically and spiritually between these two communities is also less than that of people of the same religion or belief. Especially, in some localities, when the number of religious people in a clan, a village/commune is much less than that of non-religious, religious believers are often isolated and discriminated against. On the contrary, when the majority is religious followers, those who hold folk beliefs are also ostracized and isolated. Survey results show that 72% of the Protestants believe there is a distinction between religious and non-religious people in their clan(4).

Thus, the impact of Protestantism has caused changes in the traditional relations of the Mong people in both positive and negative directions. However, the direction of negative change seems to be dominant.

Fourth, the impact of ethnic-religious factors has potential risks for cracking national unity and causing socio-political instability.

In addition to causing changes of cultural values and conflicts in the traditional relationships of ethnic groups, the rise of large religions, and the emergence of new religious phenomena in the Northwestern ethnic minorities in recent years, has cracked national unity, posing risks of socio-political instability.

Protestantism has penetrated and developed in the ethnic minority community and can be exploited by negative forces, which has had an impact on the perception and belief of a part of the people towards the Party and the State. Conflicts between religious and non-religious people in the same family, clan, and village have led to the separation of households and villages and migration to other localities, causing division and splits within the family, village, community, and ethnic communities as a whole, which poses potential risks for wider social conflicts. In some localities there have also been illegal missionary activities, complaints to the central level of government without going through lower levels, inappropriate claims, conflicts with the authorities, and divisions between religious and non-religious people.

Religious activities in the border area have become more complicated when bad elements provoke people to oppose the policies and guidelines of the State and Party. For example, in March 2017, the Christian Fellowship group in Ca La Pa village, Leng Su Sin commune, Muong Nhe district, Dien Bien province, provoked followers to force their children to drop out of schools simultaneously to protest the Muong Nhe district authorities, who prevented the Mong migrants’ deforestation.

In addition, the competition in growing number of followers among large religions, as well as among Protestant denominations, is causing a lot of complicated problems in ethnic minority areas. Along with that, the appearance of new religious phenomena, such as the “The new way” phenomenon in Sin Ho, Lai Chau(5), the religious phenomenon “Ze Sua”(6) in some localities, and more, has caused many difficulties for the state management of religion. These activities have disrupted the lives of ethnic minorities, potentially threatening political and social security in ethnic minority areas, especially in border areas.

Thus it can be seen that in the new context, due to the influence of many factors, including religion and ethnic-religious relations among ethnic minorities in the Northwest of Vietnam, have made dramatic changes to social structures, posing many concerning issues for the ethnic-religious task of the State and Party today.


l Endnotes:

(1) According to research results of Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics in the “General Report of the baseline survey project in 2016-2017: survey of regional socio-cultural change ethnic minorities after joining Protestantism in the Northwest”, 76.3% of people who were asked supported the idea that all religious followers, regardless of bloodlines, were brothers and were responsible for taking care of one another and could die in one another’s house.

(2), (3), (4) Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics: General Report of the baseline survey project in 2016-2017: survey of regional socio-cultural change ethnic minorities after joining Protestantism in the Northwest, Hanoi, 2017.

(5) Religious phenomenon “The New Way” emerged from the conversion of the teachings of Protestantism, which draws the Mong people to the forest to welcome the God, to conduct collective confession, and to pray God for soon granting the Mong people their own country.

(6) The religious phenomenon “Ze Sua” uses some content of the Old Testament, which advocates praying on Saturdays, and abstains from eating pork, has been introduced by some Mong people from the United States into the Mong community in the Northwest, calling it the Mong’s own religion.

l References:

1. Tran Van Binh (editor): Culture of North West - Situation and Problems, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 2004.

2. Vuong Duy Quang: Spiritual Culture of the Mong in Traditional and Modern Vietnam, Culture and Information Publishing House, Hanoi, 2005.

3. Tran Ngoc Binh: Cultural life of Vietnamese ethnic groups, Thanh Nien Publishing House, Hanoi, 2014. 


Institute of Religious Studies,

Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics

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