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Monday, 24 May 2021 16:46
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Current and belief life in the regions of ethnic minorities in Vietnam

(LLCT) - In recent decades, the religious and belief life of ethnic minority groups in Vietnam has noted significant changes: the strengthened missionary works of major religions, the emergence of new religious practices, the fading of traditional belief practices, the selective acculturation of the religious activities of other ethnic groups. Those transformations have created a diverse and complex religious mosaic in ethnic minority areas in Vietnam, posing a multitude of concerns in ethnic and religious affairs.

Keywords: religion, beliefs, ethnic minorities.

1. The reality of religious and belief life in ethnic minority areas 

Vietnam is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Vietnamese ethnic minority groups live intertwinedly, mainly in remote and border areas - which are national essential security and defense positions. Recently, ethnic minorities’ regions have witnessed socio-political instabilities, in which, belief and religion are one of the most important factors impacting on the socio-political stability and sustainable development of ethnic minorities.

Among them, there are two ethnic groups with a large number of people who have followed religion for a long time, namely, the Khmer community who are Theravada Buddhists and the Cham who are Muslims. Besides, most of the others have a polytheistic tradition, worshiping various gods.

However, for the past few years, the religious and beliefs life of ethnic minorities in Vietnam has changed dramatically related to the expanding influence of major religions such as Protestantism, Buddhism and Catholicism.

The northern mountainous region is home to a large number of ethnic minorities in Vietnam, where the Thai, the Muong, the H’mong, the Tay, the Nung, the Dao, etc. are relatively crowded. They mostly followed the folk worship cult of ancestors, the river god, mountain god, rain god, wind god, and so on. Since 1986, the developments of religion and belief life in the region have been quite complicated. Currently, there is also Catholicism, Protestantism and Buddhism in the area. In recent years, Protestantism has penetrated “massively” into the H’mong community; Catholicism has been doing it utmost to consolidate the faith and develop, expand the number of followers; Buddhism has been attempting to promote its reappearance in the area(1).

The central coastal region of Vietnam is a region with a diverse range of ethnic groups, which are notably the Cham (located mainly in Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan) following Brahmanism and Islam. Recently, some of the Cham members have abandoned their traditional religion to follow other ones such as Protestantism, Catholicism and Bahai. Besides, there are also several Cham people undergoing conversions from Brahmanism, Old Islam (Pani) to New Islam (Islam). The conversion of the Cham, despite being not popular, has also resulted in certain instabilities in the community(2).

The Central Highlands region is home to 46 of 53 Vietnamese ethnic groups, the largest ones are Giarai, Ede, and Bana. A long time ago, Catholicism and Protestantism were introduced into this area (the former since the 1850s, the latter since the late 1920s of the 20th century) but developed quite modestly. However, for the past few decades, the two religions, especially Protestantism, have flourished rapidly and drastically in a multitude of ethnic minority areas. A section of ethnic minorities who used to be Catholic, after a period of being dispatched from religion, has gradually re-converted to it. Concurrently, the two have also attracted plenty of believers in the areas which had no religious faith before, including in the former resistance bases. They have even attracted the participation of several cadres and Party members. In addition, Buddhism has also been facilitated to expand its scope in the area. The Buddhist Church organized mass initiation celebrations for thousands of ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands provinces. However, Buddhism does not have as many advantages as Protestantism and Catholicism in maintaining practices as well as strengthening the faith for the people(3).

The Southwest region is the main residence of the Khmer. Besides, there are also the Cham and the Chinese in this region. It is Theravada Buddhism that characterizes the Khmer’s religion in the Southwest region. Theravada Buddhism is deeply engraved in their life and has an indispensable part of the Khmer’ religious character. However, in recent years, for many reasons, the role of Theravada Buddhism has gradually decreased in the Khmer community. In the meantime, with the unfailing introducing efforts of Protestantism, a section of the Khmer have converted from traditional Buddhism to Protestantism(4).

Thus, in general, in all regions where ethnic minorities reside, their religious life has remarkably transformed related to religions such as Buddhism, Protestantism and Catholicism. The abnormal appearance of religion in the areas that have never entered into a faith (or just a little bit) has led to noticeable disturbances to people’s social life in many aspects. It is undeniable that the presence of religions such as Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism in the religion and belief life of ethnic minority groups has provided them with a new multi-progressive lifestyle, contributing to the adjustment of backward lifestyles, customs, and habits. However, besides the positive impacts, that the import and flourish of monotheistic religions such as Catholicism, Protestantism, along with emerging extreme religious phenomena in ethnic minority areas recently have been quite detrimental to the traditional culture of the ethnic groups. They have triggered conflicts among communities following traditional religions and beliefs with newly imported religious ones. Especially, the exploitation of religions by various political forces with the plot to establish “autonomous states” belonging to ethnic minorities has been posing various risks of socio-political instability in some areas. These issues have sparked concerns for ethnic and religious work in Vietnam’s ethnic minority areas.

Besides the flourishing of traditional religions, “emerging religious phenomenon” have also appeared in many ethnic minority regions in Vietnam.

In the Northern mountainous region: Firstly, it is the Vang Chu phenomenon originated in 1987 in a section of the H’mong in Tuyen Quang, Dien Bien, Lai Chau, and Son La and then spread to other provinces such as Lao Cai, Ha Giang. After that, a part of its followers converted to Protestantism (Protestant denomination of Northern Vietnam). It was followed by the appearance of a series of other phenomena. Presently, in Northern mountainous provinces, there has been the appearance of some phenomena such as: “San Su Khe To”, “New Road”, “Ze Sua”, “Ba Co Do”, “Church of God”, “Se Chu Ha Ly Cha” as well as several new religious phenomena related to the worship of President Ho Chi Minh. The most noticeable is the emergence of the Duong Van Minh phenomenon. Nowadays, it has been spread in 5 provinces: Tuyen Quang, Cao Bang, Thai Nguyen, Bac Can and Lao Cai. The number of followers is constantly increasing and according to local authorities, in the coming time, it will maintain its upward trend(5).

In the Central Highlands region: Since 1986, many new religious phenomena have also appeared and attracted a large number of ethnic minorities to follow, namely  “Ha Mon”, “Po Khap Brau”, “Ami Sara”, “Ngoc Phat Ho Chi Minh”, “Vietnam Thanh Mau”, “Tam Linh Dao”, “Tam Linh Ho Chi Minh”, “Dao Troi Thai Binh”, “Buu Toa Tam Giao”, “To Tien Chinh Giao Dai Dao”, “Nhat Quan Dao”, Thien Dao”, “Vo Vi”, “Canh Tan Dac Sung”, “Thanh Hai Vo Thuong Su”, “Phap Mon Dieu Am”, “Phap Mon Di Lac”, etc. Among them, some organizations which contain superstitious practices, are “Ha Mon”, “Ami Sara”, “Po Khap Brau”(6).

New religious phenomena in ethnic minority areas had caused various disturbances to people’s life, obstructing the State in management thereof. Particularly, some phenomena such as Duong Van Minh, Ze Sua, Ha Mon, Thanh Hai Vo Thuong Su have taken advantage of political schemes, threatening social stability.

Thus, it can be seen that the expansion of major religions and the emergence of new religious phenomena in ethnic minority areas for the past few years has created new, diverse and complicated religious colors in Vietnamese ethnic minority areas.

They have also stirred up the religious life of ethnic minorities. According to some research and field surveys in ethnic minority areas, besides their Buddhist relief, a majority of ethnic minorities following Buddhism still maintain their traditional polytheistic beliefs. Therefore, together with Buddhist practices, they still keep their traditional religious rituals. Meanwhile, a section of Catholic and Protestant followers have completely terminated their traditional beliefs and practices. However, there are several Catholics and Protestants that somehow believe in and practice some traditional religious rituals. However, it is not so regular as non-religious people(7).

The religious life of ethnic minorities who follow traditional beliefs has also been transformed remarkably. Many of their traditional religious rituals have faded away or no longer existed in daily life. The eradication of traditional rituals has brought impacts - both positive and negative - on people’s cultural life. Positively, some unsound customs have been removed, making people’s life more advanced. However, the disappearance of religious rituals leads to the eradication of traditional cultural values, including ones playing important roles in the identity of ethnic cultures(8).

For the past few years, thanks to the State and Party’s guidelines and policies, many cultural activities and religious festivals of ethnic groups have been strongly restored and promoted. However, in many provinces, the restoration of religious activities in ethnic minority communities has been improper, making them administrative, and lifeless. Because they used the ethnic minorities mainly for tourism development, religious activities and festivals have lost their spirit and sacredness. In the new context of the nation and the era, in the wake of the process of cultural exchange and acculturation, many cultural values of ethnic groups have been intertwined, mutually interacted and absorbed each other. This process has added new and diverse elements to the religious activities of the ethnic communities. However, several negative factors have also arisen in their religious activities. Some religious activities which present the characteristics of traditional ethnic culture have not been maintained and restored but unselectively absorbed ones alien to the traditional culture. Many values in their religious activities have gradually faded and been deformed, leading to the gradual disappearance of ethnic groups’ cultural identity. That has raised many concerning issues that need to be addressed not only for religious work but also for the process of preserving and promoting traditional cultural values of ethnic minorities.

2. Suggestions

Based on the currently examined issues in the religion and belief life of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, the author would like to suggest some solutions as follows:

- Completion and implementation of ethnic policies must be associated with those on religion and belief

It is undeniable that ethnicity and religion-belief are two sensitive aspects having close bonds with each other as well as with national politics, security, defense, economy, society and culture. Therefore, when planning and implementing socio-economic development in ethnic and religious policies, it is necessary to attach great attention to their relationships and influences

Currently, besides the Khmer and the Cham having their own major religions, in the Northern mountainous region, Protestantism has gradually consolidated its position in the H’mong community, so have Catholicism and Protestantism in the Central Highlands in the Bana, Giarai and Ede communities. It can be said that, much as the faith conversion demand of a section of ethnic people is real, several reactionary political forces have schemed for religionizing ethnic minority areas in our country to gradually establish ethnic communities with their dominant religion to facilitate them to incite extreme religious-ethnic ideology. Therefore, to ethnic communities that have their traditional mainstream religion such as the Khmer, the Cham, a multi-level political system is advisable to promote the role of traditional religions to consolidate the communities, preserve their ethnic traditional cultural values, boost up the active role of religion in socio-economic development and tighten the bonds of ethnic communities with the nation.

To ethnic minority communities in the process of converting their faith from polytheism to a certain religion, it is disadvantageous and risky in the long term to the stability of national politics and security if the religionization of ethnic groups as well as the ethnicization of religions have a tendency that each ethnic group will only follow a religion, particularly in the case they are affected by extreme religious, or ethnic ideologies. Therefore, ethnic and religious policies should focus on improving the material and mental life and ensuring freedom of belief and religion in ethnic minority communities. However, it is noteworthy to make ethnic minorities able to have various choices of beliefs in association with their needs and conditions. That aims at diversifying faiths in each ethnic group, avoiding to hatch the trend of “each ethnic community follows only one religion”.

- Re-perception of religious issues

The perceptions of religion in ethnic minority areas are still stereotyped. Most of them only focus on criticizing illegal evangelization, fighting and criticizing the abuse of religion without conceiving that the import and development of religions in ethnic minority areas are the demand of people and the inevitability of cultural clash. Moreover, they mainly look at the negative sides in the development of Protestantism and some new religious phenomena without considering positive sides (giving people a new, civilized and progressive lifestyle). Therefore, it is necessary to regard the popularization of religions in ethnic minority areas as objective indispensability of the process of expanding cultural exchanges. Accordingly, it is necessary to pay attention to facilitating religions to make them function normally, creating the interference, intermingling and acculturation of traditional cultural values; to focus on promoting cultural, ethical values and resources of religions to serve the process of building and developing the social life of ethnic minorities. Furthermore, harmonious settling of the relationship between religion and traditional beliefs of ethnic minorities is on the to-do list to be noticed. It is also vital to encourage the trend of “sociable” religions to assimilate ethnic cultural values. Studies on both theory and practice are also essential to build a fundamental data system and to better the legal basis in order to implement policies ensuring religions to develop equally, preventing existing partial conflicts between believers and non-believers, ethnic minorities believers and the Kinh’s ones, followers of major religions and those of new religious phenomena, believers and government from not being emerged and exacerbated.

It is also the thing to be done to strengthen the management and developing good religious and belief relationships among domestic ethnic groups and with outer ones; to build stable and developed communities in the border areas, not to form coherent communities under overly concentrated and large religious organizations in border areas, especially those where there are many ethnic groups and fellow believers living along the border.

It is advisable to respect and use intellectuals and prestigious people of the religion in ethnic minorities to lead, gather supporters and to coordinate with the government to implement effectively both ethnic and religious policies as well as to struggle against organizations that take advantage of religion and beliefs to conduct illegal activities.

To new religious phenomena, it is necessary to thoroughly acknowledge, objectively evaluate, distinguish the virtual religious demand of the people from the exploitation of religion and beliefs. If new religious phenomena emerge on the basis of the faith needs of the people and meet the legitimate conditions, it is recommended to respect and facilitate progressively for developing normally ensuring people’s freedom of belief.

- Thoroughly grasping the implementation of the principle of religious equality in ethnic minority areas

Over the past years, the implementation of religious equality in our country’s ethnic minority areas has exposed a number of issues that need to be addressed. There are two major ones as follows:

Firstly, once having recognized and allowed Protestant organizations to operate in ethnic minority areas, they already meet all legal provisions. Logically, it is vital to timely facilitate their operating conditions such as land issues, building worship facilities, religious instructors, etc.

Secondly, with newly emerging religions satisfying the requirement of the people, not being contrary to traditional customs, not being opposed to national interests, and not violating national security, it is advisable to respect the people’s seek beliefs, to exercise equality in faith choices, to gradually meet the demand of ethnic minorities’ true spiritual activities.

- Re-considering the preservation and promotion of cultural and religious values in ethnic minority communities.

It is required to reconsider how to preserve the traditional cultural and religious values of the ethnic minorities, avoiding two cases: 1. preserving unsound customs and habits or 2. preserving them without “spirit” and with stereotype.

It is necessary to actively guide and facilitate the process of “modernizing” the traditional religions of ethnic minorities to gradually eliminate backward customs, maintain the values of ethnic cultural identity. Raising awareness among ethnic minorities is also needed so that they can realize and consciously eliminate by themselves their own backward customs which cannot be exploited by untruthful religious activities. Ethnic identity also needs a re-awareness to avoid falling into stagnation and backwardness. The process of community living, exchange, integration, absorbing and assimilating mutual cultural values among ethnic communities is an inevitable trend. Therefore, preserving and promoting cultural identities of ethnic groups must make those cultural values be practiced lively in real life, bringing practical benefits to the people and ensuring that these values are also always supplemented, enriched with the appropriate new ones.

- Developing material and mental life, ensuring freedom of belief of ethnic minorities is still the foundation for solving problems posed by religion and belief.

Developing the material and mental life of people, first of all, we should focus on economic development, giving priority to promoting industrialization and modernization. Once it is improved, people will gradually reduce their backward customs and practices. The upgraded material and spiritual life also create a premise for the people to receive new, progressive and appropriate cultural values as well as to be more aware of the ethnic cultural values that need to be preserved and promoted.

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Endnotes:

(1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6), (7), (8) Survey results of the study “ Emerging issues of religions and beliefs in ethnic minority regions in Vietnam”. Code: CTDT: 34.18/16-20, conducted in 2018, 2019 in some provinces of Northern mountainous, Central Highlands, Central Coast and Southwest regions.

References:

1. Le Van Loi et.al.: Resolving current ethnic and religious issues in Vietnam”, Political Theory Publishing House, Hanoi, 2018.

2. Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology: General report: Religious issues in sustainable development in the Central Highlands”, code: TN3/X6, Hanoi, 2014.

3. Nguyen Van Minh: Emerging events of ethnic minority areas in the Central Highlands, Journal of Social Science, No.4/2016.

4. Nguyen Ngoc Mai: The current transformation of traditional religion in ethnic groups in Northern mountainous region of Vietnam, Journal of Religious Studies, No.9/2014. 

Assoc. Prof., Dr. Hoang Thi Lan

Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics

Cao Phan Giang, MA

Academy of Politics Region I

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