Main languages: Vietnamese, Hoa (Chinese), Khmer, Tai, Muong
Main religions: Buddhism, Roman Catholicism, Protestant, indigenous syncretic religions, animism
Main minority and indigenous communities: Tay 1.63 million (1.9 per cent), Thai 1.55 million (1.8 per cent), Muong 1.27 million (1.5 per cent), Khmer Krom 1.26 million (1.5 per cent), Hmong 1.07 million (1.2 per cent), Nung 0.97 million (1.1 per cent), Hoa (Chinese) 0.82 million (1 per cent), plus others (2009 Census).
Vietnam is one of the few countries that maintain disaggregated data based on ethnicity and collects data on the 54 officially recognized ethnic communities. The vast majority of Vietnam’s population in the 2009 Census were ethnic Viet or Kinh (73.6 million, or 85.7 per cent) and speak the Vietnamese language. Most Kinh were followers of Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism prior to the Indochina wars, though official figures indicate more than 80 per cent of them today have no religious affiliation.
Ethnic Kinh tend to be concentrated in about half of the country’s territory, especially in coastal and low-lying areas, and have been engaged in intensive irrigated-rice cultivation and fishing, though that pattern is increasingly changing.
Most of the remaining 53 official ethnic groups (although not all of the country’s minorities or indigenous peoples are part of this officially recognized list) inhabit the interior mountainous and highlands, though some, such as the Khmer Krom, Hoa and Lao, are concentrated in the cities or lowlands. Most of the other many remaining minorities tend to live in the mountains of the north, down the Truong Son mountain range, and in the central highlands. These include a huge diversity in terms of languages, origins, religions and even scripts used.
The Tay are the largest minority, belonging to the central Tai-Kadai language group and are located in the north of Vietnam where their villages tend to be based at the feet of mountains with about 15-20 households each; the closely related Thai are believed to have arrived in Vietnam earlier than the Tay, and they are concentrated in the north-west and western parts of north Vietnam. The Muong also inhabit the mountainous region of northern Vietnam, and are generally found in Hoa Binh and Thanh Hoa province. Their language is a Vietic language, closely related to Vietnamese.
The fourth largest minority are the Khmer Krom, and they are now thought to number more than 1.3 million people and are found concentrated in the south, in the delta region of the Mekong River. They are ethnic Khmer and are often considered to be indigenous, as they have inhabited the Mekong delta since before the arrival of the Vietnamese. Their language, Khmer, is part of the Mon-Khmer branch of Austroasiatic languages, and most of them are Buddhists.
One group of more than 30 indigenous communities often lumped together are the Degar, sometimes referred to as Montagnards, a French term related to their presence in the highlands of Vietnam, though this was limited to the central highlands area. Except for their traditionally inhabiting highlands, these groups have in fact different cultures and their languages belong to two distinct family groups, the Malayo-Polynesian and Mon-Khmer. Many of the Degar are Protestant. Their total number is subject to some debate, though they possibly number between 1 and 2 million people. Among the largest groups are the Jarai, Rhade and Bahnar.
There is some controversy as to the size of the ethnic Chinese minority in Vietnam: official figures tend to float around the 1 million figure, but outside sources tend to suggest a higher number. Not all Chinese (known as Hoa) are officially recognized by the government of Vietnam: the Hoa category excludes the San Diu (mountain Chinese) and the Ngai. Most Hoa are descended from Chinese settlers who came from the Guangdong province from about the eighteenth century, and it is for this reason that most of them today speak Cantonese, though there is also a large group who speak Teochew.
There are a number of religious minorities, including significant Catholic and Protestant minorities, the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, which both originated in the Mekong River delta during the nineteenth century (both native and distinct Buddhist sects), as well as Sunni and Bashi Muslims in the south and among the Chams (with perhaps 15 per cent of the Chams still adherents of Hinduism). The latter’s language belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family, and they are generally thought to be descendants of the ancient kingdom of Champa.
While power struggles in the one-party socialist state of Vietnam are rare, given the lack of an opposition, the jockeying among those vying to be general secretary of the Communist Party at the quinquennial party congress held in January of 2016 – with hardliner Nguyen Phu Trong eventually coming out victorious – suggested that the ruling party is increasingly feeling the need to hold onto power in the face of what is sees as threats to its rule, including the rights of its minority populations.
Religious minorities are often among those most targeted by party policies and police crackdowns. A new Law on Belief and Religion, replacing an ordinance regulating religion, was passed in November 2016. The draft has seen a variety of incarnations, as local religious groups and international civil society struggled to have controversial provisions removed. Ultimately, despite propounding the right of citizens to freedom of religion, the law effectively restricts religious practices, for example, requiring a complex registration process and allowing the government to interfere in the running of religious organizations. It uses ambiguous language like ‘good traditional values’ and a focus on maintaining ‘national security’ that could be used against minorities and their freedom to practice religion.
Unsanctioned religions fare particularly poorly in terms of rights violations: independent Catholics, Montagnard Christians in the central highlands, the Cao Dai church, the Hoa Hao Buddhist church, Khmer Krom Buddhists and the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam are all targeted by the government as threats to national security, and its leaders are treated as treasonous usurpers. In July 2016, Amnesty International released its list of prisoners of conscience jailed in Vietnam: out of eighty-four persons listed, twenty-nine are ethnic Montagnard Christians, many imprisoned on the charge of ‘undermining national unity’.
Vietnam remains high on the radar for violations of religious freedoms. Following a visit in March 2016 by David Saperstein, the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, authorities targeted those with whom the Ambassador had spoken: Tran Thi Hong, the wife of imprisoned Mennonite pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh, was reportedly tortured in central highland province of Gia Lai while authorities interrogated her for information related to her meeting, which officials had tried unsuccessfully to prevent.
Activism and demonstrations by ethnic and religious minorities are also systematically suppressed by the Vietnamese government. The fallout from a toxic chemical spill in April 2016 that affected four central coastal provinces, reportedly killing an estimated 115 tonnes of fish and destroying the livelihoods of approximately 200,000 people, brought minority activists into a struggle with the government. The locus of the spill was in Ha Tihn province, the location of Taiwan-owed Formosa Steel factory, and many of those affected were Catholics. While protests broke out across the country, Catholic leaders were responsible for organising a series of local protests, involving thousands of protesters, in the ensuing months. Parishioners also marched to the local courts, where they were being assisted by Catholic priests to file lawsuits against the company. Most of the protests were violently suppressed by police, including reports that police were trying to prevent people from filing lawsuits. On 5 October 2016, the People’s Court in Ky Anh dismissed more than 500 cases that were filed.
Authorities also continue to assert their control over land and sacred buildings owned by religious communities. In September 2016, the Lien Tri Pagoda of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam was demolished and its monks physically evicted from the premises after refusing to give way to the confiscation of the land to make way for real estate development. In December 2016, temple lands owned by a Khmer Krom community in Travinh province in the Mekong Delta was also struggling against appropriation by local authorities after claims that the community had sold the land to a developer. Such tactics have been used in the past to drive the Khmer Krom out of their territories in the delta.
A small but very heavily populated country, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is at the eastern end of South-East Asia and borders the People’s Republic of China to the north, Laos to the west, Cambodia to the south-west, and the South China Sea to the east. Its elongated surface consists of mainly hills and densely forested mountains.
Chinese dominated the region from the first century BCE until the tenth century CE, and left an indelible mark on Vietnamese culture, language and society. Much of Vietnamese history is an account of expansion from the Red River delta to the Mekong delta, an advance not completed until the late eighteenth century. Fighting with the kingdom of Champa, which occupied what is now central Vietnam, continued for 900 years until the Chams, a Malay-Polynesian people, were subjugated in the late seventeenth century. Following the defeat of Champa, the Vietnamese pursued military campaigns against the kingdom of the Khmer (Cambodia) in the Mekong delta, including what is now Ho Chi Minh City. While the defeat of Champa brought a virtual end to a distinct Cham society in Vietnam, ethnic Khmer retain an important presence in the delta area.
The expansion of Vietnam led to greater regionalism in politics. This resulted in the division of the country at roughly the 18th parallel (the line that divided North from South Vietnam from 1954 to 1976). This division continued from 1620 until 1802 when the southern emperor Gia Long, with the aid of the French, reunified the country. Sixty years later, the French began to wrest political control from the Vietnamese. The present borders of Vietnam were defined by French military action between 1858 and 1883. Except for a period of Japanese occupation during the Second World War, French colonial rule continued until defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
Vietnam suffered enormous devastation and loss of life during the three Indochina wars. The first, lasting from the late 1940s until 1954, ended with independence from the French. The country was then divided into the Republic of Vietnam (South) and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North). During the American phase of the second Indochinese war, which lasted from the mid-1960s until the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, the country’s infrastructure was virtually destroyed. The victory of North over South Vietnam in 1975 reunified the country. The third Indochinese war saw Vietnam invade Cambodia in 1978 and the Chinese invade northern Vietnam the following year. These events caused the massive departure of ethnic Chinese ‘boat people’ in the 1980s.
The general policy of the Vietnamese government towards most minorities and indigenous peoples, and especially those who were perceived as having sided with American forces, was aggressive and even in some cases brutal until the 1990s: Vietnamese was the almost exclusive language of education; expropriation of land and resources occurred, combined with the resettlement of ethnic Kinh in traditional regions and the forced movement of indigenous and minority communities away from traditional villages to permanent settlements. During the same period, the creation of ‘New Economic Zones’ led to an influx of mainly ethnic Kinh into these zones, usually with the official support of the government, in the central highlands and close to the border with China.
After 1985, the adoption of the more liberal Doi Moi policies softened the treatment of minorities and indigenous peoples, with some official recognition and use of minority languages in schools, and – at least in terms of the attitude of officials and the recognition minorities and indigenous peoples – some improvement has been made.
Despite the limited economic liberalization which ensued, the human rights situation has not changed significantly overall. Though there are rights enshrined in Vietnam’s Constitution, these are hampered by a number of numerous duties and the absence of constitutional and administrative courts and an independent judiciary.
Despite considerable economic gains in recent years, the country as a whole remains one of Asia’s poorest. The 1990s in particular saw a huge reduction in poverty levels: from 58 per cent in 1993 to 29 per cent in 2002. A number of reports point out, however, that ethnic minorities continue to suffer disproportionately from poverty. Nor has the move towards a free market (Doi Moi) in the late 1980s been matched by greater political freedom. The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) does not tolerate dissent. Freedom of movement, expression and association remain tightly constricted.
At first glance the Constitution of Vietnam is highly receptive to, and recognizes, minority communities, and particularly those in the highlands. Numerous provisions refer to the need to prioritize educational and development programmes so as to assist minorities. Most of these constitutional provisions remain for the most part vague aspirations, and in most matters where the rights of minorities might have a significant impact – the language of education and employment for civil service positions in the regions where minorities are most numerous, and the right to own or use traditional land and resources, for example – the Constitution is silent. Finally, the exercise of these rights seems to be further restrained by provisions in the Constitution as well as other legislation which suggest these rights must comply with ‘the interests and policies of the state’. In the context of Vietnam, this often appears to be closely connected to the interests of the ethnic Kinh.
Despite some movement to liberalize the economy, Vietnam remains a one-party state under the firm control of the Communist Party of Vietnam. It continues to suppress political dissent, and independent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are not permitted to operate freely in the country. Despite the stated commitments towards respecting and assisting minorities, there are continued discriminatory policies which tend to favour the ethnic Kinh (in terms of language, access to jobs, land ownership and other areas) which cannot be addressed directly or effectively by minorities because of a lack of legal measures to protect their rights and the absence of an independent judiciary. This periodically leads to minority demonstrations and even violence against authorities or ethnic Kinh.
Action for Democracy in Vietnam (Que Me)
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia)
Committee For Religious Freedom in Vietnam (CRFV)
Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’Homme
Highland Education Development Organisation (HEDO)
Southeast Asia Resource Action Center
South East Asian Mountain Peoples’ for Culture and Development
Vietnam Human Rights Network
Updated March 2018
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