ANALYSIS: The ‘Great National Unity’ requires a great big bureaucracy
The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is drafting a “Law on Belief and Religion,” for passage in the National Assembly in 2016, and possibly this year. It is almost inevitable the new law will disappoint proponents of universal human rights.(1)
Diverse religions and religious practices flourish in communist Vietnam. Religious believers far outnumber the government figures on the number of people who practice religious faith. Yet Vietnam maintains restrictive and controlling managerial policies, some quite harsh, especially toward religions that are feared to have political influence, including the Catholic and Evangelical Christian traditions, mistakenly still deemed Western.
A deep, politically-constructed narrative called Dai Doan Ket, or the Great National Unity, appears to be the standard against which religions are tolerated and deemed to be sufficiently conformed to Vietnamese tradition and culture. Dai Doan Ket, nebulous though it may be, tries to define a national identity, a common culture and even a spiritual bond. Rights are relativized in reference to support for the Dai Doan Ket. Some are hopeful that globalization will dilute DDK thinking. (2)
This Dai Doan Ket standard for meting out space for religions differs radically from Western, human-rights thinking, which holds that fundamental human rights are universal, and which dominates international standards, as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This wide difference helps explain why Vietnamese authorities and Western diplomats or advocates often talk past each other in the area of human rights.
Strongly influenced by this Dai Doan Ket paradigm, the proposed new law is the long-promised, penultimate legislation in the area of religion. It is being widely discussed, and, in the controlled and limited way of Vietnam’s government, it is being circulated for input among various segments of society including some religious groups.
A second document, much less noticed than the draft law, is of equal importance in indicating the direction of religious freedom in Vietnam. It is the Prime Minister’s Decision 06/2015/QD-TTg, dated Feb. 12 and carrying the cumbersome title “Defining the functions, responsibilities and authority, and the organizational structure of the Committee of Religious Affairs within the Ministry of the Interior.” (3)
It is hard to be optimistic about the impact of these two measures. Vietnam continues to view and treat religion as a social problem and potential threat to national security. This view has produced a very extensive management bureaucracy, the Committee on Religious Affairs. By prime ministerial decision, its role is being clarified and even more firmly entrenched. The draft law confirms micromanagement of religion as it gathers up previous ordinances and related implementing decrees, and adds even more management minutia into one big, intimidating bundle.
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