(RFA) – A provincial court in northern Vietnam on March 20 ordered two Hmongs jailed for defying a government campaign forcing the ethnic minority group to return to older funeral practices now considered wasteful by many in the community.
The court hearing in northeastern Tuyen Quang province was held under tight security as police kept protesting Hmong villagers at bay.
Ly Van Dinh, 50, and Duong Van Tu, 47, were sentenced to 21 months and 15 months in jail respectively for violating Article 258 of Vietnam’s penal code, their lawyer Tran Thu Nam told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
Article 258 is a vague legal provision routinely used to prosecute people for exercising their right to freedom of expression, rights groups say.
The sentences follow last week’s jailing by the same court of Hoang Van Sang, 60, on charges of “abusing democratic rights to infringe on the State and others’ benefits.”
Sang, who was given an 18-month term, was also tried under Article 258, sources said.
All three are followers of reformed burial and wedding practices proposed by Hmong Christian leader Duong Van Minh [Dương Văn Mình], who is now in ill health in Hanoi.
Crackdown on reform
Officials in the Northern Highlands have cracked down on reformed burial practices in recent years, launching a campaign to force Hmong Christians to return to old traditions involving expensive, week-long funerals, rights groups have said.
Minh, 52, whose calls for reformed burial practices have been drawing a large following among Hmong Christians since 1989, now suffers from a kidney ailment but has been denied medical treatment at hospitals in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi.
Sources say the charges against all three men, and against another tried earlier in the week, appeared also to be tied to a growing refusal by Hmong to accept grain seed, subsidies for food or schooling, or other state benefits—a move seen by authorities as interference with government development policies.
Security surrounding the trial was tight, with police blocking Hmong villagers from gathering near the court to protest, sources told RFA early Thursday morning.
“We are on our way to the trial, but the police are everywhere, blocking all approaches, and we can’t get past them,” one woman, Dao Thi Sai, said.
“They have searched my clothes to see if I am carrying anything suspicious,” she said, adding, “Some people just can’t make it to the trial, and we have another 30 km [19 miles] to go.”
At Ngoi Sen village in Tuyen Quang province’s Ham Yen district, police also blocked Hmong from traveling to the court, ripping away protest banners and confiscating other items carried by the marchers, one protester said.
“The police took our banners away, and when we got to the highway they robbed us again,” Hmong villager Duong Van Hung said.
“Some people can get to the trial, but others just can’t,” he said.
Other trial postponed
On March 18, the trial of Thao Quan Mua [Thào Quán Mùa], another Hmong follower of Duong Van Minh, was postponed when the government complainant in the case fell ill, lawyer Nam said.
“The trial is postponed until March 27 because the plaintiff, the chairwoman of the Minh Huong Village People’s Committee, was hospitalized with appendicitis,” Nam said.
“According to the indictment, Mua was accused of gathering people to build a funeral home,” Nam said.
“The government accused him of following an illegal religion and of encouraging Hmong people to refuse government support,” he said.
In 2008, authorities in Cao Bang, Bac Kan, Thai Nguyen, and Tuyen Quang provinces began an “aggressive campaign” to force Hmong Christians to return to old burial practices by demolishing shared funeral storage facilities that villages had built to accommodate the new practice, according to overseas rights group Boat People SOS (BPSOS).
After a number of Hmong villages rebuilt their funeral storage facilities in 2012, the authorities last year sent in plainclothes police and thugs to destroy the facilities and arrested a number of Hmong, the group said.
Meanwhile, in October and November, at least eight Hmong followers of Minh’s were arrested as they protested for freedom of religion and belief, Vietnamese citizen journalism blog Dan Lam Bao reported.
And on Nov. 23, police forces surrounded an ethnic Hmong village in Cao Bang province and demolished their funeral storage facility, in an incident that was followed by an attack on another Hmong village in the province the next day, Dan Lam Bao said.
Dan Lam Bao