The jailing last week of six Buddhists on public disorder charges has highlighted the underhand tactics and thuggery used by the authorities to harass independent religious groups, according to human rights campaigners.
Four family members and two others received prison sentences of between two and six years following disturbances that their supporters say were provoked by police proxies and other government loyalists.
The use of “indignant masses” and other gangs of bully boys to intimidate and provoke government critics is a favoured police strategy, enabling officials to distance themselves from responsibility for open violence.
Resistant to state control
The six accused are members of an independent branch of the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church, a popular sect prominent in the Mekong Delta, which has a long history of conflict with the Communist party.
The confrontation which led to their prosecution took place last year in An Giang province near the Cambodian border – a stronghold of independent Hoa Hao groups, who are seen by the authorities in Hanoi as dangerously resistant to state control.
Traffic police, backed up by plainclothes auxiliaries, set up a checkpoint near the house of one of the accused, Bui Van Trung.
The aim was to stop Hoa Hao followers from attending a commemoration to mark the anniversary of Trung’s mother’s death.
In scenes of escalating confrontation, the plain clothes operatives confiscated ownership papers from some of attendees’ motorcycles.
The Buddhists were threatened with violence and sworn at by the hired thugs, while the traffic police merely looked on.
The next morning, the group manning the roadblock confiscated motorcycles from two of the attendees, without citing any traffic violations.
Some of the Buddhists were beaten up when they tried to intervene.
Trung and dozens of other members of the sect then staged a public demonstration in protest against police harassment.
That was the beginning of a cycle of harassment and intimidation, which led two months later to arrests and criminal charges being pressed. The six were arrested on charges of “disrupting public order” and one of “resisting officials on public duty” under articles 245 and 257 of the penal code.
The pattern is a familiar one to many hundreds of civil society activists, as they try to challenge the Communist party’s monopoly on power.
They can expect to be followed in the street, have their homes staked out and telephone calls listened to. Many in recent years have also been subjected to violent assaults by unidentified gangs of men.
Such violent attacks are often the final sign that an arrest is imminent.
Increasing numbers of bloggers now face lengthy prison terms after years of harassment that finally culminated in arrest and criminal prosecution.
The government’s suppression of the independent Hoa Hao church is mirrored by similar campaigns against independent Christian and Cao Dai sects, particularly those operating in the Central Highlands, where some ethnic minority groups remain resistant to Communist party indoctrination.
“This appears to be the latest instance of official persecution of members of this religion,” said Brad Adams, Asia director, referring to the conviction of Trung and the other Hoa Hao members.
“The government should stop harassing and arresting those who belong to unsanctioned religious groups and leave people to practice their faith as they see fit.”
Bui Van Trung, and his son Bui Van Tham, were both sentenced to six years in prison. His daughter, Bui Thi Bich Tuyen, was given three years and his wife, Le Thi Hen, was put under house arrest for two years.
Two others, Nguyen Hoang Nam and Le Thi Hong Hanh, were jailed for four years and three years, respectively.