The police have been working for the past year to eliminate a religious sect based in northern Vietnam, according to a police newspaper.
On Tuesday the Cong an Nhan dan, which is the mouthpiece of the Ministry of Public Security, published an article about “Project 78”. It said its goal is to "fight, prevent, and proceed to eliminate the illegal Duong Van Minh organization," in Bac Kan province.
There are roughly 8,000 ethnic Hmong practitioners of the Duong Van Minh religion in four provinces in the northern mountains.
The religion is not officially registered and the police article said the government believes the sect is conspiring to "establish an independent Hmong state" and break away from Vietnam.
"The illegal sect Duong Van Minh, which has existed for more than 33 years, is an organization hiding in the shadow of beliefs and religions, propagandizing, gathering mass forces, enticing the Hmong ethnic people, plotting to establish an ‘independent Hmong state,’ seeking the support of hostile forces, and forming political opposition,” the article said.
Followers of the sect have repeatedly denied claims they want independence. Duong Van Minh was founded in 1989 with the stated goal of promoting the elimination of outdated, expensive and unhygienic funeral customs.
Hmong funeral services can last as long as a week before the body is buried. All family members are expected to attend the ceremonies, sacrifice animals and prepare feasts for the guests.
Last December hundreds of police raided the funeral of founder Duong Van Minh, in Tuyen Quang province, citing Coronavirus concerns, despite the official cause of his death being lymphoma.
Police arrested around 35 people, smashed windows in the family home and threatened the family with electric batons.
Nine more people were arrested when they went to the police to protest and another four were later charged with assaulting police officers.
On May 18 this year, a court in Tuyen Quang province convicted 12 followers of "resistance against on-duty state officials,” and sentenced them to between two and four years in prison.
Over the years Vietnamese authorities have imprisoned many sect members for “abusing freedom and democratic rights” and have destroyed dozens of religious structures used as funeral homes.
The abolition of the Duong Van Minh religion was turned into political goal in provinces where members of the sect live. In Bac Kan, the provincial government has set a “road map to eliminate” the sect by next year.
Another northern province, Cao Bang, has already included the goal of "preventing and eliminating" the sect in its resolution on socioeconomic development for 2020-2025.
A human rights lawyer, who did not want to be named for safety reasons, said the government’s plan to abolish the Duong Van Minh sect “is a serious violation of the people's right to freedom of belief and religion. It shows that this State does not respect its Constitution and the laws that it promulgates."
“Article 24 of Vietnam's constitution stipulates that everyone has the right to freedom of belief and religion, to follow or not to follow a religion. The State respects and protects the right to freedom of belief and religion,” the lawyer said.
He added that Project 78 proved that the State had decided to destroy the lives of Duong Van Minh followers.
“If it is a state that knows how to take care and think for the people, the government must be responsible for helping and guiding people,” he said. “They set up such a project obviously to erase [the religion], not to acknowledge the Duong Van Minh sect."
The Vietnamese government has always insisted that it does not suppress religion, and calls Duong Van Minh's sect an "illegal organization".
However, international organizations and foreign governments, including the U.S., have refused to accept the claim and regularly accuse the Vietnamese government of violating the right to religious freedom.
According to the Report on Religious Freedom 2022, released by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on April 25, the situation of religious freedom in Vietnam is still assessed as negative due to the government’s religious persecution.
The organization suggested that the US Government place Vietnam on the list of countries of special concern because of its systematic, persistent and serious violations of religious freedom.