ASEAN politicians slam Vietnam’s new law on religion

Members of Vietnam's Cao Dai religion have joined criticism of the new law. Photo courtesy Biso.

Members of Vietnam’s Cao Dai religion have joined criticism of the new law. Photo courtesy Biso.

A proposed new law on religion and belief has come under renewed attack at home and abroad. The latest draft of the bill, which is expected to be passed by the National Assembly this autumn, is accused of repressing basic freedoms.

Politicians from other ASEAN countries added their voices to the condemnation,  saying that freedom of religion in Vietnam is subject to excessive state interference.

“This and the previous versions of the law inherit from previous rules and regulations this emphasis on government control and management of religious life which is contrary to the spirit and principle of the right to freedom of religion and belief,” said a letter to Vietnam’s National Assembly, signed by more than forty religious groups, human rights organisations and politicians.

“Across Southeast Asia we are seeing the passing of repressive laws that seek to place into law restrictions on our citizens’ human rights and freedoms,” said Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament and Chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).

Mr Santiago is one of a number of legislators from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, The Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia, who founded the APHR in 2013 to campaign for rights and freedoms across the region.

In an open letter to the President of Vietnam’s National Assembly, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngân, the signees said the latest draft of the law contained some improvements on previous versions, but continued to place unacceptable restrictions on the right to freedom of religion.

They complained that onerous requirements for registration with the government remained in place, and that very little time had been given for consultation with religious groups.

The Vietnamese authorities are regularly accused of suppressing religious freedom and of using violence and intimidation to harass unregistered religious groups, particularly amongst ethnic minority populations.

Representatives of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and of the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai groups, as well as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and European lawmakers, added their signatures to the letter.

They insisted that the definition of a religion must be made consistent with Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is a signatory.

Vietnam currently violates that provision by insisting that registration with the government is a prerequisite for the exercise of freedom of religion and belief.

The organisations said that guarantees were needed to stop officials arbitrarily interfering in the internal affairs of religions.