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Cablegate: Church and State Maintain Balance in Tay Ninh Province

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.





E. O. 12958: N/A

REF: A) 02 HANOI 199, B) 02 HANOI 208

1. (U) On a recent one-day trip to meet with provincial and Cao
Dai Church leaders in Tay Ninh Province, the Ambassador came away
with a mostly positive impression of the current state of health
of both the province and the religion which predominates there.
Tay Ninh, while still on the fringes of the relative prosperity
enjoyed by HCMC and some of its other surrounding provinces, has a
leadership clearly committed to economic growth and development.
And as the largest single "constituency" within the province, the
Cao Dai appear to be benefiting from that commitment -- despite a
continued inability to fill their own senior ranks. Our
impression was that the Cao Dai faithful are freely practicing
their syncretic religion, with even some expansion in their
numbers, but as is the case with all religions in Vietnam, the
state and party maintain tight control over the religion's
organization and personnel. End Summary.

Cao Dai Worship Little Changed in 30 Years
2. (U) The Ambassador recently returned to Tay Ninh Province, on
the western border of HCMC, for the first time since his 1970-1973
tour of duty as a junior officer in Vietnam. During that
assignment, he was responsible for covering the Cao Dai --
Vietnam's homegrown syncretic religion -- out of Embassy Saigon's
political section. Upon entering the Cao Dai Holy See for the
noon service, he remarked that very little seemed to have changed
in either the physical or spiritual setting. Men and woman seated
in neat rows on opposite sides of the long rectangular floor of
the hall bowed their heads in prayer to a steady beat of gongs and
chanting as incense filled the air.

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3. (U) Immediately noticeable, however, were the empty chairs
closest to the altar reserved for the top church hierarchy -- the
Pope and Cardinals. Empty too were the spots on the floor where
the archbishops would normally kneel in prayer. (The floor of the
temple rises progressively through nine levels as it approaches
the sacred altar. Clergy sit in prayer on the level corresponding
to their rank.) Otherwise, the service appeared to be well
attended. While a fair number of young people were spotted among
the worshippers, most of the clergy were well into their 60s. The
stunningly decorated temple, painted every year, looked very well

Lonely at the Top, but Not Really Alone
4. (SBU) After the service, the Ambassador took a guided tour of
the temple with the head of the Cao Dai Management Council,
Archbishop Thuong Tam Thanh. While Thanh had been reluctant to
meet with ConGenoffs last year without prior approval from the
provincial People's Committee (ref A), he seemed happy to meet
with the Ambassador on this officially sanctioned trip. The
Archbishop was animated and upbeat, although he became rather
wistful when describing the significance of the vacant chairs and
unoccupied spaces on the floor. He noted that he was one of only
a handful of clergy at his rank who was still alive. There were
supposed to be 33 archbishops at any given time, in keeping with a
religious doctrine heavily influenced by numerology.

5. (SBU) Continuing the discussion in his nearby office suite,
the Archbishop adopted the disconcerting habit of writing down
everything the Ambassador said, despite the presence of others in
the large, open-air meeting room serving as note takers. At least
a few individuals in the room gave both Ambassador and Poloff the
impression that they represented the interests of the GVN more
than those of the Cao Dai. The more restrained and formulaic
nature of the Archbishop's answers in the office tended to
buttress that conclusion. Still, he did openly thank the
Ambassador for the invitation to last year's Consulate General
July 4th celebration.

Church Flourishes While Leadership Withers
6. (SBU) Early in the conversation, the Archbishop gestured off
in the distance at the many structures that had been built during
the intervening years since the Ambassador's first tour. "All of
this did not happen in one or two years," he said. He claimed a
current total of 5 million Cao Dai adherents in Vietnam --
significantly higher than the GVN figure of 1-2 million, or even
NGO estimates of 2-3 million -- with the numbers constantly on the
rise. Four hundred thousand Cao Dai make Tay Ninh home, but many
others come to worship regularly, including hundreds of thousands
who returned on January 9 and August 15 of each lunar year for the
two main Cao Dai festivals.

7. (SBU) The Archbishop was less optimistic about the prospects
for filling the senior ranks of the clergy because of the
unfortunate confluence of old age and limited opportunities for
promotion. As one of the conditions for GVN recognition in 1997,
exclusive power to make promotion decisions was vested in the
newly created Management Council. The Management Council meets
only once every five years. While seances had sometimes been used
in the past to determine promotions -- a practice outlawed by the
GVN as "superstitious" -- selection by high-ranking clergy had
always existed as an alternative. Promotion decisions at present
are based solely on experience and seniority; no one is allowed to
skip a rank. Given the advanced age of most of the higher-ranking
clergy and the fact that they can only be promoted one rank every
five years, this protracted rate of advancement virtually
guarantees that the highest positions will probably remain vacant
for some time to come.

8. (SBU) According to the Archbishop, amalgamating the three
bodies of Cao Dai clergy -- red, blue, and yellow (legislative,
executive, and charitable works) -- into a single Management
Council was a by-product of the same limitations. Traditionally,
each of the three branches was supposed to have 12 archbishops and
one cardinal. However, with only two congresses since 1975 and no
way to skip ranks, it was clear that there just would not be
sufficient numbers of senior clergy to meet this requirement. In
their absence, the Management Council had been created to provide
the necessary structure for managing the activities of the church.
The 72 members, all high-ranking clergy, were elected every five
years at the same congresses which decided promotions. (Over 3000
Cao Dai leaders and government officials from 34 provinces and
HCMC attended the October 2002 "Human Life Congress," promoting
924 clergy, including the Archbishop.)

9. (SBU) The Archbishop did not attempt to justify the new
system or compare it to the old model. Mostly, he just seemed
resigned to it. While he recognized that some Cao Dai, including
a number in the U.S., did not appreciate the need for a Management
Council or were unhappy over their exclusion, he noted that all
religion requires discipline and law. (The Archbishop later asked
about the possibility of applying for a visa to meet with Cao Dai
officials in the U.S. in the future.) The Archbishop also
acknowledged that while the structure was meant to unify all 13
branches of the Cao Dai, some of the smaller sects had always
remained separate from the main Tay Ninh branch. Groups which
existed outside the Council were not official in GVN eyes, but
generally continued to pursue their activities without
interference. He resisted criticizing retired pre-1975 Cao Dai
leaders Archbishop Thai The Thanh and Archbishop Thuong Nha Thanh
(ref B), but clearly disagreed with their decisions to "abandon
service" to the Cao Dai faithful.

10. (SBU) Minimizing the intrusiveness of government regulation,
the Archbishop dismissed concerns of GVN control over ordination
of new clergy -- a common complaint of other religions in Vietnam.
After all, the Cao Dai themselves, not the GVN, required
verification of "good citizenship" from the relevant local
authorities before candidates were considered for the priesthood.
He was unable to explain why the Cao Dai had not expressed more
interest in political activities, especially in the province where
they were most numerous. While he himself had once been a
National Assembly member, the Archbishop could think of no other
Cao Dai active in national or local politics.

Confiscation by Another Name
11. (SBU) Downplaying another common grievance of other
religions in Vietnam -- post-war confiscations of property -- the
Archbishop tried to rationalize the "borrowing of unused" Cao Dai
properties by the Fatherland Front in 1975. He said whenever the
Cao Dai needed a property back, they merely had to provide a
justification and it was returned. There are currently 600 Cao
Dai temples nationwide, by his count. His resolve wavered just a
bit when the Ambassador reminisced about the highly regarded
educational institutions once operated by the Cao Dai, including
the former university which had been converted to a cadre training
school. However, the Archbishop quickly pointed out that unlike
the Protestant and Catholic religions, the Cao Dai church had
never relied on seminaries to train its clergy. Those who showed
promising academic qualifications and wished to devote their lives
to the Cao Dai faith were brought to the temple for bible study.
Success was then based on their actual work record, rather than
any sort of book learning. Education was never a determining
factor in promotions.

People's Committee Upbeat on Economic Fundamentals
--------------------------------------------- -----
12. (SBU) In a separate meeting (in the same compound used by the
provincial government before 1975), People's Committee Chairman
Nguyen Tan Lam urged the Ambassador to encourage American business
investment in Tay Ninh, a province of approximately one million.
While the province had yet to feel much impact from the BTA, he
boasted of an 11.7 percent overall increase in GDP, with 10
percent across the board growth in industrial production,
agriculture, and services. Industrial output accounted for 34
percent of GDP, but tourism was also a major source of revenue.
One hundred percent of the province was already electrified, with
80 percent hooked up to the national power grid. The roads to all
villages in the province were paved, although some hamlets were
still connected by dirt roads. Clinics manned by physicians
served every district. To staff new businesses, Tay Ninh produced
3000 high school graduates last year, with 1550 passing the
national university entrance exam. Overall, one third of all
school-age children attend school.

13. (SBU) According to the Chairman, the province had attracted
a total of 50 FDI projects, valued at US$240 million. Twenty-
seven projects, worth US$40 million, were invested at the 700-
hectare Trang Bang Industrial Park, near the border with HCMC.
With Trang Bang nearly 70 percent full, the province was directing
new investment to the much larger Moc Bai Economic Zone. Moc Bai,
located near the Cambodian border, is the eventual crossing point
for the Trans-Asia Highway, connecting HCMC with Cambodia and
points west. Vietnam's portion of the highway was expected to be
finished this March, but investors recently extended the deadline
to July. The Chairman predicted that progress on the Cambodian
side of the border would be much slower. Tay Ninh shares a 240-
kilometer border with Cambodia.

Church and State in Harmony
14. (SBU) Asked to comment by Chairman Lam on the changes he had
observed on this first trip back in 30 years, the Ambassador cited
the empty ranks at the top of the Cao Dai hierarchy and the new
organizational structure. The role of the Fatherland Front in
coordinating how the Cao Dai organized their affairs was another
notable development. He also regretted GVN restrictions on Cao
Dai charitable activities, such as schools and orphanages, and
wondered why there were no Cao Dai in positions of authority in
the local government when they made up some 40 percent of the
population. On the bright side, he praised the familiar images of
ordinary people continuing to practice their faith.

15. (SBU) The Chairman was prepared with a number of statistics
to show that the Cao Dai faith had actually grown under the GVN.
The number of Cao Dai had increased from 35 to 40 percent of the
provincial population since 1975, even as the total number of
temples had grown from 25-95. The number of high-ranking clergy
increased from 1905 to 2144 during the same period, while the
number of student priests rose from 1522 to 3480. He was less
convincing when he asserted that the issue of replacing the
elderly clergy was entirely in the hands of the Cao Dai

16. (SBU) While the Cao Dai had not generally participated in
local political activities after 1975, Chairman Lam assured the
Ambassador that the laws of Vietnam give everyone equal access to
leadership positions. Some Cao Dai had been active in local
People's Councils since 1986, and he thought it entirely possible
that a Cao Dai could one day serve as a district Chairman.
Despite the current lack of Cao Dai adherents in important
positions, he pointed to Tay Ninh as a place where there was great
unity between the religious and the secular. The Chairman also
praised the Cao Dai for their assistance to flood victims and
orphans in the recent past.

17. (SBU) Amidst Tay Ninh's relative political stability,
there's little doubt that the province is well positioned to
benefit economically from its proximity to HCMC. Decent roads, or
at least roads that appeared to be under active construction, led
to and from HCMC. Immediate economic returns from improved
overland access to the rest of mainland Southeast Asia are less of
a sure thing. Tourism, while it will continue to be a big draw,
needs to avoid the temptation of appealing to the lowest common
denominator. A steady stream of Western and Asian tourists visit
the temple each day during the noon service, a staple for
inexpensive tours from HCMC. Paving over the greenery and
blasting loud music from cheaply constructed souvenir and food
stalls, however, is not going to attract a sustained influx of big-
spending Western tourists.

18. (SBU) The Archbishop was careful not to express openly any
disagreement with the Management Committee structure, but the
empty ranks at the top of his religion's hierarchy is obviously a
source of frustration and concern. For his part, the Chairman of
the People's Committee seems to realize the importance of
cultivating relations with the Cao Dai, a job made easier by the
fact that the church leadership has completely lost its pre-1975
role as a political entity. Our impression during this short
visit to Tay Ninh was that the Cao Dai religion is now treated
much the same as Buddhism and Catholicism: worship is fully
tolerated, the numbers of the faithful even allowed to expand
somewhat, but the party and state maintain tight control over the
religion's organizational structure.

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