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Cablegate: How Now Hoa Hao? Religion in an Giang 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 HCMC 1140 B) HCMC 0210 C) 03 HANOI 01535

1. (SBU) SUMMARY. The leadership of the government-recognized
Hoa Hao Administrative Council (HHAC) provided a predictably
positive report on the condition of the indigenous Hoa Hao faith
in Vietnam, during PolOff's recent visit to An Giang Province.
The HHAC, recognized by the GVN in 1999, was well into
preparations for its second General Congress and the election of
new leaders later this year, despite assertions by "dissident" Hoa
Hao leaders unaffiliated with the HHAC that the HHAC was a GVN
puppet and the elections would be rigged. PolOff was able to
raise the case of imprisoned Hoa Hao follower Nguyen Van Lia with
local officials, but was thwarted in his attempt to visit another
outspoken Hoa Hao activist. Separate from the Hoa Hao, two other
religious groups in An Giang province have started application
process for official GVN recognition. END SUMMARY.

2. (SBU) PolOff traveled to An Giang Province from February 18-20,
holding official meetings with: Mr. Nguyen Tan Dat, Vice Chairman
of the Hoa Hao Administrative Council (HHAC) and two other HHAC
representatives; Mr. Huynh Nhu Chau and Mr. Ngo Tien, the two Vice
Chairmen of the An Giang Committee for Religious and Ethnic
Minority Affairs; and Mr. Lu Hy, Vice Chairman of the An Giang
Fatherland Front. PolOff visited Hoa Hao dissident Mr. Bui Van
Do, a nephew of the Hoa Hao founder, and attempted to meet with
Mr. Nam Liem, the tree-climbing Hoa Hao monk (ref A). PolOff also
visited three Cham Muslim mosques close to the Cambodian border
(ref B).

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3. (SBU) The government recognized HHAC reported no problems
dealing with the Government of Vietnam, and denied reports from
activist groups that the GVN had somehow discouraged followers
from attending the religion's two annual festivals in An Giang.
Activist Bui Van Do acknowledged that while he was unhappy with
the HHAC, he had suffered no major harassment in recent years.
HHAC representatives said they were proceeding with plans to hold
a General Congress in the second quarter of 2004, the second such
meeting since their 1999 official recognition by the GVN. One of
the primary purposes of the Congress would be to elect the Hoa Hao
leadership for the next five years. HHAC Vice Chairman Dat would
not answer specific questions on who was eligible to stand for
election, but said the HHAC had not yet conducted a survey of its
eleven members to see who would stay and who would resign. While
activist Bui Van Do and leaders of some "dissident" Hoa Hao groups
in HCMC and the U.S. claimed that all candidates were pre-selected
by the GVN and free elections were therefore impossible, the
Committee for Ethnic Minority and Religious Affairs denied any
role in selecting candidates. (Note: Disaffected Hoa Hao groups
contend that nine of the 11 members of the HHAC are also CPV
members. End Note.)

4. (SBU) In each of his official meetings, PolOff raised the case
of Mr. Nguyen Van Lia, a 63-year-old Hoa Hao Buddhist who had been
sentenced to three years in prison for holding a ceremony in June
2003 to commemorate the disappearance of the Hoa Hao founder.
HHAC Vice Chairman Dat said that Lia had held an "extreme"
celebration, hanging banners "encouraging separation," and causing
a "social disturbance." (Note: According to Hoa Hao dissident
groups, Lia had raised the pre-1975 Hoa Hao flag.) Religious
Affairs Vice Chairman Chau defined a social disturbance as, "when
you gather a group in public." He was certain that the banners
had contained anti-government slogans, but could not remember the
exact wording. He said no pictures had been taken of the
controversial event, and nothing had been documented. Late in the
conversation, he suddenly remembered that Lia had also "assaulted"
security forces, but could not provide details. He also noted
that Lia's children had signed "confessions" at the time.

5. (SBU) The two Vice Chairmen for Ethnic Minority and Religious
Affairs told PolOff that two additional religious groups in the
province, "Tu An Hieu Nghia" and "Buu Son Ky Huong," had started
the process to request GVN recognition. Tu An Hieu Nghia
(literally "Four Debts of Gratitude") lists roughly 41,000
followers, 226 leaders, and eight places of worship, according to
a recent provincial survey. As of late January 2004, their
application had cleared the provincial-level process and been
forwarded to Hanoi for central government consideration. Buu Son
Ky Huong (literally "Strange Fragrance from Precious Mountain"),
the Buddhist offshoot that was a direct precursor of Hoa Hao, has
21,000 followers and 28 pagodas, by the official count. Their
application is still under consideration at the provincial level.

6. (SBU) En route back to HCMC, PolOff attempted to visit the
village of activist Hoa Hao monk Nam Liem. Nam Liem has had
several run ins with local officials over the past few years
involving displays of "illegal" Hoa Hao regalia and "illegal
construction". Each time he has shimmied up a nearby coconut tree
and stayed there for days, threatening to immolate himself before
eventually being talked down. ConGenoffs have been unsuccessful
in their efforts to visit him for the last three years. On this
attempt, security officials on motorbikes raced ahead in the
direction of Nam Liem's home after questioning individuals who had
provided directions to the ConGen driver. A few minutes later,
PolOffO found the main road blocked by a truck parked diagonally
across it. Further down the road, an "accident" blocked all
automobile traffic from proceeding any further. A small truck
with a motorbike on the ground in front of it blocked one lane,
while a farm vehicle perpendicular to the truck blocked the other
lane. A gap between the vehicles was exactly large enough for
motorbike traffic to pass unimpeded. The vehicles had no visible
signs of damage. While police told PolOff JO that one driver had
been taken to the hospital, and the other two drivers had run
away, the scene had all the hallmarks of a staged accident. After
spending an additional ten minutes trying to measure the space
between the "crashed" vehicles to see if the ConGen car could
maneuver through without disturbing the "scene of the crime",
PolOff gave up and left.

7. (SBU) COMMENT: As has been our experience on many provincial
trips, PolOff was "required" to meet an official escort before
traveling to the Hoa Hao Holy Land and was under obvious
surveillance by a plainclothes officer on a motorbike after
leaving the HHAC meeting. Staff members from the provincial
People's Committee and External Relations Office also insisted on
attending the meeting with the HHAC. The HHAC used part of its
meeting to criticize the USG policy on catfish (a major industry
in An Giang Province) and attack the International Religious
Freedom Report -- in terms identical to those used by GVN
officials. Vice Chairman Dat, however, admitted that he had not
actually read the report. (Note: PolOff provided Dat with an
English-language version of the 2003 report at the end of the

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