Due to their previous armed opposition to the Communist forces, followers of Hòa Hảo Buddhism have faced restrictions on their religious and political activities. It should be pointed out that article 68 of the Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which was promulgated in 1980, stated that “Citizens have freedom of faith, a right to practice or not to practice religion.” The authorities also announced a three-point religious policy blueprint, namely:
1. Respect freedom of religion and freedom of atheism.
2. Educate the masses of adherents so as they would follow the policies of the Communist Party of Vietnam.
3. Bring the Churches out of the sphere of “imperialist” influence and bring the congregation closer to people.
As can be seen, the Communist authorities set their priorities quite clearly as the government aimed to make religious life and freedoms subservient to the Communist Partys and state policies. Notably, as early as in September 1960, the III Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party stated that Marxist-Leninist ideology should be an absolute guiding force of the societys spiritual life and a cornerstone of a new morality. Not surprisingly, the Communist government aimed at the total destruction of all religions despite the religious freedom clause of the Constitution.
Although the anti-religious policy of the government became apparent following the Communist takeover of the South in 1975, its roots may be traced during the previous decades. During the war the Communists used violence against Buddhist and Catholic Churches, as well as the Hòa Hảo and Caodaist communities. For instance, the Communist forces often placed pieces of heavy artillery or air defense guns inside churches, pagodas and temples with an apparent intention to destroy these places of worship by enemy fire. It has been reported that during the Resistance War in the South the Việt Minh units even secretly provided intelligence to the French in order to put religious buildings under French fire.
After 1975, the Communist authorities have passed a number of legislative blueprints, which aimed at establishing control over and the gradual elimination of the religious communities. One vivid example was Decree No 297, which was approved by the Council of Ministers on November 11, 1977. The Decree stipulated that nearly all religious and ritual activities required the written permission of the respective village, district or municipal authorities. Apart from the use of legislative measures in order to restrict and punish religious communities, the Communist government confiscated scores of religious properties. The authorities also employed police and propaganda machines so as to harass believers and discourage them from attending public religious rituals. The police and propaganda apparatuses were also keen to libel and smear religious leaders and dignitaries in order to undermine their religious authority in the eyes of the masses of adherents.
Apart from drastic changes in political and religious life, economic realities in the predominantly Hòa Hảo areas underwent profound transformation following the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975. Initially, the Communist authorities abolished all private property rights over arable lands. All landholdings were declared “possessions of the people, which were managed by the state.” Then, government officials allocated small plots of arable land for each adult ration-card holder, and a small garden for each family.
On the other hand, the Communist administration endeavored to abandon a traditional one-harvest system, which was widely used in the Mekong Delta before 1975 and based upon so-called “floating rice.” It was a risky system as any harvest could be lost due to excessive floods. Yet it was not labor or capital intensive because “floating rice” grew in the flood waters of the Mekong River hence no irrigation or fertilizers were needed. As an alternative, the government introduced a two-harvest system, which was labor and capital intensive as it required irrigation, fertilizers and more manual work. According to this system, the first rice winter-spring crop is harvested in February while the second Summer-Autumn crop is harvested in August, shortly before the seasonal flooding in the Mekong Delta. Although this system constituted a step forward in terms of agricultural output, it very much depended on adequate supplies of fertilizers as well as fuel and electricity for irrigation pumps. Therefore peasants of the Mekong Delta became more dependent on the central government as compared to previous decades. Such a change in life of rural cultivators was equally designed to have certain political implications, namely to ensure the loyalty of the peasants.
In late 1970s and early 1980s the Communist government endeavored to introduce a system of so-called agricultural cooperatives in the Mekong Delta. Members of rural communities were regarded as employees of a single agricultural estate although many of them continued to cultivate their former private plots of land. Moreover, rural cultivators were forced to sell their harvest to government agencies at fixed prices. Those peasants who attempted to conceal a part of harvested rice from the official scrutiny could have been subject to severe punishment such as heavy fines. Some peasants were reportedly expelled from their plots for hiding grain. This system of strict control required large numbers of agricultural officials so as to monitor rural works and make estimates of expected harvest. Correspondingly, the government levied higher land taxes on peasants to support and maintain the bureaucratic machine of control.
For instance, Lê Văn Hăng, a former rural cultivator in Hòa Hảo village who fled to the United States, told the author in an interview that Hòa Hảo peasants were forced to pay scores of taxes to the Communist authorities. He indicated that because of the heavy tax burden and official insistence on a two-harvest system, many plots of arable land in the immediate vicinity of Hòa Hảo village had been temporarily abandoned and left uncultivated.
Nguyễn Duy Thanh, a former officer of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam from Hòa Hảo village who fled to the US in 1987, told me in an interview that official agricultural policies in the Hòa Hảo areas were doomed to inevitable failure. He stated that none of Hòa Hảo peasants believed in the official pronouncements and promises. On the contrary, many adherents were looking forward to the demise of the Communist regime.
Despite the introduction of the two-harvest system, the policy of the agricultural cooperatives failed to entail any positive results in terms of agricultural output. The Communist government bowed to the inevitable and eventually softened its strict policies of control over agricultural production in the Mekong Delta. Despite the limited introduction of elements of the market economy, the authorities are yet to win the hearts and minds of southern peasants, notably, the followers of Hòa Hảo Buddhism.
Not surprisingly, the Communist leadership realized that some special measures were needed throughout the predominantly Hòa Hảo areas to implement official policies. The Communist party and the government well understood that the policy of mass reprisals, which was employed in 1945-1947 and entailed the death of some 30,000 Hòa Hảo activists and its followers, was no longer feasible. Realizing that it was impossible to eliminate two million Hòa Hảo adepts, communist authorities shifted their focus to the elimination of its leaders and activists. Then the authorities opted to employ a policy of psychological transformation, which was designed to win over the masses of Hòa Hảo followers. The policy involved the provision of some welfare benefits throughout predominantly Hòa Hảo rural areas. The idea was to overcome the opposition of two million Hòa Hảo followers and convince them to cooperate with the authorities in exchange for certain material stimuli.
The most apparent manifestation of this policy was the construction of a major hospital right behind the Hòa Hảo Ancestral Temple, the birthplace of Huỳnh Phú Sổ. The government allocated some 30 million dong from the state coffers to fund the construction, which commenced in 1981. One local Hòa Hảo elder, known as ông Chín, was assigned to provide the workforce for the construction project. The government neither paid salaries nor provided food for the workers. Nonetheless, no less than 300 people worked at the construction site because they were granted temporary exemption from military service. Obviously, the authorities regarded the construction as a showcase project because it remains a matter of debate whether purely medical considerations could have justified building a 200-bed hospital in Hòa Hảo village. It might be argued that the officials wanted to demonstrate that a modern healthcare system provided by the government was superior to traditional Hòa Hảo healing patterns.
Furthermore, apart from a major medical center, the authorities funded some large-scale irrigation projects in the area as well. The road network around the Hòa Hảo Holy Land improved significantly. Some new canals were also built there. As it was stated above, the authorities clearly aimed at winning over Hòa Hảo followers in exchange for some material benefits.
On the other hand, the Communist government undertook countless measures designed to restrict the religious and worship activities of the Hòa Hảo faithfuls. The most striking example was a ban imposed on the use of the words “Hòa Hảo Holy Land.” Moreover, Hòa Hảo village itself was officially rechristened as Phú Tân. Major religious ceremonies, such as the ceremony of the anniversary 18/5 of the founding of Hoa Hao Buddhist Faith, were banned and adepts were discouraged from visiting Hòa Hảo religious centers, notably the Hòa Hảo Holy Land. Those who endeavored to undertake a pilgrimage anyway were inevitably subjected to official mistreatment, harassment and arbitrary arrests. Obviously, the authorities did not want Hòa Hảo followers to remember their religious values and the founder of their religion.
This two-prong government policy with regard to the Hòa Hảo Buddhism was well reflected in official publications specifically prepared for an international audience. Notably, in 1984 a special booklet in French was dedicated to the social and economic development of the Mekong Delta. Le Delta du Mekong. Aspects Social et Économique. Etudes Vietnamiennes, Numéro spécial, Hanoi: 1984. It included an article by Đào Hưng entitled “Renovation at the Hòa Hảo sanctuary.” Not surprisingly, the author praised the revolutionary authorities for their alleged practice of “amnesty and pardon” although he conceded that some Hòa Hảo adepts had been fearful of an upcoming bloodbath in the wake of the Communist takeover.
It should be pointed out that Đào Hưng as well as other Communist propaganda officials repeatedly claimed that masses of Hòa Hảo followers were patriotic peasants who were allegedly brainwashed by “reactionary” dignitaries and some became religious fanatics. According to Communist agitators, the Hòa Hảo adherents opposed the Communist government because they were unable to separate the religious and political activities of the Hòa Hảo congregation. As can be seen, once again the Communists used their favorite tactics to divide leaders and the masses of their opponents. The idea was to eliminate the leaders and domesticate the masses. In the past, the Communists employed this course of action quite effectively.
Moreover, Đào Hưng alleged that, prior to 1975 the 20,000 population of the so-named by the Communists as Phú Tân district, originally was Hòa Hảo village, had lived in a permanent state of insecurity and fear. This particular allegation clearly contradicts numerous statements by domestic and foreign observers who indicated that An Giang and Châu Đốc provinces were South Vietnams safest areas during the war. It has been understood that the Hòa Hảo Holy Land was a particularly peaceful area since local people did not even bother to lock the doors of their houses. Allegations of insecurity in the Hòa Hảo areas before 1975 were supposed to underline the alleged achievements of the Communist authorities.
Since the early 1980s, Hanoi has been keen to convince international public opinion that the authorities pursued viable policies in the Hòa Hảo areas. Notably, in October 1983, the Vietnam Courier monthly ran an article entitled “Pilgrimage to Hòa Hảo land”. It was written in English by Nguyễn Khắc Viện who was regarded as a sort of informal spokesman of the Communist leadership on the matters of history and humanities. His writings in larger measure targeted an international audience, hence, Nguyễn Khắc Viện was well known among overseas scholars.
However, following earlier Communist propagandists, Nguyễn Khắc Viện claimed that the founder of the Hòa Hảo congregation opposed the construction of pagodas and lavish rituals while subsequent leaders of the community allegedly distorted the original teaching of Huỳnh Phú Sổ. “Dignitaries and military officers betrayed the founder of the Hòa Hảo Buddhism and sold themselves to the French and American imperialists,” the author alleged. In particular, Nguyễn Khắc Viện blamed the expansion of Hòa Hảo Buddhism for the failure of the Communist rebellion in 1940. He also accused the Hòa Hảo armed forces of having destroyed a number of Việt Minh bases and alleged that Hòa Hảo leaders received sizable cash stipends from US representatives. Notably, he alleged that the construction of the Hòa Hảo University was in fact underwritten by American taxpayers. However, the author provided little, if any, evidence to back up his allegations.
Nguyễn Khắc Viện has also claimed that two CIA agents “shaved their heads and became monks at the Hòa Hảo Holy Land.” It should be made clear that this particular statement was a clear distortion of truth, simply because the Hòa Hảo congregation does not have an institutionalized monastic community and Hòa Hảo followers do not shave their heads.
In order to allow a measure of objectivity, Nguyễn Khắc Viện acknowledged that peasants in Hòa Hảo areas were subject to mistreatment by certain corrupt bureaucrats. The author also conceded that the governments attempts to introduce large-scale state-owned agricultural estates in the south failed to entail any meaningful results.
Finally, it might be argued that numerous writings with regard to the Hòa Hảo Buddhism by the Communists propaganda officials, notably articles by Đạo Hưng and Nguyễn Khắc Viện, sounded similar in terms of style, presentation and some concrete details. Moreover, one could argue that all of these articles, in fact, originated from a single source. Arguably, these publications were part of a concerted propaganda action designed to distort Hòa Hảo history.