Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Vietnamese Party-State and Religious Pluralism since 1986: Building the Fatherland?

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Vietnamese Party-State and Religious Pluralism since 1986: Building the Fatherland?

Article excerpt

Over the last thirty years, since the reunification of modern Vietnam, Vietnamese religious policies have experienced tremendous changes. Thirty years ago, under a strict socialist approach inspired by Marxist-Leninist views, religions were widely seen as one of the expressions of class struggle, fated to progressively disappear from the public sphere with the implementation of the socialist political and socio-economic agenda. Though religious expressions were not banned, they were far from being encouraged, and religious activities in the public realm were closely monitored. This approach prevailed in the North from 1954 and during the American War and was implemented in the South after 1975 and reunification. It prevailed at least until the late 1980s, even after the launch of the doi moi policy in 1986. (1) Subsequently, cult places were less attended and religious practices had a tendency to dwindle.

Nowadays, in vivid contrast, Vietnamese religious institutions are regularly praised in the public sphere by political leaders for their achievements and their contribution to the national project, "building the fatherland" (xay dung to quoc). The deep and rapid transformations experienced by the Vietnamese economy and society under the doi moi have also touched the religious sphere, particularly through the redefinition of the relation between religions and the state or the party-state. In parallel, pagodas, temples, and churches have recovered their crowds and prestige.

Although some religions look more "Vietnamese" than others, and therefore are more deeply rooted in Vietnamese daily life and mental representations, all have been subject to the same evolutions over the last thirty years, though with various intensities, depending on the characteristics of each religious trend. This includes the main institutional religions (Buddhist and Christian cults) as well as more local and traditional cults or "superstitious" practices. The latter being clearly fought by communist cadres in charge of implementing revolutionary socio-economic reforms.

The new, positive discourse of the party-state on religions is still accompanied by a strong will to keep close control over all religious activities. Organized cults have to go through a process of official recognition before gaining any legal existence (2)--which grants them the legal guarantees provided by the increasingly sophisticated legal framework developed since the early 1990s. The current approach nonetheless stands far from the Leninist approach of religious affairs: from strictly private, religion has become a matter of public interest, with political leaders participating in religious festivals on behalf of the state, and religious institutions being recognized for a lasting contribution in "building the fatherland".

How can we explain the stronger commitment of the party-state to both manage religious activities and praise the achievements of religious institutions? To what extent does the new approach of the party-state include a co-optation of religious attitudes at the state level? Finally, what does the desire of the party-state to firmly control public religious expressions and religious institutions reveal about the relations between the religious and the political spheres in dai moi Vietnam?

A Redefinition of the State-Religions' Relationship

The first major step of the redefinition of the relationship between the state and religions occurred in 1990, with the decisive reconsideration of the official approach to religious issues. Whereas religion was until then considered from a Marxist-Leninist point of view, the twenty-fourth resolution of the Sixth Congress of the VCP (Vietnamese Communist Party), adopted on 16 October by the newly elected Politburo, states:

Belief and religion are spiritual needs of a segment of the population. Those needs currently exist and will continue to co-exist with the nation during the process of building socialism in Vietnam. …

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