Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Protestant Conversion and Social Conflict: The Case of the Hmong in Contemporary Vietnam

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Protestant Conversion and Social Conflict: The Case of the Hmong in Contemporary Vietnam

Article excerpt

One sunny day in late November (2004), during a visit to Windy Plateau, (1) I accidentally came across a crowd of nearly one hundred Hmong marching toward the local commune's People's Committee office nearby. Near the front of the crowd was a buffalo drawing a wooden cart in which sat a man whose hands had been tied behind his back. As the crowd came closer to the building, people became more and more excited. The wooden cart stopped in the front yard. Several young men came forward and dragged the bruised man out from the cart. They made him kneel in the yard, where people quickly encircled him. Somehow, I found myself standing close to the innermost circle, along with my Hmong assistant. A man who looked like a local official wormed his way through the crowd and halted right in front of us. Pointing his finger at the kneeling man, he shouted in Hmong: 'Talk! Confess your lies.' There was no response. The man shouted again several times and many others joined him. Still, there was no response. Keeping his eyes tightly shut, the kneeling man lowered his bruised face. His body trembled. Drops of sweat rolled down his temples. It was almost midday. The sun began to burn, but because of the plateau's altitude, the air was still cold. When the shouting died down a bit, an older man nearby pointed at the kneeling man and said, 'Yesterday he said Vaj Tswv is very powerful. He can protect anyone who follows him. Let's tie him tighter and see how his God can help him.' Right away, two young men came with another rope and tightened it around the man's arms closer to his elbows. The man bit his lower lip, but as the rope reached his elbows, his arms became seriously twisted, and he let out a scream. Tears ran down his cheeks as he cried out, 'I confess. I confess. I lied.'

As I gathered from my assistant's translation of the trembling confession, from members of the crowd, and from other local people, the kneeling man, whom I shall call Giang Seo Lu', was a Christian Hmong from Soil La province. He had arrived in Windy Plateau the previous day and stayed with a family of the Giang clan in the commune. From the moment he arrived, he had only talked to the family about Vaj Tswv and why they should all follow Vaj Tswv's way. Feeling that the family was listening to him, Giang Seo Lu' urged them to go and call on other families to spread his message. He also suggested that his host kill one of his chickens for their dinner. The family complied, but were not happy. The next morning, his host secretly sent his son to the commune's security officials, who quickly came to arrest Giang Seo Lu'. At first, they just kept him at his host's house and challenged him about the veracity of his claims about the New Way, Christianity. When Giang Seo LiY refused to back down, insisting on how powerful his Christian brothers and sisters were, not only in Vietnam but also abroad, he began to irritate the security officials, who started to beat him up. It was at that point that the head of the commune--the man who would later make his way through the crowd and demand that Giang confess --arrived and immediately stopped the beating. He ordered the others to bring Giang to the People's Committee office so that he could confess his lies in public.

This shocking incident in Windy Plateau was just the beginning of what I came to witness as the disturbing consequences of Protestant conversion among the Hmong community in Northern Vietnam. The conversion to Protestantism by hundreds of thousands of Hmong in Vietnam is perhaps the most striking of all the changes that have affected this ethnic group in the last few decades. This religious movement started in 1989 with a small number of Hmong Protestants, but rapidly spread; roughly one-third of a million Hmong now refer to themselves as Protestant, while the rest of the Hmong see themselves as 'traditional Hmong' (Hmoob uas kev lig kev cai). Crucially, despite the great importance of ethnic solidarity nurtured by virtually all Hmong people, conversion has ripped apart many families, clans, and communities. …

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