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Tue. October 22, 2019
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Religious Freedom in Southeast Asia
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By Sooyoung Hu

A diverse population inhabits the Philippines and Vietnam. Multiple regional and ethnic groups live in the Philippines and 54 different nationalities along with the Viet Kinh reside in Vietnam. Due to the countries’ diverse populations, they face challenges unifying everyone under a common, dominant religion. Some people practice a minority religion, which poses a problem for the government. The democratic constitution of the Philippines guarantees religious freedom. Hence, the government cannot control religion, and it accepts religions other than Christianity, the predominant religion. Religious organizations can even challenge the power of the government. When religious conflicts arise, the government deals with them through negotiations. However, when religion instigates serious security threats that destabilize the country, the Philippine government suppresses religious freedom. Unlike the efforts of the Philippines, in Vietnam, the Vietnamese Communist Party governs all religious practices. Religious freedom exists to an extent, but religion needs to remain private. It cannot have any influence on politics or defame the party in any way.  Thus, the Philippine government allows for more religious freedom than Vietnam’s; as a result, religion in the Philippines has a stronger influence on politics.

Religion is a powerful symbol that demonstrates the ability of religious minorities to reinforce their religious freedom and the willingness of the Philippine government to cooperate with religious minorities in order to maintain stability. After Ferdinand Marcos’s presidency, the Philippines moved closer to democracy through the establishment of the 1987 Democratic Constitution, which recognized people’s religious freedom (Lect, Mar.2). Thus, the government does not hold control over religion, and Philippines lacks government agencies that regulate religion (Pangalan 567). While the Philippines is a Christian country, religious minorities are free to practice any religion, which may lead to religious movements. When religious insurgencies occur, they are mediated through governmental negotiations. For instance, Fidel Ramos dealt with the Muslim rebellion in the South through concessions. Since he was unable to ban them from declaring separate religious rights, he granted them regional autonomy if they laid down their weapons (Ibid). Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) is a Muslim group fighting to secede from the Christian Philippines to create an independent state; Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is fighting to create an Islam state with a secular constitution, and Abu Sayyaf (ASG) is fighting to clear out all non-Muslims (Lect,Mar.9). The existence of such groups proves the government’s will to uphold citizens’ religious freedoms.

However, in response to the violent nature of religious insurgencies, the government uses the strategy of negotiation since it cannot simply ban their existence. The government allowed MNLF to adopt the autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in 1989 (Lect, Mar.9) in return for the end to rebellion. In addition, the government promoted interfaith efforts through the Bishops-Ulama Conference, a council of Christian and Muslim leaders that discuss conflict and peaceful resolution, and the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute, a peace building effort for the military and religious groups (Patterson 6). These integration programs advance security by motivating the government and military to increase their tolerance for other religions and encouraging soldiers to accommodate Muslim holidays or participate in religious traditions like fasting (Patterson 9). However, negotiation and peaceful efforts do not suffice in all circumstances.

In cases of internal security threats, the Philippine government represses religious freedom. ASG, a group with links to Al-Qaeda (Castro 406), led terrorist campaigns to purify and cleanse the country of non-Muslims, killing 116 people by bombing the 2004 Superferry 14 (Lect, Mar.9). In addition, MILF, allied with the Mangudadatu clan, fought against the Ampatuan clan that had Gloria Arroyo’s governmental support, which resulted in the killing of 58 people and 34 journalists (Ibid). As Muslim groups such as the ASG and MILF refused to cooperate with the government and stirred domestic unrest, Philippines worked with the United States to strengthen the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to neutralize internal security threats (Castro 402). The United States dispatched military personnel, provided electronic eavesdropping devices, and shared satellite imagery to track down Islamic radicals in Mindanao (Castro 417). According to the constitution, the Philippine government cannot forbid any type of religious practice. However, it took aggressive action and strengthened its counter insurgency capabilities when religious minorities terrorized citizens and threatened the country. The Philippine government has made efforts to uphold the constitutional value of religious freedom to the extent that religious minorities do not destabilize country’s security.

Furthermore, Filipino citizens use the power of religion to fight against the injustices of the government. Under the leadership of Cardinal Jaime Sin, people challenged the government. Cardinal Sin realized that religion held a separate power capable enough of standing up against Ferdinand Marcos, the authoritarian leader that prevented the successful democratization of the country (Lect, Feb.29). When Cardinal Sin made a radio appeal, asking citizens to go to a military camp and form a human buffer to protect rebel military leaders, the people went immediately because the majority of the Philippine population are Catholic, and faith is an abiding part of everyday life (Cawley & Reaves). Sin, with the support of the people, led an opposition movement known as the EDSA revolution to reinforce democracy and push Marcos out of power. It became the first people power movement that demonstrated the potential of collective religious power to challenge the government (Lect, Feb.29). Cardinal Sin was also a key figure in the People Power Uprising in 2001 that aimed to oust President Joseph Estrada (Pangalangan 560). However, the sole power of the people was not enough. The role of the church and Cardinal Sin’s moral leadership were pivotal. People power required the assistance of religion such as the church’s moral guidance to bring down a government (Thompson 238). In fact, the Roman Catholic clergy held a big role in Philippine politics. In addition to the influence of Cardinal Sin, a commission that included two Catholic priests and one Catholic nun drafted the 1987 Constitution (Pangalangan 560). These acts demonstrate religion’s power to challenge the government and its ability to contribute to the shaping of politics.

Contrary to the Philippines in which the democratic government has to ensure religious freedom and face religion’s strong influence on politics, Vietnam is significantly different. Vietnam is a one-party Communist state with a government that dominates religious institutions (Chenoweth). Although people have religious freedom, religion has to remain private. It cannot influence politics in any way, be the basis of a protest, or question political authority (Marston 177), which renders events such as the EDSA Revolution and Muslim rebellions in the Philippines impossible and illegal. Vietnam harshly suppresses religious groups believed to be a threat. Vietnam’s Office of Religious Affairs governs all religious practices by regulating their use of property and requiring each organization to register with authorities (Ibid). Due to the government’s socialist principles, it forbids dissent once the party leadership has made a decision. The party sees individual rights as having to promote party interests (Bui 78). Individual rights are set aside, priority is given to the party, religious freedom is restricted, and religion cannot have an impact on politics.

Since the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) owns the means of production and establishes itself as the “sole repository of nationalist authority” (Morris-Jung 411), it justifies the confiscation of property. In 1997, local officials expropriated land from the Vietnam Catholic Church for personal gains, but people could not protest because religion needed to remain private (Lect, Mar.4). However, as the government continued to confiscate land and send the church to the outskirts, protests occurred in 2008, and religious dissidents were arrested for disturbing national unity (Ibid). The VCP eliminated anyone or anything that questioned its motives. The government often singled out minority Christian leaders, who are culturally and ethnically distinct, for confiscation of their land (Human Rights Watch). Vietnam has further increased repression of indigenous minority Christians in the country’s central Highlands by closing small churches and arresting worshippers. The hill tribe minorities, or Montagnards, that practice Dega Protestantism- a form of Christianity that encouraged aspirations for independence and cultural pride (Human Rights Watch)- faced harsh persecution because they engaged in illegal actions by worshipping secretly in informal settings such as house churches (Mydans). Since the Montagnards developed their own religious identity in defiance to the ruling of the party, suspicion against the Protestants in the region increased (Human Rights Watch) because all religious groups had to register with the government and operate under approved guidelines (Ibid). Consequently, the Vietnamese government believed that the Montagnards used religion to incite unrest.

Furthermore, the regime’s campaign of violence continued against the Hmong Christians as the Vietnamese forces killed and arrested over 75 ethnic Hmong Christians and destroyed churches (Benge). Government backed police officers destroyed property of unauthorized groups and imprisoned members on charges of violating national security (Mydans). Under the legal threat of imprisonment and death, Christians were constantly subject to official pressure to abandon their religion. Although the government’s 1999 decree on religion purported to guarantee religious freedom, the government regulated religious organizations by requiring them to seek government approval as to whom they appointed as their religious leader and punishing members that opposed the party (Human Rights Watch). The fact that the government monitored and suppressed religious practices dissatisfied minority Christians who believed that it disrespected their religious freedom while government officials considered the identity and actions of minority Christians to be political subversion.

In addition to the suppression of religious minorities, Buddhist followers also experienced oppression from the government. Despite Buddhism being the dominant religion, the ruling Communist Party reacted harshly when religion and politics mixed, particularly when a religion drew a large mass following in which people admired a religious leader more than the party. After the government increased its tolerance and allowed the opening of a meditation center in Bat Nha because of profits that could be derived from tourism (Lect, Apr.6), Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist practitioner returned to Vietnam in 2005 (Lect, Apr. 6) after 39 years in exile (Giang). He made peoples’ daily lives a spiritual journey guided by Buddhist principles. Soon, the Vietnamese people began to perceive Hanh as a spiritual god and listened to his every word, causing them to seek alternative sources other than the VCP. To prevent the weakening of VCP’s power, the government intervened violently in 2009 to shut down the meditation center to limit the number of followers (Lect, Apr.6).  The police forced Hanh’s followers out of the Bat Nha monastery and evicted 150 monks (Human Rights Watch). Although the government initially approved of Hanh’s entry, the creation of the Bat Nha Monastery, and Buddhist practices, once the influence of Hanh surpassed the popularity of the VCP, the government quickly shut down it down to prevent the rise of religious power because it threatened the party’s solidarity.

In conclusion, although both the Philippines and Vietnam claim to provide religious freedom, the Philippine government provides more religious freedom because it does not restrict the formation of religious minorities such as the Muslims in the South. In fact, people in the Philippines use the power of the Catholic Church to have a political voice and challenge the government. The government only intervenes aggressively to contain religious freedom when religious groups pose a threat and destabilize the country’s internal security. On the other hand, in Vietnam, people can practice religion, but they cannot use it to sway politics or any external event. It needs to remain private. In order to eliminate the possibility of any kind of party opposition, the Vietnamese Communist Party regulates religious freedom by ensuring that the government approves all religious organizations and their religious leaders

Sooyoung Hu is currently a senior at UC Berkeley studying Political Science and Peace and Conflict Studies. Her focus is on international relations and therefore, is interested in learning about the politics and cultures of different countries and making comparisons. In the future, she aspires to go to law school.     


Works Cited 

Benge, Michael. “Vietnam’s Two-Front War on Religion.” American Thinker. 22 July 2012. Web. Accessed 5 May 2016

Bui, Thiem H. “Deconstructing the “Socialist” Rule of Law in Vietnam: The Changing Discourse on Human Rights in Vietnam’s Constitutional Reform Process.”Contemporary Southeast Asia 36:1, 2014.

Castro, Renato. “The US-Philippine Alliance: An Evolving Hedge against an Emerging China Challenge. Contemporary Southeast Asia. 2009

Cawley, Janet and Joseph A. Reaves “Guns Fell to Rosaries in Philippine Revolution.”ChicagoTribune. 28 February 1986. Web. Accessed 5 May 2016.

Chenoweth, Eric. “Freedom of Religion: Country Studies-Vietnam.” Democracy Web: Comparative Studies in Freedom. 2010. Web. Accessed 5 May 2016.

Giang, Nguyen. “Religious tensions mounts in Vietnam.” BBC News. 30 September 2009. Web. Accessed 5 May 2016.

Human Rights Watch. Repression Of Montagnards: Conflicts over Land and Religion in Vietnam's Central Highlands, 23 April 2002. Web. Accessed 5 May 2016.

Marston, Hunter. “Bauxite Mining in Vietnam’s Central Highlands: An Arena for Expanding Civil Society.” Contemporary Southeast Asia 34:2, 2012.

Morris-Jung, Jason. “Vietnam’s Online Petition Movement.” Southeast Asian Affairs, 2015.

Mydans, Seth. “Vietnam Persecutes Christian Minority, Report Says. The New York Times. 31 March 2011. Web. Accessed 5 May 2016.

Pangalangan, Raul C. “Religion and the Secular State: National Report for the Philippines.” International Center for Law and Religion Studies. Web. Accessed 5 May 2016.

Patterson, Eric. “The Philippines: Religious Conflict Resolution in Mindanao.” Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Georgetown University. August 2013. Web. Accessed 5 May 2016.

Thompson, Mark R. “Populism and the Revival of Reform: Competing Political Narratives in the Philippines.” Contemporary Southeast Asia 32:1, 2010.


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