INTERVIEW: Vietnam’s oppression of the Protestant H’mong people

Vang Duc Son fled to Thailand, then the U.S. after being targeted for his religious beliefs.

By RFA Vietnamese2024.01.31

Vang Duc Son suffered years of harassment in Vietnam due to his beliefs as a Protestant in Dien Bien province. He was arrested and denied identification papers by the government but continued to fight for the rights of the ethnic H’mong people.

In May 2011, Son took part in a protest against government land seizures and had to flee Vietnam after being detained by the police.

He went to Thailand before finally settling in the United States with his family and continues to speak out about persecution in Vietnam. Radio Free Asia’s Cao Nguyen caught up with him at the 2024 International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington.

Cao Nguyen: Before you settled in the United States in September 2023, you lived in Thailand. Could you please share the reason why you left Vietnam for Thailand?

Vang Duc Son: The reason I left my homeland, Vietnam, and why I had to run away to seek asylum, is because I am a preacher in the church. I have been oppressed and arrested many times by the government and police because I am a preacher, in charge of a group of small churches in Vietnam.

Cao Nguyen: In Vietnam there are many Protestants. Why do you think other people who also follow Protestantism are not persecuted, while you, also a Protestant, are persecuted?

Vang Duc Son: There are many people who are group leaders and they are not oppressed. I was persecuted more severely because I often spoke to the authorities about the religious law. Since 2004, the government has had a directive on religion. I told the government about it many times when I was arrested but they said we were violating it.

Because we are H’mong people we read the Bible in the H’mong language. That’s why the government accused us of using illegal documents, because in Vietnam, the government does not allow the Bible to be printed in H’mong.

Cao Nguyen: Did the government issue identification papers for you and your family?

Vang Duc Son: I was 30 years old in 2006, when I was in Vietnam. I asked for an ID card but I don’t know why the commune police didn’t issue me one. They let the district police keep it. They told me that my photo was burned.

At that time, I was in a remote area … and I was a person who had been undocumented since childhood, so I didn’t see it as important.

In 2008, the district government started a training course to take the motorbike driver’s license exam, so I registered to take it. They told me that if I didn’t have an ID card, I couldn’t register, so I asked for a photo of my ID card.

When I went in to ask for the photo the policeman looked at my name and said you are Vang Duc Son, you don’t need to take another photo, your ID card is here … but he wouldn’t give it to me.

Living in Thailand

Cao Nguyen: In 2012, you left Vietnam for Thailand. What events led you to leave?

Vang Duc Son: In 2012, we were banned from religious activities by the government and we were also robbed of our land by the Muong Nhe district government for companies to plant rubber trees.

In May 2011, H’mong organizations and churches stood up to protest in Muong Nhe district … I felt like I should also speak up, so I went to the protests in Muong Nhe. Then the government arrested me, I couldn’t live in Vietnam and that’s why I ran to Thailand.

Cao Nguyen: Living in Thailand for more than a decade without documents, what was your family’s life like?

Vang Duc Son:  Life as a refugee in Thailand is very miserable. I couldn’t work because Thailand has not signed the refugee convention. 

The High Commissioner for Refugees is in Thailand but they could not protect me and the Thai police could arrest me whenever they wanted.

I couldn’t go to work. I had to work undercover. If I met a good employer, they would pay me, but if they were bad, I would work for a week and they would only pay me for three days, and I couldn’t say anything because I didn’t have any documents.

Cao Nguyen: How did you practice religion in Thailand?

Vang Duc Son: When I came to Thailand, I went to a Thai church group. In Thailand, there is religious freedom.

Cao Nguyen: After 11 years in exile, from 2012 until 2023, what do you consider to be the most difficult part of your refugee journey?

Cao Nguyen: The time of applying for asylum was the most difficult, because I was living illegally in someone else’s country, I couldn’t go out and earn a living and in Thailand, there is no refugee protection, so many people are arrested … and sent back to Vietnam. That is the most miserable thing.

Cao Nguyen: Why are you here today, attending this International Religious Freedom Summit?

Vang Duc Son: Because our fellow churches … are also being suppressed very strongly, very severely. I am also a civil society activist, writing reports on religious freedom from 2016 until now. I am here today because the brothers in the country are still not free.

Translated by RFA Vietnamese. Edited by Mike Firn and Taejun Kang.

 

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