Authorities in Vietnam have initiated a campaign that would limit the length and scale of traditional funerals, but ethnic minority rights advocates say that the plan unfairly targets the country’s Hmong minority, known for holding wakes that last several days to a week.
The campaign, loosely translated as “Improving the Civilized Funeral” was announced in local media on October 9. Its aim is “to create awareness among the people about changing or eliminating old customs and practices in funerals, and to contribute to building a healthy and civilized cultural environment, while consolidating solidarity among the people, stabilizing security and order, increasing confidence of the people in the [Communist] Party and the State,” state media reported.
According to a report published in the local Ha Giang newspaper, authorities in Ha Giang province’s Meo Vac district said that under the campaign, Hmong funerals would be limited in several ways and long-running funerary feasts would be scaled back.
Meanwhile, the number of buffaloes and cows slaughtered would be limited because the practice is prohibitively expensive and disturbs day to day life in residential communities, the authorities said.
In addition, the practice of burning fake money and throwing votive paper on the road during funeral processions would also face new restrictions.
Finally, the campaign will also limit the amount of time that a corpse can remain unburied, authorities said.
Rights group concerned
Following the project’s announcement the Vietnam Pioneer Network, a local organization that advocates for the rights of ethnic minorities, sent an open letter to the Party Committee and Ha Giang authorities warning them that the policy would limit the community and that the government would be invading into the private affairs of minority citizens.
The also pointed out that the campaign’s announcement made many incorrect assumptions, saying that the lengthy funerals do not impoverish relatives of the deceased.
In the open letter, the Vietnam Pioneer Network urged district authorities “to respect cultural diversity, particularly the beliefs of the Hmong people, and ethnic minorities in general.”
“One should not impose the ‘civilization’ of one nation upon another,” the letter said.
“That can lead to division and disunity in the community as well as driving a wedge between people and the government,” it added.
Ma Pho, an ethnic Hmong member of the Vietnam Pioneer Network, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that the arguments against traditional funerals made by the campaign were not based on fact.
“They say that the slaughter of pigs is too expensive, and [forces mourners] into debt, leading to poverty, but that is simply not the truth,” he said.
“The whole community comes together to bring the pigs to help the family. The family doesn’t buy them on the market,” Ma added.
Ma also thought that mandating shorter times for funerals is also a mistake.
“That should depend on the [family] making the decisions about the funeral. According to the campaign, they are trying to make it so the funeral won’t exceed 48 hours,” he said, adding that Hmong funeral services must have a minimum of at least three days.
Pastor Hoa, another ethnic Hmong source, took issue with the campaign’s assertion that prolonged funerals lead to excessive crowds that could destabilize order and security.
“Funerals are supposed to be crowded,” he told RFA.
“If they are saying that the funerals would disturb public order, I would say that’s wrong because the family has lost a loved one. It’s only natural that they would need to gather in large numbers to help. [Family] solidarity cannot be mislabeled as disorder,” said Hoa.
But the pastor agreed with the campaign that an unburied corpse poses unnecessary health risks.
“If the funeral lasts several days then the body starts to rot and stink,” he said.
“If someone died of a [communicable] disease, [the authorities] are only concerned that it will spread to others,” he added.
Ma Pho said that the campaign deprives Hmong of their rights to cultural practices.
“Each ethnic group has its own rituals. Hmong are not the only people with a unique funerary tradition, so [the government] should not micromanage the cultural practices of ethnic minorities,” he said.
“I think they should revise the project and adjust it so it fits [our diverse society] better,” he added.
Reverend Hoa, meanwhile, speculated that the campaign was an excuse for the provincial project to restrict a particular religious group.
“As far as I know, in Ha Giang province there are many funeral houses [associated with] the Duong Van Minh religion,” he said.
The religion, which combines animism and ancestor worship has a funerary custom where bodies are hung in the family’s house for several days, which the government feared was unhygienic. They recommended that practitioners of the religion bring bodies to a common funeral house, and then bury the body within 24 hours after the family visits.
RFA contacted Hoang Duc Tien, head of the Ethnic Minority Committee in Ha Giang province, who said that the project was developed independently by Meo Vac district, without any knowledge of anyone at the provincial level. Hoang did not comment further.
Authorities have been known to raid Hmong funerals, where they have attacked mourners and detained religious leaders. In December 2013, police dispatched a unit to raid a Hmong funeral in Cao Bang province, arresting three for 'abusing democratic freedoms' under article 258 of the (former) Vietnamese Penal Code.
The Hmong ethnic people live in significant numbers in China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and the United States. Vietnam’s 2009 census reported that more than a million Hmong live in Vietnam.
Reported and translated by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.