After 6 years in prison, Vietnam frees father and son adherents of Buddhist group

Vietnamese authorities have released two family members belonging to an unofficial branch of the Hoa Hao Buddhist community after serving six-year prison sentences for disrupting public order during a confrontation with authorities at their home.

Bui Van Trung, 62, and his son, Bui Van Tham, 36, were convicted in February 2018 in the country’s An Giang province.

Vietnam’s government officially recognizes the Hoa Hao religion, which has some 2 million followers across the country, but imposes harsh controls on dissenting Hoa Hao groups, including the sect in An Giang province, that do not follow the state-sanctioned branch.

Rights groups say that authorities in An Giang routinely harass followers of the unapproved groups, prohibiting public readings of the Hoa Hao founder’s writings and discouraging worshipers from visiting Hoa Hao pagodas in An Giang and other provinces.

Trung, also known as Ut Trung and leads the Ut Trung Home Church, had been held at An Phuoc Prison in southern Vietnam’s Binh Duong province, but was transferred to Cho Ray Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City earlier this month for colon cancer treatment. Than served his sentence at Xuyen Moc Prison in Ba Ria-Vung Tau province, also in the south.

The pair returned to their home in An Giang’s Phuoc Hoa village on Monday.

Trung appeared “very weak” on his release from Cho Ray Hospital as he was still in recovery from an emergency operation to remove a tumor in his large intestine, an Ut Trung Home Church follower and former prisoner of conscience who identified himself as Nam told RFA Vietnamese.

Trung’s daughter Bui Thi Bich Tuyen, was also convicted in 2018 and handed a three-year term; she has since been freed. His wife, Le Thi Hen, was given a two-year suspended sentence at the time because she was suffering from an illness.

Deteriorating health

Nam said Trung’s tumor was discovered in mid-2022, but prison authorities did not allow him to seek treatment until it became significantly worse. A doctor who examined Trung as his jail term came to an end convinced the warden of An Phuoc Prison that he was in need of an urgent surgical procedure and that he should be transferred to Cho Ray.

“If he had received timely treatment, his health wouldn’t have become that bad,” he said. “As they wanted to harm Hoa Hao Buddhism adherents, the prison did not send him to the hospital [right away].”

A pagoda belonging to an unofficial branch of the Hoa Hao Buddhist community in An Giang province, Vietnam, is seen in this undated photo. Credit: Nam Nguyen Hoang Facebook
According to Nam, prison authorities wanted to send Trung back to prison after his surgery, but allowed him to recover in the hospital after his family members protested.

Once he has fully recovered from the procedure, Trung will need to undergo chemotherapy treatment for his cancer, he said.

On  April 18, 2017, traffic police accompanied by unidentified men in civilian clothes stopped Hoa Hao Buddhists going to the Bui family’s home to observe the death anniversary of a friend, confiscating motorbikes and registration papers, family members told RFA in earlier reports.

Several motorbikes were seized even though their owners presented papers proving proper registration, Bui Van Trung’s daughter Bui Thich Tuyen told RFA at the time.

Two months later, on June 26, 2017, Trung and his son Tham were arrested by security officials and unidentified civilians while returning from a visit to a neighboring commune.

This is not the first time Trung and Tham were jailed because of their beliefs.

In 2012, the father and son were convicted of “resisting officers on official duty” after promoting religious freedom and refusing to join the officially sanctioned Hoa Hao Buddhist Sangha, and sentenced to four and two years in prison, respectively.

Translated by Anna Vu. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.


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