Vietnam's Ethnic and Religious Minorities:

A Historical Perspective

by Jörg Thomas Engelbert (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 230 Pages


The book deals with Vietnam’s ethnic and religious minorities in a historical perspective. The time frame stretches from the pre-colonial era to contemporary times. Except for one paper on the situation of the Vietnam-China border area, the authors focus on South or Southern Central Vietnam. The Chinese, the Cham and the Bahnar represent three different categories of ethnic minorities: the so-called Foreign Asians, the highly developed nationalities and the former tribal populations, who once lived at the margins. The Vietnamese and Highland Catholics as well as the French Protestants are two prominent religious minorities. The aim of this book is to contribute to a discussion about common features, categories and tasks, which transcend regional, ethnic or religious particularities and the familiar lowland-highland divide.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Editor’s Preface
  • Introduction to the Topic
  • Saigon’s Rice Exports and Chinese Rice Merchants from Hong Kong, 1870s–1920s
  • Violence against Chinese Minorities in Vietnam and Indonesia (1945–1949): China’s Diplomatic Response
  • Catholic Missionaries in the Indochinese Highlands: The First Period (1850–1893)
  • The French-Speaking Reformed Church, a Neglected Source of Protestantism in Vietnam: Observations on the Origins of a Minority Religion
  • The Vietnamese Catholics, Nation State and National Identity: Some Reflections on the State of a Religious Minority
  • The Cham Diaspora in Southeast Asia: Patterns of Historical, Political, Social and Economic Development
  • Neighbourhood Bargains: Small-scale Trade and Mutual Perceptions at the Vietnam-China Border
  • Summaries
  • The Authors

← 6 | 7 →

Editor’s Preface

Four years have passed quickly … In June 2012, researchers from Germany, France, Russia and Australia met with each other in Hamburg to discuss the relationship between ethnic and religious minorities against the background of Vietnam’s history. At that time, the motto was: Are there lessons from history? The discussion soon went beyond that motto, if and how something could be learned from Vietnamese history and who would be the teacher or the student. The complexity of this topic soon led to the conclusion, that a case-by-case treatment was necessary. However, from the sum of the empirical evidence, certain preliminary conclusions can already be drawn, which are debated in the introduction.

Now, after a process of intensive discussion, careful reflexion and extensive revision, the results of the individual research will be presented here. Seven authors have developed their ideas, using historical and anthropological methods.

Li Tana wrote a fascinating contribution on the connections between Chinese merchants in Saigon and Hong Kong, which shows the close relationship and interdependence of both trading places during the late 19th century. The Chinese minority (Hoa) in Southern Vietnam, the majority population of Hong Kong and China, established this link.

Mary Somers Heidhues compared the situation of the Chinese minority in Indonesia and Vietnam during the War of Liberation against the colonial powers, the Netherlands and France. The special focus is on the interaction between the local Chinese, National and Communist China, the Southeast Asian liberation movements and the colonial authorities.

Thomas Engelbert wrote about the first period of Catholic missioning in the Southern Central Vietnamese highlands. There were factors, which favoured and disfavoured the mission among the different highland peoples.

Pascal Bourdeaux presented a so-far widely neglected topic: the French Reformed Church as a source of Protestantism in Vietnam. Protestantism started in Indochina well before American evangelists extended their activities from Hong Kong to Indochina (notably to its Vietnamese parts) in 1911. ← 7 | 8 →

Trần Thị Liên wrote about the many-layered and many-faceted relations between Vietnamese Catholics and the nation state. She also explored, what the term minority means for the Catholics.

Nicolas Weber has developed a fascinating panorama of the Cham networks in Vietnam, Southeast and East Asia from the ancient times until the present. Despite the harsh assimilation policies of Vietnamese dynasties, the Cham continued to live in their old homeland that had become a part of Vietnam. They had to preserve their language and culture in a hostile environment. In the same time, they continued to develop far-reaching networks with Cambodia, the Malay world and beyond.

Kirsten W. Endres described the small-scale bargain, trade and other relations at the Vietnam-China border. Traditional and new mutual perceptions develop in a process of dynamic interaction.

Except for Kirsten W. Endres, the focus of the other five authors had been the South respectively Southern Central Vietnam. It seemed to be desirable, but could not fulfilled yet, to present examples from the South, the Centre and the North, from the lowlands and from the highlands, from the city and from the countryside. At least the Chinese, the Cham and the Bahnar are ethnic minorities who represent three different categories of ethnic minorities: the so-called Foreign Asians, the highly developed nationalities and the former tribal populations, who once lived at the margins. The Catholics and French Protestants are two prominent religious minorities. A challenge for future discussion will be, to ascertain common features, categories and tasks, which transcend regional, ethnic or religious particularities and the all too well known lowland-highland divide. More research is needed to be carried out by representatives of the minorities as well, not only about them.

The Editor would like to express his deep gratitude to the authors and to the technical staff, which made this publication possible.

The Editor

← 8 | 9 →

Thomas Engelbert

Introduction to the Topic

What is a minority? Pascal Bourdeaux has remarked that in contemporary western democracies, the concept of minority is normally used to qualify very diverse social and political phenomena. According to his explanation, the background of these phenomena called minorities is either for a social group to emancipate themselves, to protest against something, or to make statements based on the claim to a legitimate right to be different, to the right to individual freedom and perhaps even to citizens’ equality. In societies like Vietnam, for instance that have not experienced such claims, which he qualifies as “modern or even postmodern”, this concept of a minority refers first of all to the difference between majority and minorities within one people. At first this expression was used especially to refer to ethnic minorities but later also to religious groupings.1

Trần Thị Liên mentions three different kinds of minorities: ethnic, linguistic and religious. She also thinks that the purely numerical relationship of a group towards a majority alone does not yet constitute a minority. It can only be described as such if the state determines it as a minority, hence changing it from a numerical to distinct social group. State power is, according to her analysis, actively reinforcing diversity through such policies as fostering suspicion, segregation or prejudice. We might add to this thought that toleration, acceptance and even promotion can also be granted by a state which is ethnically or religiously controlled by representatives of a majority. What seems particularly important is her statement that the Catholic minority must be examined against the background of successive political regimes in Vietnam. The Catholics should not be taken as a homogenous block.2 This is an important statement. It can also be regarded as applicable to any other ethnic or religious minority and for the majority population as well. The question remains: is the state responsible for “creating” minorities or do these groups have a choice of their own or a word to say in this process? ← 9 | 10 →

Freedom from Discrimination

There seems to be no valid or universally accepted general definition of the term minority, although it is widely used in multilateral conventions, bilateral treaties and resolutions of international organisations. Sometimes the term is used interchangeably with ethnic or national group, sometimes “racial” differences are described, for instance with the euphemistic Canadian term of “visible minorities” for the country’s non-white population.3 Sociologically, the difference between a “social minority” and a “social group” is in the acknowledgement that there is a social majority imbued with power in society and law. Therefore, beside ethnic or racial minorities, sociology also deals with religious, gender, sexual, age and political minorities as well as with disabled people. The main characteristic is in this regard the differentiation between dominance and subordination. It is not primarily a numerical question.4 Under this perspective, social minorities can be numerically large, like the Muslims, Christians and lower cast ← 10 | 11 → Hindus in India, and even be larger than majorities, like for instance the Black and Coloured majority populations under South African Apartheid rule. With such a wide understanding of the term minority, there are quite a few important other terms that are relevant for its more precise description: power, discrimination, segregation, social mobility, hierarchies, competition, pluralism, assimilation, and acculturation, but also esteem and prestige, affiliated with social positions.5

Some of these terms, like power, discrimination or assimilation are widely used in the discussion of topics related to the social groups described in this book: national, cultural, ethnic and religious minorities.

A second main characteristic of minorities in general is the complicated and contested term identity, generally understood as the feeling of selfhood and of belonging to a certain social group. This term has been used to refer to the psychological mechanisms of dominance, subordination and discrimination in social groups. The meaning and content of this term, which originated in philosophy and psychology to enter the social sciences, has given rise to much debate in the last four decades.6

Another aspect is legal. It has been acknowledged by specialists on international law that the protection of minorities has not easily become an agenda of the United Nations. The Commission of Human Rights was founded as early as in 1946. In the following decades, the term minority was discussed and scrutinised again and again by a Working Group of specialists. The main controversy in these decades was between countries with strong immigrant populations on the one hand, which openly favoured policies aimed at assimilation and ethnic homogenisation, and the so-called Old World, which ← 11 | 12 → consisted primarily of the majority of European states and included also some of their former colonies. They defended the protection of group identities. The compromise formula was a ban on discrimination of individuals on any ground, such as colour, sex, language, religion, political opinion, social or national origin, property, birth or other status. This elaborate formula of the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights became the basis for Article 26 of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Persons Belonging to Ethnic, Religious and Cultural Minorities (1992).7 The elaboration of this 1992 declaration lasted for ten years. The country that finally introduced the document to the UN was then itself already in the process of dissolution: Yugoslavia.8

After the adoption of this 1992 UN Declaration, which can be regarded as a watershed in the codification and internationalisation of minority protection, the Commission of Human Rights formed a Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in 1994. In 1999, the Sub-Commission’s name was changed to become the Sub-Commission for the Promotion of Human Rights, which is since 2006 under the authority of the United Nations Human Rights Council. In 2007, the Working Group was dissolved and re-appeared as the Forum on Minority Issues. It convenes for two days per year and promotes dialogue on minority issues. It has been stressed that the Working Group has left little tangible legacy so far. The Forum’s activities inspire even less hope for the future.9

If we follow these unassertive developments, we might be tempted to conclude that minority protection has often been concealed, after 1945, under the cover of general human rights and protection against any kind of discrimination – with a short hiatus in the early 1990s, when in Europe the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia collapsed and violent conflicts threatened to emerge between their successor states. Just before the 1994 genocide, the Rwandan government reported to the United Human Rights Committee that there existed no ethnic minorities in this country.10 ← 12 | 13 →

Hurst Hannum is of a slightly different opinion. His judgement is both cautious and positive. First, he correctly stresses the compromise character of UN declarations, which always leads to general terms and circumscriptions in the wording of resolutions. Second, there is the purely promotional role of UN institutions when dealing with implementation. None of these above mentioned UN resolutions or working bodies entails legally binding rights and law-enforcing institutions. Unlike the situation in Europe, there is no international human rights court (yet), where breaches can be dealt with. The task of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights is not to protect human rights when they are violated, but rather to promote so-called best practice and to find solutions for the settlement of conflicts. By the very nature of the UN proceedings, the organisation has a mediating, rather than a judicial role. However, both the UN and European institutions like the OSCE and the Council of Europe have, in Hannum’s view, done an impressive job in norm creation. Today these norms form an essential part of international human rights law. But, not unlike human rights law in general, these norms alone are unable to solve each and every political, social or cultural problem or conflict in very different societies, not to speak of the lack of international law enforcement. However, they offer basic principles and norms against discrimination, exclusion or marginalisation of social groups. Different solutions regarding the domestic management of diversity are acceptable, as long as fundamental human rights are not violated.11

There are indeed results of this norm creation which should not be disregarded. One major achievement is the two definitions of minorities issued by the UN Sub-Commission for the Protection of Human Rights. They have found wide distribution and considerable acceptance among both researchers and specialists on human rights. These were the definitions of Francesco Capotorti (1977) and Jules Deschênes (1982).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2016. 230 pp., 1 b/w ill., 3 tables

Biographical notes

Jörg Thomas Engelbert (Volume editor)

Thomas Engelbert is Professor for Vietnamese Language and Culture at the University of Hamburg. His research focus is on the South, especially on majority-minority relations.


Title: Vietnam's Ethnic and Religious Minorities: