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Coercive marriage
Thursday,  12/27/2018, 20:50 

Coercive marriage

By Son Nguyen

It may have gone almost unnoticed, when grassroots authorities in a hinterland area announced last week that from now on, H’mong ethnic people in Pa Co Commune in Hoa Binh Province’s Mai Chau District will forgo their traditional New Year celebrations and enjoy the Lunar New Year or Tet with Kinh people. The move, though limited to just a few villages in the region, looks like a coercive marriage that should ring an alarm bell.

In Document 30/TB-UBND dated December 18, 2018, Chairman of Pa Co Commune Sung A Mang states that from this forthcoming Lunar New Year, the traditional Tet of H’mong people in the region will be combined with the Lunar New Year, instead of being celebrated separately. The integration was decided following a consultation between H’mong ethnic people from four adjacent communes, Long Luong and Van Ho of Son La Province’s Van Ho District, and Pa Co and Hang Kia of Hoa Binh Province’s Mai Chau District, according to Vnexpress.net. The communal chairman says that most of the H’mong people approved of the cultural merger.

To begin with, the H’mong Tet, or New Year, normally falls in the final days of the calendar year. The H’mong people calculate the start of the year according to the moon revolving cycle and the main rice crop. After the harvest comes the New Year, when H’mong people normally have some 20 days for Tet, during which they clean the house, make offerings to ancestors, visit relatives, and take part in festivities. Women will be relieved of all housework, and the Tet holiday is also the start of the wedding season, according to Tien Phong.

In his explanations to reporters, Chairman of Pa Co Commune Sung A Mang said that the approval was an overwhelming 95%, while the remaining 5% disapproval fell among ill-bred folks, those who are either illiterate or have no children at school, according to HCMC-based Phu Nu Online. He furthers that the integration helps children have more time for study, while prolonged celebrations from two Tet holidays also affect economic activity.

However, it is doubtful whether the high consensus of 95% is credible. Phu Nu Online raises the question if all people from the four communes were polled, or if it was conducted among just a small group and thus not representative enough.

Such an announcement stuns cultural preservation experts, say the local media.

The merger of the two Tet holidays, however, is not supported by culture authorities and researchers alike, according to Thanh Nien.

Nguyen Van Huy, former director of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, says in the newspaper that the merger is unwise. “The traditional New Year of each ethnic group is a type of intangible heritage; it is a peculiar tradition belonging in each ethnic group and should be preserved,” he is quoted by the paper. If traditional values of ethnic groups are gradually relinquished, then the special cultural identities of such groups would be dismissed.

An official from Son La Province’s culture sector also rejects the intention, saying “our view is to preserve traditions. Celebrating both H’mong New Year and Lunar New Year is all the better. I’ve also heard that many H’mong people do not support this plan.”

Ninh Thi Thu Huong, head of the Locality Culture Bureau under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, says in Thanh Nien that her bureau has asked provincial culture departments to work with grassroots authorities and the people to find out why such a merger was born, and “if the people do not support such a plan, the culture sector will work with local governments in ways to preserve the traditional Tet holiday of the ethnic group.”

Given the reactions from authorities, Phu Nu Online says that it seems grassroots authorities have not consulted with experts and relevant agencies in the cultural sector before coming to such a decision.

Bui Trong Hien, a researcher of cultural issues, says on Phu Nu Online that there should have been a more sensible approach to the special ethnic culture and the subjects of such a culture. “It is regrettable if authorities forced the people to relinquish their traditional Tet, which shows the lack of respect for the cultural identity of the ethnic group and goes against the country’s goal of preserving national intangible heritage,” he is quoted by the news outlet.

Mai Thanh Son of the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences criticizes the move, saying in Thanh Nien that “this document (on merging Tet holidays) infringes international conventions on cultural rights, cultural diversity and protection of intangible cultural heritage of UNESCO that Vietnam has signed.” It also grossly violates the Law on Cultural Heritage passed by the National Assembly in 2001, as “the traditional Tet of H’mong people apparently falls in the category of cultural values protected by the law.”

In fact, the traditional Tet of H’mong people has been recognized as national cultural heritage by the Ministry of Culture, according to Dan Tri. A solemn ceremony was organized on December 16, 2015 in Dien Bien Province, where the ministry handed over a certificate in recognition of the H’mong New Year, which is said to be a time for reunion when family members are gathered to review and share experiences after a year of labor. It is also a time for the people to express gratitude to ancestors and the gods for giving them a year of bumper crops and good health.

On Vnexpress.net, vice chair of the Vietnam Folklore Culture Tran Huu Son notes that the idea to encourage ethnic groups to abolish their traditional new year celebrations and promote the single Lunar New Year has been floated for years, but such a movement is not suitable and goes against the viewpoint of UNESCO, which calls for respecting cultural diversity.

In an interview with Phu Nu Online, Nguyen Hoai Nam, a researcher at the Vietnam Cultural Heritage Society, says that it is the mandate of authorities to protect traditional values that are on the verge of oblivion, as it is the cultural identity that tells a people from the other. 

In the process of international integration, cultural identities must stand, according to Nam. “Many people sometimes forget that culture cannot be integrated, because it is the life of peculiar ethnic groups conditioned by different natural geological aspects, livelihoods and religions, and accordingly their peculiar rituals and ceremonies,” he says in the media outlet.

The coercive marriage of different cultures, while eradicating cultural traits of certain vulnerable groups, can hardly bring happiness or enjoyment for the relevant parties. The overwhelming approval, as stated by the chairman of Pa Ko Commune, can be likened to a lavender marriage where the spouses have to pretend their approval, but from the innermost of their hearts, they may feel their own values or merits broken.

“Those who advocate such blending and merging are in fact destroying the culture,” Nam asserts on Phu Nu Online.

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