Under Ngô Đình Diệms, the Hòa Hảo Buddhist community was a target of the government-sponsored smear campaign. Notably, in 1956 Tin Mới daily ran a series of offending articles aimed at the Hòa Hảo congregation and the founder of Hòa Hảo Buddhism. The followers viewed the publications as libels because the author, Mai Thế Quân, was widely believed to be a close associate of the Information Minister, Trần Chánh Thành.
Subsequently, Hòa Hảo followers raised funds and assigned Mai Văn Dậu, former head of the office of Huỳnh Phú Sổ, to file a libel suit against the Tin Mới daily. When a district court dismissed the suit, Mai Văn Dậu appealed to the Saigon High Court. Diệms brother, Ngô Đình Nhu summoned Huỳnh Công Bộ as well as Generals Nguyễn Giác Ngộ and Lâm Thành Nguyên to his office and warned the Hòa Hảo leaders to stay away from the court hearing.
Nonetheless, the Hòa Hảo Buddhist community represented by lawyers Hoàng Cơ Thụy and Vương Quang Nhường won the case. Judge Lý Bình Huê ordered Tin Mới daily to pay a symbolic fine of one dong while three leading dailies were to publish the courts ruling. Despite the rare legal victory, the incident indicated that the Hòa Hảo congregation had been subjected to mudslinging and harassment by the media of different regimes, from Ngô Đình Diệms First Republic to the current Communist government.
Backers of Ngô Đình Diệms regime have argued that the authorities never persecuted the religious minorities on the grounds the Constitution of the First Republic stated unequivocally the basic principle of equality for all religions in Vietnam, and there were no official restrictions imposed on any religious life.
However, in reality, constitutional rights were limited by a number of conditions. Notably, the notorious Decree No 10, or Dụ số 10, clearly represented inequality among religions. According to the Decree, all religions in Vietnam, except Catholicism, were viewed as associations and thus were allowed to operate only as associations. Article 44 of Decree No. 10 also exempted Catholicism from being subject to the Decree; hence, the Catholic religion had a special status in Vietnam.
Also, Article 7 of the Decree empowered the authorities to ban all activities of the Buddhist, Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo congregations or revoke their registration. Moreover, the government was allowed to assign officials or law enforcement officers to exercise direct control over the congregations (Articles 10 and 12) or to seize the property of the religious communities (Articles 24 and 28).
On the other hand, the Catholic congregation was not regulated by Decree No 10. Hence, the authorities had no right to control the activities or properties of the Catholic churches. Correspondingly, the Catholic congregation had a special preferential status in South Vietnam.
As a matter of fact, Decree No 10 was a by-product of the French neo-colonial rule as it was promulgated by Bảo Đại on March 6, 1950. As a head of an independent state, Ngô Đình Diệm has the power to annul the unfair Decree, a move which would have been instrumental in boosting the regimes popularity in the South. Nonetheless, Ngô Đình Diệm opted to retain the legislation, which gave Catholicism a special status at the expense of other religious communities.
Moreover, the land reform bill promulgated in 1957 specifically stipulated that the property of the Catholic Church was not regulated by this legislation. In other words, the land holdings of the Catholic congregation could not be nationalized and redistributed among rural cultivators.
Subsequently, the Catholic Church in South Vietnam remained in possession of sizable real estate. Therefore, members of the Catholic congregation were able to run an extended network of educational and social institutions. As a result, the Catholic community had superior propaganda and educational resources as compared to other religious congregations in South Vietnam.
The regime of Ngô Đình Diệm clearly favored followers of the Catholic religion. For instance, seven out of nine division commanders of the South Vietnamese Army were Catholics. Furthermore, 36 out of 47 province chiefs in the South were also Catholics. This is why many officials and officers asked to be converted to Catholic for their career advancement.
The government of Ngô Đình Diệm repeatedly claimed that its action against religious movements such as the Hòa Hảo and Cao Đài was necessary in order to secure national unity. The authorities alleged that their policies aimed at fighting “sectarism” and “warlords.” However, Ngô Đình Diệms regime largely represented nearly one million refugees from the North of whom some 70 percent were Catholics. Since Ngô Đình Diệm himself mainly relied on one religious group, he could also be described as a “sectarian” leader.
Not surprisingly, during the nine years of Ngô Đình Diệm rule, the Hòa Hảo congregation was discriminated in all areas.