Fake mediums abound in Vietnam, target war martyrs' families

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The arrest of two phony mediums has prompted a debate on using mediumship to find the remains of war martyrs in Vietnam

Nguyen Thanh Thuy (sitting, C) instructing the employees of Vietnam Bank for Social Policies to excavate what he claimed to be the remains of war martyrs in Quang Tri Province on July 25. Thuy has been arrested for staging such excavations and using the fake remains of war martyrs to cash in on billions of dong paid by grieving families. FILE PHOTO

The family of Le Thi Thanh Huyen has been living in distress ever since she allegedly died in a cosmetic surgery accident and the private clinic's doctor confessed to throwing her body into the Red River on October 19.

Search efforts have not yielded Huyen's body and the family has been overwhelmed by people claiming to be mediums and offering to help them find the corpse for a fee.

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"Every day, dozens of come to offer to find her body. The family members have agreed to say that we are not Huyen's relatives so that they would leave us alone," said Huyen's cousin Dung, adding that they had hired a few mediums that had failed to find her body.

A recent investigative report on Vietnam Television (VTV) exposed common tricks fake clairvoyants and then the subsequent arrest of a fraudulent medium couple has prompted debate over the controversial method, which is most commonly used in Vietnam to find the remains of lost war martyrs.

Worshipping animal bones

According to the October 20 episode of the series Tro ve tu ky uc (A Return from Memory), the Military Forensic Institute recently tested 100 pieces in its collection of bones that had been found and attributed to various war dead by those claiming to be mediums able to communicate with the spirit world.

It had been previously thought that many people claiming to use extra sensory perception, psychometry and other forms of mediumship and clairvoyance had been uncannily correct in their findings over the years.

But almost every bone tested turned out not to be the remains of the people the mediums claimed they were.

"In reality, tests found out that the accuracy ratio of mediums' findings is virtually zero," said Senior Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Le Cat of the Military Forensic Institute.

But he said that in many cases, the families still believed the mediums' findings even after the institute's tests proved otherwise.

"I don't know why the mediums have the ability to persuade people while scientists like us are not trusted."

MC Thu Uyen, who hosted the program, said that most of the bones "found" by the alleged clairvoyants were in many cases actually animal bones.

She said lying about the martyrs' bones had "insulted many families' altars, the national flag and has polluted holy places like war martyrs cemeteries and our people's most holy tradition of worshiping their ancestors."

"It's time for us"¦ to talk about the crimes [of those] who trade on the remains of war martyrs and on the pains of the families who contributed to the nation," she said.

Fake seers

Following the VTV investigation, on October 28, Quang Tri police arrested Nguyen Thanh Thuy, 54, and his wife Man Thi Duyen, 51, for allegedly cheating the families of war martyrs out of billions of dong by pretending to be mediums to help the families find their relatives' remains.

According to police, the couple allegedly made up tombs with fake remains and then told the families of war martyrs that the remains belonged to their relatives.

They charged each family around VND100 million for each set of remains found.

According to police, Thuy used to be a police officer but was dismissed for fraud.

In 1995, Thuy met Duyen after divorcing his first wife. He and Duyen started introducing themselves as mediums to find lost tombs for locals and people in other provinces.

In 1996, the couple was arrested in Bac Ninh Province for "fraud" and "illegal use of military weapons."

Thuy was then sentenced to 10 years and Duyen got 12 years.

After serving their terms, they continued defrauding people by claiming to be mediums. Thuy has been using "clairvoyance" to "find" tombs for war martyrs since.

Bank support

At a recent meeting, Minister and Chairman of the Government Office Vu Duc Dam said the government has instructed relevant agencies to look into several phony clairvoyance cases reported by the media recently, including the involvement of the Vietnam Bank for Social Policies (VBSP) in Thuy's case.

VBSP is a state-owned bank established in 2002 to support the poor, those who contributed to the nation's independence and students.

"This is not simply an economic fraud but has also affected holy sentiments," Dam said.

On a July 25 publicity stunt, Thuy and VBSP general director Duong Quyet Thang traveled to a site in Quang Tri Province's Gio Linh District where Thuy said some martyr's remains would be found.

Bank employees dug up the site and excavated some objects.

The provincial military unit decided that the objects found were not remains of war martyrs, but VBSP still divided them into nine pots and held a ceremony at the Road 9 War Martyrs Cemetery. They were buried outside the cemetery after the military unit refused to burry them at the cemetery.

Vietweek found that Thuy and VBSP claimed to have found the remains of 105 war martyrs, and the bank paid Thuy VND75 million for each.

Nguyen Hoang Phuong, deputy chairman of VBSP's Labor Union, said the bank used funds donated by its staff and other individuals and organizations, and not from the state exchequer, to pay Thuy.

Asked why the bank got involved in searching for lost remains, Phuong said it was because of the bank employees' "good hearts" and that "the more remains of war martyrs found, the better it is."

Illegal searches

The remains of about 500,000 war martyrs have not been found or identified and families nationwide are still searching for them via both official channels and mediums.

Most death notices sent back to war martyrs' families during the war only contained the name, two codes for the date of death and military unit, a general location in the "southern battlefield" and the burial ground often listed as "the unit's cemetery."

Only in recent years has the Biotechnology Institute been working to test the DNA of the remains found, but it has only managed to test around a hundred samples due to the high cost of the tests, each of which costs dozens of million dong.

Meanwhile, the families of many war martyrs continue to rely on mediums and clairvoyants to find for the remains of their relatives.

In 2011, the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs banned its agencies from using mediums to search for or identify the remains of war martyrs.

A government decree that took effect in June stipulates that the military is the only agency authorized to search for and excavating the remains of war martyrs.

Controversies linger

The VTV report also told the story of medium Phan Thi Bich Hang, who found animal bones in 2009 and she claimed they were the remains of Phung Chi Kien, the first person appointed general by President Ho Chi Minh.

Kien was killed by the French in the northern province of Cao Bang in 1941. His head was cut off and displayed in Bac Kan Province.

In September 2009, Hang found what she claimed remains of Kien's head in Bac Kan, but subsequent tests found it was only a pottery piece and an animal tooth.

In response to the report, Hang said she was tired and needed time to compose herself before commenting.

Regarding the case, Le Trung Tuan, a medium and a member of the Institute for Research and Application of Human Potentialities, said it was a mistake and not a fraud.

He said Hang has made great contributions to his institute and has found the remains of at least 10,000 war martyrs.

"If only 70-80 percent of the remains found were accurate, she has still made a greatest achievement," he said.

He said mediums and clairvoyants have found the correct remains of many war martyrs that which have been tested and approved by different agencies, including the Military Forensic Institute.

Quan Le Lan, a lecturer at the Institute for Research and Application of Human Potentialities, said mediumship exists but in only a few people and their accuracy rate is unstable and can be less than 60-70 percent.

However, Le Trong Sang, a lawmaker from Ho Chi Minh City, said many people were claiming to be mediums recently because the remains of so many war martyrs have yet to be found and it could be a lucrative market.

"Many people want to find the burial place of their parents and siblings. Currently, there are 27,000 graves of war martyrs in HCMC, of which nearly 6,000 are not identified. It shows that many people still want to find the graves of their relatives.

"Mediumship has turned to a bad direction. Many people abused the trust of war martyrs' relatives. The residents should test DNA at governmental agencies to make sure it is correct," he said.

"The government should have a thorough study about mediumship before deciding on banning or allowing its use in searching for the remains of war martyrs."

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