HO CHI MINH CITY – Emerging from the anterooms of the Thanh Minh Zen monastery, Thich Quang Do nodded and smiled, extending a handshake firm enough to belie his 83 years.
“Thank you for coming, you are right on time,” exclaimed the Supreme Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), glancing over my shoulder out onto the street behind. He beckoned me to follow him upstairs to a small meeting room above the temple area.
The site’s gateway opens onto a lively side-street in Ho Chi Minh City, where street-food vendors sell local snacks and passers-by sit inside fanned cafes sipping Vietnamese iced-coffee. Some of those inside the cafes, however, were not just relaxing over a mid-morning drink.
“You know there are police sitting outside across the street? I am sure they saw you enter the temple,” said Thich Quang Do.
In recent weeks, street loudspeakers have urged Vietnamese people to vote in National Assembly elections with propaganda art and posters around the city extolling the virtues of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). The election took place on Sunday and involved 827 candidates, 86% of whom were from the ruling CPV. All candidates were pre-approved by authorities.
It’s not the type of democracy Thich Quang Do – who has been jailed several times over the years for his pro-democracy advocacy and once accused by authorities of working for the US Central Intelligence Agency – has been fighting for. He has been under de facto house arrest at a UBCV monastery since 1998. Despite those restrictions, he launched a formal written “Appeal for Democracy in Vietnam” calling for multi-party democracy in 2001.
“I can go out once a month to the doctor, but that is it,” he says. Those excursions come with surveillance, however. “The police follow me every step of the way,” he adds.
From the ruling Communist Party’s perspective, politics and religion represent a volatile mix. The day before this correspondent interviewed Thich Quang Do, Buddhists across the world marked Vesak Day, Buddha’s birthday. However, for the UBVC, Vietnam’s largest religious organization, celebrations were highly restricted.
A government directive said that “it is strictly prohibited to display posters or images mentioning the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. It is strictly prohibited to read out the Vesak Message by Thich Quang Do or any other documents that contravene the law.”
Authorities are especially sensitive to Thich Quang Do’s pro-democracy commentaries, which were instrumental to his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize by over 200 Western parliamentarians in 2000.
In Ho Chi Minh City, police allowed worshippers to convene in the temple with plainclothes officers mingled in among the gathering, according to Thich Quang Do. “They do not want to crack down here in Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City],” he said. “There are too many people around, including tourists, and they do not want to be seen being heavy-handed.”
The reality elsewhere in the country is not so benign, he added. According to UBCV, on Vesak Day security police cordoned off the Giac Minh Pagoda and prevented devotees from entering the shrine in the central city of Danang. The pagoda is the headquarters for a 500,000 Buddhist youth movement linked to the UBCV.
Thich Quang Do believes that Buddhists are the “foremost victims” of religious discrimination and human-rights violations that have continued since the communists took power in 1975. A 602-page Vietnamese government training manual for police and religious affairs staff gives detailed commands to “eradicate” all non-official religions, with a special section focusing on the UBCV.
According to the 2010 United States Council on International Religious Freedom report on Vietnam, “the Vietnamese government’s Religious Security Police (cong an ton giao) routinely harasses and intimidates UBCV followers, warning that if they continue to frequent known UBCV pagodas, they may be arrested, lose their jobs, or see their children expelled from school.”
However, Buddhists are not the only victims. Clashes between authorities and various religious groups are a frequent occurrence and currently intensifying.
Unknown numbers of Protestant Montagnards living in the Central Highlands remain in jail after demonstrating against restrictions in the early 2000s. There are off-on clashes between the police and Catholics in Hanoi and the central coastal areas, partly over nationalized property disputes but also right-to-worship issues.
Ethnic minority Buddhists and Protestants have suffered at the hands of the state, with unknown numbers of Hmong detained and more in hiding in Dien Bien province after early May protests which were headed by what the Hanoi government has referred to as “extremists”.
Other victims of the clampdown include a Mennonite grouping in Saigon. Near the heart of the city and in view of the landmark opera house this correspondent met with Long, a pseudonym for a replacement Mennonite church leader who preferred not to give his real name.
“I drove around the city for 45 minutes before heading here”, he said, speaking via an interpreter. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being followed.”
On May 30, Pastor Duong Kim Khai will be tried at the People’s Court of Ben Tre Province, along with six other church members who have been held incommunicado since June 2010. All have been charged “with attempting to overthrow the socialist government”, though Long said that they are being targeted more because of their religious beliefs and because the pastor attempted to assist farmers protesting the seizure of their land by the government.
“The government does not like our church because it is considered unregistered to the government,” Long said. “The government wants to tell us what to think, but in our church we just follow the Bible.”
Land seizures have contributed to the farmer protests that have taken place sporadically in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in recent years. Thich Quang Do broke the terms of his house arrest in 2007 to address a group of aggrieved farmers protesting state-backed land grabs. The Communist Party-dominated government is increasingly wary of such public protests in light of recent popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.
On May 16, the day before Vesak Day, one senior UBCV monk reportedly tried to set himself on fire in protest against government policies before being restrained by colleagues. Self-immolation has political resonance in Vietnam: in 1963, images of the self-immolation of a protesting Buddhist monk sent shock waves around the world and contributed to the fall of the repressive Ngo Dinh Diem government in what was then South Vietnam.
Self-immolation as a trigger for political and social upheaval has a more recent provenance as well with the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi helping to trigger the revolution in Tunisia earlier this year, the effects of which are still reverberating around the Middle East and North Africa. Asked if something similar could happen in Vietnam, Thich Quang Do said it was unlikely.
“They would arrest everyone if people tried to protest,” he said. “If that did not work, they would shoot everyone too.”
He rounded off the meeting with a meditation, one the communist authorities are clearly trying to guard against. “Whatever exists is subject to change, and according to our Buddhist doctrine everything is impermanent,” he said. “Tomorrow when you wake up, the whole world can change overnight.”
– Roughneen was in Saigon in mid-MayShow