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Vo Van Ai receives 2006 Rafto Prize in Bergen, Norway on behalf of Buddhist dissident Venerable Thich Quang Do

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Vo Van Ai receives 2006 Rafto Prize on behalf of Thich Quang Do
PARIS, 6 November 2006 (BIIB) – The Rafto Foundation in Bergen, Norway, awarded the 20th 2006 Professor Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize to Venerable Thich Quang Do, Deputy leader of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) “for his personal courage and perseverance through three decades of peaceful opposition against the communist regime in Vietnam”. The Award ceremony took place in the National Theatre in Bergen on Saturday 4th November, in presence of Mr. Thorbjom Jagland, President of the Norwegian Parliament (the second highest position in Norway, after the King), second only to the King in Norway), Mr. Herman Friele, Lord Mayor of Bergen, Members of Parliament, artists and personalities from all over Norway. Eleven former Rafto Prize laureates were also present to celebrate this 20th Anniversary of the creation of the Rafto Foundation, including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadie (Iran), Uighur human rights activist Rebiya Kadeer and Leyla Zana (Kurdistan), both former political prisoners. Several other Rafto Prize laureates, e.g. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, remain in detention in their countries. Thich Quang Do, who is currently under house arrest, was also unable to attend the Ceremony, and asked Vo Van Ai, UBCV Spokesman and President of Que Me : Action for Democracy in Vietnam, to accept the award on his behalf.

As the Ceremony took place, the Vietnamese community in Norway held a vigil outside the Theatre carrying torches and banners calling for the release of Thich Quang Do, and freedom and democracy for Vietnam. Several well known Norwegian poets, musicians and singers, including cellist Sebastian Dorfler and singer Nathalie Nordnes, gave a free performance at the Ceremony in honour of Thich Quang Do and the democracy movement in Vietnam.

In his Award speech, Chairman of the Rafto Foundation, Arne Lijedahl Lynngård, expressed the Foundation’s deep concerns on the human rights situation in Vietnam, and explained the reason’s for choosing Thich Quang Do for the 2006 Rafto Prize. The full text of his speech is below :

Award Speech by Arne Lijedahl Lynngård, Rafto Foundation, Bergen 4 November 2006 :

“On behalf of the Rafto Foundation I would like to thank you all for being here today to celebrate and honour the outstanding human rights advocate, Venerable Thich Quang Do from Vietnam. Thich Quang Do is the 20th laureate of the Professor Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize. Sadly enough, he is in house arrest in his pagoda in Saigon. The Hanoi government would not let him travel to Norway to receive our prize.

“It is not accidental, that a number of Rafto laureates have been honoured in absentia. Jiøí Hájek from former Czechoslovakia, Doina Cornea from Romania, Aung San Suu Kyi from Burma, Leyla Zana from Kurdistan and Rebiya Kadeer from East Turkestan were all unable to receive the Rafto Diploma in person due to repressive governments that tried to silence their voice. Today, Aung San Suu Kyi has been in custody for 11 years and 11 days. We are counting the days until she is free !

“However, it gives us an immense joy that Leyla Zana and Rebyia Kadeer have been released from prison, and are present in the theatre on the occasion of the 20th Anniversary, together with 8 other Rafto laureates. Please give them a warm applause.

“Politically, Vietnam today is like Poland and Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s when the Solidarity and Charter 77 movement came forth. This was at the time when Professor Thorolf Rafto campaigned for dissidents behind the iron curtain.

“Like in former Czechoslovakia 30 years ago, most people in Vietnam today are afraid to openly express their views. The Security Police’s repressive mechanisms are everywhere. Only the really courageous people dare to speak out. It is especially hard for the young people and all those who have families to support. If they do anything that attracts the Police’s attention, they are placed under surveillance, threatened, isolated and harassed. Police seek every possible way of stifling their activities.

“It is most appropriate that the Board of the Rafto Foundation is awarding the 2006 Professor Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize to one of Vietnam’s most prominent defenders of democracy, religious freedom and human rights : Venerable Thich Quang Do.

“He receives the prize for his personal courage and perseverance through three decades of peaceful opposition against the communist regime in Vietnam, and as a symbol for the growing democracy movement in his country.

“The Rafto Prize to Thich Quang Do was not very well received by the government in Hanoi, and it caused frictions in the talks between Norway and Vietnam when the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Norwegian Parliament visited Hanoi on September 25. Vietnam’s government accuses Venerable Thich Quang Do for inciting splittist activities. The Board of the Rafto Foundation strongly opposes this view.

“Thich Quang Do is an intellectual leader and a unifying force in his home country. A monk, researcher and author, he has devoted his life to the advancement of justice and the Buddhist tradition of non-violence, tolerance and compassion. Through political petitions Thich Quang Do has challenged the authorities to engage in dialogue on democratic reforms, pluralism, freedom of religion, human rights and national reconciliation. This has provided force and direction to the democracy movement.

“However, he has paid a high prize for his activism. Thich Quang Do has spent a total of 25 years in prison and today, at 77, he is still under house arrest. From here he continues the struggle. As deputy leader of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, Thich Quang Do is strongly supported by Vietnam’s numerous Buddhists. He also receives broad support from other religious communities as well as from veterans of the Communist Party.

“Vietnam is a country where rifts and divisions have always run deep – divisions between North and South, between communists and nationalists, between different religious denominations and political groups, between social classes and generations. Thich Quang Do plays a key role in the work of reconciling dissidents from North and South Vietnam.

“The Vietnamese people have been living in fear for the past 50 years. The very words “Security Police” or “cong an” terrify them. Thich Quang Do says that fear has become a second nature for the people. That’s one of the main reasons why the democracy movement in Vietnam has been slow in developing.

“Thich Quang Do has always said that democracy can only be realized in Vietnam if people from all these different families join together, bring their diverse talents, skills, knowledge, and enthusiasm, and pool them together into one vibrant movement.

“Recently, however, Vietnamese citizens are overcoming fear and isolation within their own society and are uniting into organized groups to launch protests by the thousands, to publish newspapers without seeking government approval, and to call for multiparty democracy. With the help of the Internet, citizens are finding new ways to spread ideas and to coordinate their actions.

“The Hanoi government and the ruling Communist party determined to maintain its monopoly on power have already begun to respond, but with harassment rather than dialogue. In the latest attempt to repress Vietnam’s growing democracy movement, the security police on the morning of October 15, 2006 detained three well known democracy activists who were reportedly planning to organize a meeting to discuss the formation of the Democracy and Human Rights Alliance.

“Despite Vietnam’s ratification of the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, the one-party state is intolerant of criticism. Media, political parties, religious organizations and labour unions are not allowed to exist without official sanction and oversight or to take actions that the government or the Communist Party considers contrary to their policies.

“By awarding the 20th Rafto Prize to Thich Quang Do we are also recognizing the immense hardships faced by Vietnamese pro-democracy activists, who are resolutely fighting peacefully to replace the one-party communist regime with a democratic, pluralist state based on the rule of law and respectful of international rights standards. We know that you are exposed to the danger of persecution by government officials, but we are hoping that every sign of solidarity will be encouraging and strengthening for you.

“However, as Nobel Peace Prize and Rafto Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi says : Democracy is not a gift that can be given to any country from an alien force. The democratic process must grow from within. In an interview of April of this year Thich Quang Do echoes this view, when he says that the process of democratization in Vietnam is entirely in the hands of the Vietnamese people.

“Allow me to end my speech with the words of Venerable Thich Quang Do : “There will come a time when the authorities will be unable to silence all of the people all of the time. The moment will come when the people will rise up, like water bursting its banks. Together, 80 million Vietnamese will speak with one voice to demand democracy and human rights. The government will be unable to ignore their demands, and will have to face up to this reality. Then, the situation in Vietnam will be forced to change, and a democratic process will emerge.”

“To day in Bergen, Norwegians and foreign guests join hands with our Vietnamese friends as we share Thich Quang Do’s all-embracing vision of democracy. Thank you.

“Venerable Thich Quang Do has specifically asked Mr. Vo Van Ai to receive the Rafto Prize on his behalf. Vo Van Ai is a distinguished Vietnamese political activist, journalist, historian and poet living in exile in Paris. Born in Central Vietnam in 1938, he has consistently spoken out for democracy under successive political regimes.

“Vo Van Ai regularly testifies at the United Nations and other international institutions, and compiles reports on human rights, democracy and religious freedom in Vietnam. He also wages international campaigns for the release of prisoners of conscience, and has succeeded in mobilizing international pressure to commute death penalties and obtain the release of many political and religious prisoners in Vietnam. Mr. Vo Van Ai, please approach the stage and receive the Rafto diploma”.

Speaking on behalf of Thich Quang Do, Vo Van Ai described the current plight of democracy activists in Vietnam. Recalling the efforts of Scandinavian people during the Vietnam War to seek a solution for peace, he urged Norway and the international community to support today’s democracy movement in Vietnam. The full text of his statement is as follows.

Acceptance Speech by Vo Van Ai on behalf of Thich Quang Do, Bergen 4 November 2006 :

“I am deeply moved to accept the Rafto Prize 2006 on behalf of Venerable Thich Quang Do, and I warmly thank the Rafto Foundation for honouring this courageous Vietnamese human rights defender with this prestigious award.

“I wish that Thich Quang Do could be here, to see this magnificent assembly of human rights defenders gathered in Bergen for the Rafto’s 20th Anniversary celebrations today. It would have warmed his heart, and reassured him that he is not alone. He hoped so much to come to Norway. But he is under house arrest, a prisoner in his own pagoda. Especially, he could not risk leaving Vietnam in case the Hanoi government would never let him return. He told me : “My place is here, alongside the Vietnamese people. I will never abandon them until we win freedom in Vietnam”.

“You have honoured Thich Quang Do as a “unifying force”, and a symbol of the emerging democracy movement in Vietnam. But beyond this, with his life-long resistance against dictatorship, Thich Quang Do has offered his fellow Vietnamese the most precious of all freedoms – freedom from fear.

“Today, in Vietnam’s one-party state, democrats face constant dangers to keep the spirit of freedom alive. Simply for expressing peaceful opposition views, they risk arrest, imprisonment and harassment. Their children are expelled from school, they lose their jobs, and their families are reduced to poverty. Faced with the State’s vast mechanisms of surveillance and control, individuals in Vietnam feel helpless and alone.

“With serenity and courage, Thich Quang Do has helped his fellows to overcome fear. This is the essence of his unique role in the democracy movement in Vietnam. Braving repression and imprisonment, he has waged campaigns of civil disobedience, lead rescue missions for flood victims, applied to run a free newspaper, opposed the death penalty, campaigned for religious freedom and rallied Vietnamese together around transition plans for democratic change. Emboldened and inspired by his example, religious leaders, Communist Party veterans, cyber-dissidents and human rights defenders from all walks of life are boldly challenging the authorities today, and pressing as never before for political reforms.

“It is precisely this universe of prisons, fear, and the struggle for life that binds me to Thich Quang Do. At the age of 13, I was imprisoned and tortured for participating in the movement for independence against French colonial rule. My father brought me Buddhist Sutras to read in prison. I was deeply struck by the image of the Bhoddisattva, one who has attained enlightenment but stays in the world to save his fellows. I was especially moved by the Boddhisattva Ksitigarbha, who descended into Hell to save all those in torment. He pledged to renounce becoming a Buddha, and to stay in Hell until the very last person had been saved. This became my life’s ideal, and since then I have devoted my efforts to seeking the release of prisoners of conscience from the hell of Vietnam’s jails. The Boddhissatva’s spirit of boundless compassion and disregard for his own comfort and security, I rediscovered in Thich Quang Do. It is therefore a great honour for me to represent him here today.

“Dear Friends,

“Throughout our history, Vietnam has always been at war, constantly threatened by foreign aggression. With courage and determination, our people have repeatedly pushed back invaders and maintained Vietnam’s freedom against impossible odds. The word “Viet” in Vietnamese means, among other things, to “overcome”. Through one thousand years of Chinese domination, a century of French colonial rule and three decades of unspeakable destruction during the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese have heroically overcome all obstacles and preserved our nation’s independence and identity.

“Today, however, the Vietnamese are facing a new war – one that cannot be won by heroism and courage alone. It is not a war against foreign aggression. This is an internal aggression, a war waged from within, like a virus raging inside one’s body. It is the Communist Party’s war against its own people, a war to impose a foreign ideology, Marxism, and maintain power by suppressing all voices of dissent. We are not afraid, but we know we cannot win this war alone. In today’s interdependent world, we need the force of international solidarity, of public opinion, of the global democratic community, to enable us to overcome.

“This is why the Rafto Prize means so much to us in Vietnam today. Indeed, I believe marks a turning point in the movement for democracy in Vietnam.

“Since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, Western democracies have turned a blind eye to Hanoi’s blatant violations of human rights. Whilst Vietnam has liberalized its economy under the policy of doi moi (renovation), it has remained a politically closed society. Yet Western democracies pursue “business as usual” with the Hanoi regime. The arrests of dissidents and human rights defenders go unnoticed in the international media, and there is no pressure for political reform.

“Today, the Rafto Foundation has broken this “omerta” – this law of silence, on Vietnam. It has affirmed the right – indeed the duty – of democratic countries to stand by all people deprived of their freedoms and rights. In humanitarian terms, this is called the “right to interference”. This right is rejected by dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, who claim “non-interference into a sovereign country’s affairs”. But they are wrong. All people have the right to enjoy democracy and human rights. The international community has a binding obligation to support their peaceful struggle, and ensure that fundamental freedoms are upheld. Vietnam is a signatory to the UN’s key human rights treaties, and it is no exception to the universal rule.

“The “right to interference” is not new to Vietnam. The Vietnam War was not won on Vietnam’s battle-fields, but in Stockholm, Washington, London, Paris, Tokyo… by a vast wave of public opinion determined to help put an end to war. This intention was noble, but it failed to bring true peace to Vietnam. The first “Stockholm Conference” in the 1960s concretized this “right to interference” by bringing peace movements from all over the world in an effort for national reconciliation and peace. I was spokesman of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam at that time, and an active proponent of the Buddhist peace solution. But when the Vietnamese Communists learned I was invited, they threatened to boycott the Conference. One of the organizers flew from Stockholm to beg me to withdraw. It was the only way, they said, to “give peace a chance”. I accepted, but I knew that if the Communists claimed the monopoly of peace, they would soon claim a political monopoly over the people of Vietnam.

“This is why the Rafto Prize, awarded by Norway, a Scandinavian country, has such a deep meaning for Vietnam today. Decades ago, the Stockholm Conference sought to “give peace a chance”. Tragically, this peace did not bring freedom and fraternity to Vietnam. Today, the Rafto Foundation is calling on the global community and the Vietnamese government to “give democracy a chance” in Vietnam. We must not let this unique opportunity go by.

“In just a few days, Hanoi will host the APEC Summit and receive President George W. Bush and heads of state from around the world. I hope they will clearly hear the message sent out by the Rafto Foundation today, and support the movement for a peaceful process of democracy in Vietnam.

“The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, whose centenary we celebrate this year, once wrote : “Castles in the air – they are so easy to take refuge in. And so easy to build, too”.

“In Bergen, on this 4th November, the Norwegian people have taken Ibsen’s castles out of the air and built them on firm ground. May I offer these few lines in homage to Ibsen and the Rafto Foundation :

Peace is like a flower
Blossoming in the midst of love and laughter
Oh, if only I had one thousand, thousand eyes,
So I could weep a river of great joy
and look around to see
a multitude of fragile flowers
blossoming
as they have never ceased to blossom
throughout eternity.

Vo Van Ai
Bergen, 4 November 2006

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