Whilst hundreds of millions of Buddhists around the globe celebrate the 2548th Anniversary of the Birth of Buddha, or Vesak, on June 2nd 2004, and a ceremony of international observance of the “Day of Vesak” took place at the United Nations in New York, leaders of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) are spending yet another Vesak in detention for their peaceful advocacy of religious freedom, human rights and democratic reforms.
l UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stressed the need for sustained efforts to overcome religious intolerance in a Message to the “International Recognition of the Day of Vesak Ceremony” at the United Nations in New York on Tuesday (June 1st). The Day of the Vesak (i.e. Day of the Full Moon of the month of May, which fell this year on June 2nd in Vietnam), was recognized by the UN on 15th December 1999 at the 54th Session of the UN General Assembly (Resolution 115), and has been a day of international observance since then. In the Message, Mr Kofi Annan said :
“…Every year on this day, we mark the birth, enlightenment and passing away of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha some 2,500 years ago, and pay tribute to the contributions that Buddhism has made to the world’s search for peace.
“This year, I would also like to use this observance to express my concern that many recent events — including the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the war in Iraq, and the continuing tragic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians — have aggravated tensions between followers of some of the world’s major religions.
“We must get away from stereotyping, generalizations and preconceptions, and take care not to tarnish an entire people, an entire region, or an entire religion for the sins of individuals. As Buddhism teaches, we must deal with all our fellow human beings fairly and objectively, while refraining from malice, aggression and harm. Tolerance is essential, but it is not enough. We must go further, and make a positive effort to learn more about each other, and to discover what is best in each other’s beliefs and traditions.
“On this Day of Vesak, let us pledge to do our part in what must be a sustained campaign to rebuild trust and confidence between people of different faiths and cultures. Let us recognize, as Buddhism does, our essential interdependence. And let us follow this path as partners. In that spirit, I wish you all happy Vesak”.
l UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, undaunted by almost three decades of persecution, in a Vesak Message smuggled clandestinely from the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in Binh Dinh Province, forcefully exhorted Vietnamese Buddhists to be “steadfast and unshakeable” in their pursuit of freedom for Buddhism and Vietnam. In a world of growing religious tensions, Buddhists should never resort to “the use of violence to overcome violence”, he said, but rather “develop compassion and wisdom” in order to dispel ignorance, the cause of all intolerance and fanaticism. “Unless we can dissipate ignorance at its very roots, the violence and terrorism so prevalent today will lead inexorably to the destruction of the human race”… “In this modern age fraught by divisions, conflict, hatred and destruction, may the Four-fold union of monks, nuns, lay-men and lay-women, which form the foundations of Buddhism, be a symbol of unity, conciliation, love and edification for one and all”, he said, calling on Buddhists to “unite in a spirit of tolerance and solidarity to confront the contradictions and conflicts of our world”…
l Commenting on the Vesak celebrations in Vietnam, Mr. Vo Van Ai, UBCV International spokesman and Director of the Paris-based International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB) strongly denounced “the hypocrisy of Vietnam’s religious policies” regarding Buddhism, its majority religion. “Religious freedom is guaranteed in the SRV Constitution, and the Vesak is celebrated with great pomp all over Vietnam today. Yet only Buddhists from the State-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church, under control of the Communist Party and the Vietnam Fatherland Front, are allowed to take part in these celebrations, whereas UBCV members are outlawed, silenced and suppressed. This hypocritical policy undermines a 2,000-year tradition of Vietnamese Buddhism, which has remained staunchly independent of political powers. Today, Vietnam’s true Buddhist masters are languishing in prison or under house arrest because they refuse to kow-tow to the Communist authorities and continue to demand the respect of religious freedom and human rights for all Vietnamese”.
Mr Ai expressed particular concern on the plight of UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, 86, and his Deputy, Very Venerable Thich Quang Do, both placed under house arrest in October 2003 on alleged charges of “possessing state secrets”, a crime which carries the death penalty in Vietnam. UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang is currently in very poor health at the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in Binh Dinh Province. Security Police control access to the Monastery and intercept all visitors. Even resident monks are searched when they enter or leave. The telephone and fax have been cut since the government crack-down on the UBCV in October 2003. UBCV Deputy leader Thich Quang Do is virtually imprisoned in his room at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Ho Chi Minh City. Detained incommunicado, Thich Quang Do is also in poor health as a result of harsh detention conditions. The 75-year-old 2004 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, who underwent heart surgery last year and suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, receives only basic medical care and is not allowed regular check-ups or medical visits. Both UBCV leaders have spent over 20 years in detention for the peaceful expression of their religious beliefs.
Mr Ai added that at least nine other members of the UBCV leadership are officially held under “administrative detention” since the October crack-down, and many other UBCV monks are serving heavy prison sentences for their support of the banned UBCV. He cited the example of Venerable Thich Thien Minh (secular name Huynh Van Ba), 49, serving a double life sentence in Z30A Reeducation Camp in Xuan Loc, Dong Nai Province. Arrested in 1979, Thich Thien Minh has spent long periods in solitary confinement and is forced to perform hard labour in extenuating conditions. Thich Thien Minh was declared a victim of arbitrary detention by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (Opinion 21, December 1997).