Testifying before the International Relations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives today, Mr. Vo Van Ai, President of Que Me : Action for Democracy in Vietnam and International Spokesman of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), gave evidence of the grave and systematic violations of human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam (the full text of Vo Van Ai’s testimony).
Mr. Ai welcomed the fact that this Hearing takes place on the eve of Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai’s first official visit to Washington DC, where he will meet with President George W. Bush at the White House on Tuesday. This enables the American government and people to hear both “the voice of (Vietnam’s) rulers and their victims”, he said. “This could not happen in many countries around the globe, and certainly not in Vietnam”.
Specifically, Mr. Ai called on President Bush and the US Congress to urge Vietnam to hold a National Referendum under UN supervision, to consult the Vietnamese people on whether they wished their country to embrace pluralism and democracy or remain a one-Party state. In an interview published in the Washington Post last week (June 16th), Premier Phan Van Khai declared : “in Vietnam, the people have the highest power to determine the destiny of their country”. Mr. Ai told Congress that “a national referendum would be the best way to ensure that all Vietnamese have the right to participate in shaping their own future and determining the destiny of Vietnam”.
He also strongly urged the United States to maintain Vietnam on the black-list of “countries of particular concern” for their grave abuses of religious freedoms until Vietnam takes the fundamental steps of releasing UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang and his Deputy Thich Quang Do, detained for over 25 years, and re-establishes the legitimate status of the banned UBCV.
Noting that Vietnam had made gestures and promises to obtain its removal from CPC designation, he stressed that fierce repression continues, and urged the United States to grant no concessions not be granted until tangible progress has been made. “Vietnam is a past master in the art of deception”, he said, “and Phan Van Khai himself is a symbol of Hanoi’s broken promises”. “He is the man who received dissident Buddhist Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang in Hanoi in April 2003, raising great hopes of dialogue. He is also the man whose government launched, just months later, a most brutal clamp-down on the UBCV” arresting Thich Huyen Quang, Thich Quang Do and nine UBCV leaders.
Analysing religious legislation such as the new Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions, Mr. Ai told Congress that Vietnam’s religious policies are not aimed at promoting religious freedom, but to promote “religions with Socialist orientations” under Communist Party control. He submitted extracts from a secret VCP document entitled “On Religions and the Struggle against Activities Exploiting Religions”. This 602-page document, of which Mr. Ai’s Committee had obtained a copy, published by the Institute of Public Security Science in Hanoi with a print-run of 1 million copies, reveals the Vietnamese government’s systematic policy to dismantle all non-recognized religions. The document particularly targets the UBCV, accusing it of “advocating human rights, political pluralism and the multi-party system in order to create social instability and rebellion”. The document gives clear instructions to Party cadres and Security agents at every level to “oppose, repress, isolate and divide” UBCV leaders and members,
Mr. Vo Van Ai cited extensive examples of recent repression against the UBCV. In May 2005, Security Police interrogated monks from the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in Binh Dinh Province, where the UBCV Patriarch is currently detained, and warned them to cease all contacts with the UBCV. Police made death threats against the UBCV leadership, warning that Thich Huyen Quang and his Deputy Thich Quang Do would be executed if they continued to criticise the Communist Party. Throughout May, Security Police banned Thich Duc Chon (Gia Lam Pagoda, Saigon), Thich Thanh Quang (Giac Minh Pagoda, Danang) and UBCV Pagodas in Hue, Danang, Saigon, Quang Tri, Khanh Hoa from celebrating Vesak (Birth of Buddha) and reading out Messages by Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do. Thich Quang Do has been subjected to increased controls since he launched a “New year’s Letter” calling for pluralism in Vietnam, which received unprecedented support from Communist veretans, Roman Catholic priests, Hoa Hao leaders and dissidents inside and outside Vietnam. A jamming devise has been set up outside Thich Quang Do’s Monastery to block the use of cell-phones, and all visits are banned. Thich Thien Minh, released in a government amnesty in February 2005, is subjected to harassments and severe restrictions on his freedom. He has no residence permit, and is under permanent surveillance. On June 17th, senior security cadre Lieutenant-Colonel Dai warned him he must leave the UBCV and cease being a monk. The cadre – who had been sent to study in a Buddhist High School for 3 years – said Thich Thien Minh had lost his right to be a monk because he not participated in monastic retreats and rites during his 26 years in reeducation camp.
Most disturbing is Vietnam’s recent strategy to “neutralize” the UBCV by creating schisms and divisions within its leadership. Over the past months, Communist Party officials have discretely visited senior UBCV monks, promising that Vietnam will re-establish the UBCV’s legal status on condition that Thich Quang Do and Thich Huyen Quang are excluded from the process. By eliminating these two prominent dissidents from its leadership, Hanoi’s objective is to transform the UBCV into a second “State-sponsored Buddhist Church”, emptied of its independent spirit and its commitment to democracy and human rights.
Mr. Ai also detailed persecution against Protestants, Mennonites, Catholics, Hoa Hao Buddhists, Cao Dai, Khmer Krom Buddhists, ethnic Christian Hmongs and Montagnards, and violations of the freedoms of expression, opinion, association and peaceful assembly, citing the arrests and detention of “cyber-dissidents” and other peaceful government critics. In conclusion, he called on President Bush to set specific benchmarks for improvements in his talks with Premier Phan Van Khai tomorrow, i.e.
– release all prisons of conscience including UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, Venerable Thich Quang Do and the nine UBCV leaders, cyber-dissidents Pham Hong Son, Nguyen Khac Toan, Nguyen Vu Binh, Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang and all Montagnard Christians detained for their peaceful activities ;
– re-establish the legitimate status of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam – as a first and foremost step towards religious freedom – as well as that of other non-recognized religions ;
– authorize the publication of private newspapers as a forum for democratic debate and the creation of free trade unions and non-governmental organizations to foster the emergence of a vibrant and dynamic civil society in Vietnam ;
– rescind or revise all legislation which restricts the exercise of religious freedom and human rights, abrogate Decree 31/CP on “administrative detention”, Decree 38/2005/ND-CP on banning demonstrations ; bring “national security” laws into line with the Johannesburg principles and the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as recommended by the UN Human Rights Committee ; ensure that all laws adopted under the Legal System Development Strategy comply with international human rights standards ;
– abrogate Article 4 of the Vietnamese Constitution on the mastery of the Communist Party so that all religious and political families may participate in reconstructing a democratic and prosperous Vietnam.