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Buddhist leaders urge Australia to take urgent steps to ensure security in the Asia-Pacific region and respect of religious freedom and human rights in Vietnam

At the Australian Parliament in Canberra:
Buddhist leaders urge Australia to take urgent steps to ensure security in the Asia-Pacific region and respect of religious freedom and human rights in Vietnam

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CANBERRA, 17 June 2009 (IBIB) – Mr. Vo Van Ai, International spokesman of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) and a delegation of senior dignitaries from the Overseas UBCV from the USA, Canada and Australia visited the Australian Parliament today to warn of current threats to Vietnamese sovereignty and call for the respect of religious freedom and human rights in Vietnam. The delegation included Most Venerable Thich Ho Giac, UBCV Vice-Patriarch and President of the UBCV Overseas Office (Houston, USA); Venerable Thich Vien Ly, Secretary General (California, USA); Reverend Thich Giac Duc, Commissioner for Planning (Boston, USA), Most Venerable Thich Thien Tam, UBCV Commissioner General for Canada; Venerable Thich Phuoc Nhon, UBCV Commissioner General in Australia; Venerable Nuns Thich Nu Bao Truong and Thich Nu Bao Son and Ms Penelope Faulkner, Deputy Director of the International Buddhist Information Bureau.

The meeting was hosted by the Hon. Laurie Ferguson, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services and attended by MPs from both the Labour and Liberal Parties, including the Hon. Jason Clare, Parliament Secretary for Employment, Ms Kerry Rea, Chair of the Parliamentary Sub-Committee on Human Rights, the Hon. Julie Bishop, Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon. Dr Sharman Stone, Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Mr. Bernie Ripoll, Mr Michael Danby, the Hon. Philip Ruddock and Mr. Luke Simpkins.

The UBCV delegation is touring Australia from 12-22 June 2009 to speak on the Buddhist movement for human rights and democracy in Vietnam, with meetings in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne.

Mr. Ai called on Australia to press for concrete human rights progress in Vietnam. Since Vietnam opened its economy to the free-market system, he said, it has been known for its rapid growth-rate and booming economy. But behind this economic opening, Vietnam remains a politically closed society in which all basic rights and freedoms are denied. The Communist Party controls all aspects of daily life. There is no privately-run media, no free trade unions, no independent civil society, no opposition parties. Only “state-sponsored” religious bodies are authorized, and independent bodies such as the UBCV are banned. The Internet is subjected to tight censorship. All advocacy of pluralism or democracy is taboo.

Mr. Ai noted that, whilst Vietnam seeks to play an increased role on the international stage, it has failed to respect its international obligations, and remains hostile to political reforms. A recent illustration is Vietnam’s first Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in May 2009, where a host of countries, including Australia, recommended concrete reforms such as authorizing independent media, lifting restrictive legislation on freedom of expression and religion, ceasing practices of torture and administrative detention. Vietnam rejected all these simple demands (1).

Today, in the absence of political opposition, he said, the religious movements, especially the majority religion, Buddhism, are the true voices of civil society. The UBCV is playing a crucial role in relaying the people’s grievances and demands for human rights. As a result, the UBCV is the target of fierce repression. Its leaders and members are routinely detained, intimidated and harassed. UBCV leader Thich Quang Do, a 2009 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, has been detained for over 27 years for his peaceful advocacy of democracy, religious freedom and human rights. He is currently under house arrest at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Saigon. Despite tight Police surveillance and restrictions of his basic freedoms, Thich Quang Do continues to issue appeals for democracy and challenge the government to improve human rights.

UBCV Patriarch Thich Quang Do’s most recent appeals concern a serious issue which has grave implications not only for Vietnam but for the whole Asia-Pacific region and beyond – China’s encroachment on Vietnam’s national sovereignty. In 1999 and 2000, Vietnam signed two Land and Sea Border treaties with China conceding significant territory and waters to Beijing. China has also staked claims to the disputed Spratly and Parcel archipelagos, pressuring Western companies to abandon joint ventures with Vietnam to exploit these potentially oil-and-gas rich islands. Chinese naval vessels have fired on Vietnamese fishing boats to prevent them from fishing in these disputed waters.

In an Appeal launched in March 2009, Thich Quang Do warned of the Vietnam’s recent concession to China of a massive Bauxite mining project in the Central Highlands. This project has sparked off widespread protests from scientists, ecologists and even military experts in Vietnam because of the damage that open-cut mining will cause to the environment by polluting the waterways, destroying vast forest and crop areas, creating mountains of toxic sludge and threatening the lifestyle and environment of thousands of ethnic peoples living in this area. The project is also a potential threat to national defence. The Central Highlands is a strategic military zone at the cross-roads of the Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam borders, and tens of thousands of Chinese workers are to settle in this zone. Chinalco – a company well known to Australia – is among those in charge of this project. In May 2009, Thich Quang Do called on all Vietnamese to hold a month of civil disobedience and stage demonstrations inside their homes in May 2009 to protest against this project (2).

Mr. Ai and the UBCV delegation expressed concern that Chinese threats to the sovereignty of Vietnam and other South East Asian nations and its efforts to control the sea lanes could seriously impact the whole Asia-Pacific region. Since Australia is an important trading partner and has good relations with Vietnam, the delegation called on the Australian government to:

– take heed of this serious concern, and join together with other democracies in the Asia-Pacific to examine ways to ensure security in the region;

– use Australia’s good relationship to press Vietnam to take concrete steps to improve its human rights record by:

1) restoring the legitimate status of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and guaranteeing its full freedom of activity. As Vietnam’s largest civil society movement, the UBCV could play a vital role in Vietnam’s spiritual, cultural, educational, social and economic development;

2) releasing UBCV leader Thich Quang Do and all other prisoners detained for peaceful acts of expression and religion, and cease harassment and repression against UBCV members;

3) authorising the publication of privately-run media, as requested by Thich Quang Do in 2000.

In conclusion, Mr. Ai stressed that religious freedom is the key to democratization in Vietnam. He called upon the Human Rights Sub-Committee to hold a hearing in the Australian Parliament on the situation of the UBCV and its movement for religious freedom, democracy and human rights in Vietnam.

(1) For more information on the UPR of Vietnam, see Universal Periodic Review of Vietnam 2009
(2) For more information on the Appeal of Thich Quang Do, see UBCV leader Thich Quang Do calls for a month of civil disobedience and at-home demonstrations in May to protest environmental destruction (IBIB, 1st April 2009>

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