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Buddhist Delegation calls on Australia to raise persecution of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam in the upcoming Australia-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue

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CANBERRA, 26 November 2009 (IBIB) – At the invitation of the Australian Parliament’s Human Rights Sub-Committee, a delegation of Buddhists from the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam Overseas (UBCVO) from Europe and the USA were in Canberra today for a Briefing with the Sub-Committee on repression against Buddhists in Vietnam. The visit comes just before Australia holds its human rights dialogue with Vietnam.

The delegation was led by Mr. Vo Van Ai, International UBCV Spokesman and Foreign Affairs Commissioner of the UBCVO, with Venerable Thich Vien Ly UBVCO Secretary General (USA), Venerable Thich Giac Dang, Information Commissioner, (USA), Venerable Thich Phuoc Nhon, UBVCO Representative in Australia, Penelope Faulkner, Deputy Director of the International Buddhist Information Bureau (Paris), and Sister Bao Truong of the Australian UBCVO. The Briefing was hosted by the Sub-Committee’s Chair, Ms. Kerry Rea MP.

The delegation reported on the latest developments regarding the outlawed UBCV, including the arrests and harassment of Buddhist monks, nuns and lay-followers, expulsions from pagodas and Police suppression of independent religious activities. Vo Van Ai noted that this was “not a string of isolated incidents”, but a “deliberate and concerted policy decided at the highest levels of the Communist Party and State”. He urged the Australian Parliament to press for substantive improvements in religious freedom and human rights in Vietnam. The Sub-Committee said that this information would be raised at the forthcoming human rights dialogue in early December.

(below are Mr. Vo Van Ai’s remarks):

Madame Chair, Distinguished members of the Human Rights Sub-Committee,

We deeply appreciate this opportunity to inform you about the grave situation of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV). Repression against Buddhists in Vietnam today is not just a string of isolated incidents, but the result of a deliberate and consistent policy conceived at the highest levels of the Communist Party and State. It is a policy aimed not only against Buddhists and other religious communities, but against all those who speak out for freedom and human rights in Vietnam’s one-Party State. It is this policy that we have come to describe to you today.

Initially, when North and South Vietnam were united under Communist rule in 1975, the Party aimed to eradicate religions altogether. They launched a brutal crackdown on the UBCV, arresting and even murdering its members, forcing monks to join the army despite their non-violent vows, and banning all religious activities.

But this policy failed. When one monk was arrested, another took his place. When Police closed down UBCV Pagodas, new ones opened. The Buddhists made it clear from the very start that they would continue to speak out, not only to defend their own community, but to demand human rights and freedom for all the Vietnamese people.

The Communist Party decided that if it could not destroy Buddhism by force, it would control it. In 1981, they set up a State-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church. This became the only Buddhist organization recognized by the government. From then on, the UBCV was banned. At the same time, the Communist Party realized that Buddhism had “utility value”: it enhanced its image internationally, and could also be a lucrative source of income. Historic Buddhist Pagodas that had been smashed by the Government were suddenly restored, and turned into tourist attractions. For the first time in Vietnamese history, religion became a paying commodity.

The Party’s objective, defined in its Political report to the 7th Plenum, was not to improve religious freedom but to “increase state management of religious affairs”. Mr. Do Trung Hieu, a high-ranking Communist religious official, described the policy as an attempt to turn Buddhism into a political tool, by tolerating a façade of “freedom of worship” whilst ensuring that true “freedom of religion” was suppressed. He was immediately arrested for this declaration.

The government then set up a vast network of controls to control the Buddhists, beginning with the three-fold mechanism of the “Ly lich”, or curriculum vitae – on which monks and nuns must declare the political affiliations of even their families and friends; the “Ho Khau”, or obligatory residence permit without which one is an illegal citizen; and the “Cong an khu vuc”, local Security Police who control every movement of the people in their ward, and have full powers to arrest anyone at will.

A “religious police force” was created, headquartered in Hanoi with sections in all the provinces, towns and villages. My Committee has obtained a copy of a 600-page instruction manual, published by the Hanoi Institute of Public Security Science, with a print-run of 1 million copies, which trains religious police how to “struggle against religions”. It particularly targets the UBCV, giving clear directives to “oppose, repress, isolate and divide” UBCV members, promote “Buddhism with socialist orientations”, and “wipe out the [UBCV] once and for all.”

This Secret Party document also gives instructions to train “special agents” to infiltrate the UBCV, not only to report on its activities, but also to create splits and dissent within its ranks. Several thousands of police disguised as monks have infiltrated Buddhist pagodas, where they keep permanent surveillance on all the activities of the monks and followers. At the same time, the government has created a climate of fear, with Police threatening Buddhists that they will lose their jobs, or their children be expelled from school if they do not renounce the UBCV.

New laws have been adopted to criminalize religious and political dissent. Ordinance 44 on “administrative detention” empowers Police to detain government critics under house arrest without trial or intern them in psychiatric hospitals. It has vastly expanded the prison system. 650 new pre-trial detention centres have been built – one new centre per district in addition to the existing centres in each province and town. Worst of all is the practice of house arrest without trial and permanent Police surveillance. UBCV leader Thich Quang Do, is under house arrest at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Saigon. He has spent 27 years in detention simply for his peaceful religious beliefs.

This is the crux of the conflict between the Vietnamese government and the UBCV. UBCV Buddhists practice “engaged Buddhism”, bringing Buddhist ideals of compassion and tolerance into everyday life by engaging in the fight against poverty, discrimination, injustice – and, in today’s context, for fundamental human rights. It is the voice of civil society in a country where the individual has no voice. Thich Quang Do has spoken openly on environmental issues such as the plan to mine Bauxite in the Central Highlands, against Chinese encroachment on the Spratly and Paracel islands and Vietnam’s territorial lands and waters, on the rights of farmers whose lands have been seized by the State, or against the death penalty. These are issues that must be addressed, and Vietnam cannot ignore them by shooting at the messengers and silencing the UBCV.

Vietnam is a member of the UN Security Council, and assumes presidency of ASEAN and its new Intergovernmental Human Rights Commission next year. It must set an example by improving its human rights practices. This is why we appreciate this briefing today, for without international pressure, we fear Vietnam will not take the road to reform. In September, at its Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council, Vietnam rejected over 40 recommendations by Australia and other member states to advance human rights. Economic progress is vital, but it is not sustainable without freedom, human rights and the rule of law. International pressure is fundamental most important to We hope that Australia will take a leading role in helping Vietnam to take the path to reform.

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