On the occasion of the Lunar New Year, the Very Venerable Thich Quang Do, Deputy leader of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) has launched a vibrant appeal to Vietnamese from all different political and religious currents to rally together in a common effort for democracy in Vietnam. In an “Open Letter to Vietnamese personalities, intellectuals, writers, artists and all compatriots at home and abroad”, sent via the International Buddhist Information Bureau, Thich Quang Do called upon all Vietnamese to engage together to “fray a Path of Peace for Vietnam in the year 2005… a path of democracy and pluralism that will bring true stability, development and well-being to the Vietnamese people”, and build a society in which “the people have the right to chose their own political system and enjoy full democratic freedoms and rights…”
Thich Quang Do’s “Open Letter” is addressed to dissidents from all walks of life, including Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and military veterans, academics close to the VCP, human rights defenders, cyber-dissidents and all those who have called for political and democratic reforms in Vietnam. This is the first time a UBCV leader has addressed a Message to citizens outside the Buddhist community, and it constitutes a major step forward for the Vietnamese democracy movement. Thich Quang Do was unable to take this initiative before, because, “for more than two decades, the UBCV leadership and I have been in prison or house arrest, under the strictest surveillance”. These restrictions are unchanged, he said, but the time is ripe for the Vietnamese intelligentsia to assume a leading role in creating a breach in Vietnam’s closed society and triggering off a process of democratization.
Throughout more than 4,000 years of Vietnamese history, he said, “Vietnamese intellectuals (1) have always been the first to seize the significance of events. Thanks to their deep understanding and knowledge, they have unfailingly been the vanguard of movements to defend our nation and protect the people’s welfare… Since Vietnam won its independence from colonial rule, we have been governed by a succession of political regimes… But none have brought freedom and welfare to the people, and today, Vietnam is far behind its neighbours in terms of human development”. After 70 years of unsuccessful experimentation in communism, once again, Vietnam “needs the help of its intelligentsia to take the nation’s affairs into hand”, and keep pace with new global trends. Since the demise of Communism and the end of the Cold War, “the world is moving towards greater cooperation and dialogue, with the development of global economics and the advancement of democracy worldwide”. It is time for Vietnamese intellectuals to “advocate and initiate a democratic process in Vietnam… We must not wait any longer”.
“I have thought deeply during my long years in detention, and I can see no solution other than democracy and pluralism to bring our country out of poverty. The simple reason is that many ideas are more productive than one imposed doctrine; the participation of many different political, religious and social sectors in rebuilding our country is more effective than the management of a one-Party state under a planned economy”.
Democracy does not just concern one political faction or group, but all Vietnamese, for it is the guarantor of religious freedom and human rights. “Democracy and pluralism are indispensable for solving the grave problems that have beset our country for the past 30 years. They are also crucial for the survival of the UBCV, for we shall never be free from religious repression until a process of democratization is under way. Democracy is the solution that all our people are longing for”.
In his letter, Thich Quang Do reassured the Hanoi leadership that they have nothing to fear from a democratic process, for it does not threaten the survival of the communist party : “The VCP and the government should not be afraid that freedom and democracy will make them lose power. Not at all ? Rather, they should be afraid that they have ruled unjustly and betrayed the people’s confidence. That’s more important than losing power. The people are very knowledgeable these days. They are very perceptive and well-informed. They can tell who is really sincere and who truly has the people’s welfare at heart. Take the example of communist parties in Eastern Europe. They have embraced democracy and the multi-party system. Yet in countries like the Czech Republic and Poland, people vote freely for the communist party. The important thing is that all parties participate on an equal footing, and people have the freedom to choose between competing political platforms. The VCP should not be afraid that too many parties will create disorder. On the contrary, it should be afraid of holding back the people’s development with its obscurantist policies. For if the people are kept in ignorance, even a one-party system creates disorder”. Thich Quang Do suggested that a tripartite system, with political parties representing the left, centre and right could be sufficient. “But at the same time, we must encourage the emergence of a multitude of civil society movements in every domain” to defend the people’s interests and rights.
Against a backdrop of rising popular discontent, he said, a democratic process was the only way of avoiding violent uprising in Vietnam : “In today’s volatile climate, people who truly care about the country’s future are driven into a corner, waiting for the people’s anger to explode, like a river bursting its banks”. In Asian traditions, people and their rulers are like water and the boat. “So why not take the peaceful path, and let the water keep the boat afloat, instead of letting the water overturn it?”
Vietnam’s rulers hoped to suppress the people’s protests by violence, but they would not succeed, he said : “The government should not think that because it has prisons, a massive army and a strong police force, it can do whatever it wants. The best way to ensure political stability is to build a regime founded on the support of the people”, by the means of democratic elections and universal suffrage.
Defining his own role and that of the UBCV, Thich Quang Do explained : “The UBCV and the Buddhist Sangha (monks and nuns), are not allowed to engage in politics. We cannot take up a political position. But we have the duty to take a political stance. This stance is the very expression of the fundamental teachings of Buddhist philosophy, for we share a commitment to emancipate our fellows from suffering and injustice”… In face of political or religious repression, Buddhists are thus duty-bound to oppose and criticize the ruling powers in order to defend the victims.
“Whilst the UBCV cannot engage in politics”, he said, “it can, and should, support genuine political efforts aimed at defending the nation, upholding our culture and identity, promoting the social and economic welfare of the people, and protecting the human rights enshrined in the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Vietnam acceded in 1982”. The UBCV would lend its support to any valid, non-violent initiatives launched by Vietnamese democrats, dissidents and human rights defenders from different walks of life.
Moreover, he emphasized, whilst monks and nuns could not engage in politics, this was not so for Buddhist lay-followers : “Buddhist lay-men and lay-women are active members of society, and they are fully free to participate in all aspects of the nation’s life, such as economy, culture, social affairs, science, technology, politics etc… in a spirit of impartiality and for the good of all”.
Thich Quang Do recalled that in 2001, he had launched an “Appeal for Democracy in Vietnam” with an 8-point transition plan for democratic change. Because of this, he was sentenced to 2 years administrative detention and placed under detention incommunicado. “I hope that, with the objective situation in the coming year, the appeals and actions of Vietnamese intellectuals will be more successful and effective in initiating a true and lasting process of democratization in Vietnam.”
(1) Thich Quang Do uses the word “si phu” which means at the same time gentleman, scholar, man of letters, statesman etc… in Vietnamese. The word “intellectual” is evidently a very poor approximation of this term.