PARIS, 2 March 2012 (IBIB) – The Most Venerable Thich Quang Do, prominent dissident and Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) has written to the US President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Speaker of the US House of Representatives Joe Boehner, calling on the US Administration to stand firm on human rights, religious freedom and democracy in Vietnam. He also stressed the need to maintain the Voice of America’s Vietnamese service, which risks being reduced to an online service due to budget cuts.
Thich Quang Do on New Year’s Day 2012
Thich Quang Do, 83, who is a 2012 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, sent the letters clandestinely from the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Saigon where he is under de facto house arrest. They were forwarded to the President, Secretary of State and the Speaker by the International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB) in Paris.
In the letters, Thich Quang Do lamented Vietnam’s unabated repression against the UBCV, which he described as one of the “sole civil society movements that the regime has been unable to destroy”. “The UBCV has vast human resources, and we could contribute to such to our country’s development if only we were free… I call upon you, Mr. President, to urge Vietnam to re-establish the legitimate status of the UBCV and all other non-recognized religious communities and release all Vietnamese citizens who are detained for the peaceful expression of their political opinions or religious beliefs”.
The UBCV Patriarch welcomed the US Administration’s foreign policy stress on Asia, and support for initiatives of democratization in non-democratic countries: “I am deeply encouraged by the declarations that both you and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made about America’s strong focus on Asia and the Pacific region in its foreign policy. This is most important, for I firmly believe that advancing democratic progress in Asia is the key to peace, prosperity and stability, not only in our region but ultimately in the world.”
(Below is the full text of the letter).
Dear Mr. President,
I am a Buddhist monk, currently under house arrest in Vietnam. In fact, I have spent the past thirty years in prison, internal exile or under house arrest simply for pursuing my non-violent ideals of tolerance, compassion and human rights. I am still under house arrest today, and I send this letter through underground channels from the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Saigon where I am detained without any justification or charge.
During my long years in internal exile in an isolated pagoda in Northern Vietnam from 1982-1992, the radio was my only link with the outside world. Each day, I listened to the broadcasts of international radio stations, including the VOA. They were a real life-line to me. They not only kept me informed of world affairs, but they were like a true companion, enabling me to feel that I was not alone. During the dark days when my mother, who was exiled with me, died of cold and hunger, this daily link helped me to bear my solitude and keep my spirit and determination alive.
I have just heard that the VOA is faced with budget cuts and may be forced to stop broadcasting to Vietnam. This would be a great loss, not only for scores of millions of listeners in Vietnam and other non-democratic countries, but also for America, for the VOA carries your countries’ prestige.
In the democratic world, news is taken for granted. Floods of news pour into countries from a host of diverse channels – newsprint, radio, Internet or TV, so much that people don’t know which to choose. This is not so in Vietnam. Under the one-Party state, there is not one single independent newspaper, radio or TV. All information is controlled by the Communist Party of Vietnam. Even international satellite TV is broadcast with thirty minutes delay so the Party can monitor and censor its contents. For people living under censorship, radio stations such as the VOA are vital. It would be tragic if the Voice of America was reduced to the “whisper of America”. I do hope you will reconsider this issue in all urgency, and maintain this essential radio service.
I also take this opportunity to call on you to stand firm on the question of human rights and democratic freedoms in Vietnam. I am deeply encouraged by the declarations that both you and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made about America’s strong focus on Asia and the Pacific region in its foreign policy. This is most important, for I firmly believe that advancing democratic progress in Asia is the key to peace, prosperity and stability, not only in our region but ultimately in the world.
You have repeatedly stressed the importance of civil society in the process of peaceful development and democratization. Today, in Vietnam’s closed political society, the religious movements, particularly Buddhism, the majority religion which has a 2,000-year tradition in Vietnam, are amongst the sole civil society movements that the regime has been unable to destroy. As such, they have a crucial role to play in the peaceful transition to a vibrant and pluralistic society.
Since 1975, when the Communist regime took power in Vietnam, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) has ceaselessly struggled for freedom and human rights. The movement began on 2nd November 1975, when 12 monks and nuns self-immolated at the Duoc Su Zen Monastery in Can Tho to appeal for religious freedom. This was the first ever public protest in Communist Vietnam. Despite government repression, the movement has continued to grow. In May 1993, 40,000 Buddhists demonstrated in the city of Hue to protest religious repression and the respect of human rights. Since 1975, 22 Buddhists have self-immolated to call for an end to persecution and the respect of human rights
Today, the UBCV is banned by the authorities and supplanted by a State-sponsored Buddhist body under Communist Party control. Yet we continue our nonviolent movement. In 2001, I launched an “Appeal for Democracy in Vietnam”, which received overwhelming support from hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese from all religious and political affiliations, and I continue to challenge the government on issues of human rights and political reforms. For these “crimes”, the government keeps me under house arrest at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Saigon. I am under continuous Police surveillance, forbidden to travel, and all my communications are monitored. It is thanks to a vast and courageous network of UBCV Buddhists inside and outside the country that I can maintain communications with the outside world.
The UBCV has vast human resources, and we could contribute so much to our country’s development if only we were free. Yet the government is determined to stifle our voice. Each day, UBCV monks, nuns and followers are braving arrests, harassments, Police surveillance and intimidation on account of their peaceful beliefs. I call upon you, Mr. President, to urge Vietnam to re-establish the legitimate status of the UBCV and all other non-recognized religious communities, and to release all Vietnamese citizens who are detained for the peaceful expression of their political opinions or religious beliefs.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright grasped the essential role of Buddhism in Vietnam’s democratic process when she commented in her book, “The Mighty and the Almighty”:
“Even the Vietnam War, primarily a struggle over political ideology and nationalism, has a religious component. From the outset, the anti-communist cause was undermined because the government in Saigon [which the US was propping up], repressed Buddhism, the largest noncommunist institution in the country… This was hardly the way to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people”.
I hope that this past experience will help you, Mr. President, to have a clearer vision of Buddhism’s potential in contributing to the emergence of a new era of democracy, security and peace in Asia and the Pacific region. I place my trust in you to stand by the people of Vietnam and maintain human rights, religious freedom and democracy at the centre of your relationship with Vietnam.
Sramana THICH QUANG DO
Fifth Supreme Patriarch
Head of the Institute of the Sangha
Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam