Thich Thien Minh, secular name Huynh Van Ba, 51, was released in a government amnesty on 2, February 2005. A member of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), former Superior monk of Vinh Binh Pagoda in Bac Lieu, southern Vietnam, Thich Thien Minh was detained for 26 years for his support of the banned UBCV. He spent long terms in solitary confinement, chained by the hands and feet, because of his protests against the ill-treatment and poor detention conditions of his fellow inmates. Just after he arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Thich Thien Minh spoke to the International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB) by telephone before paying a brief visit to UBCV Deputy leader Thich Quang Do and taking the bus to Bac Lieu. This is the first time he has spoken out publicly in 26 years. IBIB is honoured to present extracts of the conversation with this exceptional man. The full text, which gives details of his life in the re-education camp, is on the IBIB / Quê Me website :
On 6 February 2005, I.B.I.B. again spoke with Venerable Thich Thien Minh. He had arrived in Bac Lieu and just paid a visit to his brother. Since his arrest, the prison authorities had never informed Thich Thien Minh’s family about his situation. His brother thought he had died in the camp, and set up an altar in his home, where he prayed for Thich Thien Minh every day. Thich Thien Minh said his brother had suffered continuous harassments and pressures from the Police and authorities for many years simply because of his links with the dissident monk.
I.B.I.B. : Venerable Thich Thien Minh, what are your feelings on your first day of freedom ?
Thich Thien Minh : I have been in re-education camp for 26 years. More than a quarter of a century in detention, simply for supporting the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV). A quarter of a century is not much compared with the long history of the Vietnamese people and humankind. But a quarter of a century in the life of a human being is a terribly long time. Especially for a monk, who has a mission to devote his life to helping others…
I was told that I owe my release to the government’s “so-called” policy of clemency. But for me, their “clemency” has come too late. I have suffered too much harsh treatment for too long. In my opinion, their amnesty of political prisoners was prompted by the pressures and insistence of the international community. Releasing political prisoners, prisoners of conscience and religious prisoners is a sensible and necessary act. But they did it as a defensive reaction, something they were forced to do, not something they genuinely wanted to do.
If they have set me free with the intention of placing me under house arrest, administrative detention or subjecting me to further unfair treatment or discrimination on my release, then it won’t be true freedom. It will be just like transferring me from one prison to another, to a different kind of prison, that’s all.
I believe that, as long as there is no true freedom, democracy or human rights in Vietnam, the whole 80-million Vietnamese people, including myself, will be condemned to live like shadows, crushed by fear, doubt, disillusion and beset by a thousand hardships and cares. These are my thoughts on my first day of freedom.
I.B.I.B. : How many political prisoners are there in Z30A reeducation camp today ?
Thich Thien Minh : There are still a number of political prisoners, and some religious prisoners too. For example, there is Father Pham Minh Tri – he has suffered from dementia for the past 10 years, but they still keep him in the camp – and Father Nguyen Duc Vinh of the Congregation of the Mother Co-redemptrix. Both these Catholic priests have been detained for 18 years, yet they have still not been released. There is also an old man belonging to a branch of the Hoa Hao Sect (Buu son Ky huong). His name is Ngo Quang Vinh. He is 87 years old, and walks with a stick. He is terribly weak and in very poor health, yet they keep him locked in the camp. There are so many elderly political prisoners in Z30A camp, 70-80 year-old men who came into the camp as strong, healthy youths with heads of shining black hair. Now their hair has turned white, their bodies are bent, yet they are still detained. Even if they are released one day, they will be just like walking skeletons, good for nothing, just an extra burden for their families.
I.B.I.B. : Did you have to accept any conditions in order to benefit from this amnesty ?
Thich Thien Minh : During the working session with the officials from the Ministry of Public Security, I insisted that they give me back the pagoda they confiscated [in 1976]. They told me to calm down, not to make demands too hastily, to let the Vietnamese government address my problems step by step. These sounded like empty promises to me, they smacked of insincerity… Some of the Public Security officials told me I must confine myself to practicing Buddhism after my release and promise not criticize or oppose the government as I did before.
I gave them my honest opinion, plain and clear. I said: “Uncle Ho once declared, wherever there is oppression and injustice, struggle will inevitably follow. Surely, then, the real question that the Vietnamese government should be asking themselves is not why the people are opposing or criticizing them, but whether they themselves have provoked opposition by being oppressive and unjust? That is my point of view.
I.B.I.B. : Is there anything you would like to add ?
Thich Thien Minh : Whilst I was in the camp, I heard from some of my prison colleagues who were arrested after me that the international community had launched appeals for the release of all political prisoners, prisoners of conscience and religious prisoners in Vietnam. Amongst these people is Mr. Vo Van Ai. I want to thank him, and ask him to convey my warmest thanks to the U.S Commission on International Religious Freedom, the U.S. government and Congress, the European Union and Parliament, the United Nations, especially Mr. Amor, international human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International (their HQ in London and their section in Spain), as well as the radio stations, media and caring people all over the world. I thank all those who have worked selflessly and without rest to obtain the release of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam, prisoners who are detained simply because they have struggled non-violently, day and night, to realize their ideals of freedom, democracy and human rights. Thank you for supporting us and raising your voices on our behalf. I thank you all, from the bottom of my heart.
Biographocal notes : Thich Thien Minh, secular name Huynh Van Ba, was born in 1954 in the southern province of Bac Lieu. In 1976, the authorities confiscated the Vinh Binh Pagoda in Bac Lieu, where he was Superior monk, for use as a warehouse for the local militia, and later razed it down to build a market. Because of his protests and active support of the banned UBCV, Thich Thien was arrested 1979, sentenced to life imprisonment and detained in Z30A re-education camp in Xuan Loc, Dong Nai province. In 1986, he was condemned to a second life sentence by an ad hoc prison tribunal for attempting to escape from the camp. In 1995, along with 200 political prisoners, he launched an appeal for democracy, human rights and the abolition of Article 4 of the Vietnamese Constitution (on the monopoly of the Communist Party). In 1996, he again signed a Petition with 200 political prisoners calling for improved detention conditions. Because of his frequent protests on behalf of his fellow inmates, Thich Thien Minh was routinely punished with solitary confinement, chained by his feet and hands. In 1997, the U.N. proclaimed Thich Thien Minh a victim of arbitrary detention. In 1998, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, Mr. Abdelfattah Amor visited Thich Thich Minh at Z30A Camp. In 2004, thanks to international pressure, his sentence was commuted to 20 years in prison. He was due for release in 2006. Arrested at the age of 25, Thich Thien MInh is now 51 years old.