HANOI, Nov 22 (AFP) – One of Vietnam’s most prominent religious dissidents was prevented by police Monday from visiting the gravely ill patriarch of an outlawed Buddhist church, triggering a tense roadside stand-off.
The vehicle transporting Thich Quang Do, the deputy head of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), and other senior monks was stopped shortly after leaving the southern business capital of Ho Chi Minh City.
Vo Van Ai, director of the church’s Paris-based information arm, the International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB), said the monks had told him by telephone from the van that they had refused to move.
“Security police intercepted the vehicle and told Thich Quang Do that he must return to Ho Chi Minh City immediately for a working session with police,” he told AFP.
The 2003 Nobel Peace Prize nominee refused, resulting in a stand-off in Dong Nai province, northeast of the city, that lasted for several hours.
“Around 100 plain-clothes police and thugs surrounded the vehicle on motorbikes and were abusive. The situation became very tense and Thich Quang Do decided the best course of action was to return to Ho Chi Minh City,” Ai said.
The incident happened just hours after 50 monks staged an early morning sit-down protest in the city when police prevented the vehicle from picking up the 76-year-old Thich Quang Do from his monastery.
Thich Vien Dinh, a senior monk, told IBIB that he had refused to let police impound the vehicle and had alerted monks at a nearby pagoda who came and surrounded it. Police dispersed others that gathered at the scene, he added.
A local security official confirmed that a vehicle had been stopped but refused to say why or comment on the protest. Foreign ministry spokesman Le Dung, however, said reports of police intervention were a “complete fabrication”.
The vehicle was eventually allowed to proceed to pick up Thich Quang Do and leave the city to visit church patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, who is seriously ill in hospital in Quy Nhon city, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north.
Thich Quang Do and Thich Huyen Quang were placed under de facto house arrest in October last year and accused of being in possession of state secrets and trying to reorganise the church with the help of outside forces.
Dung, however, denied they had been placed under formal house detention.
The UBCV was officially banned in 1981 because it refused to come under the ruling Communist Party’s control.
On Sunday Thich Quang Do received a visit from US diplomats, including Elizabeth Dugan, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Also on Sunday, Michael Marine, the US Ambassador to Vietnam, visited the church’s 87-year-old leader in hospital.
“Yesterday, the Vietnamese authorities made a positive gesture by enabling Thich Quang Do to receive a delegation of US diplomats for the first time this year,” IBIB director Vo Van Ai said.
“Today, they have destroyed all this credit by preventing him from going to the bedside of his friend and colleague Thich Huyen Quang.” In September the US State Department designated Vietnam as one of the world’s worst offenders on religious freedom.
Thich Huyen Quang, who was hospitalised last Thursday with a stomach hemorrhage, has spent the past 23 years in internal exile because of his appeals for religious freedom, human rights and democratic reforms.
In April 2003, during a trip to Hanoi for urgent medical treatment, he was received by Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in a historic meeting that raised hopes of a new era of religious tolerance for the outlawed church.
These hopes were soon dashed, however, after the UBCV elected a new leadership, triggering a renewed crackdown on the church and its members.