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AFP : Dissident Vietnamese monks in vehicle stand-off with police

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HANOI, Oct 8 (AFP) – Two senior monks from an outlawed Buddhist Church in Vietnam were in a tense stand-off Wednesday with security forces after their vehicle was surrounded and immobilised, overseas Buddhist sources said.

Thich Huyen Quang, patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), and his deputy Thich Quang Do told the Paris-based International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB) they would not move from the minibus in protest.

Quang, who has been under effective house arrest without charge or trial for more than two decades, also told IBIB director Vo Van Ai by mobile phone that he had begun a hunger strike.

Undercover security police, meanwhile, were preventing monks and nuns from leaving 20 pagodas in the central city of Hue, a former hotbed of Buddhist dissent, IBIB said. Hue police denied the claims.

The two UBCV leaders, accompanied by six other monks and three lay-followers, set off at 5:00 am (2200 GMT Tuesday) for Ho Chi Minh City from the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in the central province of Binh Dinh.

Shortly afterwards, security police and a group of about 40 people blocked the road and banned them from leaving the monastery, claiming that “the people did not want Thich Huyen Quang to go,” the IBIB said in a statement.

The 86-year-old patriarch and his 75-year-old deputy, a 2003 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, declared they would remain in the vehicle until the order was lifted and they were allowed to travel freely.

Speaking from inside the van near the monastery, Quang told Ai the situation was very tense and that the crowd had surrounded the vehicle, punctured its tyres, and thrown stones at the windows.

Citing a monk on the scene, an IBIB spokeswoman later said that by early afternoon around 200 monks from the monastery and about 1,000 locals had formed a protective human wall around the vehicle.

No clashes were reported with the security forces but a monk who tried to film the proceedings had his video camera confiscated, she said.

The Vietnamese foreign ministry was silent over the stand-off, while local police claimed ignorance.

This latest incident is likely to be used by congressional lobbies in the United States to put further pressure on the Bush administration to take action against the communist regime over its human rights record.

“This is very unfortunate, very worrying and very counterproductive to Vietnam’s international image,” said one Western diplomat.

Another diplomat said the European Union would register its concerns with the government.

Tension has been escalating at the monastery over the past few days.

On Sunday and Monday, Do was summoned for “working sessions” by the local security police and provincial officials and told he must go back to Ho Chi Minh City immediately, the IBIB said.

Since Quang was suffering from a painful throat condition, Do invited him to travel with him to Ho Chi Minh City and seek medical treatment, it added.

The stand-off follows a wave of harassment of UBCV monks which began early last month when police heard that Quang and Do had called a special UBCV assembly on September 16-19 to reorganize its structure.

The IBIB said dozens of monks were summoned for interrogation by police and threatened with reprisals if they attended the assembly or accepted positions within the church, which was banned in 1981 by the Communist Party.

Do and Quang were arrested in February 1982 and banished into internal exile. In August 1995, Do was sentenced to five years imprisonment for organizing a relief mission for flood victims in the southern Mekong Delta.

He was released in a presidential amnesty three years later but Ho Chi Minh City authorities reactivated two years of his sentence, placing him under house arrest in June 2001 after he called for democracy.

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