The Norwegian Ambassador to Vietnam, H.E. Kjell Storløkken and the First Secretary of the Norwegian Embassy in charge of Political and Economic affairs, Mr. Fredrik Steen, paid a visit to Venerable Thich Quang Do, Deputy leader of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) on Monday 2nd July 2007, at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Ho Chi Minh City, where Thich Quang Do is currently under house arrest.
The visit follows a recent debate in the Norwegian parliament (Storting) in which political groups from right to left unanimously denounced the escalation of human rights abuses in Vietnam, and mandated the Norwegian government and its Embassy in Hanoi to closely monitor the situation of democracy activists and human rights defenders. The Norwegian Parliament particularly denounced the treatment of Venerable Thich Quang Do, laureate of the 2006 Norwegian Rafto Prize for Human Rights Defenders and 2007 Nobel Peace prize nominee. Thich Quang Do was not allowed to travel to Norway to receive the prize in November 2006, and in March 2007, Rafto representative Therese Jebsen was arrested as she visited the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery and tried to hand the Rafto Award Diploma to Thich Quang Do.
Speaking with UBCV International Spokesman Vo Van Ai by mobile telephone, Venerable Thich Quang Do described the 90-minute meeting (from 9.00am until 10.30am) as very friendly, open and positive.
In the course of discussions, the Norwegian Ambassador expressed his hope that some day Vietnamese Buddhists could unite in one body and bring an end to the conflict between the State-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church and the independent UBCV. He asked Venerable Thich Quang Do whether this would ever be possible ? Thich Quang Do replied that this schism was not created by Vietnamese Buddhists but by temporal forces seeking to transform Buddhism into a tool for their political ends. He described how Buddhism had been divided twice in the past by the Communist regime.
The first time was after Vietnam was partitioned into North and South by the 1954 Geneva Agreement. Ho Chi Minh took control of North Vietnam and established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1955. Two years later, he disbanded the General Association of Vietnamese Buddhists (GAVB), the forefather of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (1), and established the “Association of Unified Vietnamese Buddhists” under strict Communist Party control. Monks, nuns and lay-followers of the banned GAVB were arrested, detained and tortured, and Buddhist practices were virtually suppressed. Secondly, in 1975, after the Communist military victory over South Vietnam, the Communist Party applied the same policy against Buddhists in the South, although it proved a harder task. Whereas Ho Chi Minh took only two years to disband the General Association of Vietnamese Buddhists in the North, the Communist Party in South Vietnam took almost six years before it succeeded in outlawing the independent Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and setting up the State-controlled Vietnam Buddhist Church (VBC) in 1981.
Venerable Thich Quang Do told the Norwegian Ambassador that Hanoi was implementing a two-fold policy aimed at suppressing religions in general, and the UBCV in particular. On the one hand, the regime uses blatant repression, harassment, detention, house arrest and even murder to stifle and eliminate UBCV leaders and followers. On the other hand, it implements tactics ranging from coercion, intimidation to persuasion and enticement to force or lure UBCV monks to join State-sanctioned bodies, thus turning them into agents of the Communist Party and pawns in the State’s efforts to control the mass of Buddhist followers.
Because Vietnam is striving to integrate the international community and exhibit “Communism with a human face”, Hanoi cannot organize brutal crackdowns or hold publicized trials against Buddhists as in the past. Today, Thich Quang Do explained, repression is much more insidious and sophisticated. In this period marred by conflicts based on religious fundamentalism, Hanoi is trying to discredit the UBCV and frighten away international opinion by portraying the UBCV leaders as “political”, “extremist”, “seeking to overthrow the regime”. This is totally untrue, said Thich Quang Do, stressing that Hanoi’s real aim is to suppress and eliminate the independent UBCV because of its peaceful demands for religious freedom and human rights. Hanoi claims it is committed to “Buddhist reunification” – but if this were true, he said, the Communist leadership would let Buddhists meet freely to work out these issues amongst themselves without political interference.
Thich Quang Do told Ambassador Storløkken that the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam was prepared to accept Buddhist reunification only if four fundamental conditions were fulfilled :
1) that Vietnam should first re-establish the legal status of the banned UBCV ;
2) that Vietnam should restore all cultural, educational, religious, humanitarian institutions, estates and property confiscated from the UBCV since 1975. First and foremost, Vietnam should immediately return two key UBCV institutions, i.e. the Vietnam Quoc Tu Pagoda and the Quang Duc Cultural Centre in Saigon to provide accommodation for the UBCV’s Bi-cameral Institutes, the Institute of the Sangha (Vien Tang Thong) and the Institute for the Dissemination of the Faith (Vien Hoa Dao) ;
3) that Vietnam should release the Vietnam Buddhist Church, set up by the Communist Party and the government in 1981, from Communist Party control. It should function independently, and not be a member of the CPV’s Vietnam Fatherland Front ;
4) that Vietnam should clarify the circumstances of the death of UBCV leader Thich Thien Minh, who died under torture during Police interrogations in Saigon in 1978.
(1) In fact, according to the annals of Vietnamese history, unified Buddhism dates back to the Dinh dynasty (10th century AD) when the Sangha (order of monks and nuns) formed one united body, or “Church” under the leadership of a Patriarch. The first mention of a Buddhist Patriarch is found in the “Complete Annals of the Dai Viet” (Dai Viet Su ky toan thu) : “In the Year of the Goat (971 AD), the king defined the hierarchy of civilians, military and Buddhist monks. He gave the Buddhist Patriarch Ngô Chân Luu the title of “Great Master, protector of the Viet nation”. Under French colonial rule, Buddhism went into a period of decline. In the 1920s, Buddhist monks and lay-followers launched a movement for the renaissance of Vietnamese Buddhism. Thanks to this movement, the “Cochin-China Buddhist Studies Association” was founded in Saigon (1931), the “Annam Buddhist Association” in Hue (1932) and the “Tonkin Buddhist Association in Hanoi” (1934) etc… On 6 May 1951, Buddhist monks, nuns and lay-followers from northern, central and southern Vietnam held a National Buddhist Congress in Hue and founded the Vietnam General Buddhist Association. It was called an “association” because Colonial Decree No. 10 stipulated that only Catholicism was entitled to the status of “Church”, whereas all other religions were reduced to the mere status of an association. After the Buddhist struggle for religious freedom and the fall of the Ngo Dinh Diem government in 1963, Decree No. 10 was abolished. In 1964, Buddhism officially regained its full, legitimate status under the name of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (note by IBIB).