During the One World International Human Rights Film Festival held in Prague (Czech Republic) from 8-16 April 2003 under the auspices of former President Vaclav Havel and the Mayor of Prague, the People in Need–Czech TV Foundation awarded the Homo Homini Award to three Vietnamese human rights defenders, the Most Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, Venerable Thich Quang Do and Father Nguyen Van Ly. As all three are currently under house arrest or in prison, the Foundation invited IBIB Director Vo Van Ai to receive the awards on their behalf.
The Homo Homini Award is awarded to “persons with outstanding merits in promoting human rights, democracy, and the non-violent resolution of political conflicts”. Previous laureates include Zackie Achmat of South Africa for his campaigns on behalf of AIDS victims in the Third World, Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova, Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya Sardinas, and Russian Duma Deputy Sergey Kovalyov for raising public opinion against the war in Chetchnya.
At the Award Ceremony on April 9th at the Lucerna Cinema in Prague, People in Need Foundation’s Executive Director Tomas Pojar conferred the award to Venerables Thich Huyen Quang, Thich Quang Do and Father Nguyen Van Ly as “distinguished defenders of human rights and democratic and religious freedoms in Vietnam. They receive the award for their personal courage and their peaceful resistance to the Vietnamese Communist regime for the past thirty years. By this decision, the People in Need Foundation also wished to express its respect and support to all representatives of the democratic opposition in Vietnam who have been striving for a non-violent transition to democracy in their country”. He presented the Vietnamese recipients as follows :
l “Thich Huyen Quang (Le Dinh Nhan by civil name) is a patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. He has repeatedly appealed to the authorities in Vietnam to introduce democratic reforms, permit the activity of political parties, and declare free elections. For his peaceful activism he has been detained and jailed many times. He has spent altogether more than twenty years in custody, mainly under house arrest. Although he was formally released in 1997, he is still guarded by the police, restrained in his movements, and denied healthcare, despite his serious health problems and advanced age of 86 years. In 1978, Thich Huyen Quang was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
l “Thich Quang Do (Dang Phuc Tue by civil name) is a Buddhist monk, scholar and writer, and one of the leaders of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. He was born in 1928 and entered a monastery at the age of fourteen. At 17 he witnessed the execution of his spiritual mentor by a People’s Revolutionary Tribunal. Deeply affected by this experience, he decided to dedicate his life to strive for justice and to spread the Buddhist message of peace, compassion, and tolerance. For his active promotion of religious freedom, human rights, and democracy, the Vietnamese Communist regime jailed him for many years and held him at re-education camps. His most recent internment was a two-year prison sentence in 2001 for declaring the “Appeal for Democracy in Vietnam”. He lives in isolation without medical assistance, under police surveillance. Thich Quang Do has been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize, and this year he is again among the candidates.
l “Nguyen Van Ly is a Roman Catholic priest. He was born in 1946. He has been repeatedly subjected to brutal treatment by the authorities for defending religious freedom in Vietnam. He was detained for the first time in 1977 for circulating an Episcopal Church letter criticizing the imprisonment of Buddhist monks and religious intolerance in Vietnam. It took two hundred policemen to arrest him in 1983, because both Catholic believers gathered in his church and rose in his defense. Nguyen Van Ly was then sentenced to ten years in jail. In 2001 he was sentenced again as a prisoner of conscience to fifteen years in jail. His condition is very serious.
l “As the winners are unable to attend the award ceremony, the awards will be accepted in their name by Vo Van Ai, a distinguished Vietnamese political activist, journalist, historian, and poet living in exile in Paris. Vo Van Ai was born in 1938. He lived his life in opposition to the different governments and regimes that took their turn in Vietnam. He was arrested for the first time at the age of eleven for participating in the resistance movement against the colonial government and for the independence of Vietnam. He is the founder and president of the Vietnam Committee for Human Rights and the spokesperson in exile of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. He helped initiate a campaign that led to the launch of L’Ile de Lumiéegrave;re in 1978, the first rescue ship dedicated to helping the boat people – those escaping from Communist dictatorships in ramshackle vessels. Vo Van Ai speaks out about the necessity to globalize democracy. This task requires “education and access to information for people who do not know about their basic rights”.
In his acceptance speech, Vo Van Ai recalled his own imprisonment and torture at the age of 11 for taking part in the resistance movement : “Looking back, I can see that this was nothing compared to what is happening in Vietnam today. It is nothing in comparison to the detention without trial of an elderly man like the Most Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, 86, who has spent the past 21 years under house arrest in a tiny hut. In Vietnam today, the communist authorities imprison anyone who dares to express different opinions, advocate universal human rights, or has the courage to be free”…
“Is there any hope for change ? Yes, I believe so. Fifteen years ago, the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights launched an international campaign for the abolition of Article 2 of the Vietnamese Constitution (on the dictatorship of the proletariat) and Article 4 (on the political monopoly of the Communist Party). Thanks to international pressure, Article 2 has been abolished. We continue now to press for the abrogation of Article 4. I remain hopeful, because the Czech people who are receiving us today succeeded in discarding a one-Party dictatorship just over 10 years ago. I am hopeful, because you have given us your inestimable support for the movement for a free Vietnam”.
l On April 10th, former President Vaclav Havel met with Vo Van Ai to talk about the human rights situation in Vietnam. Mr Havel, a former dissident and political prisoner himself, expressed his “profound comprehension and solidarity” with the struggle of dissidents in Vietnam. “It is always important to oppose totalitarianism, even if there is little hope of success. When our country was under Communism, we always believed we should carry on the struggle”, he said, recalling his own imprisonment and participation in the Czech “Charter 77” movement for human rights. “You must cry out at the top of your voices, even when all seems hopeless”.
Asked whether he believed economic liberalization would lead to political opening in Vietnam, Mr Havel expressed doubts : “For a long time, I believed that the influx of foreign investment, capital and businessmen would help open countries, and that economic liberalization would facilitate the emergence of political pluralism. It seemed impossible for a country to open up in one domain whilst remaining closed in another. However, I now realize that this is wrong. Economic liberalization must go together with political reforms”. The free market system in a closed political environment could only foster “the cynicism of certain people who live in luxury hotels, exploit the country’s economy and show not the slightest interest when someone is tortured just next to their hotel”.