On January 11, 2005, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh left France for a 3-month speaking tour of Vietnam. This highly-publicized visit, which could be interpreted as a sign of increased religious tolerance in Vietnam, in fact it takes place during one of the worst periods of repression against the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), Vietnam’s traditional, independent Buddhist organization, which was banned by the communist authorities in 1981.
Mr. Vo Van Ai, UBCV International spokesman and Director of the International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB) declared : “With the approach of the Tet Lunar New Year, Thich Nhat Hanh’s visit gives a precious propaganda bonus to the Vietnamese regime. But it does nothing for the cause of religious freedom and human rights in Vietnam. IBIB deeply regrets and condemns Thich Nhat Hanh’s decision to visit Vietnam at a time of such grave religious repression against the banned UBCV”.
Indeed, IBIB and UBCV Buddhists both inside and outside Vietnam were deeply shocked by several comments made by Thich Nhat Hanh and his delegation to the international and Vietnamese media.
On the eve of the delegation’s departure, asked by Agence France Presse why the UBCV and other religious movements had been banned in Vietnam, Sister Chan Khong (secular name Cao Ngoc Phuong), Thich Nhat Hanh’s faithful and principal assistant replied : “The flags of the old regime are hidden behind some of these churches”.
“This comment, with everything it insinuates, is profoundly hurtful and insulting to members of all non-recognized religious movements in Vietnam”, said Vo Van Ai. “These banned movements represent the sole surviving voices of Vietnam’s true civil society after decades of totalitarian rule”.
Indeed, if the non-recognized religious movements, notably the UBCV, are subjected to persistent and frequently harsh persecution today, it is not because they seek to revive the former South Vietnamese regime, but simply because of their peaceful advocacy of U.N.-recognized human rights and religious freedoms, their refusal to become political tools of the Communist Party, and their strong and courageous pursuit of social justice and the welfare of the Vietnamese people.
As Thich Nhat Hanh freely tours Vietnam, UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang and his Deputy Thich Quang Do remain under detention, after over 20 years of imprisonment, internal exile and house arrest. Just recently, on 22 November, Thich Quang Do was arrested and harassed by Security Police simply for attempting to travel to Binh Dinh province to visit Thich Huyen Quang who was gravely ill in Quy Nhon Hospital.
More recently still, on 10 January, the very eve of Thich Nhat Hanh’s departure for Vietnam, the UBCV’s commissioner for social and humanitarian affairs, Venerable Thich Khong Tanh was arrested by Security Police and subjected to a 2-hour interrogation during a relief mission for flood victims in Central Vietnam, simply because he paid a courtesy visit to the UBCV Patriarch in Binh Dinh.
These acts of harassment, which do not seem to have deterred Thich Nhat Hanh nor his assistant Sister Chan Khong, are not isolated incidents. They stem from a deliberate policy orchestrated at the highest levels of the Communist Party and State. The new Ordinance on Religions, which came into effect on 15 November 2004, reinforces State control on all religious activities. According to Thich Quang Do, the new Ordinance is not a step towards increased religious freedom, but “a noose around the necks of religious followers, ready to hang us at any moment”.
Whilst the IBIB sympathises with Thich Nhat Hanh’s longing to return home after so many years in exile – a desire shared by many overseas Vietnamese – the organization deplores the fact that his visit has begun with declarations that echo the Vietnamese government’s political propaganda and show little knowledge or understanding of the real situation in Vietnam. On 13 January, in an interview with the Communist Party’s official daily Nhan Dan (The People), Thich Nhat Hanh said that he had often criticized certain Western governments for aggressively pressuring Hanoi on the “situation of religious freedom in Vietnam”.
IBIB considers, moreover, that Thich Nhat Hanh’s visit is particularly ill-timed. Vietnam is currently under strong pressure from the international community to improve its religious freedom and human rights record. Resolutions have been passed in both the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament condemning gross abuses of religious freedom and human rights in Vietnam ; at the Asia-Europe (ASEM) Summit in Hanoi in October 2004, 109 Euro M.P.s endorsed a statement calling on Europe to place human rights at the core of discussions, and appealing for the release of Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do.
Last but not least, in September 2004, the U.S. State Department placed Vietnam on a blacklist of 8 countries designated as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) for their egregious violations of religious freedom – a designation which authorizes the U.S. to take a range of measures against Vietnam, including economic sanctions. The State Department has given Vietnam until 15 March 2005 to improve the situation before deciding if, when and how these sanctions will be applied.
The IBIB believes that Hanoi is using Thich Nhat Hanh’s visit as a well-publicized gesture to mask its ongoing repression of religious communities, and in particular to escape CPC designation without taking real steps to cease religious freedom abuses.
IBIB recalls that Thich Nhat Hanh negotiated his visit with the Vietnamese government. In exchange for the publication of several of his books in Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh has promised not to meet with any Buddhist dignitaries other than officials from the State-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church and members of the Government Board of Religious Affairs. He also submitted his schedule and the full texts of his sermons to the Ministry of Culture and Information and the Government Board of Religious Affairs for approval well in advance of the trip.
This Faustian pact between Thich Nhat Hanh and the Vietnamese authorities enables Thich Nhat Hanh to promote the development of his own sect, which, for the first time in Vietnamese history, allows monks and nuns to marry, in exchange for his endorsement of the Vietnamese communist regime.