The International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB) is informed that U.S. Congressman Christopher Smith paid a visit to the Very Venerable Thich Quang Do, prominent dissident and Deputy Head of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) today, Sunday 4th December. The meeting took place at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Saigon where Thich Quang Do, 76, has been detained under effective house arrest since a government crack-down on the UBCV in October 2003. Congressman Smith was accompanied by the U.S. Consul General Seth D. Winnick and five members of staff. The meeting began at 17.15 and lasted two hours. Congressman Smith is on a 4-day visit to Vietnam during which he has met with government and religious officials as well as religious dissents.
In a phone conversation with Vo Van Ai, IBIB Director and UBCV International Spokesman, Venerable Thich Quang Do said the discussion was extremely friendly and productive, covering a whole range of issues, with a special focus on religious freedom and human rights. Thich Quang Do told Congressman Smith his views on democratic development in Vietnam and the Asia-Pacific region overall. He asked IBIB not to reveal details of the whole discussion, but to make public some of the salient points that emerged during the talks.
During the discussion, Thich Quang Do described the UBCV’s 30 years’ non-violent struggle for religious freedom and human rights, beginning with the immolation of 12 monks and nuns at the Duoc Su Zen Monastery in Can Tho on 2nd November 1975 – the very first public protest in communist Vietnam. He also told Congressman Smith about on-going repression against the UBCV, notably the recent crack-down on members of UBCV representative boards set up in 9 provinces of central and southern Vietnam.
He stressed that the UBCV’s movement not only sought religious freedom for the Buddhist community, but fundamental freedoms and rights for all the people of Vietnam. Vietnam’s grave social and economic problems could never be solved unless all religious and political families were free to participate in the nation’s affairs. Without freedom, human rights and democracy, he said, there could be no sustainable development in Vietnam.
Thich Quang Do also expressed his hopes that the Vietnamese government would realize the vital necessity for change, and implement political reforms. Hanoi has lost the people’s confidence, he said, but they could win it back by taking concrete steps to promote freedom of expression and religion, and by implementing a true process of democratisation and national reconciliation in Vietnam.
He warned Congressman Smith not to be satisfied with mere promises made by the Vietnamese regime, but to look for tangible progress and improvements. Westerners are inclined to take promises at face value, he said, whereas Vietnamese had been fed on false pledges for decades, and found them very difficult to digest. Concrete progress on religious freedom should include the re-establishment of the legitimate status of the UBCV and all other non-recognized religious bodies.
Thich Quang Do also stressed the importance of international pressure to bring about changes in Vietnam. Noting the very strong Resolution on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam adopted by the European Parliament this week (1.12.2005), he urged the US Congress and the European Parliament to engage in closer cooperation to press for democratic reforms and human rights in Vietnam.
Congressman Chris Smith assured Thich Quang Do that there was widespread concern in the US Congress on the situation of human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam, and pledged to continue personally in pressing for concrete progress in these domains. Recalling that he had supported Vietnam’s designation on the State Department’s list of “Countries of Particular Concern” for its egregious religious freedom violations, he said he would continue to demand the right to existence of the outlawed UBCV.
This is the first time that Congressman Smith has visited Thich Quang Do in Vietnam. Congressman Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, is Chairman of the US House of Representatives’ International Relations subcommittee on international operations and human rights, and a vocal proponent of human rights in Vietnam. He sponsored of the 2005 Vietnam Human Rights Act, which is currently under consideration in Congress, and has held a number of hearings in Congress on human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam. During Vietnamese Premier Phan Van Khai’s visit to Washington DC in June 2005, he held a Congressional Hearing on religious freedom at which IBIB Director Vo Van Ai testified on the situation of the banned UBCV.