Mr Vo Van Ai, International Spokesman of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) and President of the International Buddhist International Information Bureau (IBIB) welcomed the 2003 annual report on human rights published by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour on Thursday. But, he said, “the U.S. report paints a rosy picture of Vietnam’s treatment of the outlawed UBCV which contrasts starkly with current on-going persecution in Vietnam”.
Overall, the report observes that Vietnam’s “human rights record remained poor, and it continued to commit serious abuses”, providing extensive evidence of harassment and arbitrary detention of religious followers, especially Buddhists, Hoa Hao and Protestants, curbs on freedom of expression and the press, unfair trials of political dissidents, harsh prison conditions, torture, killings and disappearances of Montagnards, Hmongs and other ethnic minorities, trafficking of women and children for prostitution etc. “The U.S. report gives a sombre but realistic appraisal of the widespread human rights violations in Vietnam” said Vo Van Ai. “Vietnam has acceded to all the key UN human rights treaties, yet it continues to grossly abuse its citizens’ political and economic rights. The international community should strongly condemn Vietnam’s abysmal human rights record at the coming UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva”.
Concerning the Buddhists, however, Mr Ai said that “repression against the banned UBCV is far more fierce and pervasive than the State Department report indicates. Over the past months, following the crack-down on the peaceful UBCV assemblies in Binh Dinh province in September and October 2003, the government has pursued a ruthless, vindictive policy against the banned UBCV”. Whereas the US report notes that only three UBCV monks were sentenced formally in the crackdown (i.e. Thich Tue Sy, Thich Thanh Huyen and Thich Nguyen Ly), and others merely “returned to their respective pagodas” by the authorities, Mr. Ai declared that at least eleven members of the new UBCV leadership have been placed under effective or official house arrest, including the UBCV Patriarch’s assistant Thich Dong Tho (secular name Nguyen Huu Phuoc), sentenced to 2 years administrative detention on October 16th (cf. statement by Foreign Ministry Spokesman Le Dung, 6.11.2003 and IBIB 10.11.2003), who was not mentioned in the State Department’s report. They are detained under Decree CP/31, controversial legislation authorizing detention without trial which has been routinely denounced by the UN Human Rights Committee, the European Parliament and human rights organizations worldwide. Mr Ai said that scores of UBCV pagodas remain under surveillance, telephones cut, mobile phones seized, fax machines confiscated and Internet accounts closed.
Moreover, said Mr Ai, the US report underestimates the serious situation of UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, 86, and his Deputy Thich Quang Do, 75, a 2004 Nobel Peace Prize nominee. These prominent Buddhist dissidents were not merely “returned to their pagodas and informed that they would not be able to travel without government approval”, as the report comments, but were placed under house arrest in their monasteries in total isolation, denied freedom of communication and subjected to round-the clock Police surveillance. Both monks are under investigation under very serious accusations of “possessing State secrets”, a crime that carries the death penalty in Vietnam. Venerable Thich Quang Do is strictly forbidden to receive visits, even from his close followers and disciples. Security Police stationed inside and outside his residence at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery intercept any visitors. The U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, John Hanford, was not allowed to meet Thich Quang Do during his visit to Vietnam in October 2003. In January 2004, a U.S. Congressional team led by Senator Sam Brownback was also refused permission to meet the monk. In a New Year Message to Buddhists sent secretly to the IBIB in January 2004, UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang said that both he and Thich Quang Do were detained in conditions “indistinguishable from imprisonment”.