PARIS, 24 August 2007 (IBIB) – Venerable Thich Khong Tanh, Commissioner for Social and Humanitarian Affairs of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) was released from custody in Hanoi yesterday evening and forcibly escorted to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) by Security Police. He was held for interrogations throughout the day and prohibited from carrying out a UBCV humanitarian mission to bring relief aid to peasants and farmers demonstrating in Hanoi against State confiscation of their lands and official corruption. As reported by the International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB), Thich Khong Tanh was arrested outside the government Complaints Office at 110 Cau Giay Street at 8.00 am on Thursday 23rd August as he began distributing aid to the demonstrators.
Thich Khong Tanh arrived with a UBCV delegation in Hanoi on 21st August with 300 million VNDs (approx. $US19,000) raised by the UBCV following an appeal launched by UBCV Deputy leader Thich Quang Do on 10th August 2007. He had hoped to distribute the money to the dispossessed farmers and peasants, just as Thich Quang Do and a UBCV delegation had given aid to protesters outside the National Assembly’s southern office in Saigon on 17th July 2007. Thich Khong Tanh’s trip was the first in a series of planned initiatives to distribute funds donated by Vietnamese around the world to a “Relief Fund for Victims of Injustice” set up by the UBCV.
In Hanoi, Thich Khong Tanh was under constant Police surveillance. As he arrived at 110 Cau Giay Street at 8.00am, a crowd of Security Police rushed towards the monk, surrounded him and placed him under arrest. Forcing his hands behind his back, Police seized the bundle of envelopes Thich Khong Tanh was about to distribute. They aggressively pushed Thich Khong Tanh inside the Police Station near the Complaints’ office, where he was held for some time before being taken in a closed vehicle to another office some distance away. Thich Khong Tanh said the address was 1/34 Au Co Street. There, he was subjected to intensive interrogations by several Security agents. However, he refused to answer their questions, stating that he had committed no crime and was simply exercising his legitimate right to freedom of religion and carrying out charitable acts. Thich Khong Tanh began a hunger strike, declaring that he would not take any food or drink nor answer any further questions until he was released.
At this point, a top Hanoi Security official, Lt.-General Nguyen Van Huong, Vice-Minister of Public Security entered the room. Vice-Minister Huong expressed the government’s discontent of the UBCV’s support for the farmers and peasants. “These so-called “victims of injustice” are nothing but impostors and evil elements. They are not poor at all, they possess billions of VND, but they are incited by hostile forces to file complains in order to oppose the government. If you support them, you will be guilty of connivance with evil elements. I forbid you to distribute aid to these people. Instead, I suggest you give your money to the Vietnam Fatherland Front to relieve victims of Agent Orange. The government will commend your efforts. Otherwise, you will be in serious trouble”.
Thich Khong Tanh replied that many governments and organizations were helping victims of Agent Orange, whereas the Victims of Injustice were in dire distress. Moreover, the money given by overseas Vietnamese to the UBCV Relief Fund was specifically earmarked for the Victims of Injustice, and could not be given to any other cause.
The Vice-Minister of Public Security virulently criticized the UBCV Deputy leader Thich Quang Do and UBCV overseas spokesman, Vo Van Ai. He accused Thich Quang Do of undermining Buddhist unity by refusing to join the State-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church (1), and accused Vo Van Ai of opposing the Vietnamese government. Thich Khong Tanh replied that the sole aim of Thich Quang Do and the UBCV leadership was to achieve human rights, freedom and the rule of law for all Vietnamese, and resist all attempts to turn Buddhism into a tool of the Communist Party. Vo Van Ai was not opposing the government, he said, but simply expressing the UBCV’s peaceful demands and urging the government to embark on a process of political liberalization and grant democratic freedoms in Vietnam. Thich Khong Tanh denounced Vice-Minister Nguyen Van Huong’s remarks as defamation and slander against the UBCV.
The Vice-Minister of Public Security also mentioned the upcoming international celebrations of the 2008 Vesak Festival – the Anniversary of the Birth of Buddha – which will be hosted by the State-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church in Hanoi (2). He commended the efforts of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk in Australia, Thich Quang Ba, for doing “good work” by inviting Vietnamese monks from around the world to attend this ceremony. Thich Khong Tanh replied that he was not aware of Thich Quang Ba’s arrangements with the Vietnamese government, but the fact remained that the UBCV is banned and repressed, its leadership (including Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do) are under detention and its members are harassed. The Vesak celebrations could not hide the fact that independent Buddhism is repressed in Vietnam, a fact that is well known to international governments and organizations worldwide.
After over one hour, Lt.-General Huong left the room. Shortly afterwards, another high-ranking official arrived. Thich Khong Tanh does not know his name, but judging from the attitude of the other Security Police, he believes that this official may be even more high-ranking that Vice-Minister Huong. The man was polite but expedient. He told Thich Khong Tanh that the authorities “did not appreciate” the UBCV’s support of the Victims of Injustice. He ordered his subordinates to “quickly solve” the situation. Thich Khong Tanh was rapidly driven to the airport and put on a plane for Saigon, where Security Police met him and took him to his residence at the Lien Tri Pagoda in the 2nd Ward. He arrived during the night of Thursday 23rd – Friday 24th August 2007.
(1) During a visit from H.E. Kjell Storløkken, Norwegian Ambassador to Hanoi in July 2007, Thich Quang Do laid down four conditions for Buddhist reunification in Vietnam:
1) that Hanoi should first re-establish the legal status of the banned UBCV;
2) that Hanoi 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.
(2) Vesak has been declared an international religious festival by the United Nations. So far, celebrations have taken place in Thailand. This year, Vietnam asked the Thai government to allow Hanoi to host the Vesak festival in 2008.