PARIS, 5 May 2008 (IBIB) – Mr. Vo Van Ai, Director of the International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB) and International Spokesman of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), warmly welcomed the US International Commission on International Religious Freedom‘s report on Vietnam, made public in Washington D.C. on Friday. “This detailed and meticulous report, based on the findings of an in situ study in October 2007 and extensive investigation and research, is a precious tool for all those concerned with religious freedom in Vietnam. It is also an immense source of encouragement for all followers of Vietnam’s religious communities, who brave daily harassments, surveillance and detention to pursue the peaceful exercise of their convictions and beliefs”, he declared.
He also applauded the USCIRF’s recommendation to re-designate Vietnam as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC), listing Vietnam as one of the world’s 11 worst violators of religious freedom, alongside Burma, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, People’s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Vietnam was on the CPC list in 2004 and 2005, but removed by the State Department in 2006. The USCIRF declared that Vietnam merited CPC designation because of its “persistent abuses, discrimination, and restrictions” of religious freedom. “The government continues to imprison and detain dozens of individuals who advocate for religious freedom reforms in Vietnam. Ethnic minority Buddhists and Protestants are often harassed, beaten, detained, arrested, and discriminated against, and they continue to face some efforts to coerce renunciations of faith”.
The report is especially timely and important for the Buddhist community, said Vo Van Ai. “The USCIRF’s report shows that, as the Communist leadership and the State-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (controlled by the Communist Party’s Fatherland Front) prepare to host the UN Day of the Vesak (13-17 May 2008), the authorities continue to persecute Buddhism, the very faith it claims to celebrate”. The USCIRF, who met several UBCV leaders including Most Venerable Thich Quang Do in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Thich Thien Hanh in Hue, as well as members of the Buddhist Youth Movement during their visit to Vietnam, observed that the “the restrictions and abuses faced by the UBCV remain a serious religious freedom concern” with restrictions of freedom of movement, expression and assembly, and “significant official harassment of monks, nuns and youth leaders associated with the UBCV”. Expressing concern on the “long-term administrative detention” of UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do, the report noted that “repression of the UBCV is not entirely focused on its leadership, as local attempts by monks to organize “provincial boards” are also thwarted”. It cited cases of Police harassment, interrogations, “denunciation campaigns”, expulsion of monks and nuns, as well as pressure on local Buddhists to denounce monks and cease attending UBCV pagodas, at risk of losing their jobs or having their children expelled from school. It also raised concern about on-going efforts to demote UBCV monk Thich Tri Khai in Lam Dong province.
In its recommendations, the USCIRF urged the U.S. government take action to ensure that Vietnam “allow[s] the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam to operate legally and independently of the official Buddhist organizations and the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, including allowing the UBCV’s Provincial Committees and the Buddhist Youth Movement to organize and operate without restrictions or harassment”.
Mr. Vo Van Ai also welcomed the USCIRF’s stand on the “needless distinction” between “political” and “religious” activities. The State Department invokes this distinction to argue that all religious “prisoners of concern” have been released – one of the reasons for removing Vietnam from the CPC list. The Vietnamese government uses this argument to arrest and detain anyone with beliefs or opinions at odds with the Communist Party. In its report, the USCIRF firmly states that this distinction is “not consistent with international human rights law.”. Many prisoners currently detained in Vietnam “were motivated by their religious vocation, conscience, or belief to call for the legal or political reforms needed to guarantee religious freedom. [These] actions are consistent with the guarantees of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)”.
When the USCIRF met with Thich Quang Do and asked about the government’s charge that the UBCV was “political”, Thich Quang Do replied that his advocacy for religious freedom and related human rights was “directly related to his vocation as a monk and the 2,000 year old tradition of Mahayana Buddhism”.
Finally, Vo Van Ai warmly applauded the USCIRF’s emphasis on the need for legal reforms to protect religious freedom, notably by ending the use of vague and far-reaching “national security” provisions in the Criminal Code to detain religious freedom advocates, repealing or revising restrictive legislation such as Ordinance 44 on administrative detention without trial, and bringing 2004 Ordinance on Religious Beliefs and Religious Organisations into line with international norms on freedom of thought, conscience and belief.