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Update on the situation of UBCV leader Thich Quang Do

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PARIS, 11 March 2009 (IBIB) – Patriarch Thich Quang Do, leader of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, 80, remains under effective house arrest at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Saigon. On 26th February 2009, Thich Quang Do received a visit from Ms. Katia Bennett, Political Officer of the U.S. Consulate in Saigon. During the meeting, he described government strategies to suppress the outlawed UBCV, ranging from blatant repression to subtler forms of infiltration, isolation and “divide to rule”. He also expressed his concerns about U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks on human rights during her trip to China. The International Buddhist Information Bureau publishes Thich Quang Do’s account of the meeting transcribed from an interview with Radio Free Asia’s Vietnamese Service, broadcast on 28th February.

Moreover, Thich Quang Do is nominated for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. Over a hundred international personalities, including members of the US Congress, the European Parliament, Senators and MPs from Italy, Great Britain, France, as well as University professors and former ministers from Albania, Croatia, Kosovo etc, sent nomination letters to the Nobel Institute in Norway. We quote some of the letters and messages of support for Thich Quang Do in his efforts for religious freedom, democracy and human rights in Vietnam:

“Thich Quang Do’s selfless actions in pursuit of human rights in Vietnam have brought him great personal hardship. His advocacy for liberty is of historic proportions and deserves to be recognized by members of your Committee” (Letter to the Nobel Committee, Ed Royce, Loretta Sanchez, Anh Joseph Cao, Zoe Lofgren, members of the US Congress).

“We know that there is courage, strength and hope in the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. Amongst the world’s greatest heroes is the Most Venerable Thich Quang Do, the 2006 Rafto Prize laureate. He is a shining example representing the noblest values of human beings. His courage, moral standards and persistence are a source of inspiration for all people around the globe” (Arne Lynngård, Chairman of the Rafto Prize Committee, Norway).

“In March 2007, I had the greatest honour of meeting Thich Quang Do in person in his pagoda. Sadly, the meeting only lasted a few minutes, because the Police came and took us away. But I will always carry with me the deeply moving experience of being close to one of the greatest spirits among human beings. Thich Quang Do’s unique charisma, his character and his lifelong effort places him as one of the most prominent human rights advocates of all times” (Therese Jebsen, Executive Director, Rafto Foundation, Norway).

“I tried to visit Thich Quang Do to thank him for his combat, his life, his force. I am proposing him for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, and I have proposed him for the EP Sakharov Prize, for he is truly worthy of it. But Hanoi was afraid. Thich Quang Do has such power, despite his age. Hanoi is afraid to let people meet him and feel this power. Yes, Hanoi’s bureaucrats were afraid to let us meet. But we will meet, that’s for sure !” (Marco Pannella, MEP on Radio Free Asia).

Interview with Thich Quang Do, Radio Free Asia, 28 February 2009

Thich Quang Do: At 9.00am on February 26th, Ms. Katia Bennett, Political Secretary of the United States Consulate in Saigon came to visit me at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery. After we exchanged the usual pleasantries, I came straight to the point. I told her of my grave concern about the remarks made by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton during her trip to Beijing, when she said that the US would not allow issues of democracy and human rights harm the good development of China-US bilateral relations.

I told Ms Bennett that Secretary Clinton’s words were like a bucket of cold water poured over my head. I realized that from that point onwards, US foreign policy will give democracy and human rights an back seat, with a priority on economy and trade – in short, on business interests. In my view, Hillary Clinton’s remarks are not only damaging for human rights and democracy activists in China, but they have serious implications for all those braving imprisonment, torture, even death, to free their countries from the chains of dictatorship in Vietnam, Tibet and Burma. Whether these countries are totalitarian regimes or ruled by military junta, they are all dictatorships, and the essence of dictatorships is the same everywhere. From now on, these illegitimate, brutal regimes will feel free to blatantly repress, arrest and imprison all those who advocate freedom, human rights, democracy and social justice, for they no longer see any obstacles on their path.

Y Lan (Radio Free Asia): What was Ms Bennett’s reaction to your remarks?

Thich Quang Do: Well, she did her best to explain. She said that Secretary Clinton had effectively made these remarks, but in all her meetings and interviews, she had raised human rights as a priority. This is, and has always been US foreign policy, she told me, and gave me a copy of the US State Department Human Rights Report which was published the other day. She said that the United States would never change, that human rights would remain the cornerstone of foreign policy. As a diplomat, she was obliged to defend [Secretary Clinton], I could see that. What else could she do?

I reassured Ms. Bennett that I only brought up this issue because it had an important effect on Vietnam, but that in my opinion, the real thrust for human rights and democracy must come from the Vietnamese people themselves. Support from the US, the European Union or any other world power is important, but it’s secondary. In Buddhism, the cause is principal, the conditions are secondary. However, secondary elements are necessary to help the principal element develop. It’s like a grain of rice thrown onto the ground. Without air, water and good soil, the rice cannot grow. The same goes for human rights and democracy. We keep up our movement, we continue the struggle. But it is so hard to struggle under Vietnam’s one-Party state. Without support from the international media, no one would hear our demands. This is why we truly need the support of the United States, the EU and democratic countries worldwide. I said this to console Ms. Bennett, because she looked really sad about the Secretary of State’s remarks. In Vietnam we say: you can easily correct a wrong step, but it’s hard to correct a wrong statement. That’s what the old Chinese and Vietnamese proverb means, about turning your tongue three times before you speak…

Y Lan: Did you discuss anything else during the meeting?

Thich Quang Do: Yes, Ms. Bennett asked about the situation of the Unified Buddhist Church (UBCV), and I explained to her the different methods used by the government to suppress the UBCV. This began in 1975, immediately after the Communists took power in South Vietnam. Of course, they could not tolerate the existence of religions, for Communism and religion are like water and fire, they cannot merge. From the very start, at 12 o’clock on 30th April 1975, the authorities announced their policy of religious intolerance, with the UBCV as their primary target. Initially, they tried to destroy the UBCV by violence, using arrests, detention and internal exile. I was arrested with Thich Huyen Quang and many other monks during a first round of arrests in 1977.

From 2000, their policy changed. They stopped sentencing us to prison terms or holding big public trials. They resorted to methods such as house arrest, administrative detention by oral orders only, so that they could detain us without any written trace. They turned our pagodas into prisons. Just look at my room in the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery – it’s not just a monk’s cell, it’s a prison cell! I’m under detention, even though I’m not behind bars. Wherever I go, Security Police go with me. They are posted just across the street, keeping watch night and day. Once a month, when I go to hospital for a checkup, they go with me.

After a while, the authorities realized that their attempts to suppress the UBCV by force, imprisonment, even by house arrest and isolation were a failure. The UBCV was still active and alive. So they adopted a new strategy. They devised insidious, underhand methods of pitting Buddhists against Buddhists, in order to undermine our movement from within. Beginning in 2005, they used a number of monks from abroad, especially Thich Nhat Hanh, to launch a so-called “reconciliation” plan. They were convinced that Thich Nhat Hanh had the ability to make this plan succeed. “Reconciliation” meant merging the UBCV and the State-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church (VBF) together. For us, joining with the VBC meant accepting to become lackeys [of the Communist Party], so we refused. Thus, Thich Nhat Hanh’s first trip back to the homeland misfired.

In 2006, they tried another plan. This time, instead of “reconciling” our two Buddhist organizations, they proposed the creation of a new one, a General Buddhist Church which would embrace all others, including the UBCV. Again, we declined to take part, and the plan failed.

In 2007, the authorities tried two different projects. Firstly, they approached a number of UBCV monks and promised the government would legalize the UBCV if they applied to register. Naturally, we could not accept this because the UBCV already has a legal status. We have never been banned, therefore we have no need to register. Secondly, they promised a number of UBCV monks to legalize the UBCV on condition that Thich Huyen Quang and I were excluded from the leadership. These two strategies were also unsuccessful.

Hanoi’s most recent project, and also its most ambitious one, was in 2008. If this plan had succeeded, it might well have annihilated the UBCV altogether. They covertly created a movement called “Back to one’s Roots”, using a number of UBCV monks based abroad, particularly in Europe, Australia-New Zealand and Canada who set up a so-called “Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam Overseas”. In fact, “back to one’s roots” meant going back to Vietnam to take part in the UN Day of the Vesak, hosted by the government in Hanoi. Thich Nhat Hanh went, along with a large number of monks from abroad. The plan was to formally announce their break-away from the UBCV during the Vesak festival. Once the UBCV had been publicly rejected [by its own members], it would be easy to destroy its name and reputation, and wipe out the UBCV once and for all.

Fortunately, UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang issued Edict No. 9 (1) to stop this movement from developing. Thanks to this, the UBCV escaped this danger. But as I told Ms Bennett, the Communist authorities have not finished with their plan to suppress the UBCV. As long as the Communists remain in power, the UBCV has no hope of enjoying religious freedom as it did before 1975. Never, it’s impossible. The only way we can regain our right to existence is by accepting to become the Communist Party’s stooges. If we grovel on our knees, bow our heads, do whatever they tell us, that’s fine. The authorities would be delighted to recognize the UBCV under these conditions.

But we will never do this. And for this reason, we must be prepared for continuing repression. In 2008, the government’s attempts to use the Vesak and “Back to one’s Roots” movement both failed. They have other plans for the future, but we don’t know them yet.

In brief, I stressed that the UBCV had faced decades of repression, detention and hardships and succeeded in preserving its name and integrity up till today. We do not know what the government’s future strategies will be. But the UBCV is ready, and we shall overcome them. We will never submit, we will never become slaves of the Communist Party. I made that quite clear to Ms. Bennett.

(1) On 8.9.2007, concerned by Hanoi’s increasing efforts to infiltrate and manipulate UBCV dignitaries overseas, the late Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang issued Edict No. 9 creating a new framework for the UBCV Overseas Office and appointing a new leadership team for its sections in the Europe, Canada, the USA and Australia. This new team is directly responsible to the UBCV leadership in Vietnam, and ensures links between the UBCV at home and its members overseas.

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