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US Deputy Ambassador visits Buddhist monk Thich Thien Hanh in Hue

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PARIS, 16 December 2008 (IBIB) – The International Buddhist Information Bureau received a report today from the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) on a visit by the Deputy Chief of Mission of the United States Embassy in Hanoi, Ms. Virginia E. Palmer to Very Venerable Thich Thien Hanh, Secretary General of the UBCV’s Institute of the Sangha and Head of the UBCV Representative Board in Thua Thien-Hue. Venerable Thich Chi Thang, Head of the UBCV’s Youth Department in Hue also attended the meeting.

The visit took place at Bao Quoc Pagoda in Hue on 10th December 2008 from 3.00pm to 4.30pm. Ms Palmer was accompanied by Christian Merchant, Political officer at the US Embassy and a Vietnamese interpreter. The delegation asked about the current status of the UBCV, and the health and freedom of movement of UBCV leader Thich Quang Do. Below are some of the questions and answers.

Ms. Palmer: Are the Vietnamese authorities creating any difficulties for the UBCV at present? Recently, have you observed any progress?

Thich Thien Hanh:This is not the first time I have been asked this. Year after year, so many political, human rights and religious freedom delegations have asked the same thing. The US Consul General in Saigon has asked me on several occasions, and I have clearly explained. Let me resume the situation for you once again. Yes, the Vietnamese authorities are creating difficulties for the UBCV. They have seized our property, stripped us of our legal status, dismantled the UBCV’s network of spiritual, cultural, educational and humanitarian institutions. They have deprived us of our basic human rights. We have repeatedly protested to the Vietnamese authorities and to the international community. The United States and many other governments have taken heed of our appeals.

As for progress, let me say plainly that up until today, 10.12.2008, on this 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, it is absolutely ZERO, one big, blank zero. We cannot see the slightest ray of light, not even a glimmer, at the end of Communism’s dark tunnel. The UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was adopted in 1966, some 42 years ago. Vietnam acceded to this text in 1982 – and has violated it systematically for the past 26 years.

The US normalized diplomatic relations with Vietnam over one decade ago. But I have the impression that so far the US has not showed the sufficient will and determination to make Vietnam’s leadership guarantee its citizens rights and respect its international obligations.

Ms. Palmer: Why doesn’t the UBCV apply to register with the authorities?

Thich Thien Hanh:The UBCV is not a political organization. Its survival or extinction therefore does not depend on that of any worldly political powers. The UBCV is a religious body with a 2,000-year tradition of spirituality. It is rooted in the people’s thinking and identity. The UBCV existed before the Communists came to power on 30 April 1975, and continued to exist afterwards. No political regime, including the Communists, has issued a law or order banning the UBCV. Since it has never officially been disbanded, we have no need to register in order to exist.

The fact is that after 1975, the Communists illegally seized Buddhist lands and properties for their own use. It is up to them to give them back. Why should we have to ask? Why should we have to register? If the authorities refuse to return our property and recognize our legality, then we will struggle to retrieve them, however long it takes. If this generation fails, the next will carry on. Whether it takes 5, 10, 50 or even one thousand years… When one person perishes, another will take his place.

Ms. Palmer: I think you should try to apply [to register] and see what happens.

Thich Thien Hanh:Forgive me for saying this, but there is no question of us applying to register, never mind “trying” to apply. As I said, what the State has stolen, it must give back. Why should we “try to apply” for what belongs to us? How humiliating! Also, what if we apply and they refuse? We will become an illegal organization. As UBCV leader Thich Quang Do once said: “If we apply to register and they refuse, we will lose the very basis of UBCV legality”.

The UBCV has always sought reconciliation. After the end of the Vietnam war, our late 3rd Patriarch Thich Don Hau met with Nguyen Van Hieu, who was Minister of Culture in the Revolutionary Provisional Government [of South Vietnam] to propose unifying Buddhist movements. Nguyen Van Hieu replied: “Buddhist unification if fine – but only with patriotic Buddhists, not reactionary Buddhists”. In 1981, the Communist authorities carried out this “unification” under their own terms, founding the State-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church. UBCV leaders Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do who opposed this were arrested and banished into internal exile in Quang Ngai and Thai Binh. Other monks and nuns were arrested or forced to escape as Boat People. After Thich Don Hau’s death in 1992, Thich Huyen Quang became the new UBCV leader. He defied house arrest to attend the late Patriarch’s funeral at Linh Mu Pagoda in Hue and pledged before his coffin to re-establish the UBCV’s legal status. Since then, the UBCV has suffered ruthless repression up to this day.

Ms. Palmer: Has the State confiscated UBCV property?

Thich Thien Hanh:Of course, so much property! All over southern Vietnam, from Quang Tri province to Ca Mau, they seized our vast educational network, from the “Bo De” primary and secondary schools to the prestigious Van Hanh University; all the cultural establishments; the humanitarian network of orphanages, nurseries, old people’s homes; the medical centres, hospitals, infirmaries, not to mention the pagodas and historic sites, or Buddhist Youth centres all over the country. In Saigon alone, two of the UBCV’s largest and most important properties were seized; the Viet Nam Quoc Tu Pagoda on former Tran Quoc Toan street (now 3rd February street) in the 10th Ward and the Quang Duc Cultural Centre on 294 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street in the 3rd Ward. We have demanded the State to return them to the UBCV, but they have systematically refused.

Ms Palmer: What is the best way we can help you and the UBCV?

Thich Thien Hanh:First, may I ask you a question? How many Christian Churches are there in the USA? (Ms Palmer smiled and answered: Hundreds!). Exactly. So if we ask for the right to religious freedom for the UBCV as well as the State-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church – just one more Buddhist Church – what’s wrong with that? The UBCV has done nothing illegal, yet whatever we do, the authorities accuse us of being reactionary, sabotaging the State, seeking to overthrow the government, conniving with hostile forces to oppose the revolution etc…

May I stress once again that the US is not yet sufficiently determined to make Vietnam respect the UN treaties it has signed and respect its people’s rights. Because Vietnam does not respect these treaties, the religious movements and the people suffer. And because they suffer, you feel obliged to visit us and try to understand why.

Following this discussion, Thich Thien Hanh handed the US Deputy Chief of Mission a document resuming the UBCV’s main concerns. The 9-point statement (a) affirms the commitment of the UBCV and all other religions, including the Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, Catholics, Protestants and ethnic Christians, all victims of continuous repression, to struggle peacefully for religious freedom in Vietnam; (b) calls on the United States, the European Union, and all governments to demand concrete human rights progress before signing any bilateral Cooperation or Development Agreements with Vietnam, and (c) to initiate sanctions against Vietnam for violation of international human rights treaties; (d) calls on the US to re-designate Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for egregious religious freedom violations; (e) to restore full freedom to all Catholics sanctioned for their peaceful participation in demonstrations in Thai Hoa parish protesting State confiscation of Catholic properties; (f) to re-establish the legitimate status of the UBCV, and all other non-recognised religious organizations in Vietnam.

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