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AFP : Vietnam backs down in stand-off with dissident Buddhist monks

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AFP - Agence France Presse - http://www.afp.com Agence France Presse


HANOI, Oct 8 (AFP) – A tense stand-off between Vietnamese security forces and two senior monks from an outlawed Buddhist church ended peacefully Wednesday after travel restrictions against them were lifted, overseas Buddhist sources said.

Thich Huyen Quang, patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), and his deputy Thich Quang Do were holed up in a mini-bus for more than 10 hours after police prevented them from travelling to Ho Chi Minh City.

The two monks had told the Paris-based International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB) by mobile phone that they would remain in the vehicle until the order was lifted and they were allowed to travel freely.

Quang, who has been under effective house arrest without charge or trial for more than two decades, also said he had begun a hunger strike in protest.

By early afternoon around 200 monks from the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in the central province of Binh Dinh and about 1,000 locals had formed a protective human wall around the vehicle. Several hours later it was allowed to proceed.

“This is a victory for human rights in Vietnam,” an IBIB spokeswoman told AFP. “It appears the government had to back down in the face of public reaction. They wanted to avoid a large-scale confrontation.”

The stand-off began at at 5:00 am (2200 GMT Tuesday) when the 86-year-old patriarch and his 75-year-old deputy, a 2003 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, set off for Ho Chi Minh City with six other monks and three lay-followers.

Shortly afterwards, security police and a group of about 40 people blocked the road and told the monks they were banned from leaving the monastery, according to the IBIB.

Speaking from inside the van, Quang told IBIB president Vo Van Ai that the crowd had surrounded the vehicle, punctured its tyres, and thrown stones at the windows.

The Vietnamese foreign ministry remained silent over the stand-off, while local police claimed ignorance.

This latest incident is likely to be used by congressional lobbies in the United States to put further pressure on the Bush administration to take action against the communist regime over its human rights record.

“This is very unfortunate, very worrying and very counterproductive to Vietnam’s international image,” said one Western diplomat.

Another diplomat said the European Union would register its concerns with the government.

Tension has been escalating at the monastery over the past few days.

On Sunday and Monday, Do was summoned for “working sessions” by the local security police and provincial officials and told he must go back to Ho Chi Minh City immediately, the IBIB said.

Since Quang was suffering from a painful throat condition, Do invited him to travel with him to Ho Chi Minh City and seek medical treatment, it added.

The stand-off follows a wave of harassment of UBCV monks which began early last month when police heard that Quang and Do had called a special UBCV assembly on September 16-19 to reorganize its structure.

The IBIB said dozens of monks were summoned for interrogation by police and threatened with reprisals if they attended the assembly or accepted positions within the church, which was banned in 1981 by the Communist Party.

The group also claimed Wednesday that undercover security police were preventing monks and nuns from leaving 20 pagodas in the central city of Hue, a former hotbed of Buddhist dissent. Hue police denied the claims.

Do and Quang were arrested in February 1982 and banished into internal exile. In August 1995, Do was sentenced to five years imprisonment for organizing a relief mission for flood victims in the southern Mekong Delta.

He was released in a presidential amnesty three years later but Ho Chi Minh City authorities reactivated two years of his sentence, placing him under house arrest in June 2001 after he called for democracy.

Do was released on June 27 this year.


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