HANOI, Oct 12 (AFP) – Vietnam signalled its intent last week to enforce a tough line against an outlawed Buddhist church despite signs earlier this year that the communist regime was seeking a rapprochement.
A 10-hour stand-off on Wednesday between the security forces and the two heads of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), shattered any illusions that Hanoi is relaxing its stance towards the dissident church.
On Saturday the UBCV’s Paris-based information arm, the International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB), expressed grave concern over an apparent escalation of “repression” by the authorities against its followers.
Its comments followed the government’s announcement on Friday that UBCV patriarch Thich Huyen Quang and his deputy Thich Quang Do could face house arrest because they were in possession of documents containing state secrets.
Foreign ministry spokesman Le Dung said the documents were discovered when police stopped a vehicle taking the two monks to Ho Chi Minh City on Thursday morning. He said an investigation was ongoing.
“This is a very grave accusation, and it is obviously aimed as a warning to the UBCV,” IBIB president Vo Van Ai said. “It is also a totally absurd accusation, which demonstrates the total paranoia of the Vietnamese regime.”
In a lengthy statement released Saturday, Dung also accused the two monks of secretly reorganizing the UBCV through “political motivation and personal ambition” to “sabotage” the state-sanctioned Vietnam Buddhist Church.
According to the IBIB, UBCV monks have suffered a wave of harassment since early last month when police heard that Quang and Do had called a special assembly on September 16-19 to reorganize the structure of the church.
Many diplomats have condemned the government’s latest actions, with a troika of countries representing European Union members in Vietnam saying it had formally lodged its “deep concern” with the foreign ministry.
Analysts have also questioned the tactics used against the UBCV, coming amid mounting pressure on the US administration to take action against Hanoi over its human rights record.
Next weekend John Hanford, the US State Department’s Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom is due to arrive in Vietnam on a fact-finding mission.
“It’s seem absolutely unexplainable why the authorities are making these missteps now,” a Western diplomat said. “It goes against the trend of what we thought were efforts towards reconciliation.”
In April, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai held a surprise meeting with Quang under the glare of television cameras after he was granted permission to visit Hanoi for hospital treatment.
UBCV sources say the government subsequently tried to persuade the 86-year-old monk to take up a senior position in the state-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church — an offer he has consistently refused.
Rebuffed, the government, observers say, now appears to be stepping up its efforts to curtail the activities of the UBCV, which was banned in 1981 because it refused to come under the ruling Communist Party’s control.
“The authorities know they cannot put Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do in jail because they are old and ill, so they are doing everything they can to prevent them from carrying out their religious activities,” a Vietnamese source said.
The two monks were taken in for questioning on Thursday after being stopped by security police in Khanh Hoa province en route to Ho Chi Minh City from the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in the central province of Binh Dinh.
Do, a 2003 Nobel Peace Prize nominee who was released from two years of house arrest in late June, was interrogated for four hours and was then taken to the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in the southern business capital, the IBIB said.
Quang, who has been under effective house arrest without charge or trial for more than two decades, was taken back to Binh Dinh province.
Three other UBCV monks travelling in the same vehicle were also taken for interrogation, the IBIB said, adding that it did not know of their fate or those of three other lay-followers accompanying them.
A fourth monk, Thich Vien Dinh, was interrogated for six hours in Khanh Hoa and then returned to the Giac Hoa Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City late Thursday. He was taken into detention shortly afterwards, the group said.
Speaking from the Nguyen Thieu Monastery on Saturday, Quang told AFP that the authorities were trying to separate him and Do “because they are scared we could plan or discuss political matters”.
On Wednesday the pair were involved in a 10-hour stand-off with security police after they tried to leave the monastery.
Their vehicle was eventually allowed to proceed after some 200 monks and around 1,000 locals formed a protective human wall around the vehicle, witnesses told the IBIB. Quang confirmed the incident had taken place.