HANOI, Oct 10 (Reuters) – Vietnam on Friday accused two leaders of a banned Buddhist group of carrying “state secrets” when their van was stopped by traffic officers while on a key highway from their monastery in central Vietnam.
But Hanoi denied the men were arrested, saying that Thich Huyen Quang, 86, patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), returned to his Nguyen Thieu Monastery in Binh Dinh province.
His 74-year-old deputy Thich Quang Do travelled onto Ho Chi Minh City, a statement from the Foreign Ministry said.
Binh Dinh province is about 650 km (404 miles) north of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s commercial hub and biggest city.
The saga began on Wednesday, when security forces reportedly prevented the leaders and nine others from leaving the monastery. Hanoi has vehemently denied that accusation.
Quang and Do then left the monastery, but were stopped en route to Ho Chi Minh City on Thursday morning.
“…while checking the traffic on the (north-south) Highway 1A, local traffic control forces detected that Mr. Quang Do and Mr. Huyen Quang were carrying evidence of wrongful acts, including many documents classified as state secrets,” the ministry statement said, without offering details.
Le Dung, spokesman of the ministry, said that authorities have asked the two “to clarify the issue,” adding that the men have preliminarily “admitted their responsibility.”
“How the case is settled depends on the investigation results and the attitude of the two,” Dung said.
The charge of state secrets is quite serious, as Vietnam continues to guard information carefully and until the past few years even regarded details of its state budget as classified information.
Depending on the specific charge, an offender could be jailed for between two and 15 years.
The Paris-based International Buddhist Information Bureau, which issues information about UBCV, had been in contact with Do on Friday morning.
“I had a very short phone call from Thich Quang Do,” said Vo Tran Nhat, executive secretary of the group, speaking from Paris. “He said he was in Ho Chi Minh City. He said he was arrested for four hours, but didn’t say when it was or why.”
Hanoi has been at loggerheads in the past with the UBCV, which was replaced by a state-sanctioned group in 1981. The group resists the government’s attempts to control its activities, but ties have improved recently.
The government released Do in June about two months before his two-year house arrest ended, and allowed an unprecedented meeting between Prime Minister Phan Van Khai and Quang in April.
Vietnam recognises six religions, including Buddhism, but requires they submit to its scrutiny in all aspects of operation.