Testifying on behalf of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) at a Congressional hearing on religious freedom in Vietnam on Wednesday October 26, Mr. Vo Van Ai, UBCV International Spokesman and Director of the International Buddhist Information Bureau, gave evidence of “continuing abuses of religious freedom against the outlawed UBCV”, and called on the United States to retain Vietnam on the list of “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs) “until tangible progress has been made”. Specifically, he urged, CPC designation should not be lifted “until Vietnam re-establishes the UBCV’s legal status and releases all prisoners of conscience, notably the UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang and his Deputy Thich Quang Do”.
The Hearing, organized by the bi-partisan Congressional Vietnam Caucus and the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and hosted by Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D.), Congressmen Tom Lantos, Frank Wolf, Chris Smith, Tom Davies and Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, was held to examine Vietnam’s religious situation as the administration decides whether to maintain Vietnam on the CPC blacklist. The State Department will shortly issue its “Annual Report on International Religious Freedom” in which CPC designations for the coming year will be announced. Vietnam was designated as a CPC for the first time in September 2004.
Vo Van Ai told Congress that Vietnam had made some changes in religious policies since CPC designation, but these “changes are not improvements”. On the contrary, to avoid international condemnation, Vietnam had “devised a two-faced policy on religions, one face “for export only” which claims respect for religious freedom and the rule of law” and another for “domestic consumption” which gives license for arbitrary detention, daily harassment and oppression against all the non-recognized religious communities. Repression is still pervasive, he said, but it has become more subtle and sophisticated over the past year, with tactics to isolate, paralyze and divide the religious communities.
The outlawed UBCV remains a “major target of repression”, he said, because it has consistently challenged the authorities on issues of religious freedom, human rights and democracy for the past thirty years, since Vietnam was reunified under Communist control in April 1975. The very first public protest in Communist Vietnam was the immolation of 12 monks and nuns for religious freedom in Duoc Su Pagoda, Can Tho in November 1975, and the largest ever demonstration was that of 40,000 Buddhists calling for religious freedom in Hue in 1993. Today, hundreds of UBCV pagodas remain under Police surveillance, phones are cut, monks, nuns and followers subjected to harassments and restrictions. “After almost three decades, the UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang and his Deputy Thich Quang Do are still prisoners in their monasteries simply for their peaceful advocacy of religious freedom and human rights”. Thich Quang Do is subjected to particularly harsh controls since he launched a “New Year’s Appeal” for pluralism and democracy in Vietnam in February 2005.
Vo Van Ai described the recent intensification of Police repression against the UBCV between July-September 2005, after the UBCV set up Provincial Committees in Quang Nam-Danang, Thua Thien-Hue, Binh Dinh, Khanh Hoa, Ba Ria-Vung Tau and Dong Nai to bring humanitarian and spiritual support to people in these poor provinces. The authorities launched a campaign of harassment and intimidation against the members of these Provincial Committees, warning them to disband these committees and cease all contact with the UBCV. 18 members of the Binh Dinh Committee were interrogated non-stop from 15-18 August, and the Committee’s Chairman Venerable Thich Tam Lien had to be hospitalized as a result.
In October, UBCV monk Thich Vien Phuong was summoned to pay a fine of 15 million dongs – the equivalent of 43 months minimum working wage – simply for filming a video message by Thich Quang Do to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Buddhist Youth Movement leader Nguyen Dinh Khoi was also fined 10 million dongs for circulating an internal Buddhist news bulletin. On October 18, Huynh Huu Nhieu, the brother of Thich Thien Minh, a UBCV monk released this year after 26 years in prison, was threatened and harassed simply because Thich Thien Minh gave an interview to Radio Free Asia…
Mr. Ai told Congress that religious and political prisoners continued to languish under inhumane conditions in Vietnam’s prisons and camps, despite Premier Phan Van Khai’s claims to President Bush in June that “there are no religious prisoners in Vietnam”. In Z30A reeducation camp in Xuan Loc, Dong Nai alone, 61 prisoners of conscience are currently detained. “Many are old and sick, yet they are forced to perform hard labour”, he said.
In his recommendations, as well as calling for CPC status to be maintained, Mr. Ai also urged the United States not to grant Vietnam Permanent Normal Trade Relation status (a pre-requisite for WTO membership) until significant improvements in human rights and religious freedoms have been achieved.
Stressing the need for a peaceful democratic process in Vietnam, Mr. Ai called on Congress to support initiatives to implement the 8-point “Appeal for Democracy in Vietnam” launched by Venerable Thich Quang Do as a “rallying point for Vietnamese from different religious and political affiliations to work together for democratic change”, and urged the U.S. to press Vietnam to take the following concrete steps :
– release all prisons of conscience including UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, Venerable Thich Quang Do, cyber-dissidents Pham Hong Son, Nguyen Khac Toan, Nguyen Vu Binh, and all Montagnard Christians detained for their peaceful activities ;
– re-establish the legitimate status of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam as a first and foremost step towards religious freedom, as well as that of other non-recognized religions ;
– authorize the publication of private newspapers as a forum for democratic debate and the creation of free trade unions and non-governmental organizations to foster the emergence of a vibrant and dynamic civil society in Vietnam ;
– rescind or revise all legislation which restricts the exercise of religious freedom and human rights, abrogate Decree 31/CP on “administrative detention” and all other legislation incompatible with the provisions of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ;
– abrogate Article 4 of the Vietnamese Constitution on the mastery of the Communist Party so that all religious and political families may participate in reconstructing a democratic and prosperous Vietnam.