PARIS, 27 January 2023 (VCHR) – The Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) and Quê Mẹ: Action for Democracy in Vietnam are deeply grieved to announce that Võ Văn Ái, founder and President of our two organizations passed away in Paris on Thursday 26 January 2023 after a long struggle against illness. He was 88.
Võ Văn Ái, also known by his pen-name Thi Vũ, was a human rights defender, writer and poet. A Buddhist and proponent of non-violence, he devoted his life to the movement for freedom, democracy and human rights in Vietnam. Through his long years of advocacy, he inspired young generations of civil society activists to use international channels to speak out against oppression and press for improvements and lasting change in Vietnam.
Born in Central Vietnam in 1935, he was arrested and tortured at the age of 11 for participating in the resistance movement and for the independence of Vietnam. In 1964, he became overseas representative of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) and worked actively in support of the nonviolent Buddhist movement for democracy and peace. After Vietnam was unified in 1975, in Paris he founded Quê Mẹ (Homeland), a magazine on culture, democracy and human rights circulated clandestinely in Vietnam and in the Vietnamese diaspora worldwide. In 1976 he founded the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR), and spoke regularly at the United Nations and other international fora.
Võ Văn Ái played a key role in calling world attention to human rights abuses under the communist regime by drawing up the first map of “re-education camps” with 150 camps and 800,000 prisoners,and launched a campaign that led to the release of hundreds of thousands of religious and political prisoners. In 1978 he helped initiate a campaign to launch of the “Ile de Lumiere”, the first rescue ship to save Vietnamese Boat People fleeing for freedom on the South China seas.
Thi Vũ Võ Văn Ái was also well known as a poet, writer and historian. He lectured extensively on Vietnamese culture, history and philosophy in Europe, Asia and the USA, and contributed to publications such as Le Monde, the Wall Street Journal, World Affairs Journal etc. In addition to numerous articles and reports, his written works include 21 books of poetry, essays and philosophy, as well as studies on Buddhism and Vietnamese history. Many of his literary works are available on the Vietnamese website Gió O. Just days before his passing, he finished work on a book on Vietnamese Buddhism and democracy which we will publish shortly. We will publish more details of his life in the next posting.
Võ Văn Ái was loved and appreciated by people all over the world. Below are some comments welcoming the International Freedom Prize awarded to him by Società Libera in Italy in 2011:
Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Ireland:
“I have great pleasure in congratulating Vo Van Ai on the occasion of his being awarded the ‘International Award to Freedom’ from the Società Libera in Italy. This award is richly deserved, as Vo Van Ai has dedicated his life in courageous, loving and persevering service for human rights and democracy for the people of Vietnam. I join my voice with his many friends in Vietnam and around the world in congratulating and thanking Vo Van Ai, for his inspirational life and work for Vietnam and humanity.”
Carl Gershman, President, National Endowment for Democracy, USA:
“Vo Van Ai is a true champion of the cause of freedom. During the long, dark years since the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, he has never let the world forget the plight of the Vietnamese people and the steadfast refusal of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam to submit to totalitarian control. He has always spoken and acted with quiet dignity, but he is unyielding in his determination to defend the political and religious rights of the Vietnamese people. He has the courage of his convictions and a will of iron. He is held in the highest regard by everyone associated with the World Movement for Democracy, and speaking on behalf of the National Endowment for Democracy, I am delighted to salute him and to congratulate him upon receiving the International Freedom Prize. No one is more deserving of such an honor”.
Halvorssen, Founder and CEO of the Oslo Freedom Forum,
President, Human Rights Foundation, New York:
“Vo Van Ai has devoted his life to the peaceful struggle for democracy and individual rights in Vietnam. As one of the most outspoken and determined leaders of the freedom movement for his country, Vo Van Ai was the first to draw the world’s attention to the more than one-million people arbitrarily sent to Vietnamese “re-education camps.” With an unshakable commitment to justice, he is an inspiration to those fighting for human rights across the globe. This award is fully deserved and reveals the wisdom of those who chose him. I join you in celebrating Vo Van Ai–a pillar in the fight for human dignity–and hope that his courageous colleagues inside Vietnam take heart that their plight under that cruel dictatorship is increasingly recognized around the world as intolerable.”
Souhayr Belhassen, President, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Paris:
“On behalf of the FIDH, I congratulate you for being awarded the 9th International Special Prize for Freedom by the Italian organisation Società Libera. It has been our honour to have worked with the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights under your leadership to advance internationally recognised human rights in Viet Nam. The struggle for greater freedom in Viet Nam continues. The Vietnamese authorities take severe measures to prevent the emergence of independent civil society and those calling for human rights and democracy have been swiftly stifled, persecuted, intimidated or imprisoned. In light of the silence enforced by the Government of Viet Nam, it is ever more important that independent Vietnamese human rights defenders can have their voice heard nationally, regionally and internationally. The Prize is thus a deserving recognition of your tireless efforts to demand greater respect and protection of human rights and to lend a strong voice to the silent majority in Viet Nam where the mere exercise of, and aspirations for, fundamental freedoms entail great personal risks”.
Robert LaGamma, President, Council for a Community of Democracies, USA:
“I am delighted to that you are to be awarded the Italian “International Freedom Prize” for a life devoted to advancing the cause of human rights. I speak for all your colleagues on the International Non-governmental Steering Committee of the Community of Democracies in saying how very proud we are to be associated with you at a time in which you are justly recognized for your many contributions. We can only imagine how difficult it is to struggle for so many years on behalf of an oppressed people. Your struggle has been heroic which contrasts with your own modesty and self-effacement. This recognition for your indomitable commitment should send a signal of encouragement to all those who support the rights of ordinary people everywhere”.
Therese Jebsen, Rafto Foundation, Bergen, Norway:
“On behalf of the Rafto Foundation, we wish to express our heartfelt congratulations to Vo Van Ai. It is extremely well deserved that he is presented with the 2011 “International Award to Freedom”. Through many years, the Rafto Foundation has followed and supported Vo Van Ai’s tireless and self sacrificing work for religious freedom and human rights in Vietnam. By his high moral standard, competence, persistence and courage, Vo Van Ai has made a deep impression on us, and we are honored and proud to be able to salute him on this special occasion.”
World Forum for Democratization in Asia, Taiwan:
“The World Forum for Democratization in Asia (WFDA) warmly congratulates Dr. Vo Van Ai on receiving the 2011 “International Award to Freedom” … We believe this award is a fitting tribute to Dr. Vo Van Ai’s decades of selfless service to the cause of freedom, democracy, and peace in his home country and throughout the region. We hope that it will serve to raise international awareness about the grim human rights situation that continues in Vietnam and to enhance global solidarity among human rights defenders and freedom fighters”.
Hon.Matteo Mecacci MP, Italy, Rapporteur for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs:
“Bravo! I can tell you that you have been our inspiration for a long time. Your resilience in the struggle for freedom, through nonviolence, despite all difficulties and the acceptance by the “free world” of Vietnam as a strategic partner for economic development must be acknowledged, and be remembered for the day when freedom will come to Vietnam. We will be there with you!”
George Matthews, Chairman, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, India:
“Please accept my hearty congratulations. From the day I met you for the first time, I was a great admirer of your relentless struggle for freedom and democracy. This international recognition of your life time achievement makes all of us proud. You are a role model for many those who are struggling for liberty, equality and freedom”.