KYIV (UKRAINE), 10 April 2008 (VIETNAM COMMITTEE) – From 6-9 April 2008, 531 democracy activists, practitioners and scholars from 112 countries gathered in Kyiv, Ukraine, for the Fifth Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy (WMD) under the theme “Making Democracy Work: From Principles to Performance”. Founded in 1999, the WMD held its first assembly in New Delhi, India, then Sao Paolo (Brazil, 2002), Durban (South Africa, 2004) and Istanbul (2006). The Assembly was opened by Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko. Key-note speakers were Peru’s former President Alejandro Toledo and Ukraine’s First Lady, Kateryna Yuschenko.
The Assembly was held in Kyiv to mark the 2004 “Orange Revolution” and the democratic breakthrough in Ukraine. Describing Ukraine as a “16 year-old country with a 7,000 year-old history” of endless struggles for independence, Kateryna Yushchenko said the “Orange Revolution” had brought a new wind of hope and “not overnight change, but the opportunity to make change. Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, but the Ukrainian people gained their freedom in 2004”, she said. This year also marks the 75th Anniversary of the Holodomor, or Great Ukrainian Famine, when Stalin starved and slaughtered 10 million Ukrainians to subject Ukraine to the Soviet Union.
In 45 workshops, participants from in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas examined global and regional challenges to the development of democracy, and the need to deliver on promises of democratic transitions. “Whether it is the need to strengthen institutions, fight corruption, or reduce poverty and social equality, democracy must be made sustainable through performance”, said the WMD’s Assembly Statement, recalling its founding principles “to strengthen democracy where it is weak, to reform and invigorate democracy even where it is longstanding, and to bolster prodemocracy groups in countries that have not yet entered into a process of democratic transition”.
Vo Van Ai, President of Quê Me: Action for Democracy in Vietnam and Interntional spokesman of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) represented democracy movements in Vietnam. Speaking on “The role of religions in the movement for democracy” and “Building Democracy Networks under Authoritarianism”, he emphasised the role of Buddhism in the Asian democracy movement, with the “saffron revolution” of Buddhist monks in Burma and Tibet, and the struggle of the UBCV monks, nuns and followers in Vietnam. Buddhist monks in these authoritarian states have a moral authority that is denied their governments, he said, and they are close to the ordinary people. In Asia, democracy remains an “elitist” idea which is not yet rooted in ordinary people’s psyche. “Buddhism could serve as an intermediary between the “elite” and the ordinary people, a vehicle to relay democratic ideas and translate them into something meaningful, a new hope to which people can relate”.
Vo Van Ai observed that totalitarian governments such as China and Vietnam, whilst fundamentally hostile to religions, had realized the potential and “utility value” of Buddhism, and were seeking to harness it to serve State interests. Hence China’s organization of the very first World Forum on Buddhism in Beijing in 2006 and the upcoming celebrations of United Nations International Vesak Day in May 2008 in Vietnam. “These high-profile religious events help Beijing and Hanoi to kill two birds with one stone – to reinforce controls on religion and enhance their international image by “proving” there is religious freedom in China and Vietnam”.
At the same time, “these dictatorships fear powers that they cannot control”, whence the violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Burma and Tibet. Vietnam used the same violence to crush peaceful demonstrations of 40,000 Buddhist monks and civilians in Hue in May 1993 – the largest ever public protest in Communist Vietnam – and was continuing repression against the outlawed UBCV. Hanoi justified repression by claiming that the UBCV and its leaders Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do are “political”. This is false, said Vo Van Ai. By engaging for religious freedom and human rights, Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do are simply making a positive interpretation of Buddhist teachings following Vietnam’s 2,000 year-old tradition of Mayahana Buddhism, instead of passively abstaining, as some other Buddhist schools. He took the example of the Five Precepts that all Buddhists must observe. “All Buddhists promise not to kill. But when Vietnam arbitrary puts its citizens to death, UBCV Buddhists rise up against state repression. All Buddhist undertake not to steal, but when the state steals the people’s lands, their freedom, their identity, UBCV Buddhists stand up to defend their rights. Buddhists refrain from sexual misconduct, but when corrupt policemen and Communist Party officials organize trafficking of young girls for sexual exploitation, subjecting them to worse treatment than animals, UBCV Buddhists forcefully combat these abuses. All Buddhists promise not to lie, but when Hanoi stifles free speech, muzzles the media, and imprisons journalists who speak the truth, Buddhists engage in the battle for freedom of expression and the press”.
Buddhism is a fast-growing religion, with 100 million Buddhists in China, 60 million in Vietnam, with large communities in Japan, Taiwan, Laos and Cambodia, or Thailand, with its 90% Buddhist population. India, which had only 8 million Buddhists in 2001, has 35 million today.
A highlight of World Movement of Democracy’s Fifth Assembly was the launching of a report on “Defending Civil Society”. Co-authored by the WMD and the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law, the report is endorsed by an Eminent Persons Group including H.H. the Dalai Lama, former Czech President Vaclav Havel, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former presidents and Prime Ministers Kim Cambell (Canada), Anwar Ibrahim (Malaysia), F.H. Cardoso (Brazil) and Egyptian activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Hundreds of NGOs took part in its preparation, with workshops in Casablanca, Lima, Kyiv, Bangkok and Johanessburg. Quê Me: Action for Democracy in Vietnam contributed to the sections on Vietnam.
The report responds to the serious threats faced by civil society and the “backlash” against democratic activism in many countries, where governments use not only repression but more sophisticated methods, such as legal or quasi-legal barriers to resources, activities and communications. The report articulates international principles, norms and covenants defending civil society, and makes recommendations to governments on their implementation.
Vietnam is singled out for its barriers to operational activity, with Decree 88 on Associations which “provides for strict governmental control at all levels” and effectively transforms associations into “agencies of government ministries”. Barriers to communication include Vietnam’s Decision 71 (2004) which strictly restricts the use of the Internet, and Decree 56/2006, which imposes exorbitant fines for circulating “harmful” material by Internet or other means. Criminalization of dissent, under the “national security provisions” in Vietnam’s Criminal Code such as Article 80 (“spying”) or Article 88 (“conducting propaganda”). The Law on Publications strictly prohibits the dissemination of books or articles that “disseminate reactionary ideas and culture”.
The Fifth Assembly concluded with the award of the “Democracy Courage Tribute” to the Lawyers of Pakistan, the Buddhist monks of Burma, and the Journalists of Somalia. At the WMD’s Fourth Assembly in 2006, Vietnamese dissidents Thich Quang Do and Hoang Minh Chinh were honoured with this award.