Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Religion

VIETNAM: Buddhist Leader Relevant in Death – As in Life

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jul 13 2008 (IPS) - In death, the patriarch of an outlawed Buddhist movement in Vietnam has proved to be as politically relevant and controversial as in life. Thich Huyen Quang died on Jul 5, at the age of 87.

His funeral on Friday morning at the Nguyen Thieu monastery in Binh Dinh province, in central Vietnam, was rife with tension, according to information received by IPS. Hundreds of his followers and monks belonging to the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), which he led, had to endure the presence of the country’s notorious security police.

‘’Despite threats by the authorities, round-the-clock police surveillance, jamming of cell phones and other harassment, Venerable Thich Quang Do, deputy leader of the (UBCV), led a solemn funeral service this morning at the Nguyen Thieu Monastery for the late UBCV Supreme Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang,’’ states the International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB), a Paris-based organisation that supports the UBCV.

‘’Almost one thousand UBCV monks and nuns, 5,000 lay-Buddhists and members of the UBCV Buddhist Youth Movement braved controls and surveillance to travel to the monastery in Binh Dinh to pay their last respects to their leader,’’ the IBIB added. ‘’Over the past few days, Security Police had visited Pagodas all over Vietnam and prohibited Buddhists from travelling to Binh Dinh.’’

Hanoi’s hostility towards the Buddhist movement, which it has refused to recognise, was on display while Quang was hospitalised for a heart and lung problem, and an infected liver since May 27.

‘’A number of extremists are said to be devising a plot to use the failing health of a senior Buddhist monk to popularise their illegal organisation known as the ‘Unified Buddhist Church of Viet Nam’,’’ reported the state-run Vietnam News Service in early July.

And since the Buddhist dissident leader’s death, the communist government in the South-east Asian nation stuck to a similar line during a press briefing. Le Dung, the foreign ministry spokesman, said that there was no such organisation called the UBCV.

Such a tough stance provoked criticism from international human rights groups, given what Quang had come to symbolise as a champion of religious freedom and human right through a battle spanning many decades with the oppressive regime in his country. ‘’Thich Hyuen Quang gave up his liberty for 30 years in a quest for greater human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam,’’ says Bruce Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. ‘’The Vietnamese government is risking unnecessary confrontation with the patriarch’s followers by trying to control him in death as in life.’’

Amnesty International (AI) – which had listed Quang as a prisoner of conscience since the 1990s – called for the Vietnamese government to allow his funeral to be conducted “without hindrance and harassment of UBCV members’’.

The twists and turns in his life since he joined the monkhood at 12 speak of an individual who was determined to stand up to oppression, whatever its stripes, beginning with French colonial rule in Indo-China. In the mid-1940s, he joined the anti-French resistance. But in the next decade, he was taken to task by the Viet Minh, the national liberation movement founded by Ho Chi Minh. He was arrested for not conforming to the communist doctrine of the revolutionaries.

And after a nine-year run of freedom, from 1954 to 1963, he was arrested and thrown into prison by the pro-U.S. South Vietnamese regime. He had accused the then Saigon government, led by President Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic, of discriminating against the country’s Buddhists, who made up the majority.

It was the following year that the UBCV was formed, with Quang being appointed as a deputy leader. ‘’Under successive government, (the UBCV) involved itself in social projects, such as opening schools and universities, running orphanages, day-care centres, and relief activities,’’ AI states. ‘’The UBCV took part in demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the presence of U.S. troops, and criticised human rights violations by the Vietnamese authorities.’’

But that won the UBCV little favours once all of Vietnam came under the grip of the new communist regime in the mid-1970s. Not only was this Buddhist movement denied legitimacy and condemned, Quang and some of its other leading members came in for a rough time, including arrests for criticising the communists of repression.

Quang enraged the regime further in 1981, when he refused to approve the establishment of the Vietnam Buddhist Church ‘’under the wing of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, an official organisation with authority over all mass membership organisations,’’ says AI. ‘’Followers of this officially sanctioned Buddhist church are allowed to practice their religious activities unhindered, whereas agents of the state (began to) subject UBCV members to harassment, surveillance, arrest and arbitrary detention.’’

In 1992, Quang became the Supreme Patriarch of the outlawed Buddhist movement. But that did not change his stance, even if it meant more years of house arrest. He confirmed that in 1993, by making a bold declaration, a ‘Buddhist Proposal for Democracy and Human Right’, where he called for religious freedom, free elections and a multi-party system. In effect, he was calling for the ‘’end to the supremacy of the Communist Party of Vietnam,’’ states AI.

That earned him a visit the following year by the security police, who came to his pagoda, confiscated documents he had in his possession and then transferred him to a remote pagoda to keep him in total isolation. Little changed in 2003, when he was permitted to return to the Nguyen Thieu monastery. He was kept under house arrest and isolated from other UBCV leaders even after what had appeared to be a thaw in the relations between Quang and the Vietnamese regime – he had a rare meeting with the country’s prime minister, Phan Van Khai.

‘’Over the past 30 years, from 1975 until today, whereas religious and political repression raged in Vietnam, you were like a great tree that brought us shade and shelter,’’ said UBCV’s deputy leader, Thich Quang Do, in front of Quang’s coffin. ‘’You reaped nothing but hardship, humiliation and detention, to the point that you exclaimed: ‘I am a man without a home, I will die without a grave, I walk without a path and I am a prisoner without a crime’.’’

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