Banned Vietnam Buddhist group claims repression before UN meet

4 May 2008

HANOI (AFP) — A Buddhist group banned in Vietnam has said police in the communist country have tried to evict its monks from a pagoda to use it for a UN-sponsored international Buddhist meeting this month.

The state-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS) on May 13-17 hosts the 5th United Nations Day of the Vesak, an event expected to draw thousands of followers and scholars from 70 to 100 countries, according to organisers.

The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), which is outlawed but still runs scores of pagodas here, has said its members have been harassed and threatened by authorities seeking to bring them under state control.

Buddhist monk Thich Khong Tanh (C) of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (Photo AFP)

The UBCV claims police and state officials on April 29 broke the locks of the group’s Giac Hai pagoda in southern Lam Dong province, claimed it for use during the UN Vesak events, and temporarily detained its monks.

“Police interrogated the two monks for over three hours, accusing them of belonging to an ‘illegal organisation,’ engaging in ‘political activities’ and ‘disturbing public order’,” said a UBCV statement issued in Paris on Saturday.

The group said the pagoda’s head monk Thich Tri Khai had been singled out in a “state-orchestrated policy of repression” against the UBCV, which is led by Thich Quang Do, winner of Norway’s 2006 Rafto Foundation human rights award.

Police in Don Duong district, where the pagoda is located, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Source: AFP

Little Saigon begins to see Vietnam in new light

Some move back, form business ties

Timothy Thieng Chi Ngo, who had been an officer in the South Vietnamese Army, said some people forgot the past too soon. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times)
By My-Thuan Tran
Los Angeles Times / May 4, 2008

WESTMINSTER, Calif. – Thirty-three years after the Vietnam War ended, the fallen country of South Vietnam lives on – in the streets of Orange County’s Little Saigon and in the minds of thousands of refugees who fled Communist forces and rebuilt their lives here. more stories like this.

The memories of hardship are still so bitter to some that they continue to mount street protests, fly the South Vietnamese flag from businesses and lamp posts, and rail against communism on radio talk shows.

Now there are signs of shifting attitudes in the historically anticommunist community, the United States’ largest Vietnamese enclave, which is in the cities of Westminster and Garden Grove.

Vietnamese-Americans are beginning to see opportunity in their home country and increasingly people are moving back, expanding their business ties, or starting humanitarian organizations to improve the lives of those in Vietnam – actions barely imaginable a decade ago.

Although the change is subtle and those who associate with Vietnam often keep a low profile, the movement is remarkable in a community where a statue of a South Vietnamese soldier stands near the civic center and street protests against perceived communist sympathizers are still routine.

“There is tension in the community,” said Linda Trinh Vo, a University of California, Irvine professor of Asian-American studies. “It shows the complexities of Vietnamese-Americans in terms of their feelings against the current Vietnamese government. At the same time, we have to understand the personal experiences of these people and what they have suffered.”

Bill Pham fled Vietnam on a plane with his family when he was 4. Now 37, he has no memories of his homeland.

He returned to Vietnam for the first time in 2006 and saw mothers peddling bowls of pho and hungry children without shoes. “I kept thinking, that could have been my life,” he said.

Pham decided to expand his Orange County-based clean energy business to Hanoi, a name that still smolders among refugees. His manufacturing company employs 80 Vietnamese.

Vietnamese-Americans who conduct business in their homeland are viewed with suspicion, seen as traitors who help prop up the communist regime. Vietnam’s human-rights record and crackdowns on political and religious freedom remain sore points.

And yet there are signs of change even in the supermarkets and mom-and-pop stores in Little Saigon, where silks and fabrics, fish sauce, souvenirs, peanut snacks, and pop music albums imported from Vietnam are displayed with growing prominence.

In April, Pham hosted a group of Vietnamese delegates looking for high-technology businesses in Orange County and San Jose to expand to Vietnam. The meetings were discreet, by invitation only. Pham and the delegates did not want to risk protests.

“Forget the politics,” Pham said. “What do you do to solve problems for people in Vietnam?” Pham sees increased business ties with Vietnam as a path to a better economy. Human rights, education, and political freedoms will follow, he predicts.

As ties between the United States and Vietnam deepen, Vietnamese government officials are reaching out to overseas Vietnamese – “Viet Kieu” – with promises of less red tape, investment incentives, and multientry visas.

United States and Vietnam did $12.5 billion in trade last year, up nearly 30 percent from 2006, according to US government officials. Vietnamese-Americans also sent more than an estimated $4 million in remittances to relatives in Vietnam last year.

Timothy Thieng Chi Ngo was among the hundreds who protested in June when President Nguyen Minh Triet of Vietnam visited Dana Point in Orange County. He takes offense to Vietnamese government officials trying to reel expatriates back and doesn’t believe a better economy will bring about democracy.

“I wish the people who rush to do business in Vietnam would have more responsibility,” he said. “I feel like they have forgotten the past too soon.”

Ngo hasn’t forgotten. He was a 25-year-old officer in the South Vietnamese Army when he fled Vietnam on a small landing craft and vowed never to return as long as communists were in power.

Ngo eventually came to Orange County and heard news of friends and relatives in the army being thrown into “reeducation” camps as political prisoners. Others died fleeing Vietnam. He organized protests to support and free political prisoners held in Vietnam.

“For my friends who spent 10, 15 years in prison,” he said, “their youth, that part of their life was gone forever.”

In 1998, Ngo broke his vow and went to Vietnam for charity work and to see the situation there for himself. His anger grew anew.

Vo said the wounds of war have healed slowly in the Vietnamese-American community.

“Especially for the first generation, they’re still tied to what happens politically and economically in the homeland,” she said. “That will always be a part of who they are, part of their history.”

US religious rights panel wants Vietnam, Pakistan blacklisted

WASHINGTON (AFP) — A US religious freedom watchdog on Friday asked the State Department to include Vietnam, Pakistan and Turkmenistan in its global blacklist of religious freedom violators, and maintained Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, on a watchlist.

Catholics in Hanoi

In its recommendation to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom also wanted Myanmar, China and North Korea to be kept in the department’s “country of particular concern” blacklist together with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Eritrea and Uzbekistan.

The independent commission, set up by US law to monitor religious freedom across the globe, also maintained Afghanistan and Bangladesh in its watchlist together with Belarus, Cuba, Egypt and Nigeria.

The 10-member panel was divided whether to downgrade predominantly-Muslim Iraq, where widespread persecution of Christians has been reported, to the blacklist from the watchlist, saying it needed more time to make the decision.

The commission makes an annual recommendation to the State Department ahead of its compilation of its annual report on international religious freedom.

The panel wanted Vietnam to be reincluded in the department’s blacklist, saying the government continued to imprison and detain dozens of individuals advocating for religious freedom reforms in the communist-led state.

Vietnam was removed from the list in November 2006 on the eve of a visit by US President George W. Bush to the former battlefield enemy nation.

The State Department admitted Friday that there were still “a number of issues” on religious freedom in Vietnam.

But “the actions that the Vietnamese government has taken to address some of our concerns makes them a country that does not merit being included on the CPC or the countries of particular concern list,” said Tom Casey, a department spokesman.

Commission member Leonard Leo said the panel’s view differed from that of the department.

“We continue to find that lifting the CPC designation for Vietnam was premature,” he told a news conference.

Ethnic minority Buddhists and Protestants in Vietnam “are often harassed, beaten, detained, arrested and discriminated against and they continue to face some efforts to coerce renunciation of faith,” the report said.

Commission members traveled to Vietnam last fall and were able to meet individuals detained under house arrest or in prison, such as Buddhist monk Thich Quang Do, and Catholic priests Phan Van Loi, Nguyen Van Dai and Li Thi Cong Nhan.

In Pakistan, the commission said it did not see major improvements in religious freedom even though the country had gone through a democratic transition following landmark elections.

“Despite the dramatic events in Pakistan in the past year, the commission finds that all of the serious religious freedom concerns, including violence, on which it has previously reported, persist.”

The panel said concerns over Indonesia remained, citing communal violence and the government’s “inability or unwillingness to curb it” as well as what it called the forcible closures of places of worship of religious minorities.

It also referred to growing political power and influence of religious extremists “who harass and sometimes instigate violence” against moderate Muslim leaders and members of religious minorities.

“There are persistent fears that Indonesia’s commitment to secular governance, ethnic and religious pluralism, and a culture of tolerance will be eroded by some who promote extremist interpretations of Islam,” it said.

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A new generation finds its Vietnam

VANCOUVER — When the American novelist William Faulkner quipped that the past is “not even past” he might have added that the future is always here. Multiple moments in time coalesce in a new show at Vancouver’s Belkin Satellite called Everything Is Not Lost. Curator (and graduate student) Kim Nguyen, 24, assembles a cohesive set of work from four Vietnamese artists, all of whom muddle our notions of memory, post-memory, and possible futures.

Thirty-three years after the end of the Vietnam War, that catastrophe remains a fertile battleground for Nguyen’s quartet of artists. But Nguyen, an assiduous and happy young woman, wanted to build an optimistic view of Vietnam’s future: thus the decidedly turned-up title.

“Sixty per cent of the population [in Vietnam] was born after the war was over. People can rebuild; Vietnam won’t always be known as a place of war. It can be recovered,” she says as she stands in the middle of one installation.

The installation encircling her, Generation (Crushed) (1996), is a large piece by Khanh Vo, an aluminum foil map of Vietnam, and one of the United States, twisted and joined in a continuous loop, which is suspended from the ceiling at eye-level by several fans of yellow string. The effect is arresting (the sharp southern edge of Vietnam stabs at your face when you enter the room). The piece hovers magisterially, soldering the two countries in a postwar embrace, and inviting viewers to duck down and examine the underbelly of their troubled landscapes. The work has only been shown once before, in Pittsburgh. It was made the year after the U.S. and Vietnam reinstated diplomatic relations.

Nguyen says that as the show came together, it felt as if it was as much about her life and generation as about Vietnam’s past. And, indeed, Everything Is Not Lost has an intimate, decidedly un-academic feel.

One wall in the front room is lined with a series of charcoal drawings by Christian Nguyen from 2006. Continuous Landscape looks innocuous at first. A dirt road; an abandoned street. The skin of the canvases, which shows through everywhere, is raw enough that bumps of miscoloured cotton lend a literally grainy effect. We begin to imagine we’re looking at stills from archival videos. And once the idea of reportage is raised, the viewer begins to recognize the scenes. The most famous photos from the Vietnam War are transformed into drawings, with all the humans removed. Here is the road that a naked, napalm-scorched Kim Phuc ran down. That is the can of gasoline a Buddhist monk used when he elected to self-immolate.

On the opposite wall hangs a single large photograph, a self-portrait by Pipo Nguyen-duy who, being the oldest artist represented, was 12-years-old when the war ended. Ha Long Bay has Nguyen-duy standing at the end of a wharf in Vietnam, umbrella in hand and life preserver strapped over his formal jacket. As a child he was one of “the boat people.” As an adult he has recreated the journey to America in the whimsical Two Million Steps, a series of photos reimagining the voyage, from which Ha Long Bay is drawn.

Everything Is Not Lost has an effective momentum, with Christian Nguyen’s sombre charcoal drawings building to Vo’s crumpled geographical planes and a colourful climax at the rear end of the gallery, where Nhan Duc Nguyen (the only Canadian represented) has installed a large new work.

Van Mieu: Nhu Xua (Shrine to Literature: Redux) is a 10-foot shrine built of 2,000 books – a brick-like structure with only words for mortar. Hundreds of incense sticks protrude, flagged with scrolls of text (“Loudly he prayed to the butterfly demanding the dispersion of the infantry,” reads one). Silk flowers – as ripe a symbol for the stubbornness of fond memory as one can muster – are spangled all over in a gaudy display. The floor and walls are splattered with red: Blood? Sealing wax?

Nguyen’s shrine recalls the many shrines to literature (Van Mieu) that Confucianism imported to Vietnam. And he extends the textual motif beyond the shrine itself, onto several wall-mounted pieces covered in Vietnamese text. Nguyen has written in barely decipherable, tight lines, obsessively and with multicolored pencils. Lines overlap, reducing original meanings into larger cloud-like shapes. The edges of stories become softer and exact meanings are reduced to impressions. The effect recalls a work by the Chinese artist Zhang Huan, who had three calligraphers write on his face for an entire day – the once legible characters were eventually worried into nothing more than an ink-coloured head.

We are told the books in Nguyen’s shrine are amassed from his own collection and the collections of his friends. But, studying the spines, one finds that many of the books in his tower are repeats and were probably scored from the warehouses of local indie publishers. In the industry, these are called remainders. Stories that could not be sold, stories that are left behind and need to be offloaded by any means necessary.

The effect of the show as a whole is a little like looking backward and forward at once. The most bloody chapter of Vietnam’s history still lingers and informs the creativity of a generation that came of age after the war had been turned into narrative. This is a collection of stories about stories – a hall of mirrors called “collective memory.”

Nguyen could have called her exhibit Not Everything Is Lost but instead chose the more semantically duplicitous Everything Is Not Lost. She might have simply meant that some things remain and others are vanished. But the exhibit offers an alternative, optimistic reading: All things are “un-lost,” everything that you thought was gone is secretly attached to you, waiting for your vision to catch up.

Everything Is Not Lost continues at Belkin Satellite in Vancouver until May 18 (604-687-3174)