Vietnam dissident Buddhist church appoints new leader

Thich Quang Do

Thich Quang Do

HANOI (AFP) — Dissident monk Thich Quang Do became the new leader of he banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) Sunday, pledging to keep up the peaceful struggle for religious and political freedom.

Do, the former deputy leader, was named supreme patriarch at a ceremony held in Houston, Texas marking 49 days since the death of his predecessor Thich Huyen Quang, the organisation said in a statement.

“We pledge to realise Patriarch (Quang’s) wishes — to promote human rights for the living, sacred rights for the dead and democracy for society,” Do said in a recorded message, the UBCV said in a statement.

The 79-year-old Do , whom Quang named as his successor in his will, pledged that the leadership would “do its utmost to re-establish the legal status of the UBCV and maintain its historic tradition of independence.”

The UBCV has refused to come under the control of the communist government that has ruled all of Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975, and has been effectively banned since the early 1980s.

Quang and Do spent most of the time since then in internal exile under “pagoda arrest” and isolated from each other.

The ceremony was held in the United States, not Vietnam, because police in the communist country had surrounded all key UBCV pagodas in recent days and restricted members from travelling, the group said.

“Unable to hold the ceremony in Vietnam, UBCV leaders finally decided to smuggle a copy of the testament to Houston, Texas, where a parallel memorial ceremony is being held by the Overseas UBCV,” the group said.

Despite having been kept under house arrest for much of the time, Do was able to lead Quang’s July 11 funeral service, which brought thousands of followers to a central province and went off without incident.

Authorities, under international pressure, allowed the event to go ahead despite having earlier attacked UBCV followers as “extremist elements disguised as Buddhist monks” in the state-controlled media.

In Paris, UBCV spokesman Vo Van Ai said on Sunday that “the appointment of Most Venerable Thich Quang Do as UBCV leader marks the beginning of a new phase in relations between the government and the UBCV.”

Quang’s death and the conflict over his funeral “underscore the strong international support enjoyed by the UBCV,” he said.

Ai added that “Hanoi should cease treating the UBCV as its enemy and seize this occasion to recognise the leadership of Thich Quang Do and re-establish the legitimate status of the Unified Buddhist Church of

AFP: Vietnam dissident Buddhist church appoints new leader

Thousands mourn Vietnam’s top dissident Buddhist monk

HANOI (AFP) — Thousands of followers on Friday mourned the death of Vietnam’s top dissident Buddhist monk Thich Huyen Quang at a funeral at his pagoda in central Vietnam, supporters, a witness and an official said.

Quang, who died last Saturday aged 87 after decades of internal exile, led the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), which has refused to come under state control and was effectively outlawed in the early 1980s.

“Thousands of people and followers were at the funeral, many of them Buddhist monks wearing their robes,” said the Vietnamese eye-witness, who asked not to be identified. “The funeral was organised by his followers.”

A provincial official, speaking to AFP on condition he not be named, said: “No representative from the Vietnamese government attended the funeral.”

A Paris-based UBCV spokesman said that 6,000 monks, nuns and lay followers of the banned church defied police warnings and controls to attend the funeral at the Nguyen Thieu monastery in Binh Dinh province.

Around 200 wreaths and plaques honouring Quang under his title of UBCV Supreme Patriarch were placed around the coffin, he said.

“The fact that Vietnam did not interfere in the funeral is a victory for the international human rights community, and the result of concerted pressure from diplomats, legislators and civil society movements worldwide,” said UBCV spokesman Vo Van Ai.

“UBCV followers were able to pay their last respects to Thich Huyen Quang in dignity and calm, and he was laid to rest by those who loved and supported him throughout his peaceful combat for religious freedom and human rights.”

State-controlled media had earlier in the week announced the ceremony would be conducted by the state-sponsored Buddhist church and labelled UBCV followers “extremist elements disguised as Buddhist monks.”

The media attacks, and reports that large numbers of plain-clothes police were at the pagoda, sparked protests this week from international human rights groups and raised fears of disturbances at the funeral.

Amnesty International — which first named Quang a prisoner of conscience in the 1990s — urged Vietnam to allow his funeral to take place “without hindrance and harassment of UBCV members by agents of the state.”

The UBCV’s deputy Thich Quang Do — who had been attacked in the state press for his “evil plot” to hijack the funeral — led the ceremony.

Do, who has also spent decades under “pagoda arrest,” is expected to become the new supreme patriarch of the UBCV after an interval of several weeks, in line with Buddhist beliefs.

According to the Paris UBCV office, he said, standing before the coffin:

“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.

“You were the helmsman whose firm hand safely guided the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam through persecution and oppression.”

On Thursday Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesman Le Dung said that “there is no organisation called UBCV.”

But Do, according to his supporters, said to his late friend Quang: “You have left us for ever, but the struggle for UBCV legality goes on. We pledge to continue your peaceful combat, to follow the path you traced.

“We know that countless obstacles lie ahead, and we are ready to confront them. We will not cease until we have fulfilled your dream to see the UBCV regain its legal status and win back the freedom of religious activities stolen from us by the communist regime in 1975.”

Vietnam denies existence of outlawed Buddhist group

The communist government in Vietnam has denied the existence of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.

The statement came as crowds gathered outside a monastery for the funeral of the country’s leading dissident Buddhist, Thich Huyen Quang.

He was the patriarch of the group which has refused to come under state control and was outlawed in the early 1980s.

He died last Saturday, aged 87.

Foreign ministry spokesman, Le Dung, in reply to a question at a regular media briefing, said there is no organisation called UBCV.

He says the founders of the Nguyen Thieu monastery, his followers and his family are organised the funeral.

HRW urges Vietnam not to interfere with dissident monk’s funeral

HANOI (AFP) — A US-based human rights group Wednesday called on communist Vietnam not to interfere with the funeral of a leading Buddhist dissident monk who died last weekend after decades of internal exile.

Thich Huyen Quang, the patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), which has refused to come under communist state control and was outlawed in the early 1980s, died last Saturday aged 87.

“Members of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam should be allowed to organise and attend funeral services for their patriarch without government interference,” New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.

The government has announced that the state-sanctioned Buddhist church will organise the funeral, while also attacking other UBCV members as “extremist elements disguised as Buddhist monks” in the state media.

“The Vietnamese government is risking unnecessary confrontation with the patriarch’s followers by trying to control him in death as in life,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Thich Huyen Quang gave up his liberty for 30 years in a quest for greater human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam,” he said.

“His followers should be allowed to pay their last respects without government interference, at a ceremony of their own choosing.”

UBCV followers have announced plans for a funeral on Friday at the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in central Binh Dinh province, with UBCV deputy Thich Quang Do, the likely successor, presiding over the ceremony.

“The government should let anyone who wants to attend Thich Huyen Quang’s funeral services to travel there freely,” Adams said. “Instead the government is trying to discourage Vietnamese from honouring Thich Huyen Quang’s life in local ceremonies.”

Dissident Vietnamese monk dies in Vietnam

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Thich Huyen Quang, the patriarch of an outlawed Buddhist church in Vietnam who spent more than two decades in and out of house arrest, died Saturday after months of ailing health. He was 87.

The leader of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam died of multiple organ failure a day after being transferred from a hospital to his monastery at his request, said Penelope Faulkner of the International Buddhist Information Bureau in Paris, which speaks for the outlawed church.

An outspoken proponent of religious freedom and human rights, Quang had long been confined to the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in the southern province of Binh Dinh.

“He was a real pioneer, and that’s why Vietnam kept him isolated and they wanted to keep him out of the way,” she said. “He kept determined to the very end.”

The church’s deputy leader, Thich Quang Do, 80, broke out of house arrest at his monastery in Ho Chi Minh City to be at Quang’s side when the patriarch was hospitalized, Faulkner said. Do held a prayer service after Quang’s death and plans to oversee a funeral scheduled for next week, she said.

Buddhist monk Thich Minh Tuan said Quang’s followers are preparing a “simple but solemn funeral” and he will be buried at the pagoda.

“He passed away very peacefully with many of his followers at his bedside,” Tuan said.

State-controlled media over the past few days have accused Do, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and other senior members of the banned church of attempting to use Quang’s death for “personal political gains.”

The Buddhist sect was effectively banned in 1981 when it refused to merge with the state-sponsored Buddhist Church of Vietnam.

Vietnam’s Communist government allows only a handful of officially approved religious groups to worship, outlawing all other sects.

Despite the longtime standoff with the government, there were signs of a thaw in relations in 2003 when Quang had an unprecedented meeting with then-Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in Hanoi.

But six months later, the government launched a new crackdown after the Unified Buddhists held a meeting to elect a new church leadership. Quang and Do were accused of possessing official papers with national secrets.

Since then, both monks were mostly confined to their respective monasteries, their followers say. The government denied they have been under house arrest.

Buddhism is the primary religion among Vietnam’s 86 million people. The government has also clashed with other religions in recent years, mostly for political activities. It has sentenced Roman Catholics, Protestants and followers of other religions to lengthy jail sentences.

Holy row over land in Vietnam

The Vietnamese government is often embroiled in complex disputes over land rights.

But there is one particular row that is currently making the headlines – pitting the government against the country’s strong Catholic Church, and now the Buddhist community as well.

For the whole of January, thousands of Catholics gathered outside the building that served as the Vatican ambassador’s residence in Hanoi during the 1950s.

Braving the coldest winter for 40 years, they held vigils and prayers in one of the most visible gatherings in decades.

They had one request – that the site be returned to the Catholic Church.

The last Apostolic delegate was expelled by the Communists in 1959 and, since then, the residence has been used by the local Communist People’s Committee for various non-religious purposes, such as weddings, motorbike parking and a gymnasium.

Vietnam’s Buddhist community has now entered the standoff as well.

The Buddhist Sangha recently sent a letter to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung saying that it, too, wanted ownership.

Angry reaction

The case has highlighted the complexity of land issues in Vietnam, especially where religions are involved.

Catholics hold a rally in Hanoi, Vietnam (25/01/2008)

Protests by Catholics in January alarmed the government

It has also caused considerable alarm to the authorities.

They demanded that the Catholic protesters stop their vigil, and some were prosecuted for “abusing religion to cause public disorder”.

In the end, the crowds only dispersed when the Archbishop of Hanoi, Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet, announced that the government had promised to give back the land.

But the issue has still not been resolved – and the land has yet to be returned.

Before the Catholics could show their discontent again, an official letter signed by the Venerable Thich Trung Hau, a leader of the official Buddhist Church, was sent to the prime minister.

Land use is one of the most complex and sensitive issues in Vietnam
Nguyen Duc Thinh,
Religious Affairs Committee

The letter said the disputed land was in fact the location of an ancient pagoda – one of the most important heritage sites of Vietnamese Buddhism – which was occupied by the French and given to the Catholic Church in the 19th Century.

It asked the government to “consider the Buddhist Sangha one of the main parties to consult before making any decision” regarding the site.

The letter has sparked an angry reaction from the Catholic community.

Online forums such as the VietCatholic website have been swamped with articles and messages saying that only the Catholic Church has rights to the land that they believe was “given to the Church by history”.

Some followers of the outlawed Vietnam Unified Buddhist Church also criticised the state-approved Buddhist Sangha’s claim, which they feared would only widen the division between the two religions.

Vietnamese Catholics pray in St Joseph's cathedral in Hanoi (January 2008)

Some are worried the dispute could exacerbate religious divisions

Religious issues have always been considered “sensitive” in this communist country.

But tricky as it is, the claim by the Buddhists could, in reality, help make the government’s task simpler.

“With both the Catholic and Buddhist Churches vying for the land, the government can now take the religious nuance off the issue, and treat it as a pure land issue,” said one leading cultural expert. “It could come down to basic documentation.”

Even straight land disputes, though, are not easy to solve.

Land clearance for industrial development, the confiscation of agricultural land and the lack of fair compensation for farmers have all fuelled a number of large-scale public protests in recent years.

“Land use is one of the most complex and sensitive issues in Vietnam,” said Nguyen Duc Thinh, a senior official from the government’s Religious Affairs Committee.

“Our policy is to examine all disputes, case by case, in accordance with the government’s land law,” he said.

Vietnamese law stipulates national ownership over all land, which means that organisations and individuals can only apply for the rights to use land, not own it.

Great value

Real estate prices in Vietnam have rocketed during the past decade.

In central Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, commercial space can sell for as high as in some of the most expensive cities in the world.

The disputed former Vatican ambassador’s residence, covering an area of one hectare, is no doubt of great financial value.

“We have come to recognise that the Hanoi Diocese does indeed need a premise for their activities,” said Nguyen Duc Thinh.

But he admitted that, like many land disputes, this one would take time to resolve.

Buddhists enter Catholics’ property dispute with Vietnamese government

.- A Buddhist leader in Vietnam is now asserting a claim to disputed land that once belonged to the papal nuncio but was confiscated by the Vietnam government in 1959.

After a month of Catholic protest and prayer seeking the return of the former nunciature, Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet announced an agreement on February 1 that would restore the property to Catholic ownership.

However, in a February 16 letter to the Vietnamese prime minister Venerable Thich Trung Hau, a leader of the communist-organized Vietnam Buddhist Church, now claims the land belongs to Buddhists.

Venerable Hau said that a pagoda named Bao Thien was built on the land in 1054.  In 1883, he claimed, “The French colonists seized [the land] and gave it to Bishop Puginier.”

Catholics see the claim as a government ploy to undermine the agreement announced on February 1. 

The fence surrounding the former nunciature was broken through during the aforementioned Catholic protests and prayer vigils.  Recently the gates of the fence have been strengthened, while new panels carrying Communist symbols and slogans have been set in place.  Security officials now reportedly respond quickly to remove anyone who pauses to pray outside the building.

Father Joseph Nguyen, a Hanoi priest involved in the protests, said that Hanoi Catholics are facing “uphill battles” to regain the property.  He also responded to the Buddhist leader’s claim, saying, “Except the strong support from the government, Venerable Hau has nothing to prove what he said. On the contrary, we do have all legal land titles.”

Rep. Royce Nominates the Most Venerable Thich Quang Do for 2008 Noble Peace Prize

WASHINGTON, DC– Today, along with two of his colleagues, Representative Ed Royce (R-CA) requested that the Noble Peace Prize Committee consider the Most Venerable Thich Quang Do for the 2008 Noble Peace Prize.  In his letter, Rep Royce stated:

“The Most Venerable Thich Quang Do, a Buddhist monk, well-known writer and Deputy Head of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), has dedicated his life to a struggle for justice, peace and human rights in Vietnam. In his struggle for the rights of others, he has sacrificed his own safety and freedom, spending almost 30 years in detention for his peaceful advocacy of democracy and human rights. Today, he is under house arrest at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery, denied the right to travel and communicate freely.

Even under house arrest, Thich Quang Do continues his peaceful campaigns for the rights of all Vietnamese. In July 2007, he broke out of house arrest to support a demonstration staged by ‘Victims of Injustice,’ a movement of farmers and peasants protesting official corruption and state confiscation of lands.

Thich Quang Do’s vision of democracy extends beyond Vietnam’s borders. In September 2007, he expressed solidarity with the democratic protests of Buddhist monks and civilians in Burma, calling for urgent United Nations action to cease the violence. The Vietnamese authorities reacted by launching a widespread vilification campaign against Thich Quang Do in the State-controlled media, threatening his imminent arrest.

Thich Quang Do was awarded the prestigious Rafto Prize in 2006 by the Norwegian Rafto Foundation for his “personal courage and perseverance through three decades of peaceful opposition against the Communist regime,” acting as a “unifying force” and a “symbol of the growing democracy movement” in Vietnam. Vietnam, unfortunately, refused to allow Thich Quang Do to travel to Norway to receive the award.

We believe that Thich Quang Do is a most worthy candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. This award would not only honor a courageous proponent of peace, but also acknowledge the silent struggle of all those who risk their lives daily for the case of human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam and elsewhere. Thus, we respectfully submit to your Selection Committee the name of Thich Quang Do as candidate for the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize.”

High Political Oppression

Speaking under house arrest, Mr. Thich Quand Do reveals the political oppression he is facing along with other dissidents of the Vietnam’s government.

Below is an article published by Al Jazeera:

At 80 years old, Buddhist Monk Thich Quang Do is still one of Vietnam’s most prominent dissidents.

He is deputy leader of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and has spent more than 25 years in detention for advocating greater religious freedoms and rights.

In video tapes smuggled out of the country and obtained by Al Jazeera, Thich Quang Do reveals a life of political repression and misery not found in the glossy tourist brochures luring vistors to Vietnam.

In Vietnam today we are not free. We are prisoners in our own country … Prisoners of a regime which decides who has the right to speak, and who must keep silent.

As I speak to you today, I am under house arrest at the Thanh Minh Zen monastery in Saigon. Secret police keep watch on me day and night, and I am forbidden to go out.

I have been continuously repressed right from 1975 by the communist regime. For me, I’m not afraid of anything, of anything, because I am struggling for the right cause. For the truth.

Today we have no opposition parties, no free press, no free trade unions, no civil society. All independent religions are banned.

All citizens who call for political reform, democracy or human rights risk immediate arrest. Only economically speaking [are things] any better. But politically speaking, nothing changes.

If you go to the country from here 20km from Saigon, you will see. People more or less as peasants [are] very, very miserable.

We must have pluralism, the right to hold free elections, and to choose our own political system.

To enjoy democratic freedoms. In brief, the right to shape our own future, to shape the destiny of our nation. For the last 32 years we always speak out to the outside world. And we hope like you … that you foreigners listen to our cry.

Cambodian monks clash with police

TODAY (Singapore)

PHNOM PENH – About 40 Cambodian Buddhist monks fought with police (picture), knocking one unconscious before being beaten back with batons, at a demonstration yesterday to demand religious freedom for monks in neighbouring Vietnam.

At least 16 people were injured in the clash that broke out when 100 police refused to allow the monks to approach the Vietnamese Embassy in the Cambodian capital.

Police used batons to beat back the monks, who responded by pelting water bottles at the police, said Phnom Penh police chief Touch Naroth.

He said six police officers were injured, including the man knocked unconscious, while Cambodian rights watchdog Adhoc said at least 10 monks were hurt.

The Buddhists had marched to the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh to submit a petition against the authorities’ alleged mistreatment of Buddhist monks in the communist country.

The protesters accused the Vietnamese authorities of arresting and defrocking several ethnic Cambodian monks over the past few months.

“They wanted to enter the Vietnamese Embassy, but police asked them to move back. The monks then beat and kicked the police. The officers had to use force to protect themselves,” the police chief said. “What the monks did was illegal.”

One of the monks, 20-year-old Thach Mony, told AFP that they simply wanted to drop off their petition calling for the release of Cambodian monk Tim Sakhorn and for the return of land that Cambodia claims was seized by Vietnam in 1978.

“But the police misunderstood us,” he said. “They blocked us and they used violence on us.”

Vietnam said in early August that it had arrested Tim Sakhorn on charges of undermining national unity for organising anti-Vietnam demonstrations in neighbouring Cambodia. He was the abbot of a Cambodian pagoda, but was defrocked in late June. He disappeared amid unconfirmed reports that he was detained by the Cambodian authorities pending deportation to Vietnam.

The Vietnamese authorities allow only a few state-sponsored religious organisations to operate inside the country, a situation that has led to altercations there with some groups including Buddhists.