Vietnam: Has Hanoi Seen the Light?

2003

Professor Carlyle A. Thayer

Vietnamese television viewers would have been surprised when they tuned into the evening news on 2 April. The lead story featured a meeting between Prime Minister Phan Van Khai and Buddhist Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, head of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV). This was the first meeting between the government and the UBCV since reunification and was widely reported in state-controlled newspapers the following day. Thich Huyen Quang was also permitted to hold separate meetings with ambassadors from the European Union and the United States.

To the surprise of foreign analysts, the normally anti-Hanoi, Paris-based International Buddhist Information Bureau characterized the Khai-Quang meeting as ‘a significant event’ and ‘an important first step’. The UBCV was banned in 1981 when it refused to merge with the state-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church. The following year Thich Huyen Quang was sent into internal exile to a remote pagoda in Quang Ngai province in Central Vietnam.

Why the sudden turn of events? According to one school of thought, Vietnam’s communist leaders were operating tactically in response to a barrage of public and private criticism of religious persecution. In March/April, for example, thirty-one European parliamentarians and thirty-seven American congressmen called for Quang’s release.

Another school of thought holds that the Hanoi regime was being indulgent to an aging and ill Buddhist leader. Thich Huyen Quang is 86 years old and had developed a cancerous growth on one eye. In late March, his supporters publicly demanded that Quang be permitted to seek medical assistance in Ho Chi Minh City. When authorities arranged for treatment in Hanoi, Quang requested a meeting with government officials. According to this view, the VCP obliged. Quang met twice with the head of the Vietnam Fatherland Front (a mass organization) before his meeting with Prime Minister Khai.

There is a third view: the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) is changing its policy towards dissenting religious groups in a bid to win over their support for a new era of cooperation. Policy towards religion, ethnic minorities and national unity was reviewed at the seventh plenum (second session) of the party’s Central Committee in January. According to Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan, this was the first time the party Central Committee had adopted a resolution on religion. Since January, the Government Committee on Religious Affairs has opened discussions with representatives of the Evangelical Protestant ‘house church’ groups.

When Thich Huyen Quang recovered from his medical treatment, he was permitted to travel to Ho Chi Minh City and meet with Thich Quang Do, the head of the Institute for the Propagation of the Dharma. Do is number two in the UBCV hierarchy and is the likely successor to Quang. A crowd of around a thousand Buddhists was permitted to assemble to welcome the Venerable Quang, and more significantly, this meeting was reported in the state-controlled media.

WATCHPOINT: Further steps towards reconciliation and accommodation between Vietnam’s one-party regime and dissenting religious groups would add weight to the third view mentioned above.

 

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