Vietnam: A Backlash Against Religious Reconciliation


Professor Carlyle A Thayer

During the first half of this year the Vietnamese government took what appeared to be the first faltering steps towards reconciliation with the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV). The government banned the UBCV in 1981, confiscated its property and put its leaders under house arrest. In April, Prime Minister Pham Van Khai met with Buddhist Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang. This event was given wide coverage by the national media. In a private conversation Prime Minister Khai assured Quang that the detention of Buddhist leaders were mistakes made by local officials and would soon be rectified. In another positive development, Thich Quang Do, head of the Institute for the Propagation of the Dharma, was released from house arrest in June. State authorities later approached Thich Huyen Quang and offered him a senior position in the state-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church. Quang declined this obvious ploy.

Taking advantage of this relaxed atmosphere, Thich Huyen Quang convened an assembly of the UBCV at the Nguyen Thieu monastery in Binh Dinh province on 1 October. This was the first occasion since 1977 that the UBCV had been able to hold a public meeting in Vietnam. This gathering decided to restructure the UCBV by making new appointments to the Council of Sages and Steering Committee. The proceedings of the assembly were conveyed to a special conference of the UBCV held in Melbourne from 10-12 October attended by representatives from Australasia, Europe and North America. For the first time Buddhists in Vietnam and overseas were appointed to leadership positions in the UBCV.

In between the assembly and the special conference in Melbourne, security officials in Binh Dinh attempted to block Thich Huyen Quang and an entourage of monks travelling to Ho Chi Minh City. After a ten hour stand off, which attracted a crowd sympathetic to the monks, the group was allowed to proceed. It was then intercepted by security officials in Khanh Hoa province. Six monks were interrogated and three subsequently placed under house arrest. Thich Huyen Quang was returned to Binh Dinh and Thich Quang Do was once again placed under house arrest at a monastery in Ho Chi Minh City. Thich Huyen Quang and his followers were charged with carrying documents containing state secrets, sabotaging the Vietnam Buddhist Church, and conspiracy to receive assistance from abroad.

In a development deemed significant by the foreign media in Hanoi, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately issued a public statement on this incident. This action served to elevate what seemed to be a local affair into an international one. News reports of the arrest and detention of Buddhist monks received wide coverage overseas. This provoked protests by representatives of the European Union and members of the United States Congress.

WATCHPOINT: Does renewed state repression against the UBCV indicate the first signs of a backlash by party conservatives against the Prime Minister and his policy of reconciliation towards religious groups?


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