Thich Nhat Hanh and the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam both want the state of religious repression to change. They have very different ideas of how to help.
Today, the Vietnamese government prohibits independent practice of Buddhism; only state-sanctioned Buddhism is allowed. While people are now allowed to attend a Buddhist temple, perform rituals, and burn incense, the intellectual and emotional heart of Buddhism has been cut out by the Vietnamese government. In Vietnam, if you practice the ethical core of Buddhism—right speech, right action, and right livelihood—you will likely end up in jail for “propagandizing against the state.” The Vietnamese Constitution declares that an individual should have the freedom to worship as one chooses. In practice, this freedom is significantly limited. The Vietnamese government is careful not to allow the growth of centralized, organized religions that could serve as a challenge to the authority of the Communist Party. The Vietnamese government has made the major religions in Vietnam a wing of the Communist Party. Now, you can practice your beliefs—unless you happen to believe in a different path to enlightenment than the one the government offers; or if, for example, you believe that you have a duty to speak out against unlawful government seizures of peasant land, or a duty to participate in a local citizen-organized effort to alleviate poverty or flood damage. The appearance of Buddhism is intact, but the free practice of Buddhism in everyday life outside of the temple is limited. Protests against the official government monopoly on Buddhism, including peaceful demonstrations petitioning for the recognition of Buddhist organizations, have been met with strong resistance and trumped-up charges. In 2007, ten ethnic Khmer monks peacefully seeking independence from state-sanctioned Buddhism were derobed and detained. To name one of many instances of persecution of UCBV members, in 2006 a UCBV leader in Khanh Hoa Province, according the U.S. State Department, “faced severe harassment [and] reportedly was forced out of the pagoda she founded” for her association with the banned UCBV. USCIRF Commissioner Leonard Leo, in his testimony before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in late 2007, stated, “[A]mong the Buddhists, peaceful demands for independence are treated as a threat to government control. In addition, peaceful expression of views or demonstrations for greater religious freedom—and the legal and political reforms needed to ensure it—are treated as a challenge to the government’s authority.”
True to the UBCV’s predictions in 2005, the state-controlled Vietnam News Agency issued a statement trumpeting the long-exiled monk’s return: “Thich Nhat Hanh praises Vietnam’s open-door policy on religious beliefs.” Not long after Thich Nhat Hanh’s visit, the United States government lifted the designation of Vietnam as violator of religious freedom due to perceived improvements in religious freedom in Vietnam—despite the opposition of the USCIRF and many members of Congress. Washington then normalized trade relations with Vietnam and cleared the path for Vietnam to join the World Trade Organization—a longstanding economic goal for the country. Since then, the direction of human rights reforms in Vietnam, once seen by some as improving, has reversed itself. “Now we have a situation where Vietnam has obtained the sought after trade benefit, but continues to abuse human and religious rights of its citizens who are peaceful democracy advocates or who wish to worship as their beliefs dictate,” says Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Vietnam. “The Bush Administration surrendered the most effective tool America had for obtaining compliance with internationally recognized human rights.”
At the outset of his 2005 trip, Thich Nhat Hanh explained to Agence French Presse that he and his group “want to listen carefully to understand the reality.” His aim is to interact directly with all sides of the debate. “Our policy,” he continued, “is to listen to everyone, the Buddhists who are not happy and the governmental agents who are facing difficulties. Sometimes, one needs months to sit down and talk.” But Vo Van Ai and the UBCV do not see how reconciliation is possible with a brutal regime. At the recent World Movement for Democracy’s 5th Assembly in Kyiv, Vo Van Ai invoked Mahatma Gandhi, saying, “If you see a madman attack someone with a knife, you must seek not to kill the madman, but to remove the knife from his hands.” He elaborated further, saying, “The UBCV’s engagement for human rights is simply a positive interpretation of the Five Precepts. UBCV Buddhists promise not to kill. But when Vietnam arbitrarily puts its citizens to death, they oppose state repression. They promise not to lie, but when Hanoi stifles free speech, muzzles the media, and imprisons journalists who speak the truth, Buddhists engage in the battle for freedom of expression and the press.” Thich Nhat Hanh continues his popular tours in Vietnam—most recently in May 2008—accompanied by many headlines but few stories about the repression of human rights.
For its part, UBCV continues its struggle to promote religious freedom and human rights in Vietnam, knowing full well that its actions draw the ire of the Vietnamese government. In 1995, for example, Thich Quang Do was sentenced to five years in prison for organizing a UBCV rescue mission for flood victims. The Vietnamese government does not officially allow the UBCV to operate, but the UBCV organizes local chapters that pursue humanitarian, educational, and informational activities in poor areas of the country. Each time a new chapter is set up, the UBCV sends a letter of notification to the local arm of the Vietnamese government. The Vietnamese government responds by kicking monks out of their pagodas and harassing local Buddhists and board members of the UBCV, threatening their jobs and organizing Soviet-style “denunciation” sessions. “There is no such thing as ‘dissidence-lite,’” insists Vo Van Ai. Local sections of the UBCV act as a skeleton form of civil society, which Vo Van Ai believes will be a “vehicle [for] the people’s demands for greater freedom and human rights.”
Despite pressure from the Vietnamese government, the UBCV has been able to bring relief aid to flood victims, support farmers and peasants expelled from their lands, and inform people of their rights by distributing Vietnamese translations of key international conventions. Thich Quang Do helped the UBCV start a microcredit initiative to help Buddhists and others in financial trouble because of their activism. Undoubtedly, the Vietnamese government will continue to suppress the UBCV and religious freedom because they see the threat that an informed public would pose to their oppressive rule. “At the bottom line, in Vietnam, like in any other dictatorship, there is no easy way to advocate human rights without exposing oneself (and one’s family) to reprisals,” says Vo Van Ai. Nevertheless, “the commitment of every Buddhist to ‘right speech’ is not a rule that one can bend to live a quiet life. A Buddhist who holds convictions must be ready to take the consequences.”
Jared Roscoe attends New York University School of Law and blogs for No Record Press.