Monks who die for the truth

Buddhists and Communists are locked in conflict in Vietnam, reports Richard Lloyd Parry
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The Independent Online
You need a trained eye to spot the plain-clothes police outside the Linh Mu pagoda, but Thich Hai Trang can tell them a mile off. "It's got a bit more relaxed," he says, in his tiny book-lined hut, "but there are still lots of them in Hue, and they're usually hanging round outside. When important visitors come, they follow them in. They seem to think that they're dressing like tourists but you can tell straight away from the eyes. The true tourists have simple eyes. The eyes of the police are cunning."

Brother Trang's home, the ancient capital of Hue, is the most beguiling city in Vietnam, but it has long been an uneasy place. After the Viet Cong seized it during the Tet offensive it saw some of the fiercest fighting of the Vietnam war, but even a United States bombardment could not snuff out the beauty of the 100 Buddhist temples, and the Forbidden Purple City, nestling on the green banks of the Perfume River.

But in the 21 years since the reunification of Vietnam, and the final victory of the Communist North over the US- backed South, the city has become the focus of a different kind of trouble. To a government which recognises no authority but that of the Communist Party, and ruthlessly suppresses all who challenge it, Hue is a hotbed of dissidence. As independent- minded Buddhists, Brother Trang and his fellow monks are the closest thing Vietnam has to an organised opposition.

According to the Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR), more than 200 of them - lay people and monks - are in detention in Vietnam. Sixty-one are serving sentences from 20 years to life, and many more are detained without trial. The charges against those who have been convicted (many, according to human rights groups, unfairly, in closed court and without access to defence lawyers) range from counter-revolution to public- order offences but, according to Penelope Faulkner of the VCHR, their real sin has been political. "Buddhism has existed in Vietnam for far longer than the Communist Party, and the monks are a big problem for the government because they have wide public support and a nationwide network," she said. "If anyone has the power to organise against the government, it is them."

Vietnamese Buddhists have a long history of political protest. In 1963, a monk named Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death on a street corner in Saigon in protest at the anti-Buddhist policies of the South Vietnamese leader, and the blue Austin in which he drove to his death is on permanent display in Brother Trang's pagoda. But the present trouble has its roots in 1981 when the government took it upon itself to set up an official Buddhist movement, the Vietnamese Buddhist Church (VBC).

The monks already had an organisation, the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), founded 30 years earlier. "There is a saying: Buddhism works for the life of the people," Brother Trang said. "For 2,000 years, Buddhists have played a great role in this country, but in 1975 things changed, and the Communist Party began to lean on the church for its own political purposes. The party has its youth groups and its student groups and women's groups, and they want to treat us as another one of them. They want the saying to go: Buddhism works for the Communist Party of Vietnam."

It was this dispute about independence which originally turned the church against the party; several senior monks were imprisoned for their defiance, although a number of them were released in 1989. Four years ago, the conflict escalated dangerously with two events. In April 1992, the old patriarch of the UBCV died, nominating as his successor 77-year old Thich Huyen Quang, one of Vietnam's most eminent prisoners of conscience, who has been in detention since 1982. A year later, there was another immolation, at the Linh Mu pagoda in Hue.

There are two versions of what happened next. Officially, the 52-year- old layman who doused himself in petrol at the back of the pagoda was a simple peasant who killed himself in despair over the breakdown of his marriage, and did not merit a Buddhist funeral. A few days later "bad monks", in violation of their doctrine of non-violence, instigated a public disturbance attended by 10,000 people and were arrested.

Brother Trang has a different story. "The man's death was the action of a Buddhist," he said, "but the government called the abbot of this pagoda in for questioning and tried to force him to deny this. In protest he sat in the road in front of the People's Committee. The police surrounded him, and put him inside a car. The other monks protested, and broke the glass in the car and took him back to the pagoda." By this account, 40,000 people turned out in support of the monks, and had to be dispersed with tear gas and water cannons.

Either way, it was an unprecedented event - the biggest incident of civil unrest since the end of the Vietnam war. The abbot was arrested, along with three of his followers. After a closed trial lasting one day, they were sentenced to four years imprisonment for "disturbing public order". In the same month, November 1993, their patriarch issued a nine-point declaration which was smuggled out of the pagoda where he is confined. It called for "democratic reform ... freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of association."

For common vandalism, they are suffering a harsh imprisonment. Abbot Thich Tri Tuu is reported to be in poor health after three months in solitary confinement. Another disciple was even more poorly; last month he was finally released from solitary and allowed medical treatment after the intervention of the United Nations.

There are non-Buddhist dissidents and prisoners of conscience in Vietnam, including former Communist Party members, but they are isolated and, according to the few journalists and human rights workers who have direct contact with them, increasingly fearful after intense surveillance in the runup to last month's Communist Party Congress. In the absence of any organised secular opposition, the UBCV stands alone. "We are not afraid," Brother Trang said. "We are telling the truth, and if anything happens to me I am prepared to die for the truth."