Thich Huyen Quang: Dissident Buddhist leader

Saturday 12 July 2008 00:00

In a life dedicated to peaceful protest, Thich Huyen Quang, head of an outlawed Buddhist church in Vietnam, opposed French colonial rule, the US-backed government of South Vietnam and then the Communist government that swept to power and reunified the country in 1975. He must have lost count of the years he spent in and out of house arrest.

An outspoken proponent of religious freedom and human rights, Quang had long been confined to Nguyen Thieu Monastery in Binh Dinh province in central Vietnam. Although he had been a dissident all his life, his relationship with the Communist government became more confrontational after his appointment in 1992 as patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV). The organisation had effectively been outlawed since 1981 when the church refused to merge with the state-sponsored Buddhist Church of Vietnam.

The authorities believed his sect should come under the control of the government while Quang argued for the importance of its independence. In one letter that was smuggled out of the country, Quang wrote: "Vietnamese citizens have the choice between only two alternatives : either to go to prison or to toe the Party line. . . Those who toe the Party line must abandon their identity. They have mouths but cannot speak, have brains but cannot think, have hearts but cannot love their people or their country as they choose."

As part of its effort to counter the campaign for religious freedom by Quang and his deputy, Thich Quang Do, the Communist authorities accused the two monks of possessing official papers that contained "state secrets". The charge was stridently denied but even after Quang's death the authorities continued to condemn the UBCV as "extremist elements disguised as Buddhist monks who have been working to sabotage the Vietnamese state".

Quang was born Le Dinh Nhan in 1919 in Binh Dinh province and became a monk aged 13. In 1977, two years after unification, he wrote a letter to the authorities as deputy head of the UBCV detailing 85 instances of alleged government repression. For this, he and five other prominent members of the church were arrested. He was given a two-year suspended sentence after being convicted of "agitating against the military service law and other social duties".

In 1981 he was arrested a second time and the following year for the third occasion as he opposed the attempt by the government to force the UBCV under official control. At that point he was sent into internal exile – first at the remote Hoi Phuoc Pagoda in Quang Ngai province before being transferred to the Nguyen Thieu monastery – and put under constant surveillance. His name became internationally known when two Nobel laureates nominated him for the prize in 1982.

In 2003 it appeared that something of a thaw was developing between Quang's church and the authorities after the patriarch held an unprecedented meeting with the then Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in Hanoi. But soon afterwards the government recommenced its crackdown following efforts by the UBCV to elect new leaders. With the government alleging that the church leadership was in possession of national secrets, Quang and his deputy were confined to their respective monastaries.

Indeed, the church's deputy leader, Thich Quang Do, had to break out of house arrest at his monastery in Ho Chi Minh City to be at Quang's side earlier this year when the patriarch was taken to hospital suffering from lung and kidney problems. Shortly before his death, Quang asked to be returned to the Nguyen Thieu monastery in which he had been forced to spend so many years of his life.

Andrew Buncombe

Le Dinh Nhan (Thich Huyen Quang), monk: born 19 September 1920; Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam 1992-2008; died 5 July 2008.

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