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US Diplomat's Visit to Monk is Latest Twist in Vietnam Buddhist Politics

  • Matt Steinglass

Vietnamese dissident monk Thich Quang Do recently welcomed a visit from U.S. diplomat Eric John. Do is secretary-general of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, which started out in the 1960s opposing the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War. Today, the church finds itself appealing to the U.S. for help - part of the complicated story of Vietnamese Buddhist politics. Matt Steinglass reports from Hanoi.

Thich Quang Do has spent most of the past six years inside Thanh Minh Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, his movements restricted by the Vietnamese government. On Monday, though, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eric John had no trouble going to see the 78-year-old dissident monk.

"I was not restricted in any way from going to see Thich Quang Do. Basically, we just drove right into the compound," he said.

Others have not found it so easy. In March, Norwegian human rights activists were detained by police after they presented Do with an award for his activities in defense of religious freedom.

Do's organization, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, or UBCV, is banned by the government. It was founded in what was then South Vietnam in 1964. Then, the UBCV opposed the United States and its involvement in the Vietnam War, staging huge anti-American rallies.

But after North Vietnam won the war in 1975, it was the Communist government that aroused the UBCV's opposition. In 1981, the government demanded that all Buddhist groups join a national Vietnam Buddhist Church, or VBC.

Do and other UBCV members refused.

Le Cong Cau, the leader of the UBCV's youth department, says that the UBCV is dedicated to "humankind and peace." He adds that the VBC exists to serve the Communist regime.

But other Vietnamese Buddhists say the conflict is less clear-cut. Nguyen Dac Xuan was a leader in the UBCV's youth movement in the 1960s, but later turned away from the group. Today, he is a historian.

Xuan says the fact is, the majority of the UBCV did join the VBC.

It is unclear how many monks follow the UBCV. Those who do complain that the government interferes with their movements and religious activities.

Thich Chi Thang, a senior monk at a UBCV pagoda in Hue, says police prevented religious meetings in Hue in January and March. He says he was called in for several days of interrogation.

Such grievances led many UBCV monks to oppose the recent return to Vietnam of the UBCV's most famous member: Thich Nhat Hanh.

Hanh, an 80-year-old Zen monk, was a UBCV leaders in the 1960s. Exiled from Vietnam since 1966, he has built up a large following in France and the U.S.

Hanh has been back in Vietnam since February, with the government's approval. In early April, he held a series of ceremonies in Hue.

Le Cong Cau says Buddhists in Hue were not interested.

Cau says only 100 people showed up to welcome Hanh. He says many UBCV monks refused to attend a monthly atonement ceremony Hanh scheduled, where UBCV and VBC monks would have prayed together.

Others note, however, that some of Hanh's ceremonies drew bigger crowds, and they suggest his modernized version of Zen may not work in Hue.

Cau's main objection was that he considers Hanh's trip a propaganda coup for the government.

Cau says the purpose of the trip is to show that the government respects freedom of religion, when in fact it has violated such freedom for years.

U.S. diplomats agree that religious freedom in Vietnam is incomplete. Under the law, religious groups must register with the government.

But for most Vietnamese, religious liberty is increasing. U.S. diplomat John said there was marked improvement in 2006.

"We had significant developments, I think forward progress, in religious freedom in Vietnam," he said.

John said that the U.S. would continue to recommend to Vietnam that it allow greater freedom. But it would not heed Thich Quang Do's call to use U.S. trade as a lever to push Vietnam to open up on human rights issues.

In the 1960s, the UBCV called for less U.S. involvement in Vietnam's affairs. In 2007, it is calling for more.