The British Government’s proposal to insert an ‘incitement of religious hatred’ clause into its Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill has caused outrage amongst human-rights defenders, who believe it will suppress freedom of expression on religious affairs and produce a climate of censorship. Setting aside these obvious ramifications, one cannot help but be reminded of those regimes, less in the public eye, where repressive state control over religious affairs has become the norm and has resulted in the continual persecution and detention of those that dissent.
Thich Huyen Quang is a writer and the dissident leader of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), who has been detained and harassed for his religious beliefs for over twenty years. Thich Huyen Quang was placed under house arrest in February 1982. He was re-arrested on 29 December 1994 for publishing an open letter criticising government policy on freedom of speech and religious expression. He was held under ‘temple arrest’ until around the middle of 1995, when he was moved to an isolated area in Quang Ngai Province. He was moved again in October 2003 to Nguyen Thieu Monastery after being re-arrested, along with his deputy and other senior monks, and accused of ‘possessing State secrets’. He is reportedly held incommunicado, with security police permanently stationed outside the monastery gates.
Born in 1917, Thich Huyen Quang is the author of various books on Buddhism and Oriental philosophy and is one of the most respected religious leaders of the Vietnamese Buddhists.
Vietnam is a one-party Communist state where the Politburo and Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) decide major policy issues, which are then implemented by the Government. Despite the associated restrictions on civil and political rights and the lack of opposition parties, there is little popular opposition to the regime.
According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Vietnam has a good record of signing and ratifying human-rights treaties, although its co-operation with UN monitors has been less enthusiastic. Estimates of the number of people imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their beliefs (including religious ones) range from thirty to several hundred. There have been regular prisoner amnesties since the autumn of 1998, which have led to the release of over 20,000 prisoners, among them some prisoners of conscience.
Although freedom of religion is guaranteed in Vietnam’s constitution, the freedom to practise is restricted to six official religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Hoa Hao, and Cao Daiism. While the situation of those who practise these religions is generally improving, there are still controls on their freedom, for example on the appointment of religious leaders. The practice of other religions is illegal, and followers of non-recognised religious groups suffer from varying degrees of harassment.
The UBCV was formed in 1951 and Thich Huyen Quang became its Executive Vice-President in 1974. He had been an active critic of human-rights abuses perpetrated by the Government of the Republic of (South) Vietnam during the pre-1975 anti-war campaign. In 1981 the Government attempted to force members of the UBVC to join a state-sponsored entity called the Vietnamese Buddhist Church (VBC). At the same time, the UBCV was banned and only the new body was officially recognised. Thich Huyen Quang and other monks and nuns have always asserted their right to belong to a religious group independent of the government.
Thich Huyen Quang’s first arrest took place in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). The authorities described his presence there as ‘too dangerous for the safety and well-being of the people’. Initially Thich Huyen Quang was banished to Quang Ngai Province and confined to his pagoda, under guard and without a formal charge. He was not permitted to travel and his communication with the wider community was severely restricted.
After the death of Patriarch Thich Don Hau in 1992, Thich Huyen Quang was recognised by his followers in Vietnam and abroad as the new patriarch of the UBCV. Over the years he has smuggled out communications calling for religious freedom to supporters abroad, who disseminate the appeals on his behalf. On 25 June 2003 Thich Huyen Quang delivered the ‘Nine-Point Letter of Claims’ to the authorities, which called for the legitimate recognition of the UBVC, the restoration of all church property confiscated in 1975, and the liberation of Buddhist monks, nuns and sympathisers detained in prisons, in re-education camps or under house arrest because of their religious beliefs.
Thich Huyen Quang is in fragile health. In March 2003, he underwent surgery to remove a painful growth, thought to be cancerous, near his right eye. He was allowed visits from diplomats from the European Union and the United States. In an extraordinary move a month later, he was invited to meet Prime Minister Phan Van Khai. This is reportedly the first time in unified Vietnam that a prime minister has met with the head of the UBCV. However, by October 2003 he was once again in total isolation in Nguyen Thieu Pagoda in Binh Dinh Province, where he was said to have been denied further medical care despite his ill health.
Readers may send appeals calling for the lifting of all restrictions on Thich Huyen Quang to
President Tran Duc Luong and Prime Minister Phan Van Khai,
c/o His Excellency
Ambassador Trinh Duc Du
Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam
12-14 Victoria Road
London W8 5RD