What Religious Freedom Means – the struggle has gone on for decades, and for some Vietnamese buddhists it is more important than life itself

Phu Bui

ACCORDING TO the lunar calendar, Buddha was born on the 15th day of the fourth month 2,537 years ago. This year the Buddha’s birthday fell on June 4. With Buddhists around the world, thousands of Vietnamese in the Bay Area celebrated this sacred feast. While the Vietnamese in this country enjoy freedom, they do not forget their compatriots still in the homeland. Everywhere the appeal for freedom of religion in Vietnam is heard.

Buddhism was first introduced to Vietnam in the late 2nd century from India and China. From 1010 to 1400, it became the national religion under the Ly and the Tran Dynasties, whose reigns were recorded to be the most prosperous and peaceful period by the historians. Even while Buddhism then was dominant, the Vietnamese were allowed to practice Taoism and Confucianism freely. Vietnamese culture reflected the teachings and the harmony of these three religions.

In the 17th century, the European missionaries brought Christianity to Vietnam. They encountered the king’s opposition and were later persecuted for decades, especially under the reign of kings Minh Mang, Thieu Tri and Tu Duc from 1820 to 1883, when more than 100,000 Vietnamese Catholics were killed because of their faith.

This was the prelude for more persecution by the Vietnamese rulers, who perceived religion only as the enemy, but did not realize the valuable contributions of different religions in building up the country socially, economically, culturally and politically as in the Ly and Tran dynasties.

Thirty years ago, during the 2,507th Buddha’s Birthday Celebration, Thich Quang Duc burned himself to protest the government’s repressive policy. The monk’s calm image, in a Zen position engulfed in flame, was seen around the world and touched almost everyone’s heart. Bitterly, Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu called it “barbecue started with cheap American gasoline.” Several months later, President Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown and killed in a coup.

What followed the coup was a period of political turmoil. Military generals fought each other for power and ignored the people’s demand for basic rights. Buddhists and Catholics continued to rally in Saigon streets. As a teen-ager, I sometimes witnessed the bloody demonstrations in front of the Military General Staff’s Headquarters, where scores of protesters were killed and wounded by the soldiers’ gunfire. More Buddhist monks immolated themselves to protest the military regimes and the escalation of the war.

Communism was brought to Vietnam early in this century, and its followers wanted it to become the national religion. Therefore, after the takeover of South Vietnam, the communists implemented a repressive policy toward all religions. They confiscated church properties and expelled clergies from the temples. Many priests and monks were sent to the re-education camps. All recruits and ordinations were required to have state approval.

The communists even created the so-called patriotic church and put it under the government control. Freedom of religion is not fully guaranteed in Vietnam. Such policies prompted a flurry of protests. In December 1975, 12 Buddhists immolated themselves in Can Tho. Government officials alleged they were guilty of “rapes and conspiracy to destroy criminal evidence.” Several months later, police raided Vinh Son Catholic Church in Saigon and arrested the pastor. The government accused him of using the church for “anti- revolutionary activities” — an accusation often leveled at political dissidents. Temples were constantly watched. Priests and monks were often summoned for interrogations. Some died in police custody, like Catholic priest Vu Khanh Tuong and the famous Buddhist monk Thich Thien Minh.

Police also raided the Dong Cong Monastery in Thu Duc, arrested Father Tran Dinh Thu, head of the mission and several brothers. They were charged with “engagement in reactionary activities” and were given harsh prison terms. Father Thu is now more than 80 years old but still serving a 20-year sentence.

In 1988, two prominent Buddhist monks and scholars were taken away from their temple in Saigon. Thich Tue Sy and Thich Tri Sieu were accused of “plotting to overthrow the government” and were given death sentences. Because of international appeals, the communist court commuted their death sentences to 20 years’ imprisonment.

Over the last year, since the government intensified its efforts to repress the religious activities of Thich Huyen Quang, the president of the independent Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, there has been widespread protest in Vietnam. According to the Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, earlier this year in Saigon and Central Vietnam several Buddhists burned themselves to death. Government media labeled them as “desperate drug addicts with AIDS.” Thousands staged hunger strikes in Hue. Pagodas in many provinces were surrounded with police during the week of Buddha’s Birthday Celebration.

In early April of this year, Pham Gia Binh, a Boston postal clerk, became the first overseas Vietnamese to immolate himself to support the struggle of Buddhists in Vietnam. In letters he sent to President Clinton and the political leaders of Vietnam, he appealed for basic rights and democracy for the Vietnamese people. On April 19, hundreds gathered in San Jose’s St. James Park to honor Binh’s death.

It is difficult for Americans to understand why a Buddhist who is willing to kill himself in protest can at the same time practice the Buddha’s teaching, which prohibits the killing of any living organism.

The respected Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, in his letter to the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. explained: “There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with utmost courage, frankness, determination, and sincerity,” and the motive of this kind of sacrifice does “not aim at the death of the oppressors but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred, and discrimination which lie within the heart of man.” Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that on June 1, 1965, according to his book “Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire.”

I also found this form of protest in America with Norman Morrison, a Quaker and Roger LaPort, a Catholic, who burned themselves during the Vietnam War to voice their opposition to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Vietnamese history is full of examples of people’s sacrifices for their basic rights. Courageously proclaiming their faith, Vietnamese Catholics were not afraid of being beheaded. Struggling against religious persecutions, Vietnamese Buddhists were not intimidated by the intense flame that burned their bodies but not their spiritual faith.

Until Vietnam is freed, until there is true freedom of religion, its people will continue their struggle.

Phu Bui is an Oakland schoolteacher. He previously worked with the Peace Corps in Africa and the United Nations in Southeast Asian refugee camps.

[San Jose Mercury News (CA) – July 4, 1993]


About Bùi Văn Phú

Bùi Văn Phú is a community college teacher and a freelance writer from San Francisco Bay Area. He worked with Peace Corps in Togo, Africa and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Southeast Asia. Bùi Văn Phú hiện dạy đại học cộng đồng và là một nhà báo tự do sống tại vùng Vịnh San Francisco, California. Trong thập niên 1980, ông làm tình nguyện viên của Peace Corps tại Togo, Phi Châu và làm tham vấn giáo dục cho Cao ủy Tị nạn Liên hiệp quốc tại Đông nam Á.
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