PARIS, 30 November 2012 (IBIB) – H.E. Hugh Borrowman, Australian Ambassador to Vietnam paid a visit on Thursday 29 November to the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam’s Supreme Patriarch Thich Quang Do, 84, at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) where the UBCV leader and prominent dissident has been under house arrest without charge since 2003.
In a phone conversation today with International Buddhist Information Bureau Director Vo Van Ai, Thich Quang Do said the Ambassador had stayed for over an hour and was very open and attentive. The UBCV leader took the opportunity of this rare visit from a top Australian diplomat to raise three important issues: the situation of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), the question of democratization in Vietnam and the problem of the South China seas.
UBCV Patriarch Thich Quang Do with Australian Ambassador Hugh Borrowman outside the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery (Photo IBIB)
Regarding the UBCV, effectively (though not officially) banned in 1981 and supplanted by the State-sanctioned Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS) controlled by the Communist Party’s Fatherland Front, Thich Quang Do described the religious discrimination suffered by the UBCV since the period of French colonial rule. Under Colonial Decree 10, only Roman Catholicism was recognized as a Church, whereas all other religions were reduced to the status of a mere “association”. This religious discrimination continued under the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. It was only after the fall of the Diem regime in 1963 that the UBCV was able to hold a national congress and re-establish its legal religious identity. But the UBCV suffered its worst period of repression under Communism, said Thicg Quang Do, after the North Vietnamese took control of the South in 1975 and united Vietnam under communist rule. Since then, the UBCV has been systematically repressed, forbidden to conduct religious activities, open schools or launch humanitarian operations for the poor and needy. “The authorities are seeking every pretext to disband the UBCV. When they find one, they will not hesitate to suppress us”, he said.
Concerning democracy, Thich Quang Do said that Vietnam can never achieve sustainable development unless it embarks on a genuine process of democratization. This is not the demand of the UBCV alone, he said, but of the whole Vietnamese population. Only the ruling elite benefits from the one-Party state, whereas those who hold opinions different from the Communist Party suffer repression and imprisonment. He recalled the recent harsh sentences against bloggers and the detention of many young people in Vietnam simply for the expression of their peaceful opinions and beliefs.
Concerning the dispute over the South China seas (known as the East Seas in Vietnamese), Thich Quang Do told the Australian Ambassador that this problem concerns not only Vietnam, but all the nations in the Asia-Pacific region, including Australia. China has already claimed sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel islands. If Beijing takes control of the Strait of Malacca and the sea lanes that link the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, Australia and all countries in the region will be affected. Thich Quang Do called on the Australian Ambassador to press for a multilateral solution to the problem. “I don’t trust Hanoi to solve this problem alone”, he said, noting that Vietnam had remained silent at the recent ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, and only President Aquino III of the Philippines had the courage to protest. He observed that the map printed in new Chinese passports shows the “U-shaped line” on the South China seas and several Taiwanese territories as belonging to China. “Will Vietnam grant visas to Chinese people carrying these passports?” he asked. “If so, we are implicitly giving up our country as an offering to Beijing”.
Thich Quang Do stressed that it was up to the Vietnamese people to take their future into their own hands and shape the future of their country. However, he urged Australia and other democratic countries to help accelerate this process by supporting the Vietnamese people in their quest for democratization and human rights.
The UBCV Patriarch gave the Australian Ambassador a Memorandum on the UBCV, along with a written submission by the IBIB’s partner organisation, the Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) on a recent hearing in the Australian Parliament on the Australia-Vietnam Human Rights dialogue. The submission, signed by Vo Van Ai, urged Australia to ensure that the human rights dialogue was not an “end in itself”, but led to real and measurable human rights progress. Vo Van Ai warned that Hanoi was using the dialogue with Australia and other countries as “a shield to deflect world scrutiny from its troubling human rights record”.
Thich Quang Do told Vo Van Ai today that he was happy to receive visits from diplomats such as the Australian Ambassador and U.S. Ambassador David Shear, who visited him in August 2012. However, this was not a sign of any improved condition of his house arrest. “I live like a prisoner in the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery. I am not allowed to preach. I am not allowed to recite prayers for anyone except myself. All my visitors are monitored. I am allowed out only once a month for a medical check-up, and even then, I am followed by Security Police. In fact, the Security Police take good care of me – you can see them everywhere, they even sweep my monastery’s yard! But let me tell you one thing; whatever they do to me, I am completely serene. They detain me – but I am free! They can do nothing to destroy my spirit”, he said.