Religion Under the Radar in Vietnam

Emerging with precision timing from the anterooms of the Thanh Minh Zen monastery in Ho Chin Minh City, Thích Quảng Độ nods and smiles, extending a handshake firm enough to belie his 83 years.

"Thank you for coming, you are right on time," exclaimed the Supreme Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBVC), glancing over my shoulder out onto the street behind. A half-coughed laugh later, he led the way inside, above the temple area and upstairs to a small meeting room.

The site's temple gateway opens onto a typically lively side street where street-food vendors sell local snacks and passersby sit inside fanned cafes, sipping eye-openingly strong Vietnamese robusta iced coffee. Some of the denizens are not just relaxing over a mid-morning drink while watching the frenetic city whizz by. Thích Quảng Độ asks, "Do you know there are police sitting outside across the street? I am sure they saw you enter the temple."

Outside, one of Southeast Asia's liveliest cities heaves to the din of incessant traffic, careering around under newly built symbols of economic growth such as the software and IT parks dotting the city's outskirts.

In recent weeks, street loudspeakers have been urging Vietnamese people to vote in National Assembly elections, which took place on May 22. The announcements are audio accompaniment to the visual, with the streets dotted with propaganda art and posters extolling the virtues of the Communist Party of Vietnam. The election itself involves 827 candidates, 86 percent of whom are from the ruling CPV, and all were pre-approved by the authorities.

Thích Quảng Độ has not seen much of this. Under de facto house arrest since 1998, he says, "I can go out once a month to the doctor, but that is it," adding that "the police follow me every step of the way." Calling for a multiparty system in Vietnam can lead to long jail sentences, or the type of house arrest to which Thích Quảng Độ has been subjected.

The previous day Buddhists all over the world marked Vesak, the Buddha's birthday. However, for the UBVC, Vietnam's largest religious organization, celebrations were restricted. A government directive said that "It is strictly prohibited to display posters or images mentioning the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. It is strictly prohibited to read out the Vesak Message by Thích Quảng Độ or any other documents that contravene the law."

In Ho Chi Minh City, the police allowed worshipers to gather in the temple, where plainclothes policemen mingled among the faithful, according to Thích Quảng Độ. "They do not want to crack down here in Saigon," he said, referring to the city by its old, pre-Vietnam War name. "There are too many people around, including tourists, and they do not want to be seen being heavy-handed."

The reality elsewhere is not so benign, he adds. According to UBCV reports, which could not be independently verified, on Vesak day, security police cordoned off Giac Minh Pagoda in Danang and prevented any Buddhists from approaching or entering the building.

According to the 2010 United States Council on International Religious Freedom report on Vietnam, "the Vietnamese government's Religious Security Police (cong an ton giao) routinely harasses and intimidates UBCV followers, warning that if they continue to frequent known UBCV pagodas, they may be arrested, lose their jobs, or see their children expelled from school."

Thích Quảng Độ believes that "Buddhists are the foremost victims of religious discrimination and violations of human rights that have continued unabated over the past 36 years" since the Communist regime took power in 1975.

Buddhists are not the only victims however, and clashes between the Vietnamese authorities and various religious groups are a frequent occurrence. Unknown numbers of Protestant Montagnards living in the Central Highlands remain in jail since the early 2000s, after demonstrating against restrictions.

There are also off-on clashes between the police and Catholics in Hanoi and the central coastal areas, partly over property disputes but impinging on right-to-worship issues, while ethnic minority Buddhists and Protestants have suffered at the hands of the state, with unknown numbers of Hmong detained and more in hiding in Dien Bien Province after early May protests, which were headed by what the Hanoi Government labeled "extremists."

This appeared originally in The Irrawaddy, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement