Four Monks Arrested in Vietnam
Following the largest Vietnamese public protest since the Vietnam War, four Buddhist monks were convicted and sentenced to prison terms of three and four years by the Vietnamese government on November 14, 1993. According to The New York Times, the protest, which took place on May 23, 1993, was orchestrated by monks who feared that their abbot, Thich Tri Tuu, had been arrested by the local police. By organizing a sit-down strike in one of the busiest intersections of Hue, a central Vietnamese city, the monks drew thousands of supporters of religious freedom and stopped traffic for hours. A government car was overturned and burst into flames. The Times reported that Thich Tri Tuu had not been arrested but only taken in for questioning regarding an event that had taken place several days earlier—a Buddhist layman had committed suicide by self-immolation in front of one of the most revered shrines in Vietnam, the Linh Mu Pagoda.
However, Steve Denney, publisher of the Vietnam Journal in California, who saw film footage of the event, offers a very different view of the occurrence from that of the Times—one that is much more complex in its political significance. The arrested monks were known supporters of Thich Huyen Quang, a Buddhist leader who has been exiled to a small village and placed under house arrest due to his open protests against government attempts to integrate the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam into the Vietnamese Buddhist Church—an organization created by the Hanoi government in 1981, six years after it took control of the South.
The suicide itself was undoubtedly an anti-government protest in support of Thich Huyen Quang, and was reminiscent of the highly publicized acts of self-immolation that took place in 1963. When Thich Tri Tuu and his abbots attempted to organize a Buddhist funeral for the man, the local government interceded, claiming that there was no proof that he was a devout Buddhist, and Thich Tri Tuu was forced into a car without any explanation. The mass demonstration began when six monks sat down in front of the car in protest. A crowd of supporters gathered around, eventually forcing the authorities and Thich Tri Tuu out of the car and overturning it—at which point it burst into flames. Thich Tri Tuu, accused of being the ringleader along with three other monks, was arrested and subsequently sentenced at a closed trial in an army barracks without any lawyers or witnesses present.
The prison sentencing provoked an outcry from members of the United States Congress and representatives of various human rights organizations. In a letter to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Senator Bill Bradley, a Democrat of New Jersey, stated that the monks were tried “solely for the nonviolent expression of their religious beliefs. As the United States and Vietnam move toward normalization of relations, it is important that respect for human rights be an integral part of the U.S.-Vietnam dialogue” (The New York Times, November 17, 1993). The State Department then released a statement urging Vietnam to release “all prisoners of conscience, whether Buddhist monks, Catholic priests or others who have exercised the basic rights of freedom of assembly, speech and religion” (San Jose Mercury News, Friday, November 19, 1993). According to estimations by the Puebla Institute, a human-rights organization in Washington, 131 Vietnamese religious prisoners are currently being held in Vietnam—72 Buddhists, 35 evangelical Protestants, and 24 Catholics. “Ven. Thich Huyen Quang and his supporters,” says Denney, “are struggling simply for the right of the Unified Buddhist Church to exist and function as a normal religious organization. “
In a recent commercial venture, the Chinese government and Taiwanese-American investors have erected a seventy-five-acre theme park displaying Chinese history and culture in central Florida. Designed as a tourist attraction, Splendid China opened in December 1993, and for an admission fee of twenty-three-dollars participants can view seventy-three miniaturized replicas of Chinese landmarks ranging from the Great Wall to the Forbidden City.
To the Tibetan community in the United States, the most controversial landmark included in the theme park is the Potala Palace, the traditional headquarters of the Dalai Lamas in Tibet—a country which China has occupied for the past thirty-five years. In a protest against the Chinese policy toward Tibetans and other occupied peoples, human rights groups organized a group of Tibetan monks to gather, on the opening day of the park, in front of the replicated sacred palace and pray for all the people who have perished under Chinese rule. Both local and national human rights organizations have taken an active role in opposing the theme park. “It is outrageous that they would use religion and occupied peoples in a theme park to entertain Americans, when in fact they are destroying these groups in China,” said John Ackerly, director of the International Campaign for Tibet, which has asked that all references to Tibet be removed. “This is a very political and ideological exhibition that American visitors are not going to pick up on, which makes it immensely effective as propaganda—one of the main groups that this park is hoping to attract is local and state school tour groups.”
Even the placards that are placed in front of various exhibitions contain misleading information. One placard, for example, describes Christianity as one of the three major religions in China, when in fact human rights groups and China scholars have reported a recent resurgence in the repression and persecution of Roman Catholics who are loyal to the Vatican rather than to the Beijing-controlled Catholic Church.
Though Chinese officials have denied any government sponsorship, the Splendid China theme park was a joint venture by a group of Taiwanese-American investors and China Travel Service Holdings Hong Kong Ltd.—one of the largest companies owned by the Chinese government in the British colony of Hong Kong. According to the International Campaign for Tibet, the Taiwanese investors, citing “philosophical differences,” have now withdrawn their financial backing and left complete ownership to the Chinese government. “That one of Tibet’s sacred palaces is now being exhibited in a theme park is nothing less than cultural terrorism,” said Michele Bohana, director of the Institute for Asian Democracy in Washington D.C. “This is one more example of China trying to exert its propaganda on the people and policymakers of the United States.”
Lantau’s Giant Buddha
The inauguration of the Lantau Buddha (officially called the Tian Tan, or Temple of Heaven Buddha) at the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau, one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands, took place on December 29, 1993. The ceremony was the culmination of a twenty-year project started in the early seventies when the Venerable Chi Wai, director of
the Po Lin Monastery, first conceived the idea of the giant Buddha.
The religious inauguration was the most important Buddhist ceremony ever held in Hong Kong, involving thirteen Buddhist leaders from China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, South Korea, and the United States. More than ten thousand Buddhists also attended the inauguration.
The Lantau giant Buddha is the world’s largest outdoor Buddha and is constructed from a steel framework with a 3-inch skin sculpted from steel, bronze, and 3,557 pounds of gold amalgam. Measuring 112 feet high, it has taken ten years and $900,000 to build.
In a recent issue of The Nation, Manuel Noriega said that he was not a Buddhist. The question was put to him by film director Oliver Stone at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Miami, where Noriega is being held. Stone is making a movie of the general, who allowed that while he may have some understanding of Buddhism from a trip to Japan, he is definitely a Christian. What remains mysterious is why, at the time of Noriega’s capture, The New York Times reported that the general was a Buddhist. Yet according to Stone’s view, that’s the least of what the Times got wrong, not to mention the United States government. If Noriega hasn’t found his Jim Garrison yet, there’s always central casting.
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