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. “

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