Vietnam has waged a brutal overt and covert war against its Buddhist population for decades.
In 1981, they officially outlawed their country’s oldest and original Buddhist Church, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV).
The communists attacked the 2000-year-old tradition and created an alternative state-controlled Buddhist Church.
Those who refused to submit allegiance to this new order were imprisoned, tortured, and even murdered.
The current spiritual leader of the UBCV, Nobel Prize nominee the Venerable Thich Quang Do, has spent the last 26 years under house arrest in Vietnam.
His struggle began years ago when as a young monk he witnessed the execution of his Buddhist teacher by the communists.
Viewed as antagonists to communist ideology, Do and his fellow Buddhists are a target of persecution inside, and now outside, Vietnam.
Just days after monks at a Buddhist temple in Western Australia denounced Hanoi’s policies of religious repression, Buddhist statutes at the temple were beheaded. The incident occurred in October and November 2009.
The first desecration occurred after the temple’s head monk, who is the UBCV’s Australian representative, attended a Buddhist conference in Los Angeles, where they announced their determination to oppose Hanoi’s plan to eliminate them.
The second desecration occurred after this same monk sponsored a delegation of UBCV exiles to meet with the Australian government in Parliament House, Canberra. The meeting was organized to advise the government of Hanoi’s religious persecution in preparation for the Australia-Vietnam human rights dialogue to be held in December.
Thus, the beheadings were clearly viewed as a warning to the Australian Buddhists. For Hanoi, the ramifications of Buddhists speaking out on human rights abuses is geopolitical, for their authoritarian regime has come under growing international pressure to cease religious persecution.
In the United States, it was in 2004 that the State Department first designated Vietnam as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC), the official watch list of nations that commit egregious religious persecution. CPC designation involves potential economic sanctions, hence Hanoi’s determination to silence any critics.
Hanoi and Washington however, reached an agreement for reform in 2006, with the understanding that Vietnam would be dropped from CPC designation.
Vietnam was indeed removed from the CPC designation and yet the promised reforms never came.
In fact, Vietnam increased persecution, of which Human Rights Watch accused the country of “launching one of the worst crackdowns on peaceful dissidents in 20 years.”
Ever since, calls for Vietnam to be re-designated as a CPC, such as the U.S. Commission on International Freedom, have gone unheeded.
Today, Hanoi has merely morphed its security forces into adopting more covert mechanisms of religious persecution.
These covert mechanisms involve expanding so-called “legal” churches while persecuting “illegal” churches that refuse to submit to communist control. Religious groups across Vietnam—Buddhists, Montagnard and Hmong Christians, Catholics, Hoa Hao, and Cai Dai sects, and other dissidents like democracy advocates, journalists, and bloggers—all face the same repressive measures.
Hanoi’s intention is a ‘divide and conquer’ policy that includes infiltration of overseas dissident groups.
Hanoi’s Secret Policy Directives
Incredibly, evidence of Hanoi’s policy of persecution comes from their written policies.
The Paris-based International Buddhist Information Bureau has uncovered secret policy directives outlining Hanoi’s intention to attack overseas dissidents.
The overseas spokesman for the UBCV, Vo Van Ai even testified before the U.S. Congress on this fact. Speaking before the House Committee on International Relations on June 20, 2005, he quoted Hanoi’s explicit orders directing Vietnam’s security forces to “wipe out the An Quang Buddhist Church once and for all.”
The “An Quang Buddhist Church” is Hanoi’s term for the UBCV and the secret directives, authored by the Public Security Science Institute in Hanoi are entitled “On Religions and the Struggle Against Activities Exploiting Religion—Internal Document for Study and Circulation in the People’s Security Services.”
Penelope Faulkner, a long time activist with the International Buddhist Information Bureau, reports the secret directive instructs party cadres and security agents at every level to “oppose, repress, isolate, and divide” UBCV leaders. She states, “These directives order the training of special agents to infiltrate the UBCV, not only to gather intelligence and report on UBCV activities, but to create schisms and dissent within their ranks, thus undermining the UBCV from within.”
According to Faulkner these “special agents” have extended these activities overseas with Australia set to become the test case for their strategy.
Australia—The Test Case
Faulkner states that Hanoi has set up government “fronts” to undermine overseas religious groups and democracy activists and have sent hundreds of “state-sponsored” monks to Australia and the United States.
The main one now attacking the UBCV was formed at a conference in Sydney, Australia on Jan. 1, 2009. This “front” goes under the name “Trans-continental Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.”
Faulkner said the ploy of these fronts “is not to overtly promote communism, but to tell Buddhists they should not get mixed up in politics, just stick to praying and sending money to Vietnam, and not get involved in the movement for religious freedom and human rights.”
Faulkner has no doubt that Hanoi is involved in intimidating overseas Buddhists and she quotes from the secret directive which orders Vietnamese authorities to “take pre-emptive action to prevent Western countries from making human rights investigations” in Vietnam.
The directive states, “We urge the Politburo to coordinate activities between the Vietnamese Communist Party’s departments of propaganda and mobilization, interior affairs, foreign affairs, religious affairs, and overseas Vietnamese to work together on this policy.”
One member of this “Transcontinental UBCV,” a Vietnamese monk based in Sydney, was seen Nov. 26, 2009, at the Parliament House in Canberra talking to about a dozen high ranking Vietnamese security officers. It was the same day the UBCV overseas delegation met with the Australian government.
A few days later the UBCV temple in Western Australia was desecrated.
Faulkner was among the UBCV delegation, and while she admits these security officers were likely attending the Australian Parliament for some diplomatic matter, she has no doubt they notified their bosses in Hanoi of seeing them at Parliament House.
She is also sure the desecration of the temple in Western Australia was no coincidence.
In January 2010 this reporter traveled to the Buddhist Temple in Perth, Western Australia, and spoke to the monk in charge, Venerable Thich Phuoc Nhon. He carried the head of one of the two beheaded Buddhas in his arms and said Hanoi had long been trying to eliminate their church.
Nhon also said he received an anonymous envelope of gold and silver “funeral paper” in the mail in 2009. The paper is an ancient funeral tradition, and he said there was only one explanation for this letter: “a death threat.”
Members of his church in Sydney and Melbourne have also received threats over the telephone, he said.
Nhon said the statute would be repaired.
Scott Johnson is a lawyer, writer and human rights activist who has focused on issues in South East Asia.