In its 2012 Annual Report unveiled in Washington D.C. this week, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) named Vietnam as one of the world’s worst religious freedom violators along with Burma, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and recommended that these countries be designated as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) by the U.S. administration for “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations” of religious freedom.
In its 21-page chapter on Vietnam, the USCIRF reported that “the government of Vietnam continues to control all religious communities, restrict and penalize independent religious practice severely, and repress individuals and groups viewed as challenging its authority.”
The USCIRF, a federal government commission that monitors global religious freedom, was created under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act to provide independent policy recommendations to the U.S. President, Secretary of State, and Congress. Each year since 2001, the USCIRF has urged the U.S. to place Vietnam on the CPC list. Vietnam was designated CPC by the State Department in 2004 and 2005, but removed in 2006 prior to the visit of President George W. Bush to Vietnam for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. Under the 1998 Act, the U.S. may impose a series of measures, including economic sanctions, on countries blacklisted as CPCs.
It also noted “marked increases in arrests, detentions, and harassment of groups and individuals viewed as hostile to the Communist Party” over the past four years, and an overall climate of religious repression in which “individuals continue to be imprisoned or detained for reasons related to their religious activity or religious freedom advocacy; independent religious activity remains illegal; legal protections for government-approved religious organizations are both vague and subject to arbitrary or discriminatory interpretations based on political factors.”
Speaking directly about the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam, the report said that “the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship has grown quickly in recent years, but it has not led to needed improvements in religious freedom and related human rights in Vietnam.” The report urged the US government to use the CPC designation to press for “measurable improvements,” and adopt programs to “protect and support those in Vietnam peacefully seeking greater freedom and the rule of law.”
The report detailed widespread abuses against the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), “Vietnam‘s largest religious organization with a history of peaceful social activism and moral reform,”noting that the UBCV had “faced decades of harassment and repression for seeking independent status and for appealing to the government to respect religious freedom and related human rights.” It deplored the detention of UBCV Patriarch Thich Quang Do and other senior monks, restrictions on humanitarian activities of UBCV Provincial Committees and the UBCV Buddhist Youth Movement, and harassment of UBCV followers.
Mr. Vo Van Ai, Director of the International Buddhist Information Bureau and international spokesman of the Unified Buddhist Church in Vietnam (UBCV) welcomed the USCIRF’s report, commenting that it reflected the reality endured by UBCV followers and members of all other religious confessions in Vietnam.
“Having failed to eradicate religion by force, Vietnam is increasing controls on religious activities,” he said. “The recent nomination of Major-general Pham Dung, a high-ranking Public Security official as the Head of the Government Religious Board shows how Hanoi intends to pursue its religious policies in Vietnam.”
Mr. Ai stressed that UBCV members all over the country routinely suffer harassments and abuses in all aspects of their lives. Earlier this month, UBCV monk Thich Thien Phuc was intercepted by Police and subjected to interrogations and harassments as he attempted to visit Venerable Thich Thanh Quang at the Giac Minh Pagoda in Danang.
The Giac Minh Pagoda, which is also the headquarters of the UBCV’s Buddhist Youth Movement and the UBCV Provincial Committee for Quang Nam-Danang, has been the target of systematic Police surveillance in recent years. Police prohibit the celebration of Buddhist festivals such as Vesak and Vu Lan at the Pagoda, and intercept all Buddhists who try to attend.
Mr. Ai noted that religious freedom violations are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Instead of imprisoning UBCV leaders or staging well-publicized public crackdowns, the government’s policy is to quietly isolate UBCV leaders by maintaining them under de facto house arrest, threaten and intimidate Buddhist followers to prevent them from attending UBCV Pagodas, and prevent UBCV Pagodas from celebrating major Buddhist festivals, thus cutting off all contacts between the UBCV leadership and their followers.
In 2010, the Oslo Freedom Forum interviewed Vietnamese Buddhist leader Thich Quang Do on location at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Ho Chi Mihn City where he is being held under house arrest. He is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, religious leader, and outspoken critic of the Vietnamese government. He is the head of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) and has been involved with its leadership since the 1960s.
Once the largest Buddhist organization of southern Vietnam, the UBCV came under systematic persecution by the government after 1975 for its involvement in the human rights movement; its leaders, including Thich Quang Do, were arrested and sent into domestic exile in 1982. He returned to Saigon in March of 1992, when he was again arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for documenting the government’s oppression of the UBCV. He was released from prison in August of 1998 and placed under house arrest in 2001 for his continued activism. In 2006, Thích Quang Do won the Rafto Prize.
In this video, The Most Venerable Thich Quang Do speaks forbidden faith in Vietnam and his peaceful fight for freedom and democracy under the repressive communist government: