Cablegate: The "Reconciler" Returns: Thich Nhat Hanh Visits Vietnam

DE RUEHHM #0261/01 0801105
R 211105Z MAR 07





E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: 05 HANOI 767

1. (SBU) Summary: Visiting Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat
Hanh and his aides told us that he found the GVN tougher
and more assertive in 2007 than in 2005 when he first
returned from exile (reftel). However, by developing the
trust of the CPV and GVN, he has been able to expand his
activities in Vietnam. The centerpiece of his 2007 visit
to HCMC, Hue, and Hanoi is a series of "reconciliation
prayers" and Dharma talks. The Zen Master hopes to promote
unification of all Vietnamese and a Buddhist revival that
will lead to greater respect for human rights and religious
freedom. Hanh and his staff said they regretted being
unable to meet with leaders of the Unified Buddhist Church
of Vietnam (UBCV) in 2005 and welcomed indications from
UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang that he is prepared to
meet (more septel). The first reconciliation prayer
meeting could be considered a relative success: Hanh's
critique of CPV mythology surrounding the Vietnam War to at
least a few thousand worshipers was unprecedented, but was
studiously ignored by the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha -- the
official Buddhist church -- as well as the HCMC media. End

Praying for Reconciliation

2. (SBU) DPO and PolOff met with Zen Buddhist Master Thich
Nhat Hanh March 14 to discuss his plans to promote
"reconciliation and real unification" of the country by
praying for "all victims of the Vietnam War." The Zen
Master -- some say the second most revered figure in
Buddhism after the Dalai Lama -- told us he planned to
organize three mass prayer meetings in HCMC, Hue and Hanoi
as well as a number of additional retreats throughout the
country. Hanh explained that without "collective therapy,"
Vietnam would never be able to reconcile itself to the war,
hindering its overall development. (This was Hanh's second
visit to Vietnam since he was forced into exile by the
South Vietnamese government in 1973; reftel reports on his
initial return visit to Vietnam in 2005.)

3. (SBU) Hanh's initial concept was for the prayer
ceremonies to mention explicitly all those who died
"unjustly" during the war, including U.S. soldiers and
Vietnamese who died in "other atrocities," including the
Boat People exodus and in post-war re-education camps.
Hanh's press aide noted that the GVN wanted to encourage
reconciliation with overseas Vietnamese and therefore saw
benefit in permitting Hanh to return to Vietnam. However,
Hanh and his assistants told us, negotiations over the
specifics of the event were more difficult than in 2005.
The GVN would not allow any mention of U.S. solders, boat
people or re-education camps in Thich Nhat Hanh's
addresses. Things remain particularly difficult in the
North. The Vietnam Buddhist Sangha in Hanoi rejected the
idea that Vietnamese died "unjustly" as well as the need
for a reconciliation ceremony. Nonetheless, Thich Nhat
Hanh plans to move ahead with the program in Hanoi as well
as in Hue and HCMC.

"Shouting is Not Productive"

4. (SBU) Thich Nhat Hanh agreed that the Communist Party is
moving to reinforce its control over Vietnamese society.
However, Hanh and his aides added that the question is not
whether the Party is tougher now than before the Party
Congress in 2006, but whether it can retain control in the
face of a myriad of pressures, including globalization and
the rise of the Internet.

5. (SBU) Contrasting his approach with that of the Unified
Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), Hanh said he believes
that through engagement ("reducing the Party's fear and
suspicion") he can achieve more than by "shouting" about
Communist abuses. Although the negotiations that led to
his 2005 return to Vietnam were difficult, he managed to
connect with 200,000 Vietnamese and had extensive dialogue
with senior Party cadre in Hanoi. In 2005, the GVN also
removed the ban on publication of his collected works --
they are now in the best-seller section in bookstores.

6. (SBU) This year, although the negotiations were
difficult, he gained slightly more access, and obtained
permission to address the public directly. Hanh therefore
can continue to encourage a Buddhist revival among
Vietnamese youth. In Hanh's view, the generation of
Vietnamese in their late teens and twenties has the
international exposure and the capacity to change Vietnam.

HO CHI MIN 00000261 002 OF 003

Inculcating Buddhist spirituality into this cohort will
lead to greater respect for religious freedom and human
rights, Hanh argued. Even the children of senior Party
officials recognize the emptiness of Communist ideology and
are turning to more meaningful alternatives, despite the
objections of their parents. A retreat that he held in Lam
Dong Province in the Central Highlands earlier in March
attracted over 7,000 persons; 1,000 recent college
graduates volunteered as acolytes, Hanh and his staff told

Dialogue with the UBCV

7. (SBU) Hanh acknowledged that the UBCV's uncompromising
position against single-party rule in Vietnam has given him
more "space" to press his more moderate agenda.
Nonetheless, he stressed, accusations from the UBCV that he
is collaborating with the CPV are unwarranted. "We should
be tolerant of each other's approaches," Thich Nhat Hanh
told us. In this regard, Hanh's assistants were
particularly critical of International Buddhist Information
Bureau (IBIB) spokesman Vo Van Ai. In a follow-on
discussion after our meeting with Hanh, they told us that
Ai's statements in 2005 soured the atmosphere just as Hanh
and UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang were negotiating a
possible meeting. In the end, "divisions with the UBCV"
and the UBCV's decision to insist that a meeting be
registered on the official, GVN-approved agenda, made it
impossible to arrange.

8. (SBU) In a March 15 meeting in Binh Dinh Province, UBCV
Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang told the Consul General he
would now welcome a meeting with Thich Nhat Hanh. (We will
report more Septel on the CG's meeting with Thich Huyen
Quang.) On the sidelines of the reconciliation service
March 16, we relayed this information to Thich Nhat Hanh's
senior staff. They welcomed the news and said that they
would try to reach out to the UBCV. They were unsure,
however, if the same issues that prevented a meeting from
taking place in 2005 would recur.

The Reconciliation Ceremony: Pushing the Envelope
--------------------------------------------- ----

9. (SBU) On the morning of March 16, following last-minute
talks with the GVN, Thich Nhat Hanh held the first of his
reconciliation addresses at HCMC's Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, the
city's largest Buddhist monastery. At least two thousand
people were in attendance. The Zen Master complied with
GVN demands and omitted any mention of atrocities, boat
people and non-Vietnamese combatants.

10. (SBU) Nonetheless, Hanh defied a number of Communist
Party taboos surrounding the Vietnam War. In what may have
been unprecedented public remarks by any prominent figure,
Hanh referred to "victims from the North and the South" and
said that all six million Vietnamese who died during the
war died "unjustly." Hanh explained that East and West
Germany were able to achieve unification without bloodshed;
Vietnamese leaders could have done the same. He called on
all believers, irrespective of faith, to pray for
forgiveness and reconciliation. And, in a swipe at the
CPV, Hanh noted that while Catholics, Protestants and
Buddhists can read their sacred texts as they seek
reconciliation and healing, the Communists can "seek
spirituality from Marx."

11. (SBU) No GVN officials or monks from the GVN-
recognized Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS) attended the
public address. Some thirty minutes after Hanh finished
his address, a retinue of VBS officials arrived at the
pagoda for the official reconciliation prayer session.
Thich Tri Quang, Vice President of the National VBS, and a
member of the HCMC Fatherland Front, was the senior VBS
monk at the ceremony. In scripted remarks that followed
the Party line, Quang said that the ceremony was for all
those who died in wars "against the French and Americans,"
and that he hoped the ceremony would promote reconciliation
between Vietnamese at home and in the diaspora.

Virtual Press Whitewash

12. (SBU) HCMC media covered the reconciliation ceremony
perfunctorily, focusing on the statement of the VBS
official and ignoring Hanh's more provocative comments.
Newspaper contacts told us that they received oral orders
from the Party's censors that they should cover the Hanh

HO CHI MIN 00000261 003 OF 003

visit with "caution."


13. (SBU) At 81, Thich Nhat Hanh is sharp and physically
fit. He was well-briefed on recent Vietnamese political
developments. There appears to be little real difference
in goals between Thich Nhat Hanh and his erstwhile UBCV
colleagues, only differences in strategy and tactics. Hanh
understands that the Party is trying to exploit him to
bolster the credibility of the official Buddhist Church and
to improve its image among overseas Vietnamese. Hanh,
however, believes that he has the better of the deal by
being able to reach out directly to an increasing number of
Vietnamese and to sow the seeds of Buddhist revival. Only
time will tell if he is right or if, as the UBCV argues,
the Zen Master has struck a Faustian bargain.

14. (SBU) Bio Note: According to open-source material,
Thich Nhat Hanh, born in 1926, is a France-based monk
sometimes described as the world's second most-followed
Buddhist leader after the Dalai Lama. After studying at
Princeton and lecturing briefly at Columbia University in
the early 1960s, he returned to South Vietnam and helped
found a university and Buddhist social services group. He
opposed the war and preached a doctrine of reconciliation
between North and South Vietnam. Returning to the U.S. in
the mid-1960s, He urged Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to
oppose the Vietnam War publicly. In 1967, King nominated
him for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1969, Thich Nhat Hanh
was the delegate for the Buddhist Peace Delegation at the
Paris peace talks. When the Paris Peace Accords were signed
in 1973, the South Vietnamese government denied Thich Nhat
Hanh permission to return to Vietnam, and he went into
exile in France. His return was subsequently denied by the
GVN. In 1999, he made an attempt to return to Vietnam, but
negotiations with the GVN collapsed.

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