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Cablegate: The Gvn, Ubcv and Buddha's Birthday

VZCZCXRO9490
PP RUEHDT RUEHPB
DE RUEHHM #0609 1590922
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 080922Z JUN 07
FM AMCONSUL HO CHI MINH CITY
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 2719
INFO RUEHHI/AMEMBASSY HANOI PRIORITY 1945
RUCNARF/ASEAN REGIONAL FORUM COLLECTIVE
RUEHHM/AMCONSUL HO CHI MINH CITY 2918

UNCLAS HO CHI MINH CITY 000609

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL KIRF PINR VM SOCI
SUBJECT: THE GVN, UBCV AND BUDDHA'S BIRTHDAY

REF: HCMC 523 AND PREVIOUS

1. (SBU) The GVN went to great lengths to highlight its support
for the GVN-recognized Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS)
commemoration of the annual Buddha's Birthday ("Vesak")
celebrations on May 31. The VBS events were well covered by
HCMC media, which reported extensively on President Nguyen Minh
Triet's attendance at the VBS festival at the Vietnam Buddhist
Institute in Hanoi and his participation in the groundbreaking
ceremony for the 2nd phase of construction of the Institute. In
HCMC, the VBS organized a major celebration at the city's
largest pagoda, which was well attended by local government
officials.

UBCV CELEBRATIONS OBSTRUCTED
----------------------------

2. (SBU) Throughout most of central and southern Vietnam, the
GVN suppressed efforts of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church
of Vietnam (UBCV) to hold its own Vesak commemorations, said
HCMC-based UBCV leader Thich Vien Dinh. He told us by phone
that UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang and General Secretary
Thich Quang Do were kept under strict surveillance and control
during this period. In Dinh's case, and in the case of other
second-tier UBCV leaders, most UBCV-affiliated pagodas were only
able to hold modest prayer services for resident monks and for
some worshipers in the immediate neighborhood.

3. (SBU) One significant exception was in Ba Ria Vung Tau
province near HCMC. According to Thich Vinh Phuoc, a key UBCV
leader in the province, he was able to organize a large
celebration for 1,500 followers at his pagoda. Phuoc explained
that he was able to do so with the understanding that the
celebration would not be held under the UBCV banner. He told us
that he mentioned the UBCV only once -- and quickly -- in his
sermon. Phuoc intentionally did not read from the UBCV
Patriarch's Vesak message, which was highly critical of the GVN
and of Vietnam being subject to "illegitimate and immoral
forces" (Reftel). Phuoc told us that, if he had not avoided
mentioning his affiliation with the UBCV, he would not have been
able to hold Vesak celebrations. (Note: Thich Vinh Phuoc and
his UBCV colleagues in Ba Ria Vung Tau had been under pressure
since September 2005 when they announced the formation of a UBCV
provincial representative board. End Note.)

4. (SBU) Thich Thien Hanh, the senior UBCV monk in Central
Vietnam told us by phone that his congregation in Thua Thien Hue
province had managed to hold the Vesak ceremony under the UBCV
banner despite numerous warnings and threats from authorities.
Prior to the event, the Chief of Staff of Hue City People's
Committee sent Hanh a letter ordering him to cancel the
"illegal" ceremony. At the same time, local authorities warned
monks and believers not to attend as "the UBCV is illegal."
They threatened to arrest Thich Thien Hanh and ban him from
future religious practice; all other participants "would be
dealt with". Thich Thien Hanh told us that he wrote back to Hue
authorities informing them that he planned to go ahead with the
Vesak celebrations despite the government threats.

5. (SBU) Thich Thien Hanh said that, on the day of the
celebration, police set up "roadblocks" to the Quoc An pagoda in
what he termed an effort to prevent monks and believers from
attending the event. However, approximately 120 monks and 2,000
followers streamed past the police unhindered. All the
participants wore badges in Vietnamese that identified
themselves as participants in the UBCV's Vesak celebration.
Hanh said he was able to read in full the Patriarch's Vesak
message, but he believed that it was only partially audible to
the audience. He suspected that police tried to interfere with
the audio, especially when he was reading Thich Huyen Quang's
message condemning the GVN ban of the UBCV and efforts to
suppress the UBCV's leadership.

6. (SBU) Comment: The decision of provincial officials in Ba
Ria Vung Tau to allow the UBCV to celebrate Vesak so long as the
monks did not advertise their UBCV affiliation is consistent
with GVN efforts to push key UBCV provincial leaders -- by
blandishments as well as threats -- to join the VBS. More
striking is the decision of the Hue authorities not to prevent
Thich Thien Hanh from organizing a substantial ceremony under
the UBCV banner. The authorities there could have prevented
UBCV followers from reaching the pagoda, cut off power to
disrupt the event or easily banned Thich Thien Hanh from leaving
his pagoda to reach the event site. Hue's Buddhist roots are
strong as is the UBCV's presence there. It is possible that the
authorities chose not to risk making a scene by physically
intervening or disbanding the celebration once it was underway.
It is also possible that the GVN sees Thich Thien Hanh as a more
moderate alternative successor to the ailing UBCV Patriarch than
the more politically hardline Thich Quang Do in HCMC. End
Comment.

WINNICK

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