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Cablegate: Contrasting Perspectives On Vesak Day Celebrations: The

VZCZCXRO3578
RR RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHHM RUEHNH
DE RUEHHI #0617/01 1480850
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 270850Z MAY 08
FM AMEMBASSY HANOI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 7895
INFO RUEHHM/AMCONSUL HO CHI MINH 4772
RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 HANOI 000617

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR EAP/MLS, DRL/IRF AND DRL/AWH

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM KIRF PGOV PREL VM
SUBJECT: CONTRASTING PERSPECTIVES ON VESAK DAY CELEBRATIONS: THE
VBS AND UBCV

REFS: A) HANOI 571 B) 07 HCMC 609 C)07 HCMC 766 AND PREVIOUS
D)HANOI 184

HANOI 00000617 001.2 OF 003


1. (SBU) Summary: While the vast majority of Vietnamese Buddhists
celebrated Vesak Day with an exuberantly colorful display of
Buddhist traditions and full GVN support throughout Southern
Vietnam, the outlawed United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) held
private ceremonies at their pagodas. While the VBS enjoys good
relations and high-level support from the GVN, UBCV leaders maintain
they have no desire to register through the legal framework on
religion because they do not feel they need the GVN's approval to
legitimize their organization or to practice their faith. Because
of their confrontational stance and advocacy for various social and
political causes, the UBCV has been a notable exception in Vietnam's
progressively positive story of widening religious freedom. Post
continues to receive reports of police harassment and intimidation
of UBCV monks and followers in southern Vietnam. There is a 50-year
history to the conflict between government officials and Buddhist
activists in southern Vietnam that portends more trouble for some
time to come. End summary.

Vesak Day, Southern Style
-------------------------
2. (U) Brightly colored Buddhist flags and banners decorated streets
and pagodas in HCMC and across the Delta provinces, announcing
annual Vesak Day celebrations commemorating the birth, enlightenment
and passing of the Buddha. While Hanoi hosted the official events
for the United Nations Day of Vesak May 14-17 (Ref A), the HCMC
Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS) also held a ceremony here on May 19
that coincided with the anniversary of Ho Chi Minh's birthday.
Thousands of Buddhists from HCMC's 21 districts joined senior VBS
monks and government leaders in an early morning ceremony at a large
stadium owned by the military near Tan Son Nhat airport.

3. (U) Among the attendees were Deputy National CRA Chief Nguyen Huu
Oanh, National Fatherland Front Chief Representative Le Minh Hien,
HCMC People's Committee Chairman Le Hoang Quan, Lieutenant General
Le Manh, Commander-in-chief of the 7th Military Zone and the Vicar
General of the Catholic Church. Diplomats and monks from several
Buddhist nations, including India, Cambodia, Thailand and Japan,
were also in the VIP seats. (Note: ConGen HCMC was the only
"Western" consulate present. End Note.)_ Patriotic and socialistic
motifs were woven throughout the Vesak celebrations, with HCMC
leaders making reference to the Buddha's birthday and Ho Chi Minh's
birthday in their official remarks while Vietnamese flags and
popular Ho Chi Minh bon mots were interspersed with Buddhist flags
and banners in HCMC and the Delta provinces.

UBCV Celebrates Quietly
-----------------------
4. (SBU) Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) contacts in Ho
Chi Minh City, Thua Thien Hue and Ba Ria-Vung Tau Provinces also
held smaller celebrations commemorating Vesak this year and most
reported no interference from local authorities. Thich Thien Hanh,
Chief Representative of the UBCV in Thua Thien-Hue Province, said
the UBCV Board celebrated Vesak at Quoc An Pagoda in much the same
way they did last year with approximately 120 monks and 2,000
followers gathered (Ref B). Some pagodas did report an increased
security presence, but Monk Thich Vinh Phuoc at Phuoc Buu pagoda in
Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province said that with the thousands of
international visitors here for the United Nations Vesak Day
celebrations, it was "not surprising that security was tightened."
Vesak notwithstanding, UBCV leaders continue to experience
limitations on their ability to communicate and assemble, in part
due to their long history of conflict with the GVN.

A Brief History of the UBCV
---------------------------
5. (SBU) Readers of a certain age will recall a long period of
repression of Buddhists in the former Republic of South Vietnam that
captured international attention only when Thich Quang Duc immolated
himself during a public demonstration in June 1963. In 1964,
Buddhists regained official status and formed the Unified Buddhist
Church of Vietnam. In 1975, the Communist Party attempted to create
a state-controlled Buddhist organization in the South and harshly
suppressed those who opposed their efforts. The officially
sanctioned Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS) was founded in 1981 from
the rank and file of the UBCV. Those UBCV adherents who opposed the
Communists and refused to join were considered "outlaws," although
the GVN never officially disbanded the UBCV. (Note: Since many
senior VBS monks were once a part of the UBCV, the two groups
maintain informal contacts and some have speculated that the GVN is
"easier" on the UBCV than it is on other political activists because
many VBS monks in high positions sympathize with their estranged
Buddhist brethren. End note).

6. (SBU) Since 1981, the GVN has implemented tactics ranging from
coercion and intimidation to persuasion and diplomacy to encourage

HANOI 00000617 002.2 OF 003


UBCV leaders to join the VBS. In recent years, the GVN has also
encouraged the UBCV to register under the legal framework on
religion. UBCV leaders, however, assert their legitimacy does not
hinge on the GVN's approval, and UBCV General Secretary Thich Quang
Do has often said "asking for permission [from the GVN] for the
right to practice our faith implies that we do not have it already."
The UBCV has claimed they would accept Buddhist "reunification"
under the following conditions:

--Official GVN recognition of the UBCV's legitimacy;
--An end to "State management" over Buddhism;
--Clarification regarding the circumstances of death of UBCV leader
Thich Thien Minh (believed to have died during police interrogations
in 1978); and
--return of certain UBCV properties confiscated after 1975.

7. (SBU) There are no official statistics on the number of UBCV
adherents as many UBCV monks reside in VBS pagodas or "house
pagodas." The main centers for the UBCV are in HCMC, Hue and Binh
Dinh province, but the growth of the UBCV can be seen through the
increasing number of UBCV representative boards that have sprung up
in provinces in recent years. One UBCV contact confirmed that the
organization has now introduced representative boards in some 20
provinces and towns.

UBCV's Political Activism
-------------------------
8. (SBU) The UBCV's fight for freedom of religious practice is
inextricably tied to its struggle for human rights, democracy and
political pluralism in Vietnam. UBCV leaders have longstanding
connections with several pro-democracy activists and share similar
views on a number of "sensitive" domestic and international issues
such as Chinese actions in the Spratleys/Paracels, the suppression
of human rights in Burma and the crackdown on Buddhist monks in
Tibet.

9. (SBU) In his meetings with US officials over the past year, UBCV
leader Thich Quang Do has advocated for the reinstatement of the
Countries of Particular Concern designation for Vietnam as a way to
pressure the GVN to improve its human rights record. Despite his
lack of mobile phone and Internet access, he manages to track
Vietnam human rights measures in Congress and is well-versed on
which Congressional representatives advocate on behalf of Vietnamese
religious and political activists. When Poloff informed Thich Quang
Do of the upcoming Human Rights Dialogue in Hanoi, he advised us
"not to be fooled by the GVN" because "they say one thing and do
another." Thich Quang Do said "after APEC, PNTR, WTO were over, the
GVN returned to its true identity as suppressor of human rights."

10. (SBU) Last year UBCV leader Thich Quang Do joined the
land-rights protesters gathered in front of the National Assembly
Office in Ho Chi Minh City to offer spiritual support and give them
money raised by overseas Vietnamese supporters (Ref C). The
protests, which had proceeded without incident over several weeks,
were broken up by police shortly after Thich Quang Do called for
multiparty democracy via loudspeaker. Recently, a land-rights
organizer in HCMC told Poloff that land rights activists "know" they
can go to UBCV pagodas for aid and assistance if needed. As a
result of their activism, UBCV leaders are often targets of official
harassment and intimidation.

Recent reports of UBCV harassment
---------------------------------
11. (SBU) In Lam Dong province, UBCV contacts reported that
Superior Monk Thich Tri Khai from Giac Hai Pagoda received an
eviction notice from local authorities ordering him to turn the
pagoda over to the VBS on April 6. Contacts say Fatherland Front
representatives and police gathered other Buddhists to publicly
denounce Thich Tri Khai and offered "rewards" to those who
participated in the public denouncement. UBCV Buddhists adherents
protested the officials' actions and around 200 signed a petition in
support of Thich Tri Khai. Several followers were subsequently
summoned by the police for questioning.
12. (SBU) Subsequently, on April 29, Chief Monk Thich Nhu Tan and
Deputy Chief Thich Tam Man were briefly detained for a three hour
police interview after they visited Giac Hai pagoda. The two also
received summons to return to the police station before Vesak Day,
but both refused to attend. Thich Nhu Tan said authorities forcibly
removed him and other resident monks from the pagoda, searched the
property and changed the locks on May 7 and 8. Because of the
ongoing harassment, UBCV contacts say Thich Tri Khai suffers from
ill health and has come to HCMC for medical care. Contacts cannot
confirm his whereabouts presently.
13. (SBU) In Hue, contacts reported that Deputy Chief of UBCV
Representative Board Monk Thich Chi Thang was summoned to attend a
public denouncement session accusing him of conducting "illegal
activities" in April and suggesting that he be expelled from the
VBS's Phuoc Thanh pagoda. Contacts say Hue police also tried to

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prevent Thich Khong Tanh from giving the funeral service for
Democratic Party of Vietnam (DPV) dissident Hoang Minh Chinh in
Hanoi (Ref D). Thich Khong Tanh said he had stopped in Hue to meet
with UBCV leaders there en route to the funeral when local police
came to his hotel and asked him to come to the police station for
questioning. Thich Khong Thanh said he decided to leave the hotel
early the next morning in order to avoid the attending the
interview, which could have delayed his arrival in Hanoi.

14. (SBU) In Binh Dinh province, Thich Minh Tuan, a disciple of
UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang at Nguyen Thieu Monastery, said
police maintain heavy surveillance over the pagoda and have
prevented the Patriarch from traveling outside. On February 23
during the Lunar New Year holiday, Thich Minh Tuan said hundreds of
policemen gathered in front of the monastery to conduct "exercises,"
ostensibly blocking the road and preventing the Patriarch from
attending traditional ceremonies at another local monastery. Que
Me, the UBCV's official overseas website, claims the police were
also trying to deter the Patriarch from paying Lunar New Year visits
and receiving UBCV clergies from other provinces.

15. (SBU) UBCV Monk Thich Thien Minh told us he decided to relocate
from Bac Lieu province to Ho Chi Minh City two months ago, partly to
get medical treatment and partly because of the repeated harassment
and public denouncements held by local authorities there over the
past year. According to Thich Quang Do, Thich Thien Minh has since
resigned from the UBCV executive board and is now concentrating on
his work with the Association for Former Political and Religious
Prisoners, an organization that includes dissident Nguyen Dan Que.

Comment
-------
16. (SBU) Although the GVN continues to make progress in its
relationship with many religious denominations, including the VBS,
the Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations, the UBCV
remains a thorn in its side. The UBCV's political and social
activism and its refusal to accept the GVN's legal framework on
religion means there is no hope of any reconciliation between the
UBCV, the VBS and the GVN in the near future. It is no more likely
that the GVN will agree to the four conditions set out by the UBCV
than the UBCV will agree to set aside its political agenda and join
its VBS brethren. It is an irreconcilable dispute, a half-century
in the making, pitting officials bent on conformity against Buddhist
activist-adherents with minds of their own. However, it is worth
recalling that the UBCV represent only a very small fraction of
Vietnam's Buddhists, the vast majority of whom enjoy relative
freedom of worship -- so long as they steer clear of political
activism. End comment.

17. (U) This telegram was coordinated with Consulate General HCMC.

MICHALAK

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