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Cablegate: Shotgun Wedding: Ubcv and Vbs Together at Last?

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.





E. O. 12958: N/A

REF: A) 2002 HCMC 914 B) HANOI 807 C) HANOI 842

1. (SBU) Summary: In a meeting with the Consul General on May
9, Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) Patriarch Thich Huyen
Quang spoke hopefully of a new openness on the part of the GVN
toward efforts to unite the UBCV with the officially recognized
Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS). The Patriarch, who was allowed to
travel to HCMC after more than 20 years of "pagoda detention" in
rural Quang Ngai Province, was also realistic about the roadblocks
ahead. Repeatedly denying any interest in "political activities,"
he said his overwhelming goal now was to unify the two Buddhist
churches. Crediting the USG and other members of the
international community for past and present efforts on behalf of
his cause, he stressed the UBCV was not quite ready to make it on
its own. Still, Thich Huyen Quang claimed the majority of
Vietnamese Buddhists were really still "his", even if the UBCV
organization itself had grown weak. He concluded by saying he was
still "measuring the situation," but realized "things outside are
very complicated." End summary.

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2. (SBU) Consul General and ConGenoffs met with Thich Huyen
Quang at An Quang Pagoda, the former principal pagoda of the UBCV
and current home of the HCMC Buddhist Sangha, the southern branch
of the VBS. The meeting was arranged by UBCV General Secretary
Thich Tue Sy, who also attended. (Note: Unlike previous calls on
members of the official VBS hierarchy at An Quang, this visit did
not require a diplomatic note or notification to the local MFA
branch. While it is clear GVN officials would have had to approve
today's meeting, it is remarkable that we were allowed to work the
appointment entirely through the offices of the "outlawed" UBCV.)
In addition to the two UBCV leaders, three high-ranking VBS monks,
with whom ConGenoffs have met in the past, also attended.

3. (SBU) Thich Huyen Quang appeared in fairly good health, but
harder of hearing and less focused than during an October 2002
meeting at his pagoda in Quang Ngai Province (ref A). He said he
was satisfied with the medical attention he had received in Hanoi
and was confident that his needs would be met in the future (ref
B). The atmosphere during the meeting was much more low-key than
during the visit to Quang Ngai. Despite the presence of high-
ranking VBS monks in the room, he spoke openly and comfortably.
For their part, the VBS monks refrained from the frequent
interruptions and prompting that had marked the behavior of the
Quang Ngai authorities. (Thich Huyen Quang twice referred to the
heavy-handed tactics of his handlers during the October meeting in
Quang Ngai, apologizing for their rudeness.)

4. (SBU) Recapping his April meeting with Prime Minister Phan
Van Khai in Hanoi (ref C), Thich Huyen Quang was clearly pleased
that the PM had publicly acknowledged the contributions of the
UBCV "to the resistance". He also appreciated the PM's sending
someone to check on his health in Quang Ngai. He had pressed PM
Khai for the release of detained UBCV leaders, including himself
and Thich Quang Do. He had also asked for written documentation
of the reasons for the continued detentions, and an official
statement on the legal status of the UBCV. While PM Khai did not
answer those questions, he promised to act with "Buddhist mercy
and compassion" in his future dealings with the UBCV. In return,
Thich Huyen Quang promised to respond with "Buddhist tolerance."

5. (SBU) Thich Huyen Quang had spent 20 days in his hometown of
Quy Nhon, reconnecting with the UBCV faithful before traveling to
HCMC. UBCV followers noted a real improvement in the way they had
been treated by local authorities since his meeting with PM Khai.
Thich Huyen Quang had then asked to visit HCMC in order to meet
with UBCV leaders and attempt to reestablish some viable form of
organization. While he did not go into detail on the logistics of
his trip, he did not seem to have encountered any government
resistance to his plan. Thich Huyen Quang had hoped to stay in a
UBCV pagoda upon his arrival, but seemed genuinely pleased with
GVN arrangements to provide him space at his former pagoda, which
had been UBCV headquarters before 1975. Since arriving in HCMC,
he had met with many followers and was "happy to see that UBCV
believers are still here."

6. (SBU) The Patriarch requested, and was able to meet, with
HCMC People's Committee Chairman Le Thanh Hai on May 8. During
their discussions, Chairman Hai tacitly opened the way for
discussions on "legalizing" the UBCV through integration with the
VBS. When the Patriarch asked Chairman Hai if the two churches
could be merged, Hai responded that was an internal matter to be
resolved by the two churches -- but he believed one day there
would be a single, unified church. Thich Tri Quang, head of the
HCMC Buddhist Sangha, also attended that meeting and supported the
concept of unification. Based on Chairman Hai and Thich Tri
Quang's responses, the Patriarch said he believed the GVN really
wanted to heal the schism within the Buddhist community. Showing
off HCMC as the nation's economic engine, the People's Committee
took Thich Huyen Quang to the new Saigon South urban development
area - where upscale villas cost USD 800,000.

7. (SBU) After some prodding, Thich Huyen Quang briefly
summarized his May 5 meeting with number two-ranking UBCV leader
Thich Quang Do, who has been under administrative detention in
HCMC since June 2001. During the meeting, Thich Quang Do had
emphasized the need to get the UBCV's own house in order before
opening negotiations with the VBS. Long years of operating as an
underground church had taken their toll and left the UBCV
splintered and disorganized. Thich Huyen Quang deflected several
attempts by ConGenoffs to elicit predictions on whether Thich
Quang Do's administrative detention would be lifted on schedule
this June. He did note that the meeting had ended with Thich
Quang Do saying he looked forward to visiting Thich Huyen Quang
and continuing the discussion in Quy Nhon. (Thich Huyen Quang
told ConGenoffs he would be returning to Quy Nhon rather than
Quang Ngai after leaving HCMC. He plans to use An Quang Pagoda as
his base of operations for meetings in HCMC from time to time.)

8. (SBU) Assessing the likelihood of merging the UBCV with the
VBS, the Patriarch noted, "agreeing is easy, but the process is
difficult." He placed great stock in UBCV "(human) assets and
property" as leverage, claiming that many VBS monks and nuns are
actually UBCV followers. While the UBCV still holds a number of
properties that had escaped (or been spared) confiscation, he
hoped the GVN would consider returning other former assets. He
said he expected to meet with the VBS to discuss a merger in the
near future. He hopes the two churches will be allowed to sit
down and discuss - free of GVN interference - their merger, and
that local authorities would allow the UBCV to reconstruct its
organizational framework. Thich Huyen Quang described a future
unified church which would steer clear of politics, focusing its
efforts on spiritual matters and charitable works. While he
acknowledged that some Buddhists had participated in political
activities in the past, he stressed the need to concentrate on
religious affairs during this time of peace.

9. (SBU) A recurring theme in the 75 minute-long meeting was
appreciation for the efforts of the world community and
international media in supporting the UBCV cause. The Patriarch
expressed thanks to the many countries that had allowed UBCV
Buddhists to maintain the 2000-year-old tradition of Vietnamese
Buddhism overseas. Asked what the USG and others could do to
support the peaceful integration of the two Buddhist churches, he
noted the importance of continuing international support for and
media attention to efforts to train new monks and nuns, organize
UBCV activities at the local level, communicate with believers
overseas, and build a UBCV public information apparatus. He also
cited pressing needs for renovation of many UBCV properties.

10. (SBU) Another recurring feature was Thich Tue Sy's strident
voice interrupting the Patriarch to drive home his own call for
continued international support for the absolute separation of
church and state in Vietnam. Citing the Universal Declaration on
Human Rights, he insisted no true religion could ever submit to a
secular authority ("there are no worldly ends for us"). While
Thich Tue Sy said he would work within the framework of the
Vietnamese Constitution, his determination to pursue "pure
spiritualism" outside the supervision of the Fatherland Front and
Communist Party seemed at odds with Thich Huyen Quang's resigned
pragmatism. The difference in viewpoint was clear in their
responses to a question on whether the GVN would allow interviews
with foreign journalists. While the English-speaking Thich Tue Sy
immediately responded "no problem," the Patriarch's more reserved
answer after hearing the Vietnamese translation was, "depends on
the Government."

11. (SBU) Comment: ConGenoffs have previously met with VBS and
UBCV monks separately. But together in the same room, we found
less tension between the formal VBS-UBCV adversaries than between
the two UBCV leaders themselves. The VBS monks sat silently by
while the elderly, revered Patriarch of its UBCV rival listened
patiently to the strident demands of a monk whom he himself has
anointed "executive director" of the UBCV once it "gets its house
in order."

12. (SBU) Comment (cont.): It is too early to tell whether the
GVN, VBS, and UBCV are really ready to mend fences. The actions
of "hard-line" elements who might push the envelope right off the
table should also be taken into account. While Thich Huyen
Quang's recent travels, meetings, and pronouncements are something
we could not have imagined last October, no one at today's meeting
made any concrete predictions for the future. Thich Huyen Quang
closed the discussion by saying he was still "measuring the
situation," and acknowledged "things outside are very
complicated." The next signal to watch for may be whether the GVN
renews Thich Quang Do's administrative detention when it expires
next month.


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