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Cablegate: Thich Quang Do -- How Free 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) HCMC 0475 B) HCMC 0412

1. (SBU) Summary: During a June 30 meeting with Consul
General, recently "released" United Buddhist Church of
Vietnam (UBCV) deputy Thich Quang Do launched into a two-
hour plus discourse on religion, democracy, freedom, and
capitalism. Confirming press reports, he said he would soon
attempt to test the limits of his "unconditional release"
with a visit to UBCV patriarch Thich Huyen Quang in Quy Nhon
on July 10. Until then, Thich Quang Do said he would
continue to receive visitors and monitor his health at the
same pagoda where he has been detained incommunicado for the
past two years under "administrative surveillance." He
asked ConGenOffs to convey his appreciation for the support
of the USG, U.S. Congress, the EU, and various international
human rights organizations over the years and encouraged
continued outside pressure to bring about democratic change
in Vietnam. He predicted the GVN would one day lose control
over a population that had grown accustomed to the benefits
of economic reforms. Citing upcoming medical appointments,
he expressed regret that he would be unable to attend
ConGen's July 4 reception. Despite his chronic medical
problems, Thich Quang Do appeared hale, hearty, and in full
possession of his faculties. End Summary.

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2. (SBU) Consul General and Poloff called on 75-year old
Thich Quang Do on June 30, at the neat and well kept Thanh
Minh Zen pagoda in HCMC. The second highest ranking monk in
the hierarchy of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of
Vietnam (UBCV), Thich Quang Do had been isolated and
detained at the pagoda under "administrative surveillance"
for nearly two years after his June 2001 attempt to "rescue"
UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang from conditions resembling
house arrest at a remote pagoda in Quang Ngai province and
bring him to HCMC. The two years of administrative
surveillance were originally part of a sentence imposed in
1995 on charges related to organizing unauthorized
assistance for flood victims in the Mekong Delta. The
administrative surveillance portion of the 1995 sentence,
reinstated in 2001 despite his inclusion in a 1998 general
amnesty, was lifted ahead of schedule and without advance
notice on June 26.

3. (SBU) During the private meeting with ConGenOffs, Thich
Quang Do was lucid and feisty for a man of his age. He was
in excellent spirits, considering his recent detention
(something he attributed to Buddhist control of mind over
body). He was extremely animated, although not always
responsive to the questions asked, and made frequent use of
proverbs and Buddhist metaphor. Describing himself as
"having ears like a rabbit," Thich Quang Do said he needed
to remain alert to stay one step ahead of the GVN. He said
he was surprised when the detention order was lifted ahead
of schedule, but noted he never understood the government's
reasoning as to why he was supposed to be released from his
two-year detention in September, rather than June, in the
first place (ref A). He compared the GVN's actions in
reinstating the administrative surveillance to those of a
debt collector who continues to collect long after the debt
has been paid. He claimed to have no idea why he was
released ahead of schedule, but felt it must surely be part
of some GVN "scheme."

4. (SBU) Thich Quang Do also dismissed outright the
grounds for his original imprisonment in 1995, for "damaging
national solidarity" by organizing relief to flood victims
outside the GVN-approved Fatherland Front sponsorship via a
Communist Party mass organization (such as the Women's
Union, or Youth Union). Noting that various Buddhist groups
had been encouraged to carry out such charitable activities
by the former southern regime prior to 1975, he accused the
Fatherland Front (the umbrella group for mass organizations)
of having divided people and prolonged the suffering of the

5. (SBU) According to Thich Quang Do, the authorities who
appeared unannounced at the pagoda on June 26 to deliver the
oral release order were minor district-level officials. He
said the GVN was always careful to let local officials
pretend to take the leading role, in order to protect the
real decision makers at the central level. In his view, the
GVN had sent low-ranking functionaries because they were
afraid to face responsibility for his unjust imprisonment
and answer his questions directly. Because he still noticed
policemen watching the pagoda, Thich Quang Do was not sure
what the release order meant.

6. (SBU) For now, Thich Quang Do plans to reside at his
former "prison pagoda." He bases his claim to administer
the pagoda on the sequence of events following the communist
takeover of the South. In 1978, after his release from a
two-year stay in prison for opposing the communist regime,
the communist authorities had appointed him to run Thanh
Minh Zen Pagoda in HCMC. Because his 1982 transfer from
HCMC to the North for his opposition to the formation of the
Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS) was accomplished without any
formal, written order, Thich Quang Do considers the original
Thanh Minh Zen assignment still valid. So he therefore
refuses to file any application for residency, even though
local officials have already asked him to do so. ("Why
should I ask for something back that I never lost to begin
with?") The officials with whom he spoke on June 26 said
they had no authority to decide this matter, but promised to
convey his points to those who could. Thich Quang Do also
plans to apply for a telephone, though he is not optimistic
about his chances for success. He noted that during his
detention, he could not use the single telephone at the
monastery for fear the police would cut the line and
inconvenience the Abbot.

7. (SBU) Despite his "release," Thich Quang Do is certain
he will still be "guarded" by security agents at the pagoda
and followed whenever he ventured outside. He believes the
Vietnamese authorities had not interfered with ConGenOffs
"out of respect" for the ConGen, but would be more
restrictive with lay believers and other visitors. Despite
the continued security presence, some believers had visited
him over the past few days, including a group of overseas
Vietnamese (Viet Khieu) living in Australia. Several
visitors had been followed home by police and questioned.

8. (SBU) Thich Quang Do plans to continue receiving
visitors until July 10, when he hopes to travel to Quy Nhon
(without GVN "assistance") to confer with UBCV Patriarch
Thich Huyen Quang on "Buddhist matters." He noted that
unlike his religious superior, he now had a written order
releasing him from detention. Absent such an order --
something the GVN could never issue because it had never
issued an order to detain him in the first place, and thus
would then have to admit he had been detained for 21 years
without legal documentation -- Thich Huyen Quang's current
situation was different. The GVN could move him around from
pagoda to pagoda, something Thich Quang Do described as
"mobile detention."

9. (SBU) Thich Quang Do said he was suffering from several
chronic health conditions, including diabetes, high blood
pressure, and unspecified kidney, heart and eye ailments.
He was currently on several medications and was scheduled
for three separate examinations on July 4 -- appointments
that would unfortunately prevent him from attending ConGen's
Independence Day reception. According to Thich Quang Do, he
was able to visit the doctor on a monthly basis during his
detention by informing local authorities and waiting
approximately one week for permission, but he refused to
comply with demands to submit a written request for each
visit. He regularly told his "captors" that it would be
their fault if he died. A handful of plainclothes security
officers usually accompanied him to his appointments,
waiting just outside the doctor's office and retrieving
copies of his medical records for their own files.

10. (SBU) Other than his forays out for medical treatment,
Thich Quang Do said local authorities had basically turned
his room at the pagoda "into a prison" for the past two
years. He was completely isolated from the outside world
and unaware of the many visitors who had attempted to meet
with him. He praised Thanh Minh Zen's Abbot, however, for
standing up to the authorities and denying them permission
to place guards outside his actual room in the pagoda. The
authorities had been forced to back down when the Abbot told
them the pagoda was not under detention, and if they wanted
a guard inside, they had better transfer Thich Quang Do to a
prison. The security forces then resigned themselves to
sitting in the outer courtyard of the compound. Thich Quang
Do believes that undercover operatives continue to monitor
the comings and goings of believers, and claimed to have
noticed a decline in the number of worshippers at the

11. (SBU) Several times during the conversation, Thich
Quang Do reiterated his Buddhist obligation to "be honest
and speak the truth." Disavowing any prejudice against the
current government (even though he said four family members
had been "killed by the communists"), he claimed to express
the feelings of ordinary Vietnamese, who confided in monks
and priests, but were otherwise afraid to speak out.
Offering his views on the current government, he observed
that all power still resides with the Communist Party of
Vietnam (CPV) at the central level. Any pretense of
authority outside Hanoi was intended only to insulate the
GVN and give it plausible deniability. While they had no
real authority, corrupt local officials abused their power
for economic gain, and citizens were powerless to complain.
If the CPV truly intended to fight official corruption,
there would be nobody left to fill the government ranks.

12. (SBU) Drawing on discussions with Thich Huyen Quang
after the patriarch's meetings in Hanoi (ref B), Thich Quang
Do noted that Prime Minister Phan Van Khai had accused local
officials of "mistakenly" reinstating his original 1995
detention order. This was just another example of Hanoi's
"good cop/bad cop" routine -- let the local authorities take
the rap for implementing a central GVN decision, but then
have the central GVN come in after the fact and "correct"
the local authorities' mistakes.

13. (SBU) Echoing what we have heard from other ranking
UBCV monks, Thich Quang Do claimed that all Vietnam Buddhist
Sangha (VBS) monks were merely UBCV monks who had succumbed
to GVN pressure. He dated CPV attempts to discredit the
UBCV back to the formation of the first "Patriotic Buddhist
Association" in 1975. ("The title itself means there must be
traitors somewhere.") Under the circumstances, he found it
ironic that he and his colleagues in the UBCV were accused
of destroying national solidarity, noting that even in 1975,
"CPV strategy had been to divide and conquer." Labeling all
of Vietnam's rulers since the time of Emperor Bao Dai as
dictators, Thich Quang Do described the CPV as the most
sophisticated in the way it has sown fear and distrust among
families and communities, and thus effected control. In
that same manner, the CPV had tried to use Buddhist monks to
destroy Buddhism, but Buddhism could not be separated from
the Vietnamese nation and people. Although Thich Quang Do
criticized the new generation of monks as "working for the
government," he predicted that Vietnam's Buddhists would
soon overcome their "spiritual restrictions," and that
Buddhism would flourish again through the support of its
believers, including those from overseas.

14. (SBU) Toward the end of the meeting, Thich Quang Do
offered his personal goals for the future. An oft-repeated
theme throughout the two-and-a-half hour conversation was
that freedom and democracy were the most important elements
for national development. Freedom was what made the U.S. a
superpower. Along with promoting freedom and democracy,
Thich Quang Do said he wished to re-establish "normal
activities" for the UBCV. He also expressed concern that
Vietnamese students had been sent to Russia and China to
study science and technical subjects, but the humanities and
philosophy were ignored. While he termed the establishment
of a multiparty system "a must", he said "nobody dares to
raise this subject."

15. (SBU) Thich Quang Do was aware of the recent arrest or
Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, and the trials of Pham Hong Son and Tran
Khue. He said they showed the GVN's continuing fear of
independent thought. He pointed out the contradiction
between the relatively light sentences accorded GVN and CPV
officials implicated on corruption charges in the recent Nam
Cam case, and the much stiffer sentence imposed on Pham Hong
Son for receiving US$150 for translating a document on the
Internet. Without democracy, there was no chance for
improved human rights in Vietnam. A free press was the best
way to keep citizens informed of deficiencies in their
government, and draw attention to the large gap between the
written laws of Vietnam and the reality of their

16. (SBU) More generally, now that the Vietnamese people
had tasted relative prosperity and reform, things could not
go back to the way they were before. According to Thich
Quang Do, "Once a person knows how it feels to ride a
motorcycle, they will not go back to a bicycle." While the
GVN would prefer to open up the system only to the level at
which it could still maintain power, someday it would lose
control. Thich Quang Do believes that many top leaders have
already lost faith in Marxism-Leninism themselves, and that
nearly everyone was now a capitalist at heart. This would
be the driving force for the eventual collapse of the CPV
and GVN. But if Vietnam were a democracy now, it would not
be communist ruled.

17. (SBU) Thich Quang Do ended the meeting by asking the
Consul General to again convey thanks to his many supporters
in the U.S. Congress (including Representative Loretta
Sanchez, whom he met twice), EU nations, and international
human rights organizations (especially Human Rights Watch).
While he specifically said he was not calling for direct
intervention from outside, he asked that international aid
donors and foreign investors "develop human rights and
freedom too, not just the economy." He urged that
development aid be somehow linked to progress in human
rights. To simply pour money into various aid projects
would only give the GVN greater financial means for control
and further enrich corrupt officials.

18. (SBU) Comment: Thich Quang Do seems to have emerged
from his two years of isolation as outspoken and feisty as
ever. Ready to challenge the GVN at every turn and unlikely
to back down, he presents an interesting counterweight to
Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang's more measured, modest
approach. Thich Quang Do's health remains a concern,
however, and may mean that for all of his big picture
criticism of the GVN and discussion of democracy, he may
have to limit himself to a more immediate concern: finding
some way to legalize the UBCV's status. Whether the UBCV
leadership is able to take advantage of this small window of
opportunity to revitalize their church will depend a great
deal on how provocative the GVN finds their actions in the
coming weeks and months. Thich Huyen Quang has maintained a
low profile in Quy Nhon, but Thich Quang Do has generally
been more of a firebrand. Notably, Thich Quang Do skirted
around any questions about reconciliation or merging with
the VBS. It is clear that the UBCV leadership believes it
has benefited greatly from international pressure and hopes
to continue to receive more targeted, focused support in the
future. The question is, will it use this pressure and
support to push too far too quickly, or will it proceed step-


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