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Cablegate: Hoa Hao Activists Plan Protests in Southern Vietnam

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

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 HO CHI MINH CITY 000325

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM SOCI PREL PGOV KIRF VM RELFREE HUMANR
SUBJECT: HOA HAO ACTIVISTS PLAN PROTESTS IN SOUTHERN VIETNAM

REF: A) 04 HCMC 252; B) 01 HCMC 302

1. (SBU) Summary: The California-based Hoa Hao Buddhist
Organization, Phat Giao Hoa Hao, informed us on March 4 of the
arrest of two Hoa Hao activists in the Mekong Delta province of An
Giang. They are being investigated for distributing audio-visual
materials without proper licensing. In a follow-up meeting on the
arrest with their spiritual leader Le Quang Liem, leader of the
unrecognized Hoa Hao Central Buddhist Church (HHCBC), Liem
(strictly protect) focused on a possible gathering of his sect in
An Giang on April 3. He said that if the police intervened, his
followers would demonstrate and some might commit self-immolation.
We categorically told Liem that while we supported freedom of
religion and expression and peaceful assembly, we did not condone
violence in any form and would halt all contact with him if he
were to encourage his followers to self-immolate. End summary.

Hoa Hao activists arrested
--------------------------

2. (SBU) Nguyen Mai, Director of the California-based Hoa Hao
Buddhist Organization, Phat Gia Hoa Hao, contacted us on March 4
to report on the arrest in the Mekong Delta province of An Giang
of two brothers, Tran Van Thang and Tran Van Hoang, affiliated
with Hoa Hao dissident Le Quang Liem. On March 14 Thang's wife,
Nguyen Thi Hoang Em (strictly protect), told us that on February
25 An Giang police had arrested the men after a search of the
house revealed approximately 900 DVDs. The DVDs contained the
teachings of Huynh Phu So, the founder of Hoa Hao Buddhism, as
well as the interpretations of Le Quang Liem. The police also
confiscated a significant amount of audio-visual equipment and
printed materials.

3. (SBU) In response to our inquiries, officials of the An Giang
Committee for Religious Affairs informed us on March 18 that the
two men were arrested for illegally possessing, copying and
disseminating video tapes and disks. They claimed that the two men
had admitted that since August 2004 they had produced and
distributed approximately 10,000 disks without government
authorization. Our understanding is that the brothers also could
face indictment for disseminating anti-GVN materials, depending on
police analysis of the disks' content. (Note: The copying and
distribution of audio-visual products is classified as a "business
activity" under Vietnamese law, and must be licensed by GVN
authorities. The brothers had no such license. End note.)

4. (SBU) On March 23, we met with the 85-year old spiritual
leader of an unrecognized Hoa Hao sect, Le Quang Liem, to discuss
the arrest of his two followers. (Per ref A, there is a bitter
split in the Hoa Hao church between a GVN-recognized faction and
other non-recognized groups.) Liem (strictly protect) used the
meeting to advise us that his faction planned to hold a service on
April 3 to commemorate the anniversary of the disappearance of the
founder of Hoa Haoism. (Liem maintains that the Viet Minh
murdered the Hoa Hao patriarch in 1947). Liem said that he
anticipated that the An Giang police would try to prevent the
gathering and observed that his followers would respond by holding
public demonstrations, hunger strikes and possibly self-
immolations. Liem then urged the USG not to lift Vietnam's CPC
designation, saying that by doing so "the door of religious
freedom that was slowly starting to open would be sla-QQM1iut."

5. (SBU) Liem asked what our reaction to self-immolations would be
and whether we would attend the April 3 ceremony. He cited the
1963 self-immolation of a Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, as a
contributing factor in the fall of the regime of South Vietnamese
President Diem. We told Liem that irrespective of CPC
designation, we would continue to press for greater religious
freedom in Vietnam. In that regard, we trusted that local
authorities would allow Hoa Hao believers to worship peacefully,
if that was the intent of the gathering. We underscored that we
neither condone nor support self-immolation or other acts of
violence and would not attend the April 3 event. We reminded Liem
that the self-immolation of a Hoa Hao activist in 2001 (ref B) had
not advanced the cause of religious freedom in Vietnam.

6. (SBU) We later met with Liem's daughter and Hoa Hao activist,
Le Quynh Nga, to discuss her father's planning for the April 3
event. Nga (strictly protect) stated that she and other family
members had attempted to dissuade Liem from promoting self-
immolation among his followers. However, she said that her father
believed that self-immolation might force the GVN to intercede
with senior An Giang authorities, who in Liem's view have a
particular hatred of Hoa Haoism dating back to the Vietnam War.
Nga said that five followers of her father were prepared to commit
self-immolation.

7. (SBU) Comment: Liem has long been an outspoken critic of the
GVN and has periodically threatened that he or his followers might
self-immolate to attract attention to their cause. His invitation
for us to attend the April 3 event and his linkages between self-
immolation and CPC strongly indicate that he is angling for
greater international attention -- positive or negative -- for his
cause. We reiterated that while we staunchly support freedom of
expression and religion in Vietnam and will follow the case of the
Tran brothers, we reject self-immolation or any other violent acts
or any attempts to exploit or manipulate our contact with
dissidents. We categorically warned Liem and his daughter that
should Liem continue to advocate such activity we would suspend
all contact with him and his organization. End Comment.

8. (SBU) Bio note: Liem was released in July 2004 from three
years of house arrest stemming from a March 2001 altercation with
authorities in An Giang province. Liem, who lives in HCMC, claims
that the GVN keeps him under 24-hour surveillance, and that he is
prevented from returning to An Giang -- the spiritual home of the
Hoa Hao religion, as well as his birthplace. End Bio note.

WINNICK

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