By Thor Halvorssen
SAIGON, Vietnam — Mention Vietnam and most people imagine American helicopter gunships flying through the Mekong Delta mowing down Viet Cong soldiers. That war ended in April of 1975 when Ho Chi Minh’s forces entered Saigon in triumph. The American helicopters are still here at the War Remnants Museum, along with a haunting collection of war photographs. Sadly, also still here is the same communist government that claimed it would liberate this nation of 82 million.
It has been more than 35 years since that promise was made and Vietnam is still ruled by one party. Criticism of the state is not permitted and every major civil society group operates within the confines of government structures. The newspapers contain more political news about what occurs in Thailand or Australia than what is happening in Vietnam. Trade unions are not free, and anyone who calls for human rights or democracy risks immediate arrest — usually under the charge of “infringing on national security.” Hundreds of political and religious dissidents are in prison, where there is evidence of torture.
The Venerable Thich Quang Do, an 81-year-old Buddhist monk, is one such dissident. His story is one of peaceful struggle for freedom and democracy in Vietnam — and of patient endurance of the state’s severe and repressive response to his message.
Thich Quang Do is the patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, an organization banned by the government. He is a unifying symbol of the pro-democracy movement simmering beneath the repressive surface of Vietnam’s dictatorship. Thich Quang Do has become one of the most outspoken defenders of democracy and human rights by challenging the government through political petitions to engage in discussions about democratic reform and human rights.
I met Thich Quang Do in the monastery where he is confined by the government. I went there to record his testimony for a human rights conference given that he is not allowed to travel.
His personal story is haunting.
At the age of 17, Thich Quang Do saw the master of the Linh Quang Pagoda, his first monastery, arrested by Ho Chi Minh’s army. A sign with the word “traitor” was placed around his mentor’s neck, and three bullets were shot point-blank into his temple. Thich Quang Do told me that this was the moment when he realized the dictatorship would one day cease to be. “They kill, separate families, restrict our freedoms, and punish love… Cruelty,” he said, “cannot last as a political system. People reject evil and cruelty.” Whatever noble cause the communist government pretended to serve, he vowed, he would never accept violence, hatred and discrimination. He devoted his life to the struggle against intolerance. “Whatever serves mankind is likely to survive,” he explained. “That is why Vietnamese Buddhism has existed for two millennia here. And it is why the dictatorship will one day come to an end.”
Thich Quang Do has paid a high price for his activism. He has spent a total of 28 years in prison — longer than Nelson Mandela was jailed in apartheid South Africa. On dozens of occasions he was the subject of beatings, torture, and solitary confinement. Presently, the government claims that he is a free man, but he compares his current detention to that of “a goldfish in a bowl – I can go round in circles in my tiny monk’s cell — but beware if I ever try to jump to taste freedom outside!”
Thich Quang Do’s steadfast commitment to the truth is one reason the world knows about the more than one million people sent to Vietnamese gulags, or “re-education camps,” without due process or trial. His protests and public speeches once led to “internal exile” in a freezing cold monastery in Northern Vietnam. The government forced his 84-year-old mother to join him. She died a horrible death from cold and hunger in 1985. He felt responsible for her suffering. He has lost virtually every family member to the government — all because they refused to give up their Buddhist practices.
In a secret message smuggled out of Vietnam, this is what he said:
Human rights means the right of every human being to live as free and respected members of society. But in Vietnam today we are not free. We are prisoners in our own country, in our pagodas, in our homes — prisoners of a regime which decides who has the right to speak and who must keep silent, who has the right to freedom, and who must be detained. We are prisoners of a regime, which, 35 years after the end of the Vietnam War, continues to fight a battle against its own people and deprive them of their basic human rights. Without democracy and pluralism, we cannot combat poverty and injustice, nor bring true development and progress to our people. Without democracy and pluralism, we cannot guarantee human rights, for human rights cannot be protected without the safeguards of democratic institutions and the rule of law.
In the past, international visitors such as California congresswoman Loretta Sanchez have been arrested upon entering the monastery. In 2006, Thich Quang Do received the Thorolf Rafto Prize, a Norwegian human rights honor often awarded to future Nobel Peace prize laureates (among them Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, East Timor’s José Ramos-Horta, Iran’s Shirin Ebadi, and South Korea’s Kim Dae-jung). The foundation’s director was arrested upon entering the monastery to present him with the prize.
In my case, the detention occurred upon leaving it. Plainclothes policemen standing watch across the street from the monastery took me to a local police station. I was eventually released – -but only after they had spent an hour questioning me about my reasons for being there. Luckily, the distraction allowed my colleague, a cameraman, to escape through the monastery’s side door.
The footage we captured will be screened in Oslo, Norway, on April 28 at the Oslo Freedom Forum. It will be available online at http://www.oslofreedomforum.com.
Thor Halvorssen is president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation and founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum.