The Most Venerable Thich Thien Minh, Advisor of UBCV’s Institute for the Dissemination of Dharma, was arrested by Vietnam’s police in March, 1978, following the communist government’s nationwide brutal campaign to suppress religious freedom. In October 1978, the Venerable was tortured to death while in police custody. The Vietnamese government has been using all resources to try to erase the memory of the Venerable Thich Thien Minh’s death in the conscience of the Vietnamese Buddhist public.
The following article was originally published in Vietnamese by Que Me magazine in 1988. We have translated the article into English to help readers understand more about the brutality of the communist government of Vietnam against religious practitioners.
The Story of The Venerable Thich Thien Minh (Published by Que Me magazine, Issues No. 90 and 91, 1988)
Buddhist followers in Vietnam and abroad have only known that the Venerable Thich Thien Minh die d in a prison in Ham Tan (formerly Phan Thiet). In a letter sent to Que Me magazine from Saigon on November 7, 1978, the Most Venerable Thich Tri Thu wrote “… Inform to all fellow countrymen that the Venerable Thien Minh died mysteriously under utterly dark circumstances. When the Venerable passed away, there was no family member by his side. When we received the news, we were only allowed to look at his face before the government forced us to go back so they could bury him. We asked to stay a little longer but were refused (…)”. However, it is still not known whether the Venerable was tortured to death right in Saigon or in Camp X4 (on Nguyen Trai Street, Saigon) which was an interrogation center (a.k.a torturing place) and temporary detention center before transferring to prisons or concentration camps. The communists took the Venerable’s body to Ham Tan to misdirect the protesting Buddhist public in Saigon who was boiling the days after the Venerable had been arrested.
Recently, Mr. Le Xuan Thuan, formerly a police officer working at the Institute of Criminal Science which belongs to Vietnam’s Department of the Interior, has escaped to freedom after having been unable to tolerate the communists’ extremely barbarous and devious rules. During his time working for the communist Vietnamese government, Mr. Thuan witnessed the events, from the beginning to the end, that were related to the Venerable Thich Thien Minh’s death. The following composition is based on Mr. Thuan’s account as a fresh evidence to be added to the already-thick communist crime files over the past 12 plus years.
The policeman grunted “I ask you one last time. Are you going to sign the document admitting your crime of organizing the plot to sabotage the revolution?”
“No, I am not”, the Venerable Thich Thien Minh shook his head.
The policeman slammed his fist on the table, screaming “Fuck you. Are you still stubborn?”
The Venerable Thien Minh remained calm “I am not stubborn. I only ask that you present concrete evidence to prove that I organized the plot to sabotage the revolution. That’s all.”
The policeman snarled a few words in his throat but his mouth remained shut closed. He glared at the frail Venerable sitting slouchily in front of him. The policeman’s eyebrows fastened, his lips shaking continuously, his eyes glowing as if they were ready to spit fires. Then he stood up. “Fine, if you want, grandfather will prove it to you”, the policeman shrieked through the crevices of his teeth.
“Dinh, where are you?”, the policeman turned to the outside direction, yelling.
A policeman, looking very young but murderous, rushed in. “I am here, Major”
“Beat him up”, the police major looked at The Venerable Thien Minh, jerking his chin.
Needless for a second order, Dinh understood immediately. He walked towards the Venerable Thien Minh slowly. The Venerable tried to wait calmly; he could hear Dinh’s feet beating on the brick floor. The Venerable looked at Dinh’s clenched fist. And the Venerable saw Dinh’s hands appear to swing. The Venerable jerked violently backward, lying flat on the floor. The Venerable’s eyes became blurry in a universe of sparkling stars. Two streams of blood slowly rolled out of the corners of his mouth.
The Venerable struggled to crawl back on his feet. Dinh stood there, quiet; he was waiting for order.
“Keep beating”, the police major jerked his chin.
Dinh lunged towards the Venerable Thien Minh. The Venerable, still not firmly back on his feet yet, received a thundering blow to his chest. One more time, the Venerable slouched and fell down; but he was not completely on the floor. Dinh used his feet to kick the Venerable on his face, causing the Venerable’s body, which had been about to collapse forward, rebounded backward sharply. The Venerable’s head slammed hard against the floor, “BAM!” Dinh bent down, yanking the Venerable by his collar. Dinh kicked the Venerable over and over, furiously. The Venerable Thien Minh’s face was all bloody. A few teeth fell out of the Venerable’s mouth. The Venerable’s body was as soft as an empty bag, insensible to Dinh’s assault.
“Wait, Dinh! Let’s pause for a second”, the police major suddenly said and then walked to the Venerable Thien Minh, raising the Venerable’s unshaven chin with his hands.
“So, is that enough for evidence? Are you going to sign the confession or not?”, the police major asked, tauntingly.
The Venerable Thien Minh tried to open his eyes, but he could not open them up at all. A punch landed on his left eye, causing it swollen and shut down.
“No”, the Venerable murmured.
It seemed like the Venerable tried to say something else, but he had no more breath. The police major only heard the babbling sounds like those from the people who were dying. He angrily pushed the Venerable Thien Minh forward. The Venerable’s head hit a table’s corner, causing a loud “BAM!”, and then the Venerable collapsed.
“Keep beating until he stops being stubborn. Remember not to beat him on his face too much”, the police major looked at Dinh and ordered.
Again, Dinh charged fowards. His two solid hands kept swinging. “BOMP” “BOMP”, “BAM!” “BAM!”. At times, one could here the Venerable “Ahhh!” and then the “BOMP” “BOMP”, “BAM!” “BAM!” continued. The Venerable’s face was completely soaked in blood. Dinh’s face was also drenched in sweats. “BOMP” “BOMP”, “BAM!” “BAM!”. The hands kept swinging. Blood kept spewing out. Dinh was psychoneutoric; he attacked everywhere. It was as if Dinh was practicing martial arts on a sandbag. He punched straight. He pulled an uppercut. He karate chopped the Venerable’s neck. He kneed the Venerable’s chest. His hands grabbed the Venerable’s Thien Minh’s head firmly, pulling it down then kneed it backward. “BOMP” “BOMP” “BAM!” “BAM!”. Dinh kicked. Dinh trampled. Dinh reverse hook kicked. “BOMP” “BOMP” “BAM!” “BAM!”. The Venerable Thien Minh’s body seemed softened; he could no longer stand for Dinh to attack. Dinh had to use one hand to grab the Venerable Thien Minh by his collar, and his other hand continued to land thundering strikes on the body of the Venerable Thien Minh. “BOMP” “BOMP”, “BAM” “BAM”
“Stop”, the police major ordered. Dinh stopped. The body of Venerable Thien Minh quilted, lifelessly dropped on the floor. The Venerable laid there motionlessly. The police major jerked his chin, ordering Dinh.
“Come check on the thug.”
Dinh stepped forward, feeling the Venerable Thien Minh’s nose with his fingers, then said “Shit, why is he not breating at all, Major?”
“Really?” The police major nervously asked Dinh. “Check again carefully!” he ordered.
Dinh bent down one more time. A moment later, he looked up and answered “The guy really died, Major.”
“Throw water on him to see. He maybe he just unconsious”, the police major coldly told Dinh.
Dinh ran outside and came back 5 minutes later with a bottle of water. He splashed the water onto the Venerable Thien Minh’s face. The Venerable still laid there stiff. The police major looked intently. Occasionally, Dinh touched the Venerable Thien Minh’s nose and chest. The two policemen said nothing. The room fell into an ice cold silence.
Finally, the police major ordered: “Call the nurse!”
Dinh said “Yes” and then disappeared to the outside.
The nurse arrived. Even though he was called a nurse, he was in fact a policeman. Perhaps being so used to his job, upon his arrival, the nurse only greeted the major and bend down to the body of the Venerable Thien Minh lying on the floor. The nurse turned the Venerable Thien Minh’s eyelid to examine. He took the stethescope out and slowly put it on and then put it down on the Venerable’s chest. The nurse’s eyes were closed shut in a sleepy observation. A moment later, he looked up, lethargically said:
“Major, he really died”
The major bit his lips thinking for a moment, then said:
“Ok, no problem. Carry the body to the mortuary”
Again, Dinh said “Yes” and then signaled to the nurse to help him carry the body of the Venerable Thien Minh outside. Suddenly, the major said:
“Oh, stop. Don’t carry the body to the mortuary. Just leave it in room 5 and wait.
Then, the major hurried to the table, picking up the phone and dial a number. He waited tensely. The phone rang. There was someone on the other line. The major said, his voice restless:
“Reporting to the comrade, the thug Thien Minh died”
“How did he die?”
“He was stubborn and did not want to confess. Our comrades tortured him but he was too weak and died.”
“Has it been awhile”
“Only recently. About 10 minutes”
“Ok. No worries. Where is his body at?”
“At camp X4”
“Did many people know about this?”
“Nobody knows, except a few comrades in the Interrogation Committee”
“Good! Lets do this: comrade try not to let anyone know more about this, especially other inmates. Camp X4 is a temporary detention center, therefore it would be hard to explain if anyone dies there. The best thing is, comrade immediately use a police car and take the monk thug’s body to Chi Hoa prison. We will deal with it later.”
“Remember to hurry up.”
“And keep the secret. Never, absolutely never release the news about Thien Minh’s death to the public. Wait for my order”
Waiting until Le Thanh Van hung up the phone on the other line, the police major in charge of interrogation told Dinh:
“You tell Thu to get a car ready and then take the monk thug’s body to Chi Hoa.”
Dinh ran outside. He ran as fast as the blows that he had heratlessly landed on the body of the Venerable Thien Minh.
Not even 15 minutes later, a police car carrying the body of The Venerable Thien Minh rolled down the road. Honking loudy, the car accelerated at the speed seen in operations to catch armed robbers. Camp X4 was located at the address 258 Nguyen Trai street, First District, so the police major just finished the cigarette Capstan when the car approached the gate of Chi Hoa prison. The steel door slowly opened. The car snaked deep in the yard.
An old policeman, just about older than 50, came out from the office to greet the police major: “Greeting the comrade”
The major politely responded: “Yes, greeting the lieutenant colonel. We are bringing Thien Minh’s body here”
The lieutenant colonel said softly: “Comrade Le Thanh Van has just called and said not to leave the thug’s body here. Take the body directly to Ham Tan instead”
“Ham Tan? Why?”
“Because it is very inconvenient right here in the center of the city. First, if international organizations who are here in Saigon act up and demand to look at the thug’s body then we are in trouble. Secondly, for the last few months, Buddhist thugs in the city have been tumultous about his arrest. Protesting groups have popped up here and there. If his death is known, those supersticious thugs will come here asking for the body; then it will become very unfavorable and dangerous for us.”
The police major nodded: “Correct, but …”
“But, taking to body to Ham Tan and then what?”
“No problem. Once there, the comrade Chairman of City Police Bureau will send a delagate to establish a fake autopsy. Then we will let his family know, but when family comes here, we use the excuse that it has been too long so we have buried him. Ham Tan is too far away to create any ferver among popular views.
The police major nodded again: “Very good. Did brother Van specifically say who would bring the body of this monk thug to Ham Tan, dear comrade?”
“He said, it is better that comrade manage this transportation of the body to be guarranteed. He already called to let Ham Tan know.”
“Do I have to go immediately?”
“Yes, if possible”
“Fine, salute comrade”
“Uh, comrade have a nice trip”
The police major got on the car and told the driver to go straight to Hang Xanh. The car stopped under Van Thanh bridge to add fuel then smoothly traveled on Bien Hoa highway to the direction of Ham Tan, a small district belonging to Thuan Hai province, an area full of prisons after 1975.
In the front yard of Quang Huong Gia Lam temple in Go Vap, the Most Venerable Thich Tri Thu was holding a death notice, unsettled as if he had just lost his mind. He kept reading that razor thin, yellowish piece of paper over and over again. There were the same words. The content was extremely simple: Mr. Do Xuan Hang, dharma named Thich Thien Minh, born 1921 in Quang Tri, died at Ham Tan prison in Ham Tan district, Thuan Hai province on October 18, 1978. Reason: illness.
The Most Venerable read the death notice one more time. Then he read it again. Still same words. As simple as they were heartbreaking. In his heart, the old zen master felt a sharp pain and choking. Tears welling in the wrinkled corners of his eyes. One life, ended. The Most Venerable sighed, emotionally recalling the image of the Venerable Vice-President of the Institute for the Dissemination of Dharma whose wisdom was perspicacious, whose speech was extraordinarily powerful and persuasive, and whose virtue illuminated like a bright example in the Church. Things were past gone, everything was gone. The Most Venerable imagined that perhaps the Venerable Thien Minh’s body was cold, very cold in a place with a name Ham Tan that scared people. The Most Venerable Thich Tri Thu sat motionless for a long time, his eyes close shut but tears kept pouring out.
The next day, the Most Venerable Thich Tri Thu himself took some of his disciples to Ham Tan to visit the Venerable Thien Minh for a last time. The roads were sinuous and dusty. The heat in a coastal area was unimaginably harsh and blazing. The Most Venerable was exhausted in a tiring dizziness and in the bobbing shaking of the car going through the uneven and bumpy dirt roads.
The police lieutenant colonel in Ham Tan district came out to greet the Most Venerable at the gate. The colonel’s attitude was surprisingly attentive and respectful: “Greetings the Most Venerable. Perhaps the Most Venerable is very tired from a long trip?”
“Thank you. I am fine”
“Please all come in for some tea”
The Most Venerable Tri Thu declined: “Thank you but we will have to accept your offer at another time. May we see the Venerable Thien Minh right away?”
“Sure. We also know that you are very anxious. Please come this way”, the police lieutenant colonel smiled, pretending to be easy going
The Venreable’s Thien Minh’s body was placed in a small room. The Venerable was lying flat in a bed, his body was as thin as a dried leave, covered by a white sheet. His face was pale with small visible black and blue spots. A short cut was on his lower lips; it had been cleaned of blood therefore it was very hard to detect.
Everybody stood stunned. Everyboby was pained. The Venerable was arrested on April 13, 1978, only a little more than 6 months ago, but he changed too much. His body shrank in emaciation. His mouth gaping and protruding.
The Most Venerable Tri Thu leaned over and asked the police lieutenant colonel standing next to him: “May I wipe the eyes of the deceased?”
The lieutenant colonel shook his head: “You may not. Please be sympathetic. This Venerable died more than 2 days ago. If you come close, we are afraid your health will be affected.”
Despite repeated begging, the police lieutenant colonel insisted nobody could come close to the body. There was nothing else for the delegation to do besides standing and mumbling the prayers. A moment later, the lieutenant colonel invited everybody outside and to the police guest room that was decorated colorfully.
Waiting for everybody to sit down, the lieutenant colonel said: “Everybody, first of all, I would like to sincerely share my sorrow with you about the death of Mr. Nguyen Xuan Hang. Due to activities suspected of lack of sincerity and friendship with the revolution, Mr. Nguyen Xuan Hang was temporarily held for the past few months pending an investigation. Unfortunately, due to old age and illnesses, he was sick unexpectedly. We tried our best to find treatments for him but we could not save him. This is very unfortunate and is beyond our wishes.”
The lieutenant colonel bent down to flip over a thick pile of documents in front of him. He took out a bundle of papers and said: “This is Mr. Do Xuang Hang’s medical records. He became sick on September 29, 1978. The camp’s nurse wholeheartedless diagnosed and treated his illness, but his illness did not get better. From October 5, 1978, the camp and our police bureau invited very experienced doctors from Thuan Hai hospital to treat him. Even though we and the doctors tried our very best, but finally on the past October 18, 1978, Mr. Do Xuang Hang passed away.”
The police lieutenant collection let out a long sigh. He was quiet for a few minutes, pretending to be moved and then continued: “After Mr. Do Xuan Hang died, we invited a medical examiners to perform autopsy in order to find out the exact illness that Mr. Hang had. The doctors concluded that Mr. Hang suffered from end-stage kidney failure.
The police lieutenant colonel stretched his body forward to give the Most Venerable Thich Tri Thu the bundle of medical records, autopsy records, and a few X-ray images of the Venerable Thien Minh’s skull. The Most Venerable Tri Thu took the documents indifferently. He scanned through the last paragraph in the autopsy report and saw a few signatures carelessly done.
Mr. Do Van Thuan – Doctor from Thuan Hai hospital
Mr. Nguyen Van Hung – Medical Lieutenant colonel from the Institute of Criminal Science, Department of the Interior.
Mr. Nguyen Tien Dung – Senior Lieutenant
Mr. Ngo Quang Dan – Sergeant.
Suddenly, the Most Venerable’s eyes became acrid. His tears dropped down, blurring the yellowish paper on his hand. He said in tears: “Sir, may we carry Mr. Hang’s body home for burial?”
The police lieutenant colonel shook his head: “Unfortunately, according to the camp’s regulations, the inmate’s body will be buried at the camp”
“Then, Sir, when and where will Mr. Hang’s burial be organized at?”
“Maybe right this afternoon”
“We hope to participate this afternoon’s burial, perhaps you will allow us to?”
The police lieutenant colonel bit his lips, hesitant for a moment then responded in a firm tone: “Please be sympathetic. It is not that we are too strict but thing is, the regulation does not allow that”
The Most Venerable Tri Thu begged: “We don’t think that it will be against the regulation. We only ask to be participants in a burial to pay the last respect to the deceased. We are not sure whether the Venerable Thien Minh committed any crime against the government when he was alive, but even if he had committed any crime, he has passed away. Please reconsider your decision.”
The police lieutenant colonel was unwavering: “We understand and we are very sympathetic. But please remember that, even though Mr. Do Xuan Hang has died, he is still a prisoner. There is no order to exonerate him.”
The Most Venerable Tri Thu was getting a little upset: “Sir, there is no court that convicted Mr. Do Xuan Hang either”
The police lieutenant colonel was stubborn: “But he was listed as a political suspect”
The Most Venerable Tri Thu admonished: “So, are suspects and prisoners the same?”
The police lieutenant colonel stood up: “Yes, they are the same”
The police lieutenant colonel put the documents bundle together on the desk, lighting up a Samit cigarette and said: “I have addressed all that needed to be addressed. Now, excuse me, I have to go to a meeting. Salute all”
Then he hurried outside. The Most Venerable Tri Thu sat motionless in his chair. His ears still echoed the police lieutenant colonel’s cruel words: “Even though he is dead, Mr. Hang is still a prisoner.”