BANGKOK—Authorities in Hanoi have denied any role in evicting hundreds of followers of a France-based Zen monk and peace activist from Buddhist temples in Vietnam’s central Lam Dong province.
Followers of the hugely influential Thich Nhat Hanh say they have been forced underground after being evicted from the pagoda where they had been living.
The monks and nuns fled Dec. 31 from the Phuoc Hue pagoda in central Vietnam after visits by what U.S.-based Human Rights Watch described as “orchestrated” mobs that included police.
Officials are still harassing and forcibly separating the monks and nuns and denying them permission to settle anywhere, they said last week.
Some 400 disciples of Thich Nhat Hanh, who has helped to popularize Buddhism in the West, were evicted from the Bat Nha monastery in Lam Dong province in September.
Nearly 200 then took refuge at the nearby Phuoc Hue pagoda, but they were ordered to leave by Dec. 31 and have asked for asylum in France.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s letter
Thich Nhat Hanh, 83 and a peace activist, has sold millions of books worldwide. He has lived in exile for about four decades, and he has called on Vietnam repeatedly to restore religious freedom and respect human rights.
“Our country does not yet have true religious freedom, and the government tightly controls the Buddhist church machinery,” Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in a letter to his followers in late December.
“The Buddhist church is helpless, unable to protect its own children. This is a truth clearly seen by everyone .... In the case of Bat Nha and Phuoc Hue, government officials hired the mobs and worked together with them,” he wrote.
In his letter, Thich Nhat Hanh said the mobs at Phuoc Hue and Bat Nha were hired by police and the Fatherland Front, a communist party organization. At Phuoc Hue they were paid 200,000 Vietnamese dong (about U.S. $12) a day, he wrote.
“Where did the money come from to pay these mobs? Was it tax money?” he asked.
Thich Nhat Hanh teaches at his Plum Village monastery in France.
Vietnamese authorities welcomed him home four years ago, but his relationship with the government began to deteriorate after a 2007 visit.
He suggested to President Nguyen Minh Triet at the time that Vietnam give up control of religion and consider dropping the word “socialist” from Vietnam’s formal name.
Thich Nhat Hanh traveled to the United States in 1966 to call for an end to the Vietnam War and was barred from returning by both the U.S.-backed Saigon regime and the communist government that has ruled reunified Vietnam since 1975.
Vietnam’s communist government, which closely monitors religious affairs, has denied any involvement in the evictions, however, calling it a struggle between various factions of Buddhism.
“We see this issue as a friction and dispute between the different factions of Vietnam’s Buddhism,” Nguyen Ngoc Dong, deputy chairman of the Lam Dong provincial People’s Committee, or local government, told journalists in Hanoi.
The deputy director of police in Vietnam’s southern Lam Dong province, Nguyen Van Hiep, said the evictions of the monks represented a struggle on the part of the Vietnamese people to cleanse society of “criminal” elements.
“Since the [earliest Vietnamese] dynasty, the people have stood up in their own defense,” Nguyen Van Hiep said.
“There are so many heroes’ tombs and veterans [who have sacrificed themselves for communism].”
“What do we need criminal societies for?”
More curbs alleged
New York-based Human Rights Watch said 2009 was a year of intensified government effort to disband the community of young monks and nuns.
The group said in a statement on its Web site that the devotees fled first from Bat Nha monastery after “thugs and undercover police” armed with hammers descended upon it.
But officials denied the claims.
“We say once again very clearly that the local authority did not pressure or have anything to do with those Plum Village practitioners, and they left Phuoc Hue pagoda in safety,” Nguyen Ngoc Dong said.
Both the U.S. embassy and the European Parliament have voiced concern over the evictions.
Original reporting by Do Hieu for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated from the Vietnamese by Viet Nguyen. Vietnamese service director: Khanh Nguyen. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.