Two ethnic Khmer monks have escaped into hiding after an attempt by Vietnamese government and religious authorities to strip them of their religious status following accusations of anti-state activity, sources said on Friday.
Thach Thuol and Lieu Ny—both of the Ta Set pagoda in the Vinh Chau district of Soc Trang province—evaded arrest on Thursday when hundreds of local Buddhists blocked police efforts to detain them, the two men told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“On May 16, at about 4:45 p.m., about 100 plainclothes police officers entered the pagoda to arrest me and monk Lieu Ny,” Thach Thuol said. “We both escaped arrest, but they came again at 11:00 p.m.”
Hundreds of local followers prevented police from entering the pagoda, and police broke locks and glass windows while trying to gain access, Thuol said.
The state-controlled Patriotic United Buddhist Association of Soc Trang province had announced two days before that they would force the monks to defrock, declaring in a statement by Buddhist leader Duong Nhon that the two men had used phones and the Internet to give interviews and transmit “fabricated information” about state policy toward Vietnam’s ethnic Khmer Krom minority.
“That decision [to defrock us] was not correct,” monk Lieu Ny said, speaking to RFA.
“Monks can be defrocked only when they have violated [one or more] of the Buddhist vows not to kill, steal, rape, or lie in order to harm others,” Ny said.
“Because we are citizens we have to respect the law. But this decision by Venerable Duong Nhon did not specifically state what rule we had broken.”
“I think this was a decision taken by the government of Vietnam,” Ny said, adding, “They did everything. They only put Duong Nhon’s name under it and forced him to sign.”
Meanwhile, a third Khmer monk, Ly Chanh Da of Vinh Chau’s Prey Chop temple, was defrocked by local police on May 16 and thrown unconscious into the street, the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation said in a statement Friday.
“He is staying at [a] villager’s house now,” the Federation said. “He is in a very bad health condition. Sometimes he cannot even remember his own name.”
“The Patriotic United Buddhist Association had ordered Ly Chanh Da to defrock, but Ly Chanh Da did not listen,” Hua Si Hung, acting vice chair of the Vinh Chau People’s Committee, told RFA.
“The Association then asked relevant authorities from the village to force Ly Chanh Da to defrock,” he said.
Reached for comment, Duong Sa Kha, head of the Ethnic People’s Office of Soc Trang province, described the case as “an internal affair of the Patriotic United Buddhist Association.”
“If you want to know more, you can come here to talk … The Association did not ask the police to do anything,” he said.
A U.S. bipartisan commission recommended in April that Vietnam be returned to a State Department list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom.
Vietnam, under one-party communist rule, “continues to expand control over all religious activities [and] severely restricts independent religious practice, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedoms (USCIRF) said in an annual report.
Though religious activity has grown in Vietnam in recent years, the government continues to “repress individuals and religious groups it views as challenging its authority,” USCIRF said.
Reported by Quoc Viet for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.