Vietnam dispatched five monks on Friday to perform religious rituals in previously abandoned temples on islands contested by China in the disputed South China Sea.
The Buddhist monks, soon to be joined by a sixth, set sail Friday for the Spratlys, an archipelago of reefs and small islands for which Vietnam has overlapping territorial claims with China.
Their trip is significant as it marks the 24th anniversary of a bloody battle between the two neighbors in the Spratlys region.
Sixty-four sailors were killed by Chinese troops in the March 1988 battle on Ga Mac Island, which was then under Vietnamese military control.
One of the monks, Thich Giac Nghia, told RFA they will pray for the Vietnamese who had fallen fighting in the disputed waters.
“We will pray for the salvation of the souls of all Vietnamese who died in the East Sea,” he said, using the Vietnamese term to refer to the South China Sea.
“We have gone there three times to pray for the peace of the souls of war martyrs and compatriots who died through many eras. We mean to bring the love and mercy of Buddhism along with the Triratna’s holy force to pray for their salvation,” he said.
The prayers will be part of rituals on three temples in the Spratly island chain to be performed by the monks from Khanh Hoa province in Vietnam’s south central coast.
Vietnam abandoned the temples in 1975 but has renovated them in recent years.
Thich Giac Nghia said the group will stay for six months and minister to the small Vietnamese community of military personnel, meteorologists, and fishermen living in the archipelago.
“After those ceremonies [in our previous trip], the soldiers and people over there invited us to come back. We commit ourselves to going there to maintain our religious lives, for self-improvement, and to guide those followers in their practice,” he said.
In addition to Vietnam and China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines also claim all or part of the potentially oil-rich Spratlys, which cover more than 425,000 square kilometers (164,000 square miles) of water but have less than five square kilometers (2 square miles) of land.
The islands have no indigenous inhabitants, but all claimants except Brunei have troops based there.
Vietnam and China also have competing claims on the nearby Paracel Islands, where China’s arrest of Vietnamese fishermen sparked a fresh diplomatic spat in March.
Beijing, which maintains that it holds "indisputable sovereignty" over the Spratlys and the Paracels as well as their “adjacent waters,” has pressed to solve the disputes through bilateral talks in an apparent bid to avoid internationalizing the issue.
Beijing has been in the middle of a standoff with the Philippines since Tuesday, when Chinese ships prevented the Philippine navy from detaining Chinese fishermen who were allegedly caught poaching at the Scarborough Shoal.
Reported by Chan Nhu for RFA’ Vietnamese service. Translated by Viet Long. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.