Unofficial monk who became internet sensation in Vietnam ends pilgrimage

Thich Minh Tue won admirers for his ascetic way of life – but was not part of the state-sanctioned Buddhist sangha.
By RFA Vietnamese
2024.06.03
Unofficial monk who became internet sensation in Vietnam ends pilgrimage Thich Minh Tue in a May 25, 2024 Facebook post.
Screenshot via Facebook

A Vietnamese man who became an internet sensation for his ascetic way of life while on a pilgrimage across the country has “voluntarily” ended his trek, Vietnam’s government said – although monks with him say authorities forced them to disband in a midnight raid.

For nearly a month, Le Anh Tu, better known as Thich Minh Tue, had drawn social media influencers who streamed his pilgrimage live. Thousands of people greeted him when he passed through their towns on his journey across the Vietnamese countryside.

Sporting a shaved head, patched garments and an alms bowl, Tue doesn’t claim to be a Buddhist monk, and is not part of the officially sanctioned Vietnam Buddhist Sangha.

But the 43-year-old seems to behave like a monk. His humble ways have drawn widespread admiration – and stand in contrast to senior monks in Vietnam who encourage followers to give offerings while living in large pagodas and flaunting expensive watches and luxury cars.

“His is the virtue of a genuinely religious person,” said Thanh Do, a former head of a Buddhism research organization and a lecturer at the Paris Buddhism University.

Along the way, Tue also inadvertently became a symbol of what many people say is a lack of religious freedom in Vietnam.

The state-sanctioned Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, or VBS, announced on May 16 that Tue “is not a Buddhist monk,” which would technically mean he can’t openly practice Buddhism. Although the freedom of religion is enshrined in Vietnam’s constitution, religious groups or individuals require official recognition to practice.

Up until the weekend, Vietnamese authorities hadn’t cracked down on Tue, prompting some to wonder why.

Some had speculated that Tue was allowed to continue his pilgrimage because the government wants to distract the public from Communist Party infighting and assert control over the country’s powerful Buddhist sangha, or community.

Official account

On Sunday, officials said he stopped his trek after realizing it could threaten social stability.

Tue’s previous trips had gone smoothly, but during the latest pilgrimage – his fourth – “many people joined him, affecting the [social] security and order, and environment,” the Ministry of Home Affairs’ Vietnam Government Committee for Religious Affairs, or GCRA, said in a statement.

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A May 25, 2024 post from Thich Minh Tue’s Facebook page. (Screenshot via Facebook)

Tue lacked a permanent residence and a national ID, and his journey was putting others in danger, it said, noting that a member of his group named Luong Thanh Son died from heatstroke on May 30.

“Responsible agencies met Le Anh Tu and discussed the State’s consistent policy of respecting people’s freedom of belief and religion and that local authorities always created favorable conditions for him to make his pilgrimage upon his wish,” the statement said.

“However, the life and health of people related to the trip, as well as social stability, should be assured,” said the GCRA. “Being fully aware of a citizen’s rights and responsibilities, Le Anh Tu voluntarily ceased his pilgrimage and food begging.”

The official Vietnam News Agency cited Le Van Thin, the chairman of Thua Thien Hue province’s Huong Tho commune, as saying that Tue and his “alms-collecting delegation” had left the commune and those who followed him had dispersed.

Nighttime raid

But monks who had joined Tue’s group told a different story.

In a video posted to the social media platform TikTok on Monday, monk Minh Nhuan said that the group of some 70 people had camped for the night when, sometime between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m., more than 10 vehicles belonging to the Thu Thien Hue and Gia Lai provincial governments arrived with around 100 officials and security personnel.

“When my fellow pilgrims and I were sleeping, they rushed in, handcuffed us and took us out,” he said. “They took us away, some northward and some southward. I don’t know where … Minh Tue and other people are now.”

MInh Nhuan said that he and other monks were taken to the Ky Trung Commune Police Station in Ha Tinh province to give statements.

“They [tried to] force me to sign a pledge saying that I wouldn’t rejoin the group and ‘break the law,’” he said.

However, Minh Nhuan said he refused to cooperate because he had not violated any law. Authorities later drove him to a barren stretch of land far away from Ha Tinh City and abandoned him there, he said.

In another video clip, monk Phuc Giac claimed that five police officers pinned Tue to the ground while he was sitting in meditation.

“[Tue] did not resist at all,” he said. “Why didn’t they invite us to their office for questioning during the daytime instead of arresting and handcuffing us in the middle of the night?”

Whereabouts unclear

Meanwhile, a photo of a police officer taking Tue’s fingerprints at an identification registration office in what is believed to be Thua Thien Hue province became widely shared on social media on Monday.

A person who answered the phone at the Thua Thien Hue Police Station told RFA they were “not aware of the aforementioned incident,” adding that “information available on social media is unreliable and untrue.”

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A screenshot of a June 3, 2024, Facebook post shows a police officer taking Monk Minh Tue’s fingerprints for ID registration. (Tin Nóng Quảng Ngãi 24h via Facebook)

RFA contacted the Ia Grai District Police Station, in Gia Lai province, where Tue had registered his permanent residence, and asked whether he had been sent back there to register for a national ID, but the person who answered the call declined to respond, referring questions to higher-level officials.

A Vietnam-based Buddhism observer who spoke on condition of anonymity due to security concerns said it was likely that Tue was forced to pledge to end his pilgrimage by authorities using his lack of an ID as a pretext.

He noted that the language used by state media to describe the situation is similar to how it explains hunger strikes by political prisoners protesting poor treatment, saying they “voluntarily gave up food.”

“This is one of the concrete manifestations which shows that religious freedom in Vietnam is just a mirage that Hanoi produces to show to the world," he said, adding that from now on, Tue would not be able to practice his religious beliefs peacefully "until he joins a pagoda and agrees to be managed by the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha."

YouTuber fined and new pilot app

News of the end of Tue’s pilgrimage came as state media reported on Monday that Nguyen Van T., the owner of the YouTube channel “15s Bình Dương,” which covered Tue, had been fined by authorities in Thua Thien Hue for “posting false information and videos about the local security situation, causing confusion among residents.”

Nguyen Van T. pledged to authorities that he would refrain from “similar mistakes” and “adhere to all forms of punishment in accordance with the law from now on,” the report said.

Also on Monday, state media reported that the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security is piloting an app to “manage Buddhist monks and followers” in Bac Ninh and Thai Nguyen provinces.

The pilot app is expected to expand its scope to the entire country in order to “manage the dossiers of those who formally embrace Buddhism, leave their home to become a monk, and move between provinces,” the report said.

“This app will help alleviate the administrative workload for monks, enabling them to raise their work efficiency, and at the same time contribute to the great religious and ethnic unity, and, together with the government at all levels, build and develop a civilized country,” the report cited public security officials as saying.


Translated by Anna Vu. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.

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COMMENTS

Free VietNam
Jun 04, 2024 04:44 PM

Đừng nghe những gì Cộng-Sản nói, mà hảy nhìn kỹ những gì Cộng-Sản làm !!

Rose
Jun 04, 2024 09:29 PM

Thich Minh Tue doesn't have Facebook account. He doesn't use phone, money.