BANGKOK—A mob directed by police and local officials has chased 150 monks from a monastery in Vietnam's Central Highlands after a lengthy standoff, witnesses said.
More than 200 nuns left Bat Nha monastery Sept. 27 for a pagoda in Lam Dong province where about 100 monks were staying after leaving Bat Nha earlier in the day, Nguyen Phuoc Loc, who is assisting the evacuees, told Agence France-Presse.
All are devotees of Thich Nhat Hanh, a France-based Zen monk, peace activist, and confidant of slain U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
Problems for Hanh's followers at Bat Nha began about a year ago when the abbot there, Thich Duc Nghi, who is linked to the official Vietnam Buddhist Church, told them they were no longer welcome there.
The standoff came to a head over the weekend when more than 30 of the monks were driven away in a convoy of waiting vehicles, witnesses said, as nuns were beaten by people described as underworld thugs with ties to local and regional authorities.
'Dragged like animals'
“Senior monks were dragged like animals out of their rooms, then left sitting in the rain until police dragged them to the taxis where ‘black society’ bad guys pushed them into cars,” Hanh, a Buddhist follower living near the monastery, said in a telephone interview.
“They beat them if the monks resisted being taken away,” he said. “It happened around 9:40 a.m. on Sunday.”
At one gate, according to another witness, nuns were beaten by people wearing civilian clothing.
“Nobody from outside dared to help them. I saw some villagers coming in and helping the bad guys beating the monks and dragging them away,” the witness said.
“The vehicles stopped, and then the monks got out to try and stop the convoy. The buses running ahead stopped. The monks got out trying to stop the convoy—then the bad guys and police ran up and continued beating them. No one knows where they are now.”
Reverend Thich Thanh Tan, a high ranking Buddhist leader from the official Vietnam Buddhist Church in Lam Dong said the monks had only been praying at the monastery and had done nothing wrong.
“They didn't violate the law and caused no damage to the Church or to the state. Nothing like that. I expected that the government was helping [the monks] to peacefully practice their beliefs,” Tan said.
The chief of police at Dam Ry commune, identified by his surname, Thuat, said he couldn’t hear a reporter’s question over the phone, said he was busy, and then hung up.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, who was visiting Vietnam on Sunday, said during a press briefing that he had been informed about the conflict and "expressed our concern" to Vietnamese authorities.
"We look forward to getting more information from them about the situation," Steinberg said.
Hai said about 50 of the monks had returned to the gates of Bat Nha on Sunday evening, hoping to get back inside. Another 30 were inside the monastery gate, surrounded by police, he said.
Vietnam's communist government, which closely monitors religious affairs, had been trying to remove the monks from Bat Nha for several months.
Authorities say the Buddhists had ignored requests to leave from the monk's abbot, Duc Nghi, a member of the official Buddhist Church of Vietnam who invited Nhat Hanh's followers to settle at the pagoda in 2005 but changed his mind last year.
The authorities described the standoff as a conflict between two Buddhist factions.
But Nhat Hanh's followers believe the government is cracking down on them because their teacher has called on the communist government to end its control of religion and disband its religious police.
Original reporting by Thanh Truc and Do Hieu for RFA's Vietnamese service. Vietnamese service director: Diem Ngyuen. Translated by Viet Long and Khiem Le. Written for the Web in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.