Followers of Buddhist master allege harassment by Vietnamese regime

AFP , HANOI

Sat, Aug 08, 2009 - Page 4

Four years ago, Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh drew crowds of thousands on his return to Vietnam after decades in exile — but now his followers complain of systematic repression by the communist regime.

Hanh, who was a confidant of slain US civil rights leader Martin Luther King and has a large following in the West, landed a meeting with then prime minister Phan Van Khai in 2005 even as authorities kept him under watch.

Today, his followers say they are the victims of sustained harassment whipped up by a communist government fearful of the social and religious influence enjoyed by the France-based monk and peace activist.

In central Lam Dong province, a sensitive region where Vietnam’s ethnic and religious minorities regularly clash with officials, hundreds of Hanh’s adherents say they are being forced out.

In late June, power and water supplies were cut to the Bat Nha monastery, near the town of Bao Loc, and the 400 monks following Hanh’s teachings who live there said they were assaulted by an angry mob demanding they leave.

“This is repression, pure and simple,” said Sister Chan Khong, a close aide to Hanh in France.

The Zen monk — considered one of the world’s most influential Buddhists after the Dalai Lama — teaches what is known as “socially engaged” Buddhism.

Hanh traveled to the US in 1966 to call for an end to the Vietnam War, but was not allowed to return by either the US-backed Saigon regime or the communist government that has ruled unified Vietnam since 1975.

After his 2005 trip, he returned again in 2007 to hold mass requiems for those killed on both sides of the war. But both trips were criticized by the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), which is banned because of its refusal to submit to Vietnamese Communist Party oversight.

The UBCV said Hanh had been manipulated by Hanoi, charging that his visits had allowed the authorities to give the false impression that freedom of religion exists in Vietnam.

The problems for Hanh’s followers began a year ago when the top monk at the Bat Nha monastery, Thich Duc Nghi, told them they were no longer welcome. Nghi is linked to the state-backed Vietnamese Buddhist Church.

Foreign Buddhist teachers have already gone. Since then, the monks say, police have repeatedly visited the monastery, demanding that Hanh’s Vietnamese faithful follow suit.

In recent weeks, they say, Nghi said he would switch the power back on if the Buddhists agreed to leave Bat Nha by early September.

“We don’t know what is behind all this,” said one Hanh follower, Thich Phap Tu.

Chan Khong says she believes a conservative, pro-China faction within the communist regime wants to clamp down on Hanh and his followers because they fear his influence among Vietnamese youth.

The nun said another reason for the crackdown could be Hanh’s vocal support last year of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, a persistent thorn in the side of the communist leadership in China.

As of yesterday morning, two of three areas at Bat Nha inhabited by Hanh followers still had no electricity or water.

Vietnamese officials had yet to respond to Agence France-Presse’s requests for comment.