Brother Phap Lai of Plum Village (the community of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh in France) sends this ‘urgent’ message dated Dec. 9, 2009, concerning the latest episode in the conflict involving the monastics from Bat Nha, the embattled Thich Nhat Hanh-affiliated monastery in Vietnam. His message, which follows below, reveals that the Vietnamese government is continuing its harassment of and attacks on Bat Nha’s monastics, who had taken refuge in the Phuoc Hue temple since the government closed Bat Nha in September of this year.
On Wednesday 9 December an orchestrated crowd of over 100 people created havoc at Phuoc Hue Temple, in Bao Loc (Vietnam), disrupting an official meeting with a diplomatic EU fact-finding delegation, and viciously threatening the Abbot.
At about 8:45 in the morning of Wednesday, 9 December, a mob, supported and directed by plain-clothes police suddenly descended on Phuoc Hue temple, Bao Loc, and disrupted a meeting between the Abbot and diplomatic representatives from the EU. The crowd of more than 100 people, claiming to be local Buddhists, but the majority of whom were not recognized as being either local or Buddhists, forced the meeting to be aborted. With the delegation gone, the crowd targeted their pressure on the Abbot, assaulting, threatening and denouncing him. They read out government decrees ordering the Bat Nha monks and nuns to be expelled and tried to force the Abbot to sign a document ejecting them from his temple. They threatened him, saying that if he did not send the Bat Nha monks and nuns away, by 15 December at the latest, he “will deserve what will happen”.
The attack comes only two days after the local government of Lam Dong issued a directive (document No 227 PNV) ordering various communist and Buddhist associations to mobilize, and execute an order (document 1185TCGP-PG, dated 26 November) from central government’s Committee of Religious Affairs to expel and disperse the Bat Nha monks and nuns from Phuoc Hue Temple.
At around 7am on Dec. 9, two hours before the EU delegation was scheduled to arrive at Phuoc Hue Temple, large numbers of plain-clothes policemen were stationed in and around the temple, and in front of the outer, middle, and inner entrance gates. They prevented cars and passers-by from stopping, and locals from entering the temple grounds. Mr Long, the head of Bao Loc Religious police was seen and photographed on site, wearing plain-clothes, at key points throughout the day.
At about 8.45, a noisy crowd of about 100 people appeared and plain-clothes police allowed them to enter the temple. They were brandishing Buddhist flags, but were not recognized as locals.
At 9am the EU delegation arrived, and as they entered the lecture hall the disruptive crowd poured in behind them, pushing forward and fighting over front seats. The crowd disrupted the meeting, shouting, clapping, insulting those present and creating an orchestrated commotion. There was a person leading the crowd. At the sound of one whistle everyone cheered, at the sound of two whistles they quietened. They used megaphones to broadcast loud music, siren sounds and verbal denunciations. The meeting had to be abandoned after a few minutes. According to an Associated Press report on 9 Dec., Mary Louise Thaning the head of the diplomatic delegation was quoted as saying that “they were very angry, so it was not useful to continue the meeting”.
After the delegation had left, the mob targeted their pressure on the 63-year old Abbot. He was forced to withdraw to his room and lock the door in order to protect himself. A few lay women and a few monks stood in front of his door to block the mob. But the mob forced their way past, beat on the door of Abbot’s room, demanding he let them in. Meanwhile Bat Nha monks and nuns practiced sitting meditation nearby in peaceful support of the Abbot. The mob was shouting, demanding to see him. After more than an hour trying to force down the door, the crowd was still not able to get into the room and they left at lunchtime.
The EU delegation returned at about 2pm. At this time the monks and nuns were practicing sitting meditation, as is usual at that hour. The delegation went directly to the Abbot’s room and met with him, a disciple of his, and two monks and three nuns from Bat Nha. During the meeting the mob began to return to the temple. As soon as the meeting ended, and the delegation left, the mob, who had by then reassembled, poured into the room and began to terrorize the Abbot, insulting, denouncing and threatening him. They claimed that the temple belonged to them, that they had paid for it to be built and that they did not want the Bat Nha monks and nuns to stay there. Yet not a single one of them was recognized by the local monks as being a Buddhist practitioner belonging to Phuoc Hue Temple.
They shouted out government decrees and demanded he sign a document they had prepared, which stated that he would send away the Bat Nha monks and nuns by the 15 December. It was at this time they threatened that if the monks and nuns do not leave by the 15 December he “will deserve what will happen” to him. The Abbot refused to sign. The five Bat Nha monastics were still present, and were joined by two more young nuns who wanted to show their support for the Abbot. At one point a woman ordered the crowd to “throw out” the nuns. Men lifted up at least four of the nuns by the waist and threw them out of the door. One of them hit her head in the chaos. She right away sat down on the concrete outside the room and began to practice sitting meditation.
Emergency calls made to local police were not answered; while local police and religious police were identified amongst the crowd, directing their actions.
During the time of the onslaught against the abbot, most of the monks and nuns were practicing sitting meditation in the Buddha hall on the second floor, avoiding provoking further confrontation. At the same time monks began to invite the Great Drum and the Great Temple Bell continuously, to alert the town to their plight. The Great Drum and Bell are only ever sounded in the event of big ceremonies, deaths – or emergencies. The monks chanted traditional prayers while inviting the bell and drum. Local followers in the town telephoned the temple to say that they had been ordered by police and local government not to leave their homes to go to Phuoc Hue, and those that made it to the temple’s gate were blocked from entering. During the assault on the Abbot, ambulances were brought up by the crowd and parked outside the temple. This move was interpreted as an act of intimidation. Finally the attackers left as dinner time approached.
Each crowd member brandished a Buddhist flag, but barely a single one wore the traditional Au Trang grey robe that all lay Vietnamese Buddhist practitioners wear when coming to a temple. It was also reported that many of them smelled of alcohol (Buddhists avoid alcohol, and would not come to the temple drunk). As the abbot himself declared, “By acting in this way, and speaking in this way, these people already prove they are not Buddhists”.
In fact according to information received from Bao Loc citizens, local police have been trying to recruit people for this demonstration for several days, but had great difficulties convincing local people participate, even after intimidations. Some members of the crowd were recognized as being local policemen and women, or from the Veteran’s Association, but it is believed that the majority came from further afield. The crowds timed departures (for lunch and dinner) and their obedient presence on a normal working day, support claims that the crowd were being paid for their ‘work’. This was confirmed by an interaction between Bat Nha monastics and four crowd members who stayed behind at Phuoc Hue temple on Wednesday evening. The nuns asked them who they were and why they had come. They said they were being paid 200,000 Dong per day (for three days) by the government to participate in the crowd, and had traveled over 1,500 km from Nam Dinh in the North. They expressed their regret that they had to do such work
Background on the conflict, as of November, 2009:
Supporting Bat Nha Monaster: Brief Overview
On 27th September over 350 monastic disciples of world-renowned peace activist, Vietnamese Buddhist zen master and best-selling author Thich Nhat Hanh were violently expelled by a government-directed mob from their monastery in Vietnam’s central highlands. For the past 9 weeks they have taken emergency refuge in a temple in a nearby town. Two senior brothers continue to be held by police under house arrest without charge, and two more have been threatened with arrest if police find them. After significant international press coverage and pressure from the international community, the government’s vicious attempts to break up the refugee community seemed to ease in late October.
But in November the Vietnamese government stepped up their persecution. Not satisfied with expelling the monks and nuns from their home monastery, the government has been exerting extreme pressure to forcefully disband the community, threatening violence if they fail to comply. On November 26th they issued formal orders for the monks and nuns to be disbanded – to leave Phuoc Hue temple and discontinue their spiritual practice together. All these actions are in breach of Vietnamese law and numerous international covenants and partnership agreements to which Vietnam is party.
We call on the international community to intervene to protect the basic rights of these young monks and nuns, almost all aged 15-30, who have devoted their lives to a humble path of peace, non-violence and service, for the benefit of their country and future generations.
The Bat Nha monastics are requesting the Government of Vietnam and authorities in Lam Dong Province to:
- Immediately stop the current campaign of persecution against the community and its supporters in Vietnam, including all attempts to intimidate, harass, defame, disrupt and forcefully disperse the community and its individual members
- Officially confirm the Bat Nha monks’ and nuns’ full legal status (guaranteed by the law of Vietnam and international treaties to which Vietnam is party, and already stated in government documents 212/CV/HDTS and 525/TGCP-PG issued in 2006) to practice Buddhism according to the Vietnamese Plum Village tradition, together as a community, in an established location of their own
- Allow the monks and nuns to live and practice peacefully all together at their temporary location, Phuoc Hue Temple, (or another appropriate location the sangha agrees to) until the current situation is resolved. The two brothers currently under house arrest, Phap Hoi and Phap Sy, should be immediately released; threats to arrest other community members should be withdrawn
Plum Village Practice Centre, France is requesting the international community:
- To intervene immediately to persuade the government of Vietnam not to forcefully disband the community.
- To encourage the Government of Vietnam to negotiate with the Bat Nha monastics concerning a resolution that will enable them to continue to practice together as a community, as is their right by Vietnamese law. And, if possible, to help serve as a broker or a facilitator of the negotiations.
- To continue to monitor restrictions on religious freedom in Vietnam, especially with regard to the emerging Plum Village tradition in Vietnam; and encourage Vietnam to accept the request of the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Relgious Freedom to visit Vietnam as soon as possible.
- To work with other nations and international organizations to encourage the Government of Vietnam to respect religious rights and human rights through legal structures and governmental policies.
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Vietnam’s crackdown on young Buddhist monks and nuns, disciples of Thich Nhat Hanh practising in the tradition of Plum Village
- 2005: Thich Nhat Hanh returns to Vietnam after 39 years of exile. Bat Nha Monastery is offered before a crowd of thousands to Thich Nhat Hanh by its abbot, Venerable Duc Nghi, as a monastic training center in the tradition of Plum Village. The establishment of the Bat Nha practice center was supported by the Government of Vietnam and the official Buddhist Church of Vietnam. Five hundred monastics were ordained in the Plum Village tradition between 2005 and 2009.
- 2008, August: Abbot Duc Nghi pressured by the national government to withdraw his sponsorship of the 500 monks and nuns. Local police begin to harass Bat Nha monks and nuns.
- 2008, October: Leaked central government memo condemns the international Plum Village community’s activity as “a threat to national unity”, and directs policy to expel Bat Nha monks and nuns practicing in the Plum Village tradition. Within days the official Buddhist Church of Viet Nam issues a counter-document supporting the Bat Nha monks and nuns. Intense harassment by police and government officials begins.
- 2009, June: Utilities to the monastery cut (electricity, phone, water). Property ransacked. Physical abuse of Bat Nhat monastics and also abuse of visiting Buddhist officials of Lam Dong province.
- 2009, September 27 and 28: 379 monastics forcibly expelled from Bat Nha Monastery. Monks brutally beaten and four monks sexually assaulted. Two senior monks were taken into police custody and are under house arrest to this day. Monks marched 17 kilometers in torrential rain to Phuoc Hue Temple in Bao Loc town. Bat Nha nuns, harassed and threatened, join them the next day.
- 2009, September 27 to October: Local police harass and attempt to disperse the Bat Nha monastics from the Phuoc Hue Temple (issuing propaganda on radio, print, and loud speakers). International attention, public statements, and national criticism causes harassment to be scaled down for about 10 days, but police surveillance and efforts to disperse Bat Nha monastics continues.
- 2009, November 2: Government pressure intensifies and an end-of-November deadline is set for the Bat Nha monks and nuns to leave Phuoc Hue Temple. The Head of Da Lat Province Government demands the Phuoc Hue Temple Abbot expel the monks and nuns, threatening violence if he does not comply. Six Bat Nha nuns who had travelled to Tu Duc Temple in Khan Hoa Province are harassed by 7 policemen and ordered to leave immediately. Local street vendors and poorer citizens of Bao Loc Town are blackmailed by government into signing a petition against Bat Nha monks and nuns.
- November 9: Plum Village receives an e-mail threatening ‘the death of Plum Village’ in Vietnam by the end of the month. A similar e-mail was sent before the first attack on the monastery in June, and before the violent expulsion on 27 Sept.
- November 10: Thích Thái Thuận, the abbot of Phuoc Hue Temple, gives his first media interview with Radio France Internationale Vietnam. In response to a question as to whether he thinks the monks and nuns are safe in Phuoc Hue Temple, he replies that they are safe “temporarily” but reports that the police are busy checking the papers “of monks between the ages of 18-25 as part of military draft procedures”.
- November 19: A second email threat is received, attacking the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh for “dirtying the nation of Vietnam and Vietnamese Buddhism internationally, by opening his begging hands to ask the United Nations to intrude their hands and their beaks into our Vietnamese internal affairs” and says the leaders of the international Plum Village community are “like the ca cuong insects [eaten in North Vietnam] which approach very close to their death but are not able to open their eyes to see clearly”. On the same day, Venerable Minh Nghia, a senior monk in the Saigon region who had stepped in to offer to host the community, is summoned by local police, threatened, and forbidden – without legal justification – from taking in Bat Nha monks and nuns.
- November 21: 22 ‘aspirants’ from the Bat Nha community are ordained at Tu Hiêu Temple in Hue (the temple from which the Plum Village tradition traces its lineage, the ordination temple of Thich Nhat Hanh). Right after the ordination police arrive at the temple furious that the ceremony has taken place. A senior brother explains that ordinations are an internal temple matter and nothing to do with the police. Surveillance and harassment at Tu Hiêu Temple dramatically increase. Police demand that every one of the Bat Nha monks and nuns leave, but without anywhere to go.
- November 22: [update 22.11.09] Police threaten Venerable Abbot Giac Vien, the abbot of Tu Duc Temple in Cam Ranh. He gave sanctuary to 21 nuns and 7 monks from Bat Nha, who came to his temple for relief from the extreme surveillance and harassment they were subjected to at Phuoc Hue temple. Police now visit, harass, and threaten the abbot and monks and nuns at the temple almost daily, demanding that the Bat Nha monks and nuns leave. The abbot is summoned to the police station repeatedly for long interrogations. Police demand that even those who already have residence permits in Khanh Hoa Province, but who are ‘Bat Nha monks and nuns’, leave his temple.
- November 26: European Parliament speaks out in a resolution condemning the violence at Bat Nha and calling on Vietnam to curb its violations of freedom of expression, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly, and respect its human rights commitments and Vietnam’s own constitution. Heidi Hautala, Chairwoman of the Parliament’s Human Rights sub-committee, calls the situation “extremely worrying”, and announces that the United Nations Human Rights Council has made recommendations that a United Nations Special Rapporteur be sent to Vietnam to examine the situation. The Parliament calls for the cessation of all persecution and harassment, and for monks and nuns to be allowed to practice Buddhism according to the tradition of the Thich Nhat Hanh monastic community, in Bat Nha and elsewhere.
- On the same day: Government of Vietnam issues formal orders, through the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, to disband the Bat Nha community from Phuoc Hue, despite repeated attempts by senior Buddhist monks of several provinces to offer them sponsorship and sanctuary.