This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 04 HO CHI MINH CITY 000585
DEPARTMENT FOR EAP/BCLTV, DRL
E. O. 12958: N/A TAGS: PHUM SOCI PGOV PREL EAID EINV KIRF VM RELFREE HUMANR SUBJECT: THICH QUANG DO -- HOW FREE AT LAST?
REF: A) HCMC 0475 B) HCMC 0412
1. (SBU) Summary: During a June 30 meeting with Consul General, recently "released" United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) deputy Thich Quang Do launched into a two- hour plus discourse on religion, democracy, freedom, and capitalism. Confirming press reports, he said he would soon attempt to test the limits of his "unconditional release" with a visit to UBCV patriarch Thich Huyen Quang in Quy Nhon on July 10. Until then, Thich Quang Do said he would continue to receive visitors and monitor his health at the same pagoda where he has been detained incommunicado for the past two years under "administrative surveillance." He asked ConGenOffs to convey his appreciation for the support of the USG, U.S. Congress, the EU, and various international human rights organizations over the years and encouraged continued outside pressure to bring about democratic change in Vietnam. He predicted the GVN would one day lose control over a population that had grown accustomed to the benefits of economic reforms. Citing upcoming medical appointments, he expressed regret that he would be unable to attend ConGen's July 4 reception. Despite his chronic medical problems, Thich Quang Do appeared hale, hearty, and in full possession of his faculties. End Summary.
2. (SBU) Consul General and Poloff called on 75-year old Thich Quang Do on June 30, at the neat and well kept Thanh Minh Zen pagoda in HCMC. The second highest ranking monk in the hierarchy of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), Thich Quang Do had been isolated and detained at the pagoda under "administrative surveillance" for nearly two years after his June 2001 attempt to "rescue" UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang from conditions resembling house arrest at a remote pagoda in Quang Ngai province and bring him to HCMC. The two years of administrative surveillance were originally part of a sentence imposed in 1995 on charges related to organizing unauthorized assistance for flood victims in the Mekong Delta. The administrative surveillance portion of the 1995 sentence, reinstated in 2001 despite his inclusion in a 1998 general amnesty, was lifted ahead of schedule and without advance notice on June 26.
3. (SBU) During the private meeting with ConGenOffs, Thich Quang Do was lucid and feisty for a man of his age. He was in excellent spirits, considering his recent detention (something he attributed to Buddhist control of mind over body). He was extremely animated, although not always responsive to the questions asked, and made frequent use of proverbs and Buddhist metaphor. Describing himself as "having ears like a rabbit," Thich Quang Do said he needed to remain alert to stay one step ahead of the GVN. He said he was surprised when the detention order was lifted ahead of schedule, but noted he never understood the government's reasoning as to why he was supposed to be released from his two-year detention in September, rather than June, in the first place (ref A). He compared the GVN's actions in reinstating the administrative surveillance to those of a debt collector who continues to collect long after the debt has been paid. He claimed to have no idea why he was released ahead of schedule, but felt it must surely be part of some GVN "scheme."
4. (SBU) Thich Quang Do also dismissed outright the grounds for his original imprisonment in 1995, for "damaging national solidarity" by organizing relief to flood victims outside the GVN-approved Fatherland Front sponsorship via a Communist Party mass organization (such as the Women's Union, or Youth Union). Noting that various Buddhist groups had been encouraged to carry out such charitable activities by the former southern regime prior to 1975, he accused the Fatherland Front (the umbrella group for mass organizations) of having divided people and prolonged the suffering of the masses.
5. (SBU) According to Thich Quang Do, the authorities who appeared unannounced at the pagoda on June 26 to deliver the oral release order were minor district-level officials. He said the GVN was always careful to let local officials pretend to take the leading role, in order to protect the real decision makers at the central level. In his view, the GVN had sent low-ranking functionaries because they were afraid to face responsibility for his unjust imprisonment and answer his questions directly. Because he still noticed policemen watching the pagoda, Thich Quang Do was not sure what the release order meant.
6. (SBU) For now, Thich Quang Do plans to reside at his former "prison pagoda." He bases his claim to administer the pagoda on the sequence of events following the communist takeover of the South. In 1978, after his release from a two-year stay in prison for opposing the communist regime, the communist authorities had appointed him to run Thanh Minh Zen Pagoda in HCMC. Because his 1982 transfer from HCMC to the North for his opposition to the formation of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS) was accomplished without any formal, written order, Thich Quang Do considers the original Thanh Minh Zen assignment still valid. So he therefore refuses to file any application for residency, even though local officials have already asked him to do so. ("Why should I ask for something back that I never lost to begin with?") The officials with whom he spoke on June 26 said they had no authority to decide this matter, but promised to convey his points to those who could. Thich Quang Do also plans to apply for a telephone, though he is not optimistic about his chances for success. He noted that during his detention, he could not use the single telephone at the monastery for fear the police would cut the line and inconvenience the Abbot.
7. (SBU) Despite his "release," Thich Quang Do is certain he will still be "guarded" by security agents at the pagoda and followed whenever he ventured outside. He believes the Vietnamese authorities had not interfered with ConGenOffs "out of respect" for the ConGen, but would be more restrictive with lay believers and other visitors. Despite the continued security presence, some believers had visited him over the past few days, including a group of overseas Vietnamese (Viet Khieu) living in Australia. Several visitors had been followed home by police and questioned.
8. (SBU) Thich Quang Do plans to continue receiving visitors until July 10, when he hopes to travel to Quy Nhon (without GVN "assistance") to confer with UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang on "Buddhist matters." He noted that unlike his religious superior, he now had a written order releasing him from detention. Absent such an order -- something the GVN could never issue because it had never issued an order to detain him in the first place, and thus would then have to admit he had been detained for 21 years without legal documentation -- Thich Huyen Quang's current situation was different. The GVN could move him around from pagoda to pagoda, something Thich Quang Do described as "mobile detention."
9. (SBU) Thich Quang Do said he was suffering from several chronic health conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and unspecified kidney, heart and eye ailments. He was currently on several medications and was scheduled for three separate examinations on July 4 -- appointments that would unfortunately prevent him from attending ConGen's Independence Day reception. According to Thich Quang Do, he was able to visit the doctor on a monthly basis during his detention by informing local authorities and waiting approximately one week for permission, but he refused to comply with demands to submit a written request for each visit. He regularly told his "captors" that it would be their fault if he died. A handful of plainclothes security officers usually accompanied him to his appointments, waiting just outside the doctor's office and retrieving copies of his medical records for their own files.
10. (SBU) Other than his forays out for medical treatment, Thich Quang Do said local authorities had basically turned his room at the pagoda "into a prison" for the past two years. He was completely isolated from the outside world and unaware of the many visitors who had attempted to meet with him. He praised Thanh Minh Zen's Abbot, however, for standing up to the authorities and denying them permission to place guards outside his actual room in the pagoda. The authorities had been forced to back down when the Abbot told them the pagoda was not under detention, and if they wanted a guard inside, they had better transfer Thich Quang Do to a prison. The security forces then resigned themselves to sitting in the outer courtyard of the compound. Thich Quang Do believes that undercover operatives continue to monitor the comings and goings of believers, and claimed to have noticed a decline in the number of worshippers at the pagoda.
11. (SBU) Several times during the conversation, Thich Quang Do reiterated his Buddhist obligation to "be honest and speak the truth." Disavowing any prejudice against the current government (even though he said four family members had been "killed by the communists"), he claimed to express the feelings of ordinary Vietnamese, who confided in monks and priests, but were otherwise afraid to speak out. Offering his views on the current government, he observed that all power still resides with the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) at the central level. Any pretense of authority outside Hanoi was intended only to insulate the GVN and give it plausible deniability. While they had no real authority, corrupt local officials abused their power for economic gain, and citizens were powerless to complain. If the CPV truly intended to fight official corruption, there would be nobody left to fill the government ranks.
12. (SBU) Drawing on discussions with Thich Huyen Quang after the patriarch's meetings in Hanoi (ref B), Thich Quang Do noted that Prime Minister Phan Van Khai had accused local officials of "mistakenly" reinstating his original 1995 detention order. This was just another example of Hanoi's "good cop/bad cop" routine -- let the local authorities take the rap for implementing a central GVN decision, but then have the central GVN come in after the fact and "correct" the local authorities' mistakes.
13. (SBU) Echoing what we have heard from other ranking UBCV monks, Thich Quang Do claimed that all Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS) monks were merely UBCV monks who had succumbed to GVN pressure. He dated CPV attempts to discredit the UBCV back to the formation of the first "Patriotic Buddhist Association" in 1975. ("The title itself means there must be traitors somewhere.") Under the circumstances, he found it ironic that he and his colleagues in the UBCV were accused of destroying national solidarity, noting that even in 1975, "CPV strategy had been to divide and conquer." Labeling all of Vietnam's rulers since the time of Emperor Bao Dai as dictators, Thich Quang Do described the CPV as the most sophisticated in the way it has sown fear and distrust among families and communities, and thus effected control. In that same manner, the CPV had tried to use Buddhist monks to destroy Buddhism, but Buddhism could not be separated from the Vietnamese nation and people. Although Thich Quang Do criticized the new generation of monks as "working for the government," he predicted that Vietnam's Buddhists would soon overcome their "spiritual restrictions," and that Buddhism would flourish again through the support of its believers, including those from overseas.
14. (SBU) Toward the end of the meeting, Thich Quang Do offered his personal goals for the future. An oft-repeated theme throughout the two-and-a-half hour conversation was that freedom and democracy were the most important elements for national development. Freedom was what made the U.S. a superpower. Along with promoting freedom and democracy, Thich Quang Do said he wished to re-establish "normal activities" for the UBCV. He also expressed concern that Vietnamese students had been sent to Russia and China to study science and technical subjects, but the humanities and philosophy were ignored. While he termed the establishment of a multiparty system "a must", he said "nobody dares to raise this subject."
15. (SBU) Thich Quang Do was aware of the recent arrest or Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, and the trials of Pham Hong Son and Tran Khue. He said they showed the GVN's continuing fear of independent thought. He pointed out the contradiction between the relatively light sentences accorded GVN and CPV officials implicated on corruption charges in the recent Nam Cam case, and the much stiffer sentence imposed on Pham Hong Son for receiving US$150 for translating a document on the Internet. Without democracy, there was no chance for improved human rights in Vietnam. A free press was the best way to keep citizens informed of deficiencies in their government, and draw attention to the large gap between the written laws of Vietnam and the reality of their enforcement.
16. (SBU) More generally, now that the Vietnamese people had tasted relative prosperity and reform, things could not go back to the way they were before. According to Thich Quang Do, "Once a person knows how it feels to ride a motorcycle, they will not go back to a bicycle." While the GVN would prefer to open up the system only to the level at which it could still maintain power, someday it would lose control. Thich Quang Do believes that many top leaders have already lost faith in Marxism-Leninism themselves, and that nearly everyone was now a capitalist at heart. This would be the driving force for the eventual collapse of the CPV and GVN. But if Vietnam were a democracy now, it would not be communist ruled.
17. (SBU) Thich Quang Do ended the meeting by asking the Consul General to again convey thanks to his many supporters in the U.S. Congress (including Representative Loretta Sanchez, whom he met twice), EU nations, and international human rights organizations (especially Human Rights Watch). While he specifically said he was not calling for direct intervention from outside, he asked that international aid donors and foreign investors "develop human rights and freedom too, not just the economy." He urged that development aid be somehow linked to progress in human rights. To simply pour money into various aid projects would only give the GVN greater financial means for control and further enrich corrupt officials.
18. (SBU) Comment: Thich Quang Do seems to have emerged from his two years of isolation as outspoken and feisty as ever. Ready to challenge the GVN at every turn and unlikely to back down, he presents an interesting counterweight to Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang's more measured, modest approach. Thich Quang Do's health remains a concern, however, and may mean that for all of his big picture criticism of the GVN and discussion of democracy, he may have to limit himself to a more immediate concern: finding some way to legalize the UBCV's status. Whether the UBCV leadership is able to take advantage of this small window of opportunity to revitalize their church will depend a great deal on how provocative the GVN finds their actions in the coming weeks and months. Thich Huyen Quang has maintained a low profile in Quy Nhon, but Thich Quang Do has generally been more of a firebrand. Notably, Thich Quang Do skirted around any questions about reconciliation or merging with the VBS. It is clear that the UBCV leadership believes it has benefited greatly from international pressure and hopes to continue to receive more targeted, focused support in the future. The question is, will it use this pressure and support to push too far too quickly, or will it proceed step- by-step?