BA CANG, VIETNAM — ON June 11, 1963, a Buddhist monk sat down in a Saigon intersection and put a match to his fuel-drenched robes. Pictures of the immolation became the defining symbol of Buddhist opposition to the war and to the US-backed South Vietnamese government.
Three decades later, with no cameras recording their acts and Communists now in power, two Buddhists in Vietnam have resorted to this same, extreme form of protest. A monk immolated himself in May and a layman did so a year earlier.
Their motives, according to Monitor interviews with family members and Buddhist activists, were to protest official repression.
The government claims that the two men committed suicide for personal reasons.
Oddly enough, the suicides come during a time of increasing freedom of religion in Vietnam. Alongside free-market reforms that have opened and invigorated the economy in recent years, Vietnam's leaders have relaxed restrictions on religious organizations.
But this tolerance is limited. Those who mix religion with calls for political change invite repression and imprisonment.
The Communist regime of Vietnam is facing a predicament caused in part by its economic policies.
At the same time it is encouraging choice and competition in the marketplace, it has vowed to maintain one-party rule in the name of political stability and the ``peaceful evolution'' to a market economy. Advocacy of multiparty politics is forbidden.
The government has long cracked down on religious groups it sees as having a political agenda, especially the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), which played a central role in the Vietnamese antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The government effectively banned the UBCV in 1981.
Now this organization, working with supporters overseas, is campaigning for its reinstatement. Since mid-1992, monks loyal to the UBCV have issued underground petitions and statements calling on the government to release imprisoned activists and return church property.
Perhaps most troubling to the government, UBCV leaders have also demanded political change.
``The Vietnamese Communist Party and the state must immediately initiate a process of democratic reform and promote the development of a civil society by guaranteeing civil and political rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience and religion, [and] freedom of association,'' the leader of the UBCV, Thich Huyen Quang, wrote in a declaration sent to Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet in November 1993.
He also called for an end to the Communist Party's monopoly on power.
How the regime responds to the UBCV, and other Vietnamese urging political reform, is becoming increasingly important. As the country seeks more economic aid and investment from the outside world, it is being called upon to show that it respects human rights and civil liberties. The US government, which lifted a 19-year trade embargo in February, has held two rounds of talks on human rights with Vietnamese officials.
Nonetheless, human rights groups estimate that a dozen or more monks loyal to the UBCV are now in prison, under house arrest, or in government-imposed internal exile because of their beliefs.
The Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, an advocacy group allied with the UBCV, said Nov. 8 that authorities arrested five more monks and lay people in early November. The government has denied the arrests.
Monks say they are not allowed to write letters and that their international phone lines have been cut. At certain temples, monks say they are under constant surveillance, as was evidenced during the reporting of this story.
At two pagodas in the city of Hue, where Buddhists led a large antigovernment demonstration last summer, monks said they could not be seen talking to foreign journalists, who had arrived unannounced, and asked that the visitors leave immediately.
Immigration police also warned a Vietnamese interpreter working for the Monitor that he was not to take journalists to meet a monk who is a UBCV official. If the interpreter did so, the police said, the consequences would be his ``responsibility.''
The role of monks in society
Monks play an important role in the largely Buddhist societies of Southeast Asia. They are widely respected for selfless acts based on a theology that strongly accents humility and service. Self-immolation is itself seen as ritual-like sacrifice often designed as a political statement. Monks in the past have led the way to the overturning of regimes in the region and thus often are feared or co-opted by rulers.
It is impossible to know how many Vietnamese Buddhists are loyal to the UBCV, but an expert on the group at the University of California at Berkeley says it remains influential because it is seen as a genuine religious organization that has consistently stood for Vietnamese nationalism. More than 70 percent of Vietnamese follow at least some Buddhist traditions.
The government asserts that the UBCV is intent on restoring the former South Vietnamese government. The Vietnamese Buddhist Church (VBC), founded by the government in 1981, is the only legitimate Buddhist institution in the country, officials say.
``It's a reactionary sect,'' says Dang Nghiem Van, a professor at the state-run Institute for Religions Studies in Hanoi, of the UBCV. ``Most Buddhists in Vietnam love the country like patriots,'' he adds, employing a term that Vietnamese Communists use to imply loyalty to the party.
Personal problems or repression?
A visit to the village of Ba Cang in Vietnam's Mekong River Delta, where a monk named Thich Hue Thau committed suicide in May, suggests that the official explanation for his self-immolation - personal troubles - is inadequate at best. ``He couldn't live because he couldn't have independence,'' said the late monk's brother, Le Trung Truc, in an interview. ``So he decided to die.''
Standing inside his brother's temple, a wood-framed structure with a roof of bamboo thatch and a brick floor, Mr. Truc recounts the circumstances of Hue Thau's death. (Thich, pronounced ``tick,'' is an honorific used by Buddhist monks. Hue Thau is pronounced ``way tau.'')
Hue Thau had been barred from practicing Buddhism at any of the half-dozen temples in the nearby city of Vinh Long because of his membership in the UBCV, Truc explains. The temples and pagodas in the city are administered by the government-sponsored Vietnamese Buddhist Church.
A senior monk at Vinh Long's Giac Thien pagoda said that Hue Thau was ``not a legal Buddhist.''
``The organization of Buddhists in Vinh Long is stable,'' said Thich Phuoc Tu, who also serves as a VBC official. Hue Thau, he continued,``was an exception.''
He was so much of an exception, Hue Thau's brother says, that he formed his own group of Buddhists loyal to the UBCV and built the small temple in Ba Cang.
The structure sits, amid papaya and banana trees, atop a wide portion of one of the slippery mud dikes that divide paddies and control irrigation in the flooded rice fields of rural Vietnam.
Truc says that his brother became concerned about high taxes being demanded of the rice farmers in the area. This spring he organized a group of two-dozen like-minded Buddhists who planned to walk to Hanoi, some 1,160 miles north of Ba Cang, to protest the levies.
The group set out on May 25 but got no farther than the building of the village People's Committee, as a town hall is called in Vietnam, before they were stopped and ordered home. A day or so later, Truc says, the People's Committee ordered Hue Thau to demolish his temple, citing laws that prohibit Vietnamese from engaging in ``superstitious'' practices.
``All superstitions are prohibited,'' reads Article 5 of the government's 1991 Decree on Religion. The Decree guarantees ``freedom of religion and nonreligion,'' but goes on to require religious organizations to seek government approval for all manner of functions, including the holding of unscheduled services, the promotion of clergy, and the repair of religious buildings.
His family and the UBCV say the monk had previously come into conflict with the local committee, but the demolition order was apparently too much for Hue Thau.
At midday on May 28, the family says, he walked a short distance along the dike behind his temple, sat down facing the waters of the Mekong River, and set himself on fire. When the family found the body, recalls Hue Thau's father, Le Huu Phuoc, it was in the lotus position, the cross-legged posture that Buddhists often assume in meditation.
At the site, Truc draws a visitor's attention to a tree where his brother sat down nearly six months ago. Some of the branches are still charred.
Calling for greater freedom
Hue Thau's immolation is part of a series of actions, collective and individual, that Buddhists have taken during the past two years.
In June 1992, UBCV leader Thich Huyen Quang, who has lived under what human rights groups describe as house arrest since 1982, issued a petition calling for the UBCV's reinstatement, the release of ``arbitrarily or unjustly imprisoned'' monks, nuns, and other activists, and the restoration of church property seized by the government.
The government later condemned the petition and searched pagodas and monasteries for copies of it, interrogating and arresting monks in the process, according to the Washington-based organization Human Rights Watch/Asia.
A year later, on May 21, 1993, a man immolated himself at the Linh Mu pagoda in Hue. The government has said that the man was driven to suicide by marital and physical problems, not religious repression. Official accounts have said he was not a Buddhist follower.
But as human rights groups point out, the government does not explain why the man traveled some 600 miles to commit suicide at one of the most revered places in Vietnamese Buddhism. The Vietnam Committee on Human Rights insists the man died in an act of sacrifice.
In either case, the event sparked perhaps what was arguably the largest antigovernment demonstration in Vietnam since the Communists took control in 1975.
Police seized the body and several days later detained the pagoda's chief monk, Thich Tri Tuu, for questioning.
Assuming that Tri Tuu had been arrested, monks initiated a demonstration in downtown Hue, which quickly swelled to include thousands of people.
The crowd overturned and burned a government vehicle during the protest, leading to the arrest of Tri Tuu and three other monks. They were later tried in a one-day closed hearing and sentenced to terms of three and four years in prison for disturbing public order.
Ironically, both the Vietnamese government and Buddhist groups have turned videotape of the Hue demonstration into propaganda to serve their causes.
The government says the incident shows that the Buddhists are agitators rather than pious monks, and the Buddhist groups show the tape to demonstrate the popular support for the monks.
Vietnam's vice foreign minister, Le Mai, told a radio interviewer last year: ``The monks and others, you see, did a very bad thing. You see, the monk jump[ed] on the top of the Jeep, you know, shouting, and that's not a Vietnamese monk in the eyes of the Vietnamese people. You see, the Buddhists struggling for power is not Buddhist.''
Buddhists and police clashed in July 1993 at Son Linh pagoda, near the coastal city of Vung Tao south of Saigon, according to the London-based human rights group Amnesty International. Local officials of the government-sponsored VBC had ordered a monk named Thich Han Duc expelled from the pagoda, Amnesty says, and a confrontation ensued when the order was carried out. The UBCV considers him the abbot of the pagoda.
The government said he had organized ``extremists'' to oppose the police, and sentenced him to three years in jail this January. Amnesty says it is investigating whether the trial was fair.
This year, aside from Hue Thau's immolation, there have been reports of a Buddhist protest in August in Ho Chi Minh City led by a monk called Thich Giac Nguyen. A government spokeswoman, according to the news service Agence France Presse, said the monk was arrested on Aug. 7 for committing ``dissident acts,'' and that the case has nothing to do with religion.
The right time
Because of the government's economic liberalization, says Dinah PoKempner, a lawyer at Human Rights Watch/Asia, ``The Buddhists feel the time has come.''
But the opportunity the Buddhists are seizing is a sensitive time in Vietnam. ``The government has lost its moral center,'' says Stephen Denney, a researcher at the University of California's Indochina Archive.
``No longer,'' he adds, is there ``the Marxist-Leninist vision of an egalitarian future that served as a basis for justifying not just the war but the aftermath of the war - the whole totalitarian approach to building a society.''
This vacuum of ideology, he argues, makes the government particularly averse to allowing the Buddhists a greater voice.
As Mr. Denney and other experts point out, Vietnam's Buddhists have acted as ``the conscience of the society,'' particularly during the years of civil war. Under the present circumstances, with the Communist regime determined to keep power as it abandons its ideology, ``That is something the Buddhist church cannot be.''