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Vietnam's Monks Lead In Battle for Freedom

Arrests of Buddhists rise as more seek democracy under communism

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 28, 1995


FRENCH tourists cherish the city of Hue, in central Vietnam, where some dress up in silk robes the color of yellow marigolds for mock banquets in the best hotel in town. The gaudy dinners are an odd tribute to the Vietnamese emperors the French co-opted during their colonization of Indochina. But these charades are not the only political drama in this cultured city, known for its gracious river and the imperial citadel where Viet Cong fighters raised their flag during the 1968 Tet offensive.

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In modern-day Vietnam, ruled by a Communist government determined to remain in charge, the city is considered the most dissident part of the country, largely because it is a center of Vietnamese Buddhism.

Although tension between Buddhist monks and Communist authorities has existed for decades, the government appears to be growing increasingly intolerant of their activities.

In a February report, the London-based human rights group Amnesty International said authorities in Vietnam had arrested 23 monks since the end of October, evidence of what Amnesty labeled ''the continuing repression of Buddhists in Vietnam.'' The group believes at least 36 Buddhists are currently in detention, some since the late 1970s.

Human Rights Watch/Asia, a New York-based group, said in a March report it is ''concerned that many of these prisoners are being held for expression of their political or religious beliefs, in violation of international law.''

The government has denied these charges: ''Some Buddhist monks have taken advantage of the government's policy of freedom of religions to attempt to carry out activities to cause disturbances, thus sabotaging national unity and opposing the people's power,'' said a Foreign Ministry statement early this year. It added: ''It is very clear that they are using religion to carry out politics.''

Early this month the government's press center in Hanoi accepted a list of questions from the Monitor about the government's treatment of Buddhists, but later said there would be no response.

As is true elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Vietnam's monks are in some respects the guardians of national identity. In the early 1960s they played a key role in the toppling of the US-backed South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem, and the current Communist rulers seem wary to the point of paranoia of the monks' ability to move public opinion.

''The Buddhists have no political agenda as such,'' says a diplomat in Hanoi, insisting on anonymity in deference to official sensitivities about the topic, ''but I would think to disregard them as a political force is perhaps unrealistic.''

There is a vacuum of coherent ideology in Vietnam today, a by-product of the government's economic ''renovation,'' begun in the late 1980s, which has attracted foreign investors and reintroduced free-market economics. The Communist Party has found itself enmeshed in contradictions, introducing choice and competition in the economy while it maintains exclusive control over the country's political life. Workers and peasants, the party's traditional supporters, have watched their standard of living drop as a new class of entrepreneurs has gotten wealthy.