Zen Master: Vietnam Paid Mobs to Evict Followers

By: Ben Stocking - AP Writer
By: Ben Stocking - AP Writer

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) - A famous Zen master has accused Vietnam's
communist government of hiring mobs of people to violently evict
his Buddhist followers from two monasteries.

Thich Nhat Hanh, who helped popularize Buddhism in the West and
has sold millions of books worldwide, has also called on Vietnam to
lift restrictions on religious freedom and respect human rights.

Nhat Hanh made the comments in a letter to his Vietnamese
followers in late December, days after they were pressured by a mob
and government authorities to leave the Phuoc Hue temple in the
southern province of Lam Dong.

"Our country does not yet have true religious freedom, and the
government tightly controls the Buddhist Church machinery," Nhat
Hanh wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The
Associated Press on Monday. "The Buddhist Church is helpless,
unable to protect its own children. This is a truth clearly seen by
everyone."

The monks and nuns had sought refuge at Phuoc Hue after being
forced from the nearby Bat Nha monastery on Sept. 27.

"In the case of Bat Nha and Phuoc Hue, government officials
hired the mobs and worked together with them," Nhat Hanh wrote in
the letter, dated "the last days of 2009."

At a news conference Monday, Vietnamese officials denied Nhat
Hanh's assertions.

"This is a dispute between two Buddhist factions," said Nguyen
Ngoc Dong, vice chairman of the Lam Dong provincial government.
"We have tried our best to ensure safety and social order for the
people involved."

The tensions in Lam Dong were the result of disagreements
between Nhat Hanh's followers and Duc Nghi, the abbot at Bat Nha
and member of the official Buddhist Church, said Nguyen Thanh Xuan,
chairman of Vietnam's central Committee on Religious Affairs.

But Nhat Hanh's followers say they have been harassed because
their teacher called on Vietnamese authorities to abolish
government control of religion during a 2007 meeting with President
Nguyen Minh Triet.

Asked about that accusation Monday, Trung did not directly
respond. Nor did he say why the government had not allowed Nhat
Hanh's followers to worship together in another location, as some
local representatives of the Vietnamese Buddhist Church have
suggested.

In his letter to his followers, Nhat Hanh said the mobs at Phuoc
Hue and Bat Nha were hired by police and the Fatherland Front, a
communist party organization. At Phuoc Hue, they were paid 200,000
Vietnamese dong ($11) a day, he wrote.

"Where did the money come from to pay these mobs? Was it tax
money?" asked Nhat Hanh, 83, who was born in Vietnam but has lived
in exile for more than four decades. He now teaches at his Plum
Village monastery in France.

Since the dispute between Nhat Hanh's followers and the
government erupted in late June, Nhat Hanh has maintained a low
profile. He wrote one previous letter praising his followers for
remaining peaceful throughout the conflict.

He did so again in the new letter, saying they had followed the
example of India's Mohandas Gandhi, who pioneered the concept of
nonviolent resistance.

They remained calm, Nhat Hanh wrote, even though some of their
senior monks were "dragged, throttled, choked and thrown into cars
as if they were trash cans."

The conflict between the government and Nhat Hanh marks a
dramatic turnaround from 2005, when Nhat Hanh returned to his
homeland, a move seen by many as a step forward for religious
freedom in the communist country.

In spite of the Bat Nha conflict, Nhat Hanh said in his letter
that he believes Vietnam will eventually open up its society. Young
Vietnamese, he wrote, "realize that Vietnam needs more democracy,
more citizen rights and more human rights."

Xuan of the Committee on Religious Affairs said Nhat Hanh had
"turned his back" on invitations to sit down and meet with
Vietnamese officials to discuss the conflict at Bat Nha. If the two
sides had talked, Xuan said, they might have worked out their
differences.

Nhat Hanh's followers say he turned down an invitation to meet
with Vietnam's vice foreign minister in Paris last fall because the
session was scheduled while Nhat Hanh was on a long-planned trip to
the United States.

They say their attempts to schedule a meeting at another time
were ignored.


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