By Stephen Denney On November 15,1993, four Buddhist monks and five laypeople were tried and sentenced in Hue, Vietnam, in connection with a May 24 demonstration in the city during which a police car carrying a monk was stopped and subsequently set afire. Thich Tri Tuu, in the car at the time it was stopped, was described as the "ringleader" of the event and sentenced to four years imprisonment. Another monk, Thich Hai Tang, also received a four-year sentence. The two other monks, Thich Hai Chanh and Thich Tri Thinh, received three-year sentences. Of the laypeople, Nguyen Van Minh was sentenced to four years imprisonment and fined $22,000 for allegedly destroying the car, while the others received sentences ranging from six months to two years.
The trial was the culmination of a series of events that began in May 1992, when Ven. Thich Huyen Quang delivered a stirring speech at the funeral in June of Thich Don Hau, urging religious freedom. Ven. Huyen Quang, Executive Director of the Unified Buddhist Church (An Quang), has been under house arrest since February 1982 for protesting the forced incorporation of the UBC into the state-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church. The UBC was the major Buddhist organization in the South during the war, and its leaders proposed a third-force neutralist solution to the conflict, which brought upon them suspicion and distrust from both warring parties. After 1975, repression against the UBC intensified, culminating with its forced dissolution in November 1981.
Ven. Huyen Quang, now 76 and in poor health, has made several statements of strong public protest since the May 1992 funeral. The government has responded by tightening surveillance around his pagoda, but they have not yet put him in jail.
The event that led to the May 24 demonstration was an immolation that had occurred three days earlier on the premises of the Linh Mu Pagoda in Hue. A middle-aged layman had traveled 600 miles from An Giang province in southern Vietnam to Hue to immolate himself in front of the shrine of Ven. Thich Don Hau. Hue police immediately confiscated the body and some documents the man had left behind. Monks at Linh Mu Pagoda erected a shrine at the place of the man's death, with an inscription that "a Buddhist follower burned himself to death at 9 a.m. on May 21 to protect the Buddhist faith," but the shrine was immediately torn down by the police. Ven. Tri Tuu, head abbot at Linh Mu, appealed to the authorities to return the body and allow the deceased man a proper burial.
For this reason, Ven. Tri Tuu was placed in the police wagon on May 24 and taken to police headquarters. His supporters, however, stopped the car. A government videotape of the event, widely televised in Vietnam, shows six monks sitting on the street in front of the car. Then a large crowd developed (estimated by observers to be in the thousands), and a man who appeared to be a monk was standing on top of the police station wagon's hood speaking to the crowd and pointing to the people inside the wagon. Then some monks were seen peering into the car, and the next scene showed the monks being jostled about by the crowd as a melee broke out, with Ven. Tri Tuu dragged out of the car as it was turned over and set afire.
According to Ven. Tri Tuu's own testimony, he had passed out in the car and was taken back to Linh Mu Pagoda by his supporters. Thus, one may ask how he could possibly be described as the "ringleader" of this demonstration when he was not actively involved in it and may not have even been conscious.
International human rights organizations and others have protested the unfair nature of this trial. Sidney Jones, of Asia Watch, noted that the trial took only one day, and it was preceded by a massive government-organized media campaign to denounce the defendants. No outside observers were allowed to attend. "We are very concerned that some or all of these defendants may have been prosecuted and arrested not for any act of violence or public disorder, but because they are prominent supporters of the dissident Unified Buddhist Church," she said. The relatives and other monks at Linh Mu Pagoda sent a formal letter of appeal on November 17 also protesting the unfair nature of the trial. They said the trial occurred in an army barracks, and four fifths of the audience were security personnel. The defendants' own relatives were not allowed to attend. The defendants were allowed no legal representation and were jeered by the audience when they attempted to speak on their own behalf.
Those who are concerned about the unfair nature of this trial and the government's repression of Buddhists should write courteous letters to Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, Hanoi, Vietnam, urging that these defendants be allowed a fair trial and that the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam be allowed to function as a normal religious organization.
Stephen Denney is the editor of Vietnam Journal and a longtime activist for human rights in Indochina.