Prisoners of Conscience in Vietnam

By Stephen Denney In the last issue of The Mindfulness Bell, we reported Ven. Thich Quang Do, Secretary-General of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBC), had been deported to northern Vietnam after receiving a five year prison sentence for his public criticism of government religious policy. His colleague, Ven. Thich Huyen Quang, age 78, Executive Director of the UBC, remains under house arrest in central Vietnam. Both are in poor health. According to a recent report, Ven. Huyen Quang is incarcerated in a cramped one-room shack in Nghia Hanh Village, Quang Ngai Province. He is held incommunicado, surrounded by police and suffering from lung disorders resulting from heavy insecticides sprayed in the surrounding fields.

Several other Buddhist monks also remain in prison for their dissent. Most recently, we received news about Thich Hai Tang, reported to be seriously ill from stomach ulcers and in urgent need of surgery. However, his relatives fear he will die if operated on by a police surgeon. On March 7, his father sent an open letter to government and party officials urging them to end mistreatment of his son, allow the monks from his Linh Mu Pagoda in Hue to choose his surgeon, and temporarily release Ven. Tang for medical treatment pending his recovery.

There are also some other prisoners of conscience serving long prison sentences. One of them, Doan Thanh Liem, was released earlier this year from prison, and put on a plane to Los Angeles the same day. Liem had worked for street orphans with Dick Hughes in the Shoeshine Boy Project in Saigon during the war years, and belonged to a group of progressive Catholics who worked with antiwar Buddhists. He was serving a 12-year prison sentence for urging constitutional reform in Vietnam.

Two other prisoners of conscience are Professor Doan Viet Hoat, former vice rector of the Buddhist Van Hanh University, and Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, a medical doctor and the first member of Amnesty International in Vietnam. They are serving 15-year and 20-year prison sentences, respectively, for their nonviolent dissent and advocacy of political democracy in Vietnam. Both received the Robert F. Kennedy award last year for their human rights work. Both are in poor health and their relatives are very worried.

Professor Hoat is detained at Thanh Cam prison in a jungle area of Vietnam near the Lao border 1,400 kilometers from his home. He is very frail. He suffers from a serious kidney disorder and has been urinating blood. He has lost much weight and is extremely weak from malnutrition. His family has sent him abundant supplies of food, medicine and money, but he appears to have received very little of that and is fed barely enough rice to keep alive. Visits by relatives have been extremely restricted. He has been forbidden to read any publications and is kept in a camp where he is surrounded by hardened criminals.

As always, thank you to all who have participated in the campaign to release prisoners of conscience in Vietnam. As I write this it is Good Friday, an appropriate time to honor and support the prisoners of conscience throughout the world, some well-known, others anonymous, who have sacrificed themselves in nonviolence for a better society. If you would like to write a letter on behalf of any of the prisoners mentioned in this article, please contact me in care of The Mindfulness Bell.

Stephen Denney is editor of Vietnam Journal and a longtime activist for human rights in Southeast Asia.

PDF of this article