Nuns meditate in silent resistance before being violently evicted from Phuoc Hue pagoda in Lam Dong by government-orchestrated mobs in December 2009.

© 2009 Private

(New York) - Heavy-handed tactics by Vietnam's central government to disband followers of Thich Nhat Hanh, a prominent Buddhist monk who has called for religious reforms, illustrate Vietnam's ongoing contempt for human rights and religious freedom, Human Rights Watch said today.

For three days, beginning December 9, 2009, orchestrated mobs that included undercover police and local communist party officials terrorized and assaulted several hundred monks and nuns at Phuoc Hue pagoda in central Lam Dong province. Phuoc Hue's abbot has provided sanctuary to the monastics since late September, when police and civilian mobs violently expelled them from their own monastery of Bat Nha, located in the same commune.

During last week's attack, mobs targeted Phuoc Hue's abbot, threatening and haranguing him until they finally forced his consent to a December 31 deadline for the Bat Nha monastics to vacate the pagoda.

"Vietnam's international donors should insist that the government halt the attacks on the monks and nuns in Lam Dong, allow them to practice their religion, and prevent any further violent expulsions," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "And they should make clear they will keep close tabs on the situation."

The three-day vigilante assault on Phuoc Hue disrupted a December 9 European Union (EU) fact-finding mission to the pagoda, which was followed by an EU human rights dialogue with Vietnam on December 11. A European Parliament resolution passed in late November called on Vietnam to respect religious freedom and condemned the harassment and persecution of Buddhists in Lam Dong, as well as of followers of other religions and branches of Buddhism.

The EU, one of Vietnam's largest donors, pledged US $1 billion in aid to Vietnam at a donor conference in early December. Sweden - the current EU president - and other donors have pressed Vietnam to lift its restrictions on independent media, religious freedom, and peaceful dissent. A 1995 EU-Vietnam Cooperation Agreement affirms that respect for human rights and democratic principles is the basis for the cooperation.

"The vigilante action to prevent diplomats from meeting with the monks and nuns is a real slap in the face to the EU," Pearson said. "The EU needs to make clear that it has leverage and will use it."

Over the past year, government officials have intensified efforts to disband the community of young monks and nuns that until September was based at a meditation center at Bat Nha monastery established by Thich Nhat Hanh in 2005. Authorities began to take steps to close the center after Thich Nhat Hanh urged the government in 2007 to ease its restrictions on religious freedom.

Thich Nhat Hanh first drew international attention in the 1960s as a leader of South Vietnamese Buddhists opposed to the US war in Vietnam, critical of all sides to the conflict. He continued his anti-war activities from exile in France after he left the country in 1965. The government barred him from returning as he increasingly took on human rights issues, including the plight of the thousands of boat people who fled Vietnam after the communist victory in 1975 and the persecution of Buddhist clergy and patriarchs.

Since the September eviction at Bat Nha, authorities have relentlessly harassed and pressured the Bat Nha Buddhists to vacate Phuoc Hue and other pagodas that took them in, periodically cutting electricity and water and barring local lay people from providing food and supplies. According to government documents obtained by Human Rights Watch, in late November local officials were ordered to begin organizing civilians to demonstrate against the monks and nuns at Phuoc Hue, demand the expulsion of the pagoda's abbot, and pressure the monks and nuns to return to their home provinces.

Mob action at Phuoc Hue

On December 9, more than 100 people marched into Phuoc Hue pagoda. Many wore motorcycle helmets, baseball caps, and dust masks - common attire on Vietnam's roadways but not inside Buddhist temples. Coordinated by whistle-blowing leaders, the crowds dragged the abbot out of his room, shouting insults, and demanding that he expel the Bat Nha Buddhists. Video footage captured by some of the monastics show the attackers shoving aside monks and nuns trying to protect the abbot, and assaulting others trying to take photographs.

The crowds, which swelled to 200 people at times over the course of the three days, included people brought in from as far away as Nam Dinh province - 1500 km north of Lam Dong - who told observers they had been mobilized by government officials for three days' work, at 200,000 dong (US $11) a day.

Police cordoned off the streets around the pagoda, with officers posted at the homes of townspeople who had been providing food to the monks and nuns, to prevent them from leaving their homes. The police did nothing to stop the mobs - some armed with hammers and sticks - from attempting to break down the door to the abbot's room, overrunning the pagoda, and terrorizing the monks and nuns. When nuns sat down to pray and chant civilians loomed over them, pulling at their ears and shouting so close to their faces that the nuns had to wipe away the spit.

Leaders of the mob, who included local cadre from party-controlled mass organizations, used megaphones to blast the sounds of police sirens and intensely loud electronic dance music into the pagoda compound. In desperation, the monks began ringing the temple bell constantly to sound an alarm. An ambulance was parked in front of the pagoda.

The provincial head of a special police unit within the Ministry of Public Security called A41 was present during the three days of mob activity. Often called the "religious police," A41 monitors groups the government considers to be religious "extremists" throughout Vietnam.

"What's disturbing about this mob attack is that the Vietnamese government not only failed to protect its own citizens, but that the authorities actively participated in the abuses," said Pearson.

More than half of the Bat Nha monastics remaining at Phuoc Hue are young Vietnamese women recently ordained as nuns. "The nuns don't know where to go - they feel trapped now," one observer told Human Rights Watch. "The whole experience was very traumatic - some were pushed, shoved, spit upon, and even assaulted. Their community has been spiritually killed. They are afraid to be split up and sent back to their home provinces - they want to stay together, in a safe place."

The December 31 eviction deadline for the young monks and nuns at Phuoc Hue coincides with an International Conference on Buddhist women hosted by the Vietnamese government in Ho Chi Minh City. "It's ironic that as young nuns and monks face the possibility of another violent eviction on December 31, participants at a government-hosted international Buddhist conference in Vietnam will be discussing the role of female Buddhists in preventing conflicts and violence," said Pearson.

Orchestrated mob action is not a new phenomenon in Vietnam, particularly in remote "hot spots," where authorities want to prevent any interaction between local communities and international visitors such as diplomats and journalists.

"What was different in Lam Dong is that diplomats saw with their own eyes government-orchestrated suppression of religious freedom and basic rights," Pearson said. "As such, the EU is uniquely placed to convey its strong concerns to the Vietnamese government about what happened."

Human Rights Watch has obtained copies of a series of directives from the government, ruling Communist Party, and government-appointed Buddhist officials that appear to order the assault on the pagoda.

A November 26 directive from the government's Religious Affairs Committee instructed local Buddhist officials and the Communist People's Committee to "mobilize" the Bat Nha Buddhists to return to their "proper residences" in their home provinces. Similar directives were issued by the official Vietnam Buddhist Church - a government-appointed body - on November 30, and by the local People's Committee on December 7.

"The EU and other donors should make it clear that they hold the Vietnamese government responsible for last week's events in Lam Dong," Pearson said. "Vietnam's donors need to voice their strong concerns, monitor the situation very closely, and do their best to be physically present at Phuoc Hue pagoda on the December 31 eviction deadline."