Released from Vietnamese Prison After 26 Years, Buddhist Monk Reissues Call for Democracy
The International Buddhist Information Bureau interviewed Thich Thien Minh, excerpted here, upon his release from prison in 2005. Thanks to buddhistchannel.tv for this transcript.
Thich Thien Minh, secular name Huynh Van Ba, was born in 1954 in the southern province of Bac Lieu. In 1976, the authorities confiscated the Vinh Binh Pagoda in Bac Lieu, where he was Superior monk, for use as a warehouse for the local militia, and later razed it to build a market.
Because of his protests and support of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, Thich Thien Minh was arrested in 1979, sentenced to life imprisonment, and detained in Z30A re-education camp in Xuan Loc, Dong Nai province. In 1986, he was condemned to a second life sentence by an ad hoc prison tribunal for attempting to escape from the camp.
In 1995, along with 200 other political prisoners, he launched an appeal for democracy, human rights, and the abolition of Article 4 of the Vietnamese Constitution (on the monopoly of the Communist Party). In 1996, he again signed a Petition with 200 political prisoners calling for improved detention conditions. Because of his frequent protests on behalf of other inmates, Thich Thien Minh was routinely punished with solitary confinement, chained by his feet and hands. In 1998, the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, Mr. Abdelfattah Amor, visited Thich Thien Minh at Z30A Camp.
Thich Thien Minh was released in a government amnesty on February 2, 2005. Just after he arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Thich Thien Minh spoke to the International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB) by telephone. IBIB is honored to present extracts of the conversation with this exceptional man.
IBIB: Venerable Thich Thien Minh, what are your feelings on your first day of freedom?
Thich Thien Minh: I have been in a re-education camp for 26 years; more than a quarter of a century in detention, simply for supporting the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV). A quarter of a century is not much compared with the long history of the Vietnamese people and humankind. But a quarter of a century in the life of a human being is a terribly long time. Especially for a monk, who has a mission to devote his life to helping others.
I was told that I owe my release to the government's so-called policy of clemency. But for me, their "clemency"has come too late. I have suffered too much harsh treatment for too long. In my opinion, their amnesty of political prisoners was prompted by the pressure and insistence of the international community. Releasing political prisoners, prisoners of conscience, and religious prisoners is a sensible and necessary act. But they did it as a defensive reaction, something they were forced to do, not something they genuinely wanted to do.
If they have set me free with the intention of placing me under house arrest, administrative detention, or subjecting me to further unfair treatment or discrimination on my release, then it won't be true freedom. It will be just like transferring me from one prison to another, to a different kind of prison, that's all.
I believe that, as long as there is no true freedom, democracy or human rights in Vietnam, the whole 80-million-strong Vietnamese people, including myself, will be condemned to live like shadows, crushed by fear, doubt, and disillusionment and beset by a thousand hardships and cares. These are my thoughts on my first day of freedom.
IBIB: Did you have to accept any conditions in order to benefit from this amnesty?
Thich Thien Minh: During the working session with the officials from the Ministry of Public Security, I insisted that they give me back the pagoda they confiscated [in 1976]. They told me to calm down, not to make demands too hastily, to let the Vietnamese government address my problems step by step. These sounded like empty promises to me, they smacked of insincerity. Some of the Public Security officials told me I must confine myself to practicing Buddhism after my release and promise not to criticize or oppose the government as I did before.
I gave them my honest opinion, plain and clear. I said, "Uncle Ho once declared, 'wherever there is oppression and injustice, struggle will inevitably follow.' Surely, then, the real question that the Vietnamese government should be asking themselves is not why the people are opposing or criticizing them, but whether they themselves have provoked opposition by being oppressive and unjust."
IBIB: Is there anything you would like to add?
Thich Thien Minh: While I was in the camp, I heard from some of my prison colleagues who were arrested after me that the international community had launched appeals for the release of all political prisoners, prisoners of conscience, and religious prisoners in Vietnam…. I thank all those who have worked selflessly and without rest to obtain the release of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam, prisoners who are detained simply because they have struggled nonviolently, day and night, to realize their ideals of freedom, democracy, and human rights. Thank you for supporting us and raising your voices on our behalf. I thank you all, from the bottom of my heart.
On February 6, 2005, IBIB again spoke with Thich Thien Minh. He had arrived in Bac Lieu and just paid a visit to his brother. Since his arrest, the prison authorities had never informed Thich Thien Minh's family about his situation. His brother thought he had died in the camp, and set up an altar in his home, where he prayed for Thich Thien Minh every day. Thich Thien Minh said his brother had suffered continuous harassment and pressure from the police and authorities for many years simply because of his links with the dissident monk.