Even as its ties have grown with Vietnam, the United States has
remained focused on the human rights situation there, pushing for a
greater role for public discourse while acknowledging efforts within
the government of Vietnam to expand individual freedoms. There have
been steps forward. Vietnam, for example, recently committed to revise
its criminal code to conform to international standards and to expand
press freedoms by allowing foreign news outlets to open offices in Ho
Chi Minh City. In their recent meeting in Washington, President George
Bush congratulated Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung for his
work in this regard.
Vietnam's progress in expanding human
rights, however, is incomplete. This is seen once again in the heavy
security presence at the funeral of a leading spiritual leader, showing
the government's concern that the event could spark a public protest in
support of a man who lived under virtual house arrest for preaching and
practicing his political and spiritual beliefs.
Quang, patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, or UBCV,
died July 5 at the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in Binh Dinh province. A
peace activist who opposed French colonial rule and the U.S. conflict
in Vietnam, he continued his work for human rights and religious
freedom after the war’s end. The Vietnamese government banned the
church because it refused to join the state-sanctioned Vietnam Buddhist
Church, or VBC. For his activities, Thich Huyen Quang spent much of the
last three decades in internal exile, house arrest or prison.
UBCV is planning to hold a quiet funeral for him, honoring a man who
was its spiritual leader for decades. A large number of Buddhist monks
-- primarily from the UBCV but also from the government-sanctioned VBS
-- are expected to attend. Initial reports had it that the government
would forbid the ceremony and conduct the rites itself. Various
statements in the government-controlled media now indicate that the
UBCV service will proceed, but with a warning that while the government
respects the right of Thich Huyen Quang's followers to hold a religious
observance, they shouldn’t turn it into a political event.
Any interference in the funeral would be a sign that Vietnam is moving backward, not ahead, in the vital area of human rights.