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Politics And Death In Vietnam

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.

Thich Huyen 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.

The 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.