By Venerable. THICH TUE SY: The Problem of Human Rights in Vietnam (Speech prepared for being delivered in The Netherlands, 2001)

Ven. Thich Tue Sy (Photo: Vu)

Ven. Thich Tue Sy is a Buddhist monk and has been a lecturer in philosophy at the Buddhist University of Van Hanh. At this moment he is the Secretary General of United Buddhist Association in Vietnam. He was condemned to death by the People’s Tribunal in Ho Chi Minh City, charged with “anti-governmental activities”. Fortunately – thanks to international protest – the sentence was changed into 20 years of hard labour. Again, because of international protest, Ven. Thich Tue Sy was released in September 1998. However his freedom still is quite limited.

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

May I have your permission to introduce myself: although as a new speaker to this forum, I may have been already known to you. First, my speech today is going to be a paradox, not simply because from the beginning of my career as a lecturer in philosophy and as a Buddhist monk, I had no hint of thought of such things as politics and political activities which generally are interpreted as the power struggle; nevertheless, I found myself engaged overnight into a fierce yet desperate struggle.

For what?

For what? For that’s known worldwide: human dignity, a concept that remains nowadays ambiguous to lots of governments, whereas its universality is familiar to human beings through time and space.

Secondly, for exactly forty-five days I remained in the death cell with one foot in fetters, counting my days. I fumbled in the dark for the meaning of life and death. Though I disclaimed the right to appeal, I was brought to the court of appeal all the same. Having declined to apply an entreaty for sparing my life, I was prepared myself for the execution. In return, I received a mitigation of the sentence.

I must confess I had no idea of what had happened then, that switched my destiny over an unexpected direction until fifteen years later, when I was compelled to acknow-ledge an amnesty. Most jailbirds of my category were executed with no exception. It is not only my destiny that was changed, but also my whole country, to my wonder, has taken an abrupt turn.

The iron curtain was suddenly pulled down. The Berlin Wall crumbled. The fortress of the world proletarian revolution collapsed. These events were clandestinely whispered about in jail like fairy tales or ghost stories to curious children. Then I learned that a new era was ushered in, an era in which human dignity is understood universally.

The paradox

Today the term ‘humanity’ has its full definition. However, the everyday mass slaughtering in several places worldwide because of racial discrimination, religious differences, is challenging that definition. Fifty years have passed since The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was released. During the first half of that time my country was shattered in a fratricidal war by means of the latest technology of mass killing invented by the proletarian greatness and the bourgeois richness. An entire generation was brought up to serve the war, which was thought outwardly as anti-imperialist but substantially it became a dispute over which power would be the master of the world, the red imperialist or the blue one. Future historians will delve into its significance. My people, meanwhile, were mainly occupied with how to survive the war. I belong to the generation of those who have lost their youth to the war and gained only backwardness in return for peace.

In the later half of the duration, the Communist leaders reunified my country into a solipsistic society that sanctifies no other values than that fancied. Just as the revolution of the earth is kept stable around the Sun, the revolution of our country is not allowed to go astray from the rulers’ gravitation. Scientists could have made clear what in the matter makes the gravitation possible. The people’s submission to the ruling power is taken for granted.

I just mentioned about the paradox. The word sounds obsessing to me all the time after I was thrown out of jail without knowing what had taken place. First, we students of the South were taught in the idealist dialectics to deduce the implication of freedom and democracy that we were told into shedding blood to protect. In the meantime, our compatriot students in the North were absorbed in brushing up their skill of materialist dialectics reasoning to justify the Party’s dictatorship. When both sides met, the synthesis for a most highly developed society was looming, the dialectics that goes upside down on head and that upright on foot gave way to the bare reality. For over a hundred years, several generations stood up fighting for the independence of the Fatherland. Now, as the national independence was regained, a great part of the people, from the South as well as from the North, ran away from their Fatherland at the risk of their life. That’s a paradox. I have been gnawing at the paradox to get light into the future of my people.

And now I am honored to be asked by our Dutch friends to give a speech on Vietnam, especially on the subject of human rights, what they mean and how they are carried out in my country. Accordingly, I would like to express here my deep gratitude for this friendship. But the first thing I must say is that on this matter I am endowed with but a limited knowledge, for being unofficially deprived of the legal means to get access to information, internally as well as externally. This is understandable in a country where accessibility to information is thoroughly under the strict control of the Government. For me, the cracking measure taken by the authorities is severe. My friends, understandably, try to avoid me for fear of being harassed later by security agents. The trick of social isolation instead of corporal detention, does beget its effectiveness.

Living in the middle of a big city, taking at will promenade in crowded streets, and all the time feeling keenly insulated from the surrounding, my life is like in a dream, or more exactly in a nightmare.Therefore, when I received the suggestion about making a speech, whether in my presence or not, I at first lost myself in indecision. Finally, I made up my mind to note down something to see how far my backwardness is.

The universality of liberty, democracy and human dignity

Although being brought up in the oriental tradition, so to say, like most of my generation I have received an education taken after the West. Western philosophers and systems of thought exerted to some extent their influence on me as well as my young fellows, and even on their way of thinking. The notions of liberty and democracy, considered to be the products of the West, seem not unknown to us.

It is a matter of fact every civilization contains within its sphere of thought the ideas, or ideals, of liberty, democracy, and human dignity. In addition, in the vocabularies of the Far-Eastern countries, these items are something newly added in with their definite configurations after the Western Civilization was introduced following the colonial expeditions. Whether these items imply any new values of humanity of a different category is still politically problematic. I underscore the term ‘politically’. Axiologically, their universality is unanimously understood.

Some influential political leaders from the East, in the illusory twilight of these values, forge their argument on the particularities of each civilization and hence xenoantigenic elements may be engendered for better or worse. Joining in the chorus to their Chinese seniors, Vietnamese Communist leaders strongly deny the universality of human rights, declaring these rights are the internal affairs of a nation. They insist that those ideas are from the West, inapplicable, and allergic, to Vietnamese tradition.

In fact, the chorus sounds dissonant. For the Marxist ideology implanted here for less than a hundred years is thoroughly made by the West. What contradicts the Vietnamese tradition is not the ideas in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights but the materialist dialectic historical view, dogmatically applied to the progress of the Vietnamese society. If in conformity with the development of means of production there existed in the feudal West the serf system, it should not be a corollary that such system might have existed in the feudal Vietnam. Vietnamese communist historians have got no hesitation in composing their historical view that in the feudal Vietnam, peasants had to suffer the exploitation by the collusion of the noble and the clergy, the same as what used to be prevailing in the feudal West. However, throughout the long history since the age of feudalism until the reign of the communist party, Vietnam has never witnessed the presence of any chapter of clergymen around the throne. In kneading the whole history of the people into the dialectic materialistic mould these historians have succeeded in helping their masters to clinch the iron curtain over the country.

The tragedy of Marxist-Leninism in Vietnam is that the names of Karl Marx and Lenin were known to Vietnamese illiterate peasants before Kant’s and Hegel’s were to the academic circle. The reason for it is because Karl Marx has reached the culmination of mankind’s history, studying him is sufficient for making the way into the brighter future. Just as one would be higher than the oak only if one stood on its top. Before Marx who in the West had paved the way and after Marx who there would have widened the way, that’s beside the point. Categorically the study of Marx and Lenin is a must. Hence even children in nursery schools have to know by hearts two classical lines running «Lenin was born in Russia, but I see how Vietnamese he looks like. »

A natural course

In the development of human society the introduction and adoption of foreign elements to root down deeper and enrich the domestic ingredients is a natural course of things. However, the subjective interference of the society’s ruler often veers the development off its natural course. Whether this veering is for the better or for the worse depends on many other conditions for some cultural interactions.

In the past, in order to subsist and develop, Vietnamese society had to take the similar courses of introduction and adoption. In this respect two forms of adoption can be mentioned, taken either by way of substantial needs of the common people or under the imposition of the ruling clique. Viewed from the analytical point, the two forms are mutually contradictory, mutually exclusive. In the case of Vietnam, however, because its special geographic situation, they did not exclude each other but turned out to be supplementary to each other in shaping the state of the national consciousness.

The special geographic situation just mentioned above was a crucial point in the Chinese ancient treatment of civilization. Just look at a diagram of eight trigrams symbolizing both the revolution of Nature and the evolution of human society, i.e., civilization. The South is identical to the principle of illumination, associated with the Sun in Nature and the eyes in human body. A comment in the Book of Change traces the orientation towards civilization as men move further to the South. Therefore, the ruling of a king is phrased as «facing the South» and the submission of a vassal is phrased as «facing the North and acknowledging himself as subject.»

On her road leading to the zenith of civilization, China encountered Vietnam. She offered two alternatives for the southward policy, either domination by force or assimilation through culture. The former was taken in case of need. The latter was of preference. Because most of Chinese great thinkers of the ancient time were averse to war unless as a last resort, the dynasties of the feudal China applied flexible policies issued from the Han: the strategy of frontiers defense focused on having frontier tribes control themselves, and the plan of southward expansion was elaborated with the help of assimilation. For a thousand years, this policy was continuously operated by successive dynasties.

Instead of a new province incorporated to the vaster Empire, a comparatively tiny kingdom at length emerged. Just as an animal under any circumstances always by its instinct for survival finds a way to live, the Vietnamese people were successful in warding off a persistent assimilation. This was not a miracle. It complies with the rule of selection and evolution. However, it is advisable to look for what elements, internal as well as external, that made the assimilation bankrupt.

As recorded by the Vietnam chronology, to the end of the second century AD, a renown Governor from the Han dynasty was ruling over Vietnam with a judicious policy thanks for which he was successful in winning the natives’ sympathy. The Governor was Si-Nhiep by name who later was revered by Vietnamese Confucians as the founder of education of Vietnam, for in fact he paved the way for Confucianism to be deep rooted in Vietnamese society even much later when the country claimed its independence.

Later, Mau Bac was another figure that deserves to be mentioned in this respect as an example of the cultural exchange between the peoples. The latter, together with a number of his academic coevals, running away from home turmoil, at last sought Vietnam for their peaceful residence. It is here Mau Bac began to become acquainted with Buddhism. He soon became a Buddhist, wrote an essay to expound its essentials, and probably even conducted some controversies against the Confucians’Sino-centrism, justifying the universality implied in the Buddha’s teaching which was judged by Confucians to be inauthentic because of its Indian origin. That was the cross of two different civilizations, one seeking its way eastward and the other pushing southward. Their synthesis reveals the universality of values inherent in the essence of human being, which bridges over the gap between the two peoples, brings man nearer to man.

The introduction of Buddhism into China took place exactly as it did in Vietnam, which means by way of the option of common people. Some time later after its presence, the influence from the grassroots was climbing upward to the upper classes of society. The people needed some other exotic elements added to the aboriginal flora to appease human exuberant aspirations. The making of the universal values thus from the grassroots was eventually adopted instinctively by the ruling class, the noble and the intellectual, those who were considered to be the holders of the criteria of values. Accordingly, King Tran Nhan Tong wrote in the preface of its Guide to the School of Dhyana, “The Buddha is not differentiated between the Southern and the Northern. Everyone may hope to become. The nature may be of wisdom or stupidity but all, without exception, are blessed at length with the enlightenment.”

A dilemma

In the modern time, Vietnam was put before a critical choice. It had either to submit without a hint of reaction to the imposition of the powerful colonial culture, or to hold firm the traditional values despite the risk of being crushed. These were not alternatives, but a dilemma. The colonialist power did not conceal its aim: converting the whole nation. The whole nation plunged into a protracted resistance. The reaction of the body against the intrusion of strange elements is natural. Dazzled with the prodigious achievement of the West in the field of material production, associating it with cultural values, a number of Vietnamese elite at that time laid blame for the country’s backwardness on the old tradition that now was denounced as rotten values. They urged to eradicate it, supersede it by the new welcome from the West. Of course, they wanted a radical change to renew the society in hope of catching up with modern civilization.

Another group excited by the revolution that had broken out in Russia, persuaded by Lenin’s prophesy of the advent of the proletarian culture which would cap the summit of human civilization, believed the seven-league boots made by the socialist manufacturer would carry the whole country up to the apogee of glory. When they succeeded in seizing power, the Communist partisans assumed the mission of vanguard launching attack against the old legacy. President Ho Chi Minh reminded the people: “As calm as Buddha would be no use to the society though.” Hence, in order to become useful to society, it is wise not to behave after Buddha but put him aside. Accordingly, many pagodas were converted to cooperative’s storehouses or barns. Truong Chinh, the General Secretary of the Party, once warned the Hanoi’ s academic circle that, “The restoration of Buddhism in Vietnam is the colonial ‘s intrigue of lulling the people.” Accordingly young monks and nuns were driven back to the worldly life, only the old and impotent remained.

“Buddhism, reactionary force or promoting the revolution?”

Thus, from the first days of their rule over the North, Vietnamese Communists listed Buddhism among the main reactionary forces that would frustrate their effort to build socialism. It is not the aversion toward religion that operated a campaign to bring down Buddhism in particular, but the whimsical fancy of a new world endowed with fictitious values inspired by a flimsy understanding of the dialectics that urged intolerance and vandalistic aggressiveness.

Taking advantage of the vandalistic outcome from the North, soon after their victory over the South, a great number of the extreme-leftist partisans continued the campaign against Buddhism and other religions, products of the bourgeois ideology as they called them. The iron curtain soon began shaking. As they apprehended, it was in danger of being pulled down, and felt the pressure to open the door to a reluctant integration into the formerly hostile world, the Communist leaders started to look for a stable source of support. General Secretary Nguyen Van Linh declared meanwhile, “Buddhism is the support for the Vietnamese Communist promoting the revolution.” They would only rely upon the support that they could have exercised control over.

Now then, Vietnamese Buddhism together with other time-honored cultural practices was undergoing the socialist reformation, in both the literal and figurative sense of the word. Reactionary particles from religions and superstition mongers were concentrated in ubiquitous local reformation camps to pass through some process of brainwashing. Temples and shrines’ doors were opened so that the authorities might collect perquisites from foreign tourists.

The agitprop may be modulated from time to time in accordance with the fluctuation of the Revolution but the core of intolerance toward religion remains intact. The leader of society is tantamount to the creator of values for society. The nation of course has the most progressive Constitution. In order to understand it thoroughly, the people are to be well trained in the dialectical logic. The Constitution acknowledges the right of free speech. The people are allowed to speak everything that is not in contradiction with the leaders’ statements. The Constitution acknowledges the right of free faith, yet the people are not allowed to have faith in what is judged superstitious by the leaders. There exists in reality an archetype of the socialist culture.

I do not intend to deal with the essence of Marxism and what it would contribute to take orientation towards a new form of society. For the study of Marxism in Vietnam is unproductive. Eminent scholars well versed in Marxism and materialist dialectics like Bach Khoa, Tran Duc Thao and many others, some of them well known to the West, were hushed up, no sooner than they displayed their knowledge beyond the leaders’ capacity.

What I mean to deal with here is citing some instances of the cultural exchange among the peoples, and tracing the process of the formation of the universal values as having taken place in Vietnam. Adopting exotic elements, merging them with the indigenous, and hence attaining the state of consciousness of the universal values of humanity, is the approach and mutual understanding among the peoples which due to the different geographical situations and ecological environments, very often have brought up the particular traditions and at time engendered the hostility.

Nevertheless, both particular and universal values are not metaphysical entities. They idealize the influence of an individual over another. To acknowledge some value revealed in an individual is at times understood as to recognize his or her superiority over oneself. Therefore, to defend the national independence and sovereignty first of all is to protect the national legacy of cultural values elaborated and inherited from generation through generation against the other’s overwhelming domination. This germinated the racial discrimination, ethnic hostility, and conflict of interests between the peoples. Unfortunately, as the peoples around the world come nearer together to give an explicit definition of human dignity, movements for human rights are more active; meanwhile the daily worldwide actualities are replete with dreadfully shocking alarms. Ethnic purges are getting unprecedentedly ferocious. Religious conflicts are getting more bloodthirsty. Heads of State are growing restlessly obstinate about international interference in the State-managed violations of human rights shielded with the pretext of internal affairs.

The essence of democracy

The implication of democracy as understood nowadays is eventually made clear with the connotation of equality and human dignity. That all men are equal by nature is not because the Only Creator does create them. The existence of such a Creator remains the point of controversy and somehow is the motive of human slaughter. However, equality is recognized simply because men come to understand one another more deeply. People come to wholeheartedly understand other’s suffering as well as happiness, being in aspiration or in despair. For they are endowed with the same universal values, share the same human dignity.

It is of great importance to recognize that the foundation of a civilized democratic society is the way in which universal values of humanity are conceived and brought to life by members of that society.

The idea that democracy counts on the figures of voters is incompatible with the actual face of the open world, although most of today’s democratic governments are upheld by the votes of majority. Some recent election campaigns in several countries are criticized by mass media as “dirty,” and some others as “rigged.” It is of great importance to recognize that the foundation of a civilized democratic society is the way in which universal values of humanity are conceived and brought to life by members of that society. That minority should submit to majority, sacrifice its interests to the larger, is but the form of semi-democracy. Shared interests do constitute a group or a community, but what sustains its substance should be found in the values, universal to in-community, but particular to out-community, inherent in every individual as its member. As a dog takes watch over its master’s property, instinctively it is keeping guard over its own interests. This does not mean, however, the dog would share the same equality with its master. Whereas the bodyguard of the head of State means a different kind of relation. Respect for human dignity inherent in others, understanding their sorrow and despair, recognizing the limit of one’s own interest in contrast to his or hers, these constitute the essence of democracy.What just has been mentioned above is not the induction acquired from philosophical meditations, from doctrines of religion or politics, but from my bitter experience. I am now trying to have a closer look into the problem of human rights in Vietnam under the Communist dictatorship. The problem brings me back up to the source of our tradition. I have witnessed that a time-honored cultural legacy had been undermined by the imagination of the power-maniac political leaders who have flattered themselves as having acquired the truth of nature and the essence of human society. Their obstinate disinclination to recognize the universality of the basic human rights has in reality clogged up the progress of the country.

New concept of world power

Nobody nowadays could pretend to ignore the law of interdependence. He cannot be concerned only about his own interests and safety without considering what would happen to others. Had certain species of animal in some remote forest of Vietnam been in danger of being extinct, people in other parts of the world would show their concern, and try to help Vietnam to keep it safe. Accordingly, why should it be unacceptable for the world communities to interfere in, in case the Vietnamese authorities contravened the international conventions they had engaged on? Likewise, no problem of today human being could be handled separately as the internal affairs of certain country. Like any other problems such as ecological equilibrium, the extinction of species, atmospheric pollution, environment pollution, and economic development, the problem of human rights cannot be exclusively handled by some narrow-minded and power-maniac leaders of some special political party depending only on the impartial and insular judgment.

Although viewed from a certain standpoint the panorama of the today world looks brighter than it used to be, however, much of the past leftover seems getting worse which menaces to undermine the universal values. Racial discrimination leading to unprecedentedly ferocious ethnic purge, religious strife urging bloody terrorism worldwide, these phenomena are tending from worse to worst, casting pessimist perspective to some. Meanwhile international interference is growing more influential, which provokes many dictators into more agitating to strengthen their absolutism. Their alarm is by no means groundless. For a new concept of world power is on the way of making. In a sense, it has the old move repeated as in the past when the colonial power was taking advantage of material supremacy to force the weaker to submit. How this new concept of world power works is still unclear. For the better or worse, it would change the world. Anyhow, a body would take self-defensive reaction against the intrusion of some strange factor.

The actualities of most concerns today are the fact that in many Eastern countries which once were well known for their having been steadfast against the external aggression on the cultural field while keeping pace with the powerful West in material development, the negative attitude of the youth towards the old tradition puts in question the problem of morality and social harmony. Apparently, these societies are inclining towards deformity, being uprooted from the soil they have been brought up for millennia. In a sense, in fact, this could be viewed as a process of re-appreciating the old values in making new ones. The new and the old are differentiated only from their appearance; the essence remains intact. Just as a body, when attacked by hunger would consume anything in reach. Nevertheless, consumption without careful selection and beyond moderation will do harm to the body itself. Denouncing the tradition for its restriction in giving oneself to the materialist temptation is neither the making of new values nor looking for whatsoever dignity inherent in human essence.

Corruption, violent force, terrorism, drug addiction, human trafficking, these global operations display the underside, the most fearful underside ever seen, of modern civilization. They are undermining the noble, lofty ideals of humanity. Advocates of dictatorship blame, as the Vietnamese Communists do, these inhuman crimes on the lack of a firm hand to tie the people up within the bounds set up by leaders. If a tiger is too fierce, put it in a cage. That’s why they have done. In fact, the whole country has already been managed like a zoo.

All the same, corruption, drug trafficking, human trafficking, are rampant crimes in Vietnam, considered as national disasters. Although they are rife in many other countries too, but due to its geographic situation, administrative organizations, social environment, and economic conditions, these crimes have their particular aspects within Vietnam boundaries.

The actuality makes it clear that countries under strong dictatorship like China and Vietnam, instead of having effectively crushed these crimes, have offered them fertile soil. It is the top leaders who are responsible for having given them shelter, for they themselves hold the key to open or close the door to the world. Hence, the fight against these crimes should be operated along with the fight for democracy and human rights.

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