Zen master: Vietnam paid mobs to evict followers

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HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — A famous Zen master has accused Vietnam’s communist government of hiring mobs of people to violently evict his Buddhist followers from two monasteries.

Thich Nhat Hanh, who helped popularize Buddhism in the West and has sold millions of books worldwide, also called on Vietnam to lift restrictions on religious freedom and respect human rights.

Nhat Hanh made the comments in a letter to his Vietnamese followers in late December, days after they were pressured by a mob and government authorities to leave the Phuoc Hue temple in the southern province of Lao Dong.

“Our country does not yet have true religious freedom and the government tightly controls the Buddhist Church machinery,” Nhat Hanh wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press on Monday. “The Buddhist Church is helpless, unable to protect its own children. This is a truth clearly seen by everyone.”

The monks and nuns had sought refuge at Phuoc Hue after being forced from the nearby Bat Nha monastery on Sept. 27.

“In the case of Bat Nha and Phuoc Hue, government officials hired the mobs and worked together with them,” Nhat Hanh wrote in the letter, dated “the last days of 2009.”

Government officials could not immediately be reached for comment. But Vietnam’s Committee on Religious Affairs had previously scheduled a press conference for Monday to discuss the Bat Nha situation.

The government has accused Nhat Hanh’s followers of failing to follow various Vietnamese religious regulations. The monastics say they have been harassed because in 2007 their teacher called on Vietnamese authorities to abolish government control of religion.

In his letter, Nhat Hanh said the mobs at Phuoc Hue and Bat Nha were hired by police and the Fatherland Front, a communist party organization. At Phuoc Hue, they were paid 200,000 Vietnamese dong ($11) a day, he wrote.

“These people cannot hide their lowly behavior,” wrote Nhat Hanh, 83, who was born in Vietnam but has lived in exile for more than four decades, currently at the Plum Village Monastery in southwestern France.

“Honestly, I could never have imagined that government officials would engage in such unethical behavior,” he wrote. “Where did the money come from to pay these mobs? Was it tax money?”

Since the dispute between Nhat Hanh’s followers and the government erupted in late June, Nhat Hanh has maintained a low profile. He wrote one previous letter praising his followers for remaining peaceful throughout the conflict.

He did so again in the new letter, saying they had followed the example of India’s Mahatma Gandhi, who pioneered the concept of nonviolent resistance.

They remained calm, Nhat Hanh wrote, even though some of their senior monks were “dragged, throttled, choked and thrown into cars as if they were trash cans.”

The conflict between the government and Nhat Hanh marks a dramatic turnaround from 2005, when Nhat Hanh returned to his homeland, a move seen by many as a step forward for religious freedom.

An abbot from the officially sanctioned Buddhist Church of Vietnam invited Nhat Hanh’s followers to settle at the Bat Nha monastery in Lam Dong province. For nearly four years, until they were forced out, they practiced Nhat Hanh’s brand of “engaged Buddhism,” which stresses nonviolence and good deeds.

The government has portrayed the conflict at Bat Nha as a disagreement between two Buddhist factions. But leaked documents indicate that the Committee on Religious Affairs directed efforts to remove the monks.

The committee overruled two provincial branches of the official Buddhist church that had invited Nhat Hanh’s followers to settle at local pagodas after they were evicted from Bat Nha.

The monks and nuns recently asked the French government to grant them temporary refugee status so they could practice together at the Plum Village Monastery.

For the monastics to separate from their community would be a violation of their vows.

“Our tradition is to go as a river,” Nhat Hanh wrote. “We cannot go as a drop of water.”

He also insisted in the letter that his followers had not broken any Vietnamese laws, and urged the communist government to “open doors and cooperate with other nations.”

“And it has to obey international laws, including respecting human rights,” he wrote.