California lawmaker calls for pressure on Vietnam over detention of unofficial monk

Questions remain over Thich Minh Tue’s whereabouts after he was taken into custody on Sunday.
By RFA Vietnamese
California lawmaker calls for pressure on Vietnam over detention of unofficial monk Buddhist devotee Thich Minh Tue, May 17, 2024 in Vietnam's Ha Tinh province.

A California lawmaker has called on a U.S. agency monitoring religious freedom to advocate on behalf of a Vietnamese man who went missing after authorities “arbitrarily forced” him to end a Buddhist pilgrimage that had made him an internet sensation for his ascetic way of life.

For nearly a month, Le Anh Tu, better known as Thich Minh Tue, had drawn social media influencers who streamed his pilgrimage live, but along the way he also inadvertently became a symbol of what many people say is a lack of religious freedom in Vietnam.

On Sunday, officials said Tue stopped his trek after realizing it could threaten social stability, but monks with him said authorities forced them to disband in a midnight raid and took him to an undisclosed location.

Tue’s case drew attention from California Congressman Ta Duc Tri who, on Tuesday, sent a letter to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, to express concern over his well-being.

“Recent media and witness reports indicate that the Communist regime in Vietnam has arbitrarily forced him to end his journey and cease his religious practices,” Tri said in a letter, a copy of which was posted to Facebook. “He has since disappeared from the public and his whereabouts are unknown.”

Tri, an Assemblyman for California’s Seventh District, called Vietnam’s treatment of Tue’s religious freedom “an affront to basic principles of human rights.”

“I respectfully request that you use your platform to advocate for Ven. Thich Minh Tue and his followers to continue their quest for spiritual enlightenment,” he said. “Doing so would reaffirm our own commitment to human rights and religious freedom around the world.”

Tri said Tue’s case “underscores the importance of keeping Vietnam on the Special Watch List for Religious Freedom” for countries where the government engages in or tolerates “severe” violations of the right, and which USCIRF makes recommendations to the U.S. government for in an annual report.

Questions over whereabouts

Tri’s letter came amid questions over Tue’s whereabouts after he was detained by police along with dozens of his followers in Thua Thien Hue province on Sunday.

The next day, the official Ho Chi Minh City Law Newspaper cited a leader from the Thua Thien Hue Provincial Police as saying that Tue had been “taken to the place he needed to go,” and that police in Gia Lai province, where his permanent residence was registered, had assisted him in applying for an ID.

A photo of a police officer taking Tue’s fingerprints at an identification registration office in what is believed to be Thua Thien Hue province became widely shared on social media on Monday, but a person who answered the phone at the Thua Thien Hue Police Station told RFA the following day that they had no knowledge of his case.

Thich Khong Tanh, a senior leader of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, or UBCV, told RFA he believes Tue could face punishment, but is likely safe in detention.

“There could be restrictions, probation, or isolation, and if necessary, they [authorities] might also consider using Monk Minh Tue [to serve their purposes],” he said. “However, in my opinion, they would not assassinate or harm him.”

‘True Buddhist clergyman’

Sporting a shaved head, patched garments and an alms bowl, Tue doesn’t claim to be a Buddhist monk, and is not part of the officially sanctioned Vietnam Buddhist Sangha.

But the 43-year-old seems to behave like a monk. His humble ways have drawn widespread admiration – and stand in contrast to senior monks in Vietnam who encourage followers to give offerings while living in large pagodas and flaunting expensive watches and luxury cars.

Thich Minh Tue (center L) stands among local residents, May 17, 2024 in Vietnam's Ha Tinh province. (AFP)

The state-sanctioned Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, or VBS, announced on May 16 that Tue “is not a Buddhist monk,” which would technically mean he can’t openly practice Buddhism. Although the freedom of religion is enshrined in Vietnam’s constitution, religious groups or individuals require official recognition to practice.

On Tuesday, the UBCV dismissed the VBS’s claims, affirming in a statement that Tue was “a true Buddhist clergyman.”

The UBCV thanked Tue for “bringing a breath of fresh air into a Vietnamese society that has deteriorated in morality and lost faith in Buddhism,” and urged the Vietnamese government to respect his “choice of self-cultivation without interference” by allowing him to resume his pilgrimage.

Communist Party ‘lacks trust’ in the people

Tue’s case also drew attention from Phil Robertson, the director of Asia Human Rights and Labor Advocates and former vice director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, who said that “no one believes the ridiculous story” that he had voluntarily given up his pilgrimage and returned home.

"Vietnamese government authorities are inherently paranoid about any social movement they do not directly control,” he said. “Once Thich Minh Tue started garnering a major group of supporters accompanying him on his travels, and a large group of followers on social media, it was just a matter of time before the authorities cracked down on him.”

Robertson said that the crackdown “reveals the Vietnamese Communist Party and government’s inherent lack of trust in the Vietnamese people.”

“This paranoia results directly in the severe ongoing crackdown against all independent persons and groups in society, rendering Vietnam as the worst human rights abuser in Southeast Asia after the Myanmar military regime,” he said.

Translated by Anna Vu. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.


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Jun 11, 2024 09:48 AM

Every legitimate government has the right to protect their citizens.
Without protection from the government..monk minh tue likely will fall into a bad situation, his existence is a blessing
A future Nobel price recipient.