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Censorship in Vietnam: JFK Miller Interviews Thomas Bass

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  • With permission from author Thomas Bass, The Vietnamese is pleased to reprint the interview Mr. Bass has given to JFK Miller, a Melbourne-based journalist, in February 2018 on his latest book, Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World 

Thomas A. Bass’s 2009 book The Spy Who Loved Us dissects the double life of Pham Xuan An, a correspondent for Time during the Vietnam War and a contemporary of Peter Arnett, Richard Pyle, and Morley Safer. As American radio blasted Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ to signal the evacuation of embassy personnel in those final tumultuous hours of April 30, 1975, An was Time’s last man standing, the magazine’s sole remaining reporter in Saigon as the North Vietnamese tanks rolled in. In truth, he was part of the welcome brigade. An was a spy who used his journalistic contacts to feed vital intelligence to Hanoi. Time’s Zalin Grant, who worked alongside An, called him “the first known case of a Communist agent to appear on the masthead of a major American publication.”

But An’s tale is a story within a story. Bass’s latest book, Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), recalls his experience with Vietnam’s state censorship apparatus when he tried to get a translation of The Spy Who Loved Us published in Vietnam. He succeeded, but at a cost — five years of negotiations and no less than 400 cuts to his manuscript.

Was it worth it? Bass himself answers that question below. For me, the reader, the answer is a resounding yes. The censorship experience Bass recounts in his book paints a vivid picture of present-day Vietnam, and it’s not a flattering one. Economically, the country is one of Asia’s “new” tigers which last year posted the world’s second-fastest growth rate. Politically, however, it’s a paranoid and insecure beast which lacks the ability to confront its own past and look squarely at its own present (Bass does not mince words: Vietnam is “a culture in ruins,” he writes). I traveled to the country several times in the ’90s, but am ashamed to say my conception of Vietnam was cryogenically frozen somewhere between The Quiet American and Apocalypse Now. Well, it was, until I read this book.

My connection with Thomas Bass comes via our different but eerily similar experiences with state censorship – his with Vietnam, mine with China. As I worked my way through his book it struck me how alike the censorship systems in both countries are. And then on page 83, I learned why: Hanoi takes its cues straight from Beijing. The dissident novelist Pham Thi Hoai explains, “We always look to the Chinese and copy them… it is mandatory for every high Vietnamese official to get training in China once a year, just as it was in the time of the Cold War. It is no accident that every campaign and law adopted in China is introduced into Vietnam six months later.”

It’s perhaps no surprise then that Vietnam’s military conflicts with China, including the incredibly brutal 1979 conflict in which tens of thousands died on both sides in less than a month, are glossed over in school textbooks.

But this is simply one of the censorship’s many casualties. Writers and journalists are routinely given draconian prison terms for speaking truth to power. Criticism of the Chinese is censored, as is praise for the French and Americans (“they are not allowed to have taught the Vietnamese anything,” writes Bass). Disparagement of communism and communist party officials is banned, together with the discussion of “government policy, military strategy… minority rights, human rights, democracy, calls for political pluralism, allusions to revolutionary events in other communist countries, distinctions between north and south Vietnamese, and stories about Vietnamese refugees.”

Whether it’s novels or journalism, there’s an overarching optimism that must pervade writing in Vietnam that is forced upon its writers by state censors. Either be censored, self-censor, or be damned. A 1988 novel by the above-mentioned Pham Thi Hoai, The Crystal Messenger (which I’ve not read, but now want to because of Bass’s book), was banned for the reason that its view of Vietnam was “excessively pessimistic.” No surprise that she now lives in self-imposed exile in Berlin, a place where, unlike her homeland, she is lauded for her work.

My one criticism of Bass’ book is the choice of the most prosaic of titles – Censorship in Vietnam – with a nod to Huxley in the subtitle. But this is small beer. On the whole, this is a tremendously eye-opening book, and thoroughly readable. Our discussion follows.

***

Why was it important to you to have a translation of your book published in Vietnam, especially know that it would be censored?

Communicating across borders interest me. There is much to be learned and much to be unlearned, and even the misunderstandings are revelatory. Look what happened when I tried to mail you a copy of Censorship in Vietnam from the U.S. The book was returned to me several weeks later by “homeland security.” Who would have guessed that the “JFK” in your name – honoring of the 35th president of the United States – was suspicious? But apparently, according to the paranoids who patrol our borders, initials without complete first names imply criminal intent. So it took another 20 bucks and the entire “John Fitzgerald Kennedy” to get you a copy of my book.

Another answer to your question has to do with surviving as an author. My books have been translated into various foreign editions, and I enjoy traveling to literary events in far-flung places. So why not add Hanoi? Nha Nam, the Vietnamese publisher of my book, was supposed to be the country’s best. I would be joining the likes of Vladimir Nabokov, Milan Kundera, and Orhan Pamuk. Not bad company.

But I think you’re asking a more serious question, which is the subject of Censorship in Vietnam. If I knew how much grief I would be getting for translating The Spy Who Loved Us into Vietnamese, why did I invite it? The answer is pretty straightforward. I wanted to conduct an experiment. Exactly how much grief was coming my way, and who would be cranking the handle?

Did you brace yourself for a rough ride, or did you go into it thinking that you might perhaps get away with more than you thought you could?

I knew that chunks of my book on Pham Xuan An would be removed. It was full of subversive material – by which I mean material that the Vietnamese consider subversive – conversations with exiled writers, accusations of corruption in the Communist Party of Vietnam, jokes about how ugly the language has become in postwar Vietnam.

My Vietnamese publisher and my literary agent in New York and subagents in Tokyo and Bangkok all assured me that I had nothing to worry about, that none of the books they had published in Vietnam had been censored. They were either ignorant or lying, but it’s also true that no one pays much attention to foreign rights. A book goes into Polish or Portuguese, and very few authors have the time or skills required to check the translation. I had been tipped 3 off to the fact that even novels and poetry are censored in Vietnam. So a nonfiction book about a Vietnamese spy who claimed to have loved the United States and the values of investigative reporting and Western journalism was certainly going to be censored.

For the few hundred bucks my literary agent was making on the deal, he kindly allowed me to rewrite the standard publishing contract for the sale of translation rights, and then we patiently negotiated these changes as the contract was bounced back and forth between New York and Hanoi. I inserted clauses about prior review and final approval of the translation, and I larded the contract with trip switches, so that every time the censors moved on me I had to be notified. The manuscript became a kind of early warning system, ding, ding, dinging on my desk, at every stroke of a censor’s pen. And in Vietnam, as you yourself found in China, there is not just one censor, but various tag teams and competing groups of censors, which operate in a hierarchy of censors that stretches all the way up to the head of the Communist Party. Each level in this hierarchy is afraid of getting whacked by the one above it. So the natural urge is to adopt what the French call langue de bois – the wooden speech of martinets and political hacks. This is how a culture dies … but at least the censors will never be out of a job.

Given my jerry-rigged publishing contract, I owe a great debt of thanks to the editors at Nha Nam who honoured this contract. I was a pain in their necks, if not dangerous to the survival of their company, but still they notified me every step along the way. At the end of five years, my book was radioactive. My original editor had quit the company and quit publishing altogether. The project had been at death’s door a half dozen times, and many of us were surprised when printed copies of the book finally appeared – briefly – on bookshelves in Hanoi and Saigon.

Did you ever consider simply pulling the plug and abandoning the translation altogether?

Remember, this was an experiment, with every twist and turn in the process producing “data.” At the most basic level, I was studying the Vietnamese language. How has it changed since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975? Pham Xuan An complained about these changes when I was interviewing him for “The Spy Who Loved Us,” which began as an article for The New Yorker and later became a book with the same title. He said the Vietnamese language was being corrupted by Marxist-Leninist gobbledygook borrowed from Russia and Maoist terms imported from China. To learn how to speak this new language, An was sent to a “re-education” camp for ten months. “I was a bad student,” he said. “They never understood my jokes, but at least I didn’t do anything serious enough for them to shoot me.” (An’s “re-education camp” was actually a military academy outside Hanoi for training high-level officials, but I believe him when he says the experience was bone-chillingly boring.)

Censoring books in Vietnam begins before the first word is translated. In this case, the person chosen to translate my book was a north Vietnamese journalist fluent in gobbledygook. He produced quotes that sounded nothing like the south Vietnamese spy about whom I was writing. The publisher was surprised that I cared about these things or knew enough to want the language changed. A nonfiction book for them was the equivalent of an encyclopedia entry. Give us the information, and give it to us in today’s language – in this case, the language spoken in North Vietnam, which is where most of the book-buying public lives. There was also a good dose of prejudice at work. The South Vietnamese lost the war, which means that not only their political system but also their culture and language are in the process of being effaced.

After the censored Vietnamese-language copy was published in print, you released an uncensored version on the Internet. Can you explain why this was important to you?

Censorship is so crushing in Vietnam that many authors are skipping printed publications and releasing their work directly to the web. In my case, I wanted to see what the printed book looked like. I wanted to evaluate the damage done to the text by Vietnam’s censors, count up the number of cuts and alterations, and study the people and ideas that got erased.

After assembling my literary seismograph – in other words, after The Spy Who Loved Us was translated and released in Vietnam (although not under that title, which the censors considered far too dangerous)-I felt obliged to provide my Vietnamese readers with a copy of the original book. This too is standard practice in Vietnam. Even when a book is printed, people go to the web to find what everyone assumes will be a more accurate version online.

At the same time, I wanted to conduct a second experiment. Vietnam’s censors work across borders. You can’t publish books online with impunity. Electronic publications will be attacked by trolls, worms, viruses, denunciation campaigns, denial of service attacks, bribery, extortion – whatever works to get them taken down. I don’t want to exaggerate the risks I took, which were nothing compared to my Vietnamese colleagues, but the Vietnamese version of my book – the complete version published online in Berlin on computers hardened against attacks from Vietnam’s censors – invited retaliation. It was attacked in a variety of ways. The translator was forced to drop out. He also pulled his translation, which we could no longer use. People threatened to sue me. The internet lit up with chatter maligning me and the project. The Berlin web site went down a few times, but it held fast against the censors and trolls, due to the good work of exiled author Pham Thi Hoai, whose site for many years has been the rallying point for opposition to Vietnam’s communist police state.

When you engaged the dissident Pham Hong Son to translate your book for the Berlin release, did it weigh on your mind that you might be condemning him to another hefty prison term? (Son had already spent five years in prison and another seven under house arrest for translating essays on democracy).

As I mentioned, the first translator for the unexpurgated version of The Spy Who Loved Us, was forced to quit. Enough threats were brought to bear that he felt he had no choice. Pham Hong Son is a different kind of person altogether. After spending five years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, for translating an essay on democracy and recommending this form of government to his fellow countrymen, he went on doing exactly the same thing after he was released to house arrest. Trained as a medical doctor, a true intellectual and patriot, he is a brave man, someone whom I admire and am lucky to count as a friend. He did the work for free because he thought it was important, and ever since then, I have been looking for some way to repay him.

In your book’s foreword you ask the question central to all of this. Could China and Vietnam’s governance model become the new normal? It pains me to acknowledge this, but democracy, with all its trappings – not least of which, freedom of speech and freedom of the press – is in bad odor at the moment, while the Vietnam/PRC model, which puts economic development above free speech, is in the ascendancy. Add to this, declining American power and an Oval Office occupant who has turned American democracy (indeed all democracy, I would argue) into a global laughing stock, and Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill” now looks like a faltering candle. Is it any real surprise that countries like Vietnam and China seem to have more faith in their political systems than we currently do in ours? And do you not think that democratic reformers in Vietnam are, at least for now, fighting an impossible battle?

This is the key question of the moment. As the western democracies falter and lose faith in themselves, as they debase their elections, trade freedom for security, and forget their founding principles, people think that police states with good shopping look attractive.

This is an illusion. In fact, it is a dangerous illusion. Censorship can kill you. The absence of free speech can kill you. Not knowing the truth can kill you. These are fundamental values, not to be sold at any price, but they are also tools for survival. This argument was made by Nobel-prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, when he was asked by the Indian government to advise them on which model they should choose for development: the open societies of the West or China’s surveillance state, which is attractive at the moment because of its economic growth. Sen warned his compatriots not to go for the shiny lure. He reminded them about China’s Great Leap Forward, which was actually a great leap backward, killing at least 30 million people in a devastating famine. What caused this social collapse? Censorship – a skein of lies spun to please Chairman Mao, ignorance about what was happening in the countryside, courtiers, and buffoons who reported good news in place of facts. Exactly what’s happening in the United States today.

China has been called “a consumerist totalitarian state.” The description is just as apt for Vietnam, I think. In this type of polity, economic growth trumps personal freedom. The idea is that you cannot have both, that personal freedom must give way to economic development, that the two cannot possibly work in tandem. First World economic parity must be attained before you can even start to think about personal freedoms.

Vietnam, like China, is indeed a consumerist totalitarian state, and it too believes that good shopping can replace good governance. It thinks that substituting material goods for freedom is a bargain its citizens will buy. The people I write about in Censorship in Vietnam disagree. For them, freedom is a muscle that atrophies if you don’t use it. They think that all this talk about putting development first and democracy last is a bunch of ideological hooey. This argument is good for nothing more than buttressing the police state and building the walls behind which the ruling elites do their serious stealing. Who ever said that economic development and personal freedom are mutually exclusive? The history of our two countries, the United States and Australia, proves that the opposite is true. In fact, as the United States becomes less democratic and slides toward authoritarian rule, its economic development and leading role in science and technology will be weakened.

In the book, you write that state censorship is producing an intellectual wasteland in Vietnam, and yet I can’t help but think that we’re also suffering from this in the West, despite our having all the freedoms available to us and all the advantages of the digital age. We live in an era where knowledge has never been more widely available, and yet we seem to have succeeded in becoming remarkably ignorant (the rise of populism is not just restricted to the U.S). In a way, it makes us more culpable for our ignorance than those who live under authoritarian regimes. In their system, censorship is preventing them from getting to the truth, but we in the West have no such excuse.

I agree with you that these are perilous times. We are dancing on the edge of the volcano. We are distracted, forgetful, ignorant about our history, and incurious about our future. Plato wrote about this in his allegory of the cave, and here we are, twenty-five hundred years later, still chained to our seats, staring at shadows on the walls. “Democracy dies in darkness” is the motto adopted by The Washington Post after last year’s election in the United States. This sounds vaguely apocalyptic, but the paper’s editor is not looking for salvation in a Batmobile. He is reminding us about the importance of getting the news and learning how to sift truth from falsehood. You know the old joke, “What’s the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? A pessimist is better informed.” This is the golden age of journalism. I can wake up in the morning and before my first sip of coffee peruse headlines from Tokyo to Timbuktu. Sure, the amount of fake news and the stupidity of my optimistic neighbors is unnerving. But in this case, it’s up to me to loosen my chains and turn around if I want to see outside the cave.

You write that censorship exists in all societies, whether it is the state censorship of authoritarian regimes like Vietnam or the “soft censorship” of Western liberal democracies where dissenting views are side-lined. I want to take issue with this, if I may. To me, this a false equivalency. Here, people can express their opinions, while in authoritarian states they are prevented from doing so. Someone may risk marginalisation for expressing a non-mainstream view (whether it’s unpopular, unpatriotic, unorthodox, racist, or simply ignorant), but that person still has the right to say it.

I wasn’t arguing that “soft censorship” is the same as the hard variety, which is enforced by prison sentences or, in the most extreme cases, by death. I think that censorship exists along a continuum. It begins with ideological conformity, fear of retribution, a limited number of media outlets owned by large corporations, PR campaigns, book bannings, surveillance, disinformation, and propaganda. It moves from there to state-run security apparatuses, government control of the media, gulags, torture, and other means by which the state exercises its power. I oppose all forms of censorship, whether they be ideological or market-based. Some deserve more strenuous opposition than others, but all merit the light of discovery and condemnation.

What reaction (or denunciation) from Hanoi do you expect for publishing Censorship in Vietnam?

When the uncensored Vietnamese translation of The Spy Who Loved Us was published in Berlin – with side-by-side comparisons showing the 400 passages that had been cut or altered and with extensive commentary on how censorship works in Vietnam – the publication provoked a firestorm of criticism on the Vietnamese web. Hundreds of messages (not all of them written by trolls) accused me of “betraying” my subjects. I had quoted people without their permission or refused to remove their names when they asked me to do so. (Censoring books after publication is standard operating procedure in Vietnam. If something becomes too controversial or people get scared about being quoted, then a book disappears from the shelves. Even newspaper interviews are never conducted “on the record,” because the record can always be revised or erased.) The firestorm of criticism became the party line on Thomas Bass. He’s a backstabbing, bumpy-nosed betrayer of Vietnamese values who deserves to be censored and, in fact, he reveals the value of censorship, if it keeps people like him out of Vietnamese bookstores. At moments like this, I remember the advice of Henri Beyle, better known to us by his pen name Stendhal, who consoled himself by saying that he wrote for “the Happy Few.”

Now that your book has been published do you have any reservations about returning to Vietnam? Say you were invited to speak about your book at a literary festival in Hanoi. Would you be concerned about any repercussions?

I would be pleased to return to Vietnam. In spite of their benighted government, the people and the country are quite marvelous. Many brave dissidents are currently at work in Vietnam, and I would like to support them. I don’t know whether I’m brave or foolhardy or simply have the bones of a working journalist, but on my next trip to Vietnam, I plan to stuff my suitcase with copies of Censorship in Vietnam and try to carry them over the border. The electronic edition has yet to appear, and I have a lot of friends who would appreciate receiving a copy – even if they have to wrap it in brown paper or hide it under their beds. This will be another small attempt at lighting a match in the darkness.

Religion

The Tumultuous And Tragic History Of Hoa Hao Buddhism

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Hoa Hao Buddhists conducting a ceremony at the Hoa Hao Buddhists Club, Santa Ana, California, United States. Photo: hoahao.org.

If you ever visit An Giang Province, in the Mekong Delta Vietnam, you might be surprised by how a number of families practice Buddhism there. They follow Buddhism, but they do not pray to statues or depictions, but rather, a wooden board painted crimson, placed squarely in the center of the altar.

If you look closely, you’ll see individuals dressed in brown, their hair placed in high buns, worshipping Buddha in the simplest of ways at home – without the knocking of wooden bells or the reading of scriptures, but rather, only with the placement of flowers, incense, and water. 

These people are practitioners of Hoa Hao Buddhism, a religion built on a Buddhist foundation but with completely different practices from any other school of thought. 

From humble beginnings, the founder of Hoa Hao Buddhism brought to the inhabitants of the Mekong River Delta a simplified Buddhist philosophy, suitable for their impoverished circumstances. Not long after its establishment, the religion would quickly catch fire in the hearts of countless citizens.

Hoa Hao Buddhist clergy don’t cut their hair as in other schools of Buddhism. They also don’t have splendid and majestic temples; rather, they advise their adherents to practice at home and to worship simply, diligently perform good works, simplify weddings and funerals, and live with responsibility towards the nation.

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A map of the 13 provinces of the Mekong Delta today. The shape of An Giang Province has four distinct sides, so it is often called the Long Xuyen quadrilateral (Long Xuyen being the provincial capital city). An Giang Province shares a boundary with Cambodia and borders Dong Thap, Kien Giang, and Can Tho provinces. Photo: Gocnhin.net.

Huynh Phu So – the Muhammad of the Mekong Delta

As we know, at the beginning of the 20th Century, the Nguyen Dynasty ceded the entirety of southern Vietnam to French rule. In the Mekong Delta, nearly all residents were farmers, but they had to lease land from landowners at exorbitant prices, leading to arduous existences. [1] The people suffered in poverty under France’s oppressive politics that favored the landlord class.

Numerous anti-French peasant movements broke out around this canal-crisscrossed land, and the French authorities established a system to closely monitor civil activities.

Religions are often born out of thrilling or mysterious events that are able to win over large amounts of people. 

In 1940, in the area of Chau Doc, the French began taking notice of an unusual young man who announced the establishment of Hoa Hao Buddhism and who became the head of a religion at only 19 years of age. Followers came from all over and even the most notable figures became disciples. [2]

That young man was Huynh Phu So, who has been described as having a slender figure, a luminous face, and an articulate manner of speech.

In a 1942 speech written by Huynh Phu So himself, and preserved by apostles to this day, the young man stated that he himself had spent many lives saving people and that this life was a continuation of the Buddha’s sending him down to “save sentient beings.”

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Hoa Hao Buddhists attend the opening of festivities on May 17, 1971, marking the anniversary of the religion’s founding. Photo: Hoa Hao Buddhism Family.

The religion’s Central Management Board records Huynh Phu So as having established the religion after travelling with his family to the region of the Seven Mountains (Thất Sơn), today a part of An Giang Province and seen by many as a sacred area that also gave birth to the Buu Son Ky Huong [Strange Fragrance of the Treasured Mountain] religion.

According to Sấm Giảng (Huynh Phu So’s teaching books), Master Huynh Phu So expressed in a verse comprised of hundreds of rhyming sentences that he was the successor of the Buu Son Ky Huong sect.

Thus, the principle “study Buddha, cultivate man” and the foundational “Four Great Gratitudes” (Gratefulness to one’s parents and ancestors, gratefulness to one’s nation, gratefulness to the three treasures [the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha], and gratefulness to one’s compatriots and mankind) of the Buu Son Ky Huong sect became core values of Hoa Hao Buddhism.

In terms of communication, Huynh Phu So would convey everything simply and easily, and as a result, his religion was easily absorbed by the masses. The article “Principles of Religious Practice”, written by Huynh Phu So in 1945, summarizes in just 10 pages the religion’s philosophy and guides people on how to live a good life from his point of view.

The religion’s philosophy attracted poverty-stricken farmers by offering them the possibility of a good life and showing them how to practice Buddhism, even in conditions of deprivation.

“Meditate without action rather than with offerings of food,
Buddha would never want sentient beings to bribe.

Because our crops were flooded this year,
we should quickly dispense with superstition.
Try to maintain the three cardinal guides,
Completed virtue is what is precious.”
(Excerpted from “A crazy person’s disregard for the people”)

Moreover, Hoa Hao Buddhism’s philosophy was able to reconcile individual and family lives with responsibility for the nation, based on the foundation of the “Four Gratitudes,” providing people with the rationale for becoming practitioners.

“The monk decided to close the pagoda doors,
Drew his golden sword, mounted his horse, and charged into danger.
After he settled scores with the enemy nation,
The Zen pagoda returned to Buddhist homage!”
(The Words of Huynh Phu So)

The concept of the “Four Gratitudes” brought Hoa Hao Buddhism to life, making it both dear to the people and compatible with the conditions of deprivation at the time. 

Beyond his ability for eloquence, Huynh Phu So was also celebrated for his rare ability to treat the illnesses of his followers, who saw him as both a prophet and a fighter for national independence.

Fighting for national independence

In 1942, the Japanese intervened to bring Huynh Phu So to Saigon for refuge after a period of strict house arrest by the French that began in 1940. In Saigon, he quietly linked up with followers to advocate for Vietnam’s independence, which was consistent with both his religion’s principles and the zeitgeist at that time.

In 1944, Hoa Hao Buddhism established a paramilitary force called Bao An [Peace Protection] Group to maintain the security of Hoa Hao Buddhist villages in the Mekong Delta.

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Hoa Hao Buddhist soldiers practice martial arts in July 1948. Photo: LIFE Magazine.

With Huynh Phu So’s profile and his large number of parishioners, Hoa Hao Buddhism had a notable voice in the independence movement in the south. With the aim of creating a political voice in society, Huynh Phu So and a number of intellectuals established in 1946 the Vietnamese Social Democracy Party – abbreviated as S.D. Party.

In the beginning, besides linking up with different religious and political organizations, Hoa Hao Buddhists also connected with the Viet Minh to advocate for Vietnamese independence. However, it was not long before a serious conflict erupted between the two groups.

This conflict would eventually lead to Huynh Phu So’s mysterious disappearance. On April 16, 1947, Huynh Phu So went missing during a meeting between the Viet Minh and Hoa Hao Buddhists in the area of Dong Thap Muoi (Plain of Reeds). To this day, his disappearance remains a mystery. 

According to an article written by Nguyen Van Tran, and published in the overseas newspaper Viet Bao Online in 2016, the author cited a letter related to Hoa Hao Buddhism and Huynh Phu So that was stored at National Archive Center #4, under the Ministry of Home Affairs Department of State Documents and Archives. The letter, dated April 17, 1947, confirmed that the Viet Minh’s Long Xuyen Administrative Committee held Huynh Phu So in their custody but the letter did not state clearly what happened to him after that.

To Hoa Hao Buddhists today, the day Huynh Phu So went missing is referred to as “the day Virtuous Master disappeared,” or “the day of Virtuous Master’s Longevity Calamity.”

According to author Nguyen Long Thanh Nam, who was active in Hoa Hao Buddhism, and who worked for the government of the Second Republic (the Republic of Vietnam), the animosity between Hoa Hao Buddhists and the Viet Minh only worsened after Huynh Phu So’s disappearance. A number of Hoa Hao Buddhists changed sides and worked with the French to oppose the Viet Minh. According to Nam, in the approximate period from 1947 to 1955, Hoa Hao Buddhism became a competent military force with the help of the French. This fact would also lead to the religion facing strong repression from Ngo Dinh Diem’s government, which sought to consolidate military forces.

After Ngo Dinh Diem’s period of discriminatory treatment towards religions, Hoa Hao Buddhism was strengthened and developed under the Second Republic (1967 – 1975). At that time, exiles who had faced repression under Ngo Dinh Diem, such as Nguyen Long Thanh Nam, returned home to restore the religion. It was also during this time that Hoa Hao Buddhism split into two sects: the new sect was led by Luong Trong Tuong, while the original sect was led by Huynh Van Nhiem. In 1972, another sect splintered from the original group, led by Le Quang Liem. These divisions, however, did not hinder the development of the movement. 

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Hoa Hao Buddhists attend opening festivities on May 17, 1971, marking the religion’s founding day. Photo: Hoa Hao Buddhism Family.

In 1975, as their religious activities proliferated, Hoa Hao Buddhist groups also operated six high schools, a university, and two hospitals. 

However, after the upheaval of April 30, 1975, which saw the fall of the government of the Republic of Vietnam in the south, the vibrant religious scene in the south darkened under the shadow of the victors.

Scene of darkness after April 30

From the day Huynh Phu So disappeared, Hoa Hao Buddhists fiercely opposed the Viet Minh; thus, from April 30, 1975, onwards, the religion was completely banned from operating.

Author Nguyen Long Thanh Nam cited an article published in the Liberated Saigon (Sài Gòn Giải phóng) newspaper on August 9, 1975, to describe the government’s policy towards Hoa Hao Buddhism after the events of April 30. 

The Liberated Saigon article stated that the leaders of the religion, Luong Trong Tuong and Huynh Van Nhiem, “opposed religion, the nation, and the revolution.” It also described a three-day high-level meeting of some Hoa Hao Buddhist leaders in Thot Not Suburban District, Can Tho Province. At the end of that meeting, this group announced the dissolution of the Management Committee, S.D. Party’s Executive Committee, specialized organizations, as well as social workgroups. This meeting was held to accompanying the request of the government to prevent further assemblies of people in that area.

Author Nam also cited an article translated into Vietnamese from the Los Angeles Times (published in 1978), which stated that leaders and practitioners of Hoa Hao Buddhism who had participated in politics were all sent off to re-education camps.

In December 1998, a UN special rapporteur on freedom of belief and religion, Adbelfattah Amor, released his report following a formal visit to Vietnam in October 1998.

In his report, the rapporteur stated that he was not able to meet any Hoa Hao Buddhists, either formally or privately.  Non-state sources had informed him that after April 30, 1975, the government closed more than 3,500 Hoa Hao pagodas, as well as more than 5,000 worshipping centers, where the Hoa Hao Buddhists often held their social and religious activities.

Amor concluded that Buddhist, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and Muslim religious organizations could not be established nor operate independently of the government. The existence of registered religious groups at the time served more as the government’s tools of social control than citizens exercising their religious freedom.

In 1999, Hoa Hao Buddhism fundamentally split into two sects. One sect, the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church, was permitted by the government to operate and is headquartered at An Hoa Temple in  Phu My Town, Phu Tan Suburban District, An Giang Province.

Many Hoa Hao Buddhists do not participate in this sect, stating that the management committee is controlled by the government and does not operate according to t proper religious principles.  

The remaining other sect is not recognized by the government as “official” and is headquartered at the Hoa Hao Buddhist Family Group no more than 3 km from the An Hoa Temple. The activities of the independent Hoa Hao Buddhists are forbidden. 

In August 1999, the overseas newspaper Viet Bao Online reported a conflict between the two sects in An Giang Province involving the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church being the only sect recognized by the state. The “official” church was able to organize public festivals and events but did not organize a holiday around “the Day of Virtuous Master’s Longevity Calamity,” nor did it read sermons during any holidays.

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Hoa Hao Buddhist Bui Van Trung during his preliminary trial on February 9, 2018, in the An Giang Province People’s Court. For allegedly disturbing public order, he was sentenced to six years in prison, while five other Hoa Hao Buddhists were sentenced to between two to six years. Photo: RFA.

In 2014, Vietnam continued to invite special rapporteurs from the UN to evaluate the country’s level of religious freedom. The rapporteurs’ report maintained that the oppressive situation independent Hoa Hao Buddhists faced had not changed appreciably. Their freedoms continued to be obstructed, and they were often followed, arrested, beaten, and imprisoned. 

Every year, the United States’ Report on International Religious Freedom touches on the Vietnamese government’s harassment of independent Hoa Hao Buddhists and its restriction of their activities. The 2012 report stated that the government allowed only 5 of 10 of Hoa Hao Buddhist religious texts to be published and that it banned the reading of Huynh Phu So’s writings in public. Beyond the charges of repression of independent Hoa Hao Buddhists, the 2018 US report documented that the government continued to ban followers from celebrating any holidays related to the life of Huynh Phu So.


References:

[1] Vietnam during the French colonial era, Nguyen The Anh, Culture – Literature & Art Publishing House, p. 227.
[2] On the historical roots of Hoa Hao Buddhism, Pascal Bourdeaux, Dang The Dai Dich.


This article was written in Vietnamese by Tran Phuong and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on August 3, 2019. Will Nguyen did the English translation.

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Religion

The Coconut Monk’s Adventure Between Religion And Politics

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The Coconut Monk in the 1970 documentary Sad Song of Yellow Skin, directed by Michael Rubbo.

A mentally ill old man or an anti-war monk?

In 1968, the south of Vietnam had just moved past a period of long-running political unrest that had society shaken and stirred. The people were fed up with the promises and realities that the government brought their way. The fears of both the Communist and the Nationalist sides were not so different. To survive, people had to gird themselves and pray that spiritual forces would deliver them from the war’s uncertainties.

Moving beyond the religious sphere, many southern monks openly opposed the increasingly brutal war. International journalists began paying attention to priests and spiritual leaders, who possessed enough credibility and representation to express the general population’s suffering.

In the spring of 1968, journalist John Steinbeck IV, the 22-year-old son of internationally-renowned American writer John Steinbeck, followed his friends down to My Tho (in today’s Tien Giang Province) to meet an enigmatic Zen Buddhist monk, the Coconut Monk, a person whom some of the officials in the southern government saw as a mentally ill, troublesome old man.

Upon arriving in My Tho, Steinbeck’s group climbed onto a motorized boat and headed to the Coconut Monk’s sanctuary in the middle of the My Tho River. The roar of Steinbeck’s boat and the crashing waves were no match for the wind chimes, constructed from the used metals of tank ammunition, that were reverberating from Con Phung (Phoenix Island), the Coconut Monk’s island. At his pagoda, he and his disciples transformed the shells of wartime bombs and bullets into objects of peace. He even raised a cat and a mouse together to prove that the north and the south could live in peace with one another despite their differences.

Stepping onto the pagoda, Steinbeck saw before him 200 followers dressed in brown, their heads wrapped in head cloths, prostrated towards the setting sun. On a platform of flowered tiles, where followers conducted their ceremonies, colorful cement dragons wound around nine pillars erected in the courtyard. The nine columns represented the tributaries that form the Mekong River delta, a region of rare abundance.

The lower part of the pagoda appeared to rise from the middle of the river, its floor lined with a cement map of Vietnam about 20 meters in length. Scattered underneath were little model homes, the greenery designed to resemble miniatures of cities from north to south. Saigon and Hanoi were marked by two high cement columns on the map, allowing the two cities to be seen even when high tide submerged the map. Each day, the Coconut Monk would pray for peace in Vietnam by traversing the symbolic map from Saigon to Hanoi.

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The Coconut Monk’s followers conducted a ceremony on Nam Quoc Pagoda’s Nine Dragon Pavilion in 1969. Photo: Lance & Cromwell.

The Coconut Monk received Steinbeck in a yellow monk’s robe but dangled a Catholic crucifix on his chest. His head was not wrapped as his followers; instead, his ponytail was plaited and wrapped in a white cloth, which the Coconut Monk stated was in the style of Jesus’ crown of thorns. Occasionally, his plait of hair would be let down to his chest, whereby he would say he represented the image of the Maitreya Buddha.

At their first meeting, Steinbeck and the Coconut Monk experienced a special moment of inspiration. Originally an admirer of Buddhism and Daoism, Steinbeck stated that the day before, he looked at a map of Vietnam and saw that if a circle were drawn around the S-shaped expanse of land, it would resemble a Tai Chi symbol from the doctrine of yin and yang. In this Tai Chi symbol, Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake was the white dot in the black portion, represented by the land, while China’s Hainan Island was the black dot in the white portion, represented by the sea. The Coconut Monk then had his follower bring over a map he had drawn the day before that matched what Steinbeck had just stated, confirming a strange coincidence. Followers became increasingly surprised at the spiritual connection between the two. Steinbeck also felt something he couldn’t quite put his finger on when he stepped foot onto the enigmatic pagoda. 

Steinbeck would take a motorbike from Saigon down to Con Phung every weekend and stay overnight from that fateful meeting onwards. He felt calmer there than any other place, which seemed completely isolated from the terrible war crisscrossing the south. Steinbeck wrote in his memoir that his days spent at the pagoda were the happiest time of his life.

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Front row from left: John Steinbeck, the Coconut Monk, and the director of Sad Song of Yellow Skin, Michael Rubbo, in 1970. 
Photo: Sad Song of Yellow Skin.

A letter to President Johnson

One morning, the Coconut Monk’s followers woke Steinbeck up while the sky was still dark. When he cleared the sleep from his mind, he saw that his motorbike was propped up neatly in a motorized boat. The Coconut Monk wanted Steinbeck to return to Saigon immediately to have lunch with his (Steinbeck’s) friends, reporters, at a restaurant in Cho Lon. Steinbeck quickly hit the road but could not dispel his worries, as he knew that the government never wanted this troublesome monk to step foot in Saigon.

That afternoon, the Coconut Monk stopped by the restaurant to see Steinbeck having lunch with his friends. Through a luxury Buick automobile window, the Coconut Monk told Steinbeck that he wanted Steinbeck to tell the reporters about his new movement. The monk stated that tomorrow, he would arrive at Independence Palace and march to the American Embassy (now at No. 4 Le Duan Rd. in Ho Chi Minh City) to deliver a letter explaining his plan for peace to then U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Having frequently witnessed how Saigon police dealt with protestors, Steinbeck knew this was a very dangerous plan. To protect his teacher, he chose to notify the embassy of the Coconut Monk’s plans, a decision that would prove extremely naïve. 

The next afternoon, with a coconut in one hand, the Coconut Monk stepped out of his car at a corner near Independence Palace. He was half-surrounded by people jeering or prostrating themselves and half-surrounded by plainclothes police. At that moment, police vehicles poured onto the street, blocking the monk’s path into Independence Palace. The Coconut Monk switched routes, going straight to the American Embassy despite police warnings.

As the crowds followed the Coconut Monk to the embassy, a contingent of Marines awaited him there. On the roof of the enormous blockhouse were approximately 40 Marines with their guns trained on the group of people below. In the air, a helicopter hovered overhead as the short, emaciated monk slowly and deliberately sat down on the sidewalk with his coconut. 

After more than 20 minutes, the embassy became aware of the military overreaction. It sent out an employee who accepted the monk’s letter but rejected his coconut because the American president was unable to accept gifts from foreign dignitaries. The monk returned to his island satisfied, escorted by the unwilling police. As a warning for the Coconut Monk never to step foot in Saigon again, the police arrested 30 of his closest followers after he left the city.

The letter the embassy received was an unprecedented petition. The Coconut Monk asked President Johnson to borrow 20 transport planes to deliver him, his followers, and materials to the 17th parallel—where Vietnam was divided into two enemy states. He and his followers would form a prayer group right in the middle of the Ben Hai River. He would sit at the center of this group and pray for seven days with no food or drink. On each side of the river would be 300 monks praying together with him.

No one knows if the letter ever reached President Johnson, but everyone knows that the Coconut Monk never gave up his dream of bringing peace to Vietnam.

From a warm-hearted uncle to the Coconut Monk

In Con Phung (Ben Tre) today, which was once the Coconut Monk’s territory, there remains a marble slab with a brief inscription describing the monk, which states:

“From 1928 – 1935, he studied abroad in France at the College of Physical Chemistry in Lyon – Caen – Rouen. After three years, he succeeded in his study. But for what? From 1935 – 1945, he returned home and climbed the mysterious That Son [Seven Mountains] to look for a path to peace, meditating on the principles of yin and yang and ‘no war, no violence.’ From 1947 – 1972, he worked for peace and was imprisoned once or twice. He lived without losing heart, wisdom, or courage. (His) Morality united Vietnam to live together with meditative hearts. Thich Hoa Binh (Love Peace), of divine rights and virtue”.

Articles about the Coconut Monk today confirm that his name was Nguyen Thanh Nam and that he was the only child of a wealthy family in Ben Tre.

After he returned from studying overseas, Nguyen Thanh Nam married his wife. He opened up a factory producing soap out of coconut before leaving for the monkhood near the Seven Mountains, An Giang Province, in 1945. 

Three years later, when his body had taken on the form of an emaciated old man who pursued asceticism to the fullest, Nguyen Thanh Nam, aged 37, descended from the mountains and continued to meditate under a tree overlooking the Tien River for another two years. At that time, several people began noticing him, especially the fact that he only drank coconut water and only ate a bit of fruit for daily sustenance. 

Then in 1952, he built an Eight Trigrams platform in the middle of an irrigation canal using a 14-meter coconut tree. For the entirety of the next two years, people from all over came to see this strange man who meditated rain-or-shine. He never uttered a word and only wrote down what he wanted to communicate to others.

In 1963, the Coconut Monk and others purchased a large barge where he built the massive Nam Quoc Pagoda at Con Phung, in the middle of the My Tho River. At the pagoda, he allowed the construction of many structures, including a model of the Seven Mountains, an image of the Buddha laying his hand on the body of Jesus, an image of the Virgin Mary embracing Guan Yin, and a nine-story tower. This was the sanctuary of the Coconut Religion, also known as the Religion of Congeniality. 

His unusual methods of religious practice included taking a vow of silence, only drinking coconut water and eating fruit, abstaining from sugar and salt to keep the body pristine after death, persuading others to take up vegetarianism, performing good works, and praying for peace. People found the fact that he found religion near the sacred Seven Mountains irresistible. In 1974, in Dinh Tuong Province (today a part of Tien Giang Province), there were up to 3,516 followers of the Coconut Religion, while Protestantism only had 3,512.

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An erected image of the Buddha laying his hand on the body of Jesus at Nam Quoc Pagoda. Photo: Lance Nix.

Conducting politics or prayer?

Both the first and the second republics of (South) Vietnam did not kindly those calling for peace, whether they were a respectable monk or an ordinary farmer, a well-known journalist or a good-natured student.

It was precisely because of the government’s sensitivity that the Coconut Monk was forbidden from travelling to Cambodia to pray for peace in 1961. However, the authorities were unable to stop him from conducting the same activities in Saigon.

In December 1964, when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara came to Saigon, the Coconut Monk and his disciples looked for him while holding two cages, one holding a cat and another holding a rat. The Coconut Monk released the cat and the rat into one cage, but the cat did not consume the rat. The press wrote many stories about the event. Later on, Thich Nhat Hanh would retell the story in a children’s picture book with the ending: “If the cat and the rat can live in peace with one another, can humans do the same?”.

Many people, including the government at the time, believed that the Coconut Monk used the cover of religion to conduct politics. The evidence included the two times he ran as a presidential candidate in the 1967 and 1971 elections, where he raised a large number of campaign funds, supposedly from his followers. He also frequently organized press conferences and sought out and sent letters to political figures to call for peace in Vietnam. 

His activities were non-violent, but the Saigon government still found ways to crack down on him. Either he would be arrested, the Nam Quoc Pagoda would be raided, or his followers would also be arrested. Despite this, the Saigon government still allowed the Coconut Monk to freely practice his religion, as long as he stayed put at Con Phung and refrained from causing disruption and occupying the authorities. As Thich Nhat Hanh wrote at the beginning of 2010 regarding religious freedom in Vietnam: “During the colonial period, during the time of Diem and Thieu, religious practitioners did experience many difficulties, but they were never as tightly and unreasonably controlled as they are today [after 1975]”.

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Followers of the Coconut Religion in 1969 at the Nam Quoc Pagoda. Photo: Lance Nix.

Dying under the Communist sky

After 1975, all of the south fell under the control of communist totalitarianism. Religions were deemed superstitions, church properties and possessions were confiscated, and monks and religious dignitaries were imprisoned in re-education camps without trial. Vietnam became one of the most religiously oppressive countries on earth at the time. The Coconut Religion, then very new religion, obviously did not stand a chance against government eradication.

According to Phap Luat [Law] Newspaper, after April 30, 1975, the Coconut Monk was no longer allowed to practice his religion. After a period of time, he tried to escape over the border and was caught by the authorities. It wasn’t until 1985 that the government released the diminutive monk, who weighed less than 40 kg and reached less than 1.4 meters tall and allowed him to return home.

Due to government censorship, it is challenging to find complete information on the Coconut Monk’s activities after being released from prison.

After returning home to Chau Thanh Suburban District in Ben Tre Province, the Coconut Monk resumed religious activities and was visited by many followers. After a time, he established a local radio station and opened every broadcast with: “This is Phu An Hoa Radio, the voice of the Religion of Congeniality….”

The government asserted that the Coconut Monk’s radio station was superstitious and slandered the state, and so it confiscated his broadcasting equipment and questioning him and his followers.

Forbidden from practicing his religion, he and his followers moved to Phu Quoc Island in Kien Giang Province, but they were quickly and forcibly sent back to their homes. In May 1990, when his followers secretly transported him to Ho Chi Minh City to take refuge before returning to a follower’s home in Tien Giang Province, the police found him. A scuffle broke out between the two sides at a residential home, leading to the Coconut Monk’s death.

After that incident, the People’s Court of Ben Tre Province convicted the Coconut Monk’s followers of obstruction of officials, handing them heavy sentences. However, the details of that trial were never publicized by the press and kept secretive by the Vietnamese government.

In 1986, Steinbeck overheard overseas Vietnamese say that the Vietnamese government wanted to transform the Nam Quoc Pagoda into a tourist attraction in a Paris restaurant.

Later, Steinbeck would write in his memoir of the Coconut Monk: “When I saw him for the last time, we didn’t say goodbye. He touched his eye, indicating a rare tear. Then grinning, he pointed to the sky where he lived. Memories are obsolete, and I can’t forget.”

In February 1991, less than a year after the Coconut Monk’s unjust death, Steinbeck passed away during a surgical procedure on his spine. In Vietnam, the Coconut Monk was buried according to his will: his body was standing up. 

The Nam Quoc Pagoda later became a tourist destination, and the Vietnamese press continues to write stories smearing the Coconut Religion to this day.


This article was written in Vietnamese by Tran Phuong and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on February 9, 2020. Will Nguyen did the English translation.

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Human Rights

Journalist Pham Doan Trang Can Still Be Freed In Vietnam. And The US Could Help Win Her Release.

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Pham Doan Trang at her home. Photo: Thinh Nguyen.

While in Vietnam, Vice President Kamala Harris has significant leverage to make a change: free one of the most prominent journalists and democracy activists in the country.

For the Vietnamese Communist Party, political prisoners are bargaining chips in international negotiations. They sell their own citizens to gain a trade deal or a more favorable security treaty. That’s because they know human rights are the soft spot of major powers, such as the United States and the European Union. 

Thus, they release political prisoners in exchange for economic and political gains. The problem is the prisoners are released conditionally: they are expelled from the country. Most of them settle in the United States.

But journalist Pham Doan Trang, one of Vietnam’s most respected journalists, is a different case. Unlike other political prisoners, she has not been indicted or convicted yet; she is a detainee under investigation and still has a chance to be released in Vietnam.

Once the police have determined that an accused person did commit a crime, there is absolutely no way that person can avoid conviction and sentencing. The only option left is to negotiate a settlement in another country, as had happened with some other political prisoners.

Of course, the investigators have now gathered more than enough evidence to make a case against Trang and put her away for up to 20 years. Chances are, the Communist Party has not decided yet on how to move forward with her case to maximize its own interests. All options are still on the table. 

Doan Trang has insisted that she doesn’t want to leave the country until it becomes a democracy. As a close friend and colleague of hers for over a decade, I know how painful it is for her to be forced out of her only home, her beloved Vietnam.

As one of the most prominent and talented journalists and democracy activists in Vietnam since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, she has always aimed at breaking down the censorship curtain that puts the country at the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. Her writings and activism include various samizdat political books, two independent magazines (Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese), many protest movements, and international advocacy campaigns.

As a result, she was awarded the Homo Homini Prize from People in Need (Czech Republic) in 2017 and the Press Freedom Award by Reporters Without Borders (France) in 2019. But more importantly, Doan Trang’s way of working and living inspires other Vietnamese to stand up for their rights and a better, kinder country.

No authoritarian regime would tolerate her. After years of cat-and-mouse games with the authorities, and many physical assaults, the police have detained Doan Trang since October 7, 2020, charging her with spreading propaganda against the state. The criminal provision has been widely condemned by human rights groups as a way the government silences critics – a clear violation of free speech protected by the Constitution and legally binding international treaties.

Doan Trang was on her way to meet then-president Barack Obama in May 2016 in Hanoi before the police kidnapped her and detained her for the rest of the day. Vice President Harris may not be able to meet Trang in the detention center, but she can surely do a lot to free her in Vietnam.

The trade relations, especially the semiconductor supply chain and strategic partnership are believed to be the reasons Vice President Harris is paying a visit to Vietnam.

In such circumstances, I believe that the United States, and Vice President Harris, in particular, have an excellent chance to push for Doan Trang’s release right in Vietnam while the case is still undecided. And there is a precedent for that.

In June 2007, Vietnam released attorney and democracy advocate Le Quoc Quan after three months of temporary detention and two days before Chairman Nguyen Minh Triet visited the United States. Attorney Le Quoc Quan had not been indicted yet, and a major reason he was freed was a mountain of pressure from the United States government and civil society, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, where Quan did a fellowship before his return to Vietnam.

It is now urgent to push for Doan Trang’s release, before it’s too late.

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