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Human Rights

The Women Of Possibilities

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From left: Pham Doan Trang, Can Thi Theu, Nguyen Thuy Hanh. Photo: Luat Khoa Magazine/PhotoMania.

This article was published in Vietnamese by Luat Khoa Magazine on March 8, 2019. The translation was done by Will Nguyen. More than two years after the Vietnamese article was published, all three women in this article have been arrested and charged with national security laws in Vietnam. We do not want their stories to go in silence, so we translate them to tell the world about who these women are: the women of possibilities.


March 8, is International Women’s Day, and Vietnam celebrates this holiday wholeheartedly.

However, no mainstream newspapers will write about the three women in this article. No organizations will honor them. No solemn ceremony will have them as guests. And among those who “care” about them the most are usually…the Vietnamese police.

They say things few people say.

They do things few people do.

They’ve accepted risks that few people dare accept. 

In actuality, they’re part of a world that few care about or dwell on; for these individuals, few are willing to stand by their side.

The women we speak of in this special piece represent the hidden aspirations, the beautiful reflections, the burning dreams of an entire nation. They’re singing for us a song of freedom, nurturing a better future for each and every one of us.

Nguyen Thuy Hanh

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Activist Nguyen Thuy Hanh. Photo: Huynh Ngoc Chenh. Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

In February of 2016, a wave of independent candidates competed for seats in the National Assembly, setting off a movement that was the largest of its kind in post-1975 Vietnam. Approximately 30 candidates had signed up, only for the “consultation” process to remove them from the roster. Nguyen Thuy Hanh was among them.

Different from Party-nominated candidates, independent candidates announced their action plans. And different from nearly all independent candidates, Nguyen Thuy Hanh was the rare voice that included women’s rights in her platform. She called for stricter laws on violence against women and human trafficking, encouraged job creation, and pushed for education policies and legal support for women.

Born in 1963, Nguyen Thuy Hanh is a Hanoi woman whose soul is full of art and romance. She has participated in civil society struggles since the 2011 anti-China protests, when protesting was especially taboo not just in the minds of state officials but the vast majority of ordinary citizens.

Over nearly eight years, having participated in tens of protests and having been beaten and arrested many times, she has witnessed Vietnamese society slowly change, from opposing the right to protest to respecting and then supporting it. When boisterous, nationwide protests broke out on June 10th, 2018 and tens of thousands of people took to the streets to oppose the Special Economic Zones and Cybersecurity Laws, Nguyen Thuy Hanh was perhaps one of the most elated, for her contributions had normalized what had previously been one of the most “sensitive” acts in society. 

However, Nguyen Thuy Hanh’s name is more often connected to the “50k Fund”, which she created to financially support prisoners of conscience and their families.  The fund started at the beginning of 2018, originating from a brief, online fundraiser to help a number of activists on trial. Hanh had received several fold the amount requested and thus, the idea for a future fund to help activists at-risk unexpectedly came into being.

The 50k Fund aimed to help with difficult situations lesser known to the public, and its name was purposefully chosen to encourage people to donate small amounts, rather than >50,000 VND (~2.20 USD), popularly believed to be the minimum for charity. Such small amounts also assuaged donor fears of police harassment.

To this day, Nguyen Thuy Hanh’s 50k Fund has received thousands of donations, totaling many billions of VND (~hundreds of thousands of USD), all of which are documented in detail on her public Facebook account.  

The 50k Fund’s meaningfulness goes beyond providing prisoners of conscience everyday material support. It also awakens the emotions of ordinary citizens, encouraging them to care more about politics and helping them overcome the intangible fear constraining their hearts and minds. The 50k Fund normalizes and makes concrete that which is considered “political” or “sensitive”, bringing to citizens the full splendor and meaning of civil society struggle.

A lover of beauty and romance, Nguyen Thuy Hanh draws a long, brilliant stroke for the Vietnamese democracy movement.  

Can Thi Theu

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Peasant leader Can Thi Theu. Photo: RFA. Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

People normally think of peasant leaders as something from their history classes, as figures only found in textbooks. But Can Thi Theu is a real-life, flesh-and-blood peasant leader, a heart beating strongly within the body politic.

The life of this courageous woman is connected to the phrase “Duong Noi’s disenfranchised citizens”. Duong Noi is a ward in Ha Dong District. Prior to 2008, it was part of Ha Tay Province, but today, it has been incorporated into Hanoi. Can Thi Theu’s name is probably not mentioned very often in domestic or international press, and she doesn’t have her own English-language Wikipedia page. From 2007, she became one of thousands of disenfranchised citizens who lost their land when the government forcefully reclaimed agricultural and cemetery land in Duong Noi for new urban construction projects.

The “disenfranchisement” of farmers like Can Thi Theu lies in their complete exclusion from the process, from project planning all the way to land acquisition.

They were not consulted about compensation or relocation assistance, and the government did not provide them any kind of vocational training after taking away their livelihoods. Furthermore, the gravesites of their ancestors were leveled without notification of their displacement.

As a woman born in the year of the Tiger (1962), Can Thi Theu rose among the thousands of disenfranchised citizens to become leader, with her strategic mind, her ability to see in the short- and the long-term, and her skill in thwarting police tactics.

Her leadership skills also manifest in her ability to endure and sacrifice for others, forever taking the hit while protecting those in her care. She is patient and looks past the small, unimportant details to achieve the peasant movement’s longer-term goals. It must be remembered that these farmers lost their land 12 years ago; it’s not easy to keep Duong Noi a hot topic to this day.

The price that Can Thi Theu had to pay was not small. She was twice imprisoned (2014 – 2015 and 2016 – 2018) for a total of two years and 11 months, for obstruction of officials and disturbing public order.

From prison in the Central Highlands, she wrote a letter home to her fellow citizens before the 2017 Lunar New Year: “Fight to the end, to demand the return of our land, our right to live, and our rights as human beings, which the communist regime has stolen from my family and those who share our plight.”

You read that properly. Northern farmer Can Thi Theu is not afraid of calling out the “elephant in the room”, the direct perpetrators of the injustice that she and farmers like her have had to endure.

Can Thi Theu became the face of one of the greatest forms of injustice that Vietnamese citizens contend with, when she fell victim to the Vietnamese Communist Party’s larcenous land policy, which it has consistently carried out for decades.

She is also a living representative for those fighting to abolish “universal ownership” of land, seeking to establish legitimate, private land ownership rights for every individual. Every act in Vietnamese history has been intimately tied to land, and Can Thi Theu has placed herself center-stage for the next.

Pham Doan Trang

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Activist Pham Doan Trang. Photo: Tri Dung. Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

If someone believed that it was impossible to be a bona-fide journalist in Vietnam’s mainstream media environment, then Pham Doan Trang proves the opposite. She has 12 years of experience as a sterling journalist at VnExpress, VietNamNet, and Ho Chi Minh City Law, with reams of critical stories and excellent documentations.

If someone believed that journalists and intellectuals in Vietnam faced insurmountable political restrictions, then Pham Doan Trang proves the opposite.

She constantly embarks on endless explorations to (un)cover the most sensitive, most dangerous, most censored topics.

She also does not limit herself within the rigid confines of mainstream newspapers; instead, she uses all the tools at her disposal to write and publish. Independent newspapers, overseas newspapers, blogs, social media, samizdat—Doan Trang has adeptly utilized them all to convey information to her readers.

For Doan Trang, the concept of “hitting the ceiling” is completely foreign; she is forever someone who lifts those ceilings so that others may have more breathing room.

If someone believed that they were unable to surmount material, physical, and even spiritual difficulties, then Pham Doan Trang proves the opposite.

A small and frail woman with numerous scars and injuries, she has had to endure countless assaults by police, drifting through more than 35 different locations across the country over the past 20 months to escape police pursuit and continue her work.

She lives frugally, no different from those provincial students in the 90s, who left to study in the city, but people would see her write consistently and prolifically.

Politics for the Common People, Non-violent Resistance, and Studying Public Policy Through the Case of SEZs are just some of the many titles she’s penned over the years.

Born in 1978, Doan Trang belongs to the post-war generation and grew up when the country and the world were changing at dizzying speeds. Unsatisfied with the disorderly state of the country, people like Doan Trang saw it as their role to address these disorders. For her, there is always work to do, and she does so, without rest.

Doan Trang swears by a lifetime oath: to never leave Vietnam, not even for a day, while it remains without democracy. 

Doan Trang personifies fierceness and does not compromise with evil or cowardice. But she is also full of romance and forever searches for beauty in the strums of a guitar.

She inspires people to stand up, to take steps and discover the beauty of politics. With knowledge and vigor, she represents for many the aspiration for a democratic Vietnam, the light of hope in the dark depths of despair, and the ability for oneself to embody that hope.

Doan Trang talks the talk and walks the walk, inspiring many with what could be; her life, simply put, is a powerful testament to what could be.


The three women in this piece embody the possibilities. They have defied political and gender stereotypes that weigh down their every step. The meaning of March 8th has never lain in flowers or gifts; it lies in the women who fight for what is right and just.

This March 8, we reserve flowers for women like Nguyen Thuy Hanh, Can Thi Theu, and Pham Doan Trang.

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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