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Tinh That Bong Lai monks and nuns have been accused in State media of “incest,” “seeking personal gains,” and “committing fraud.” However, the authorities only changed them with “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on State and individuals’ legitimate rights and interests,” under Article 331 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.
Who then will be responsible for the defamation that these people of Tinh That Bong Lai have suffered?
On June 30, 2022, the Duc Hoa District People’s Court in Long An Province held a trial for six people from Tinh That Bong Lai, a local orphanage and independent Buddhist monastery, under Article 331 of the Penal Code.
In the latest update regarding the trial on June 30 from Dang Dinh Manh, one of the five lawyers defending the group, the Duc Hoa District Court approved the attorneys’ request to postpone the trial until July 20. The attorneys previously sent a complaint letter to Long An Provincial People’s Court to ask for the halt of the trial due to the lack of preparation time.
Tinh That Bong Lai, alternatively known as “Thien Am Ben Bo Vu Tru” (a small meditating temple on the edge of the universe), is a local orphanage and independent Buddhist religious site located in Duc Hoa District, Long An Province.
According to multiple sources, Tinh That Bong Lai was first established as an orphanage called “Thanh Duc” in 1990 by Le Tung Van, a follower of the Buu Son Ky Huong religion.
According to “Millenarianism and Peasant Politics in Vietnam,” a book published in 1983, Buu Son Ky Huong is an orthodox form of folk Buddhism commonly practiced in Vietnam’s southern region.
Unlike other Buddhist practitioners, the followers of Buu Son Ky Huong are particularly devoted to the method of “familial Buddhism” (tu tai gia) which literally means you can practice Buddhism in your own home and by your own self, and that you do not need to go to the temples to worship Buddha.
The requirements for the worshippers of this Buddhist sect are minimal. The followers are taught that they need to practice these three ideally comprised altars. One for worshipping ancestors, one for worshipping Buddha, and one raised in a house’s forecourt to communicate with Heaven (ban thong Thien).
The Thanh Duc orphanage was recognized by local authorities as a legitimate facility in 2004 when it began receiving and caring for orphans. As of 2007, the orphanage was taking care of as many as 50 orphans and homeless people, according to Vietnam’s state-owned media.
In 2007, local authorities shut down the orphanage because of its alleged violations of legal requirements in establishing and functioning as a humanitarian facility. According to the People’s Police newspaper, a mouthpiece of Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security, the living conditions at Thanh Duc Orphanage were poor, and the facility lacked basic necessities to care for orphans.
In 2014, Cao Thi Cuc, a local citizen in Long An Province, purchased a plot of land around 2,000 square meters in Duc Hoa District to make it a familial worshipping place. In 2015, Cao Thi Cuc and Le Tung Van established a new orphanage and a Buddhist temple on the land that Cuc owned. The place was subsequently named “Tinh That Bong Lai” and renamed “Thien am ben bo vu tru” in 2020.
The Buddhist temple gained popularity after its monks and nuns participated in and won several comedic and musical competitions.
In 2014, Le Thanh Huyen Tran, a nun at Tinh That Bong Lai, participated in and won as a runner-up in a national music contest called “Giong Hat Viet.” In 2017, two of its monks, Le Thanh Nhat Nguyen and Le Thanh Hoan Nguyen, joined in a musical contest but they later withdrew due to health problems.
In 2019, Tinh That Bong Lai’s popularity grew significantly after five of the temple’s orphans won the highest prize in a national comedy contest. The temple also has a private channel on Youtube, where it regularly uploads self-made comedy shows and videos on everyday life at the orphanage. The channel had more than two million subscribers as of July 2022.
However, Tinh That Bong Lai’s growing popularity made the temple a target of defamation by Vietnam’s state-owned media and local authorities.
Since the Buddhist temple is an independent religious facility and not registered with the Vietnamese government-controlled Buddhist Sangha, many independent observers believe that Tinh That Bong Lai could use its influence on social media to undermine the local authorities or promote the independence of Buddhism and religious practices from the government’s control.
In 2019, the monks and nuns at Tinh That Bong Lai live streamed their dispute with the local police of Duc Hoa District over the disappearance of Diem My, who previously left her home and became a nun at the temple. Tinh That Bong Lai claimed in its live stream that the police had abducted Diem My and returned the nun to her parents at their request. The Long An Police Investigation Agency said that the temple’s claims are “distorted” and “defamatory” of the police forces.
The temple’s monks also criticized Thich Nhat Tu, a monk from the government-controlled Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, after Nhat Tu claimed that the monks at Tinh That Bong Lai were “fake” since they are not recognized by the official Buddhist Sangha. In one of their videos published on Youtube in 2021, Tinh That Bong Lai monks rejected all of Nhat Tu’s accusations while claiming that one person does not have to be recognized by Vietnam’s Buddhist Sangha to become a real monk.
In November 2021, Nguyen Tien Trong, deputy head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, a government-controlled bureau that manages all religious activities in Vietnam, said in a news conference that Tinh That Bong Lai is suspected of “seeking personal gains” by using its reputation as a religious facility. The religion committee also demanded the Long An Provincial authorities and the Buddhist Sangha “verify” and “handle” the alleged malpractice.
Initially, local police and state media used the allegations of “incest,” “seeking personal gains,” and “committing fraud” to denounce and convict the Tinh That Bong Lai monks and nuns of their alleged wrongdoings.
Since all media outlets in Vietnam remain tightly controlled by the government, many independent observers believe that the Vietnamese authorities have manipulated these channels to gain public approval for their suppression of independent religious facilities.
However, the Vietnamese authorities consequently used Article 331 of Vietnam’s Penal Code, which has been frequently deployed to restrict freedom of speech, to officially indict the temple’s practitioners.
According to the final indictment, the evidence used to prosecute the monks and nuns at Tinh That Bong Lai consists of five videos uploaded on social media, which allegedly “distort and defame the reputation and dignity” of the Duc Hoa District Police, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Tu, and the Long An Provincial Buddhist Sangha.
On January 7, 2022, Le Tung Van, the head monk, along with Le Thanh Hoan Nguyen, Le Thanh Nhat Nguyen, and Le Thanh Trung Duong were arrested and prosecuted under Article 331. They were also accused of “seeking personal gain” and “stirring social disorder” for “taking advantage of their reputation as an orphanage to call for [financial] support.”
On May 12, the Long An Provincial Police arrested Cao Thi Cuc, the monastery’s landowner, for further investigation into alleged “seeking personal gain” and “stirring social disorder.” Cuc was also prosecuted under Article 331 of the Penal Code.
On May 27, Le Thanh Nhi Nguyen became the fifth monk to be arrested on the same charge of “abusing democratic freedoms.” Nhi Nguyen was accused of “assisting Cao Thi Cuc in publishing false information about Duc Hoa District Public Security forces.”
Tinh That Bong Lai monks and nuns have denied all of the allegations from Vietnam’s state media and local authorities.
Le Thanh Minh Tu, one of the orphans who grew up at the temple, told RFA Vietnamese that he was treated well while being brought up at Tinh That Bong Lai. Minh Tu added that the temple didn’t use its reputation as an orphanage to seek personal gains or call for financial support as reported by state media.
In a Youtube video published on May 12, only two weeks before his arrest, Le Thanh Nhi Nguyen said that he was surprised about the detention of Cao Thi Cuc, one of the temple’s founders. Nhi Nguyen claimed that Cuc didn’t publish or say anything sensitive about the government on social media that would justify her being prosecuted under Article 331.
According to Dang Dinh Manh, one of Tinh That Bong Lai’s lawyers, the police of Duc Hoa District unlawfully restricted the attorneys’ access to case information and their clients on January 7 and 10, after the arrests of Le Tung Van, Le Thanh Nhat Nguyen, Le Thanh Hoan Nguyen, and Le Thanh Trung Duong.
Attorney Dang Dinh Manh also told BBC News in an interview on January 12 that Vietnam’s state media have violated the privacy of the monks and nuns at Tinh That Bong Lai by publishing the names, photos and personal information of the temple’s practitioners.
On June 21, Tinh That Bong Lai’s lawyers sent an 11-page urgent report to Vietnam’s central government to raise concerns over serious legal violations of the investigation process into the alleged wrongdoings of this Buddhist temple.
The lawyers pointed out that local police were prosecutors, investigators and witnesses of the case, which they believe might violate the objectivity of the investigation process.
On June 23, the lawyers also sent a complaint letter to Long An Provincial People’s Court, asking for the halt of the trial of six members of Tinh That Bong Lai due to the lack of preparation time for the hearing. As of right now, their trial will start on July 20, 2022.
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