A Voice for the Voiceless: Thich Tue Sy and His Struggle for Religious Freedom in Postwar Vietnam

A Voice for the Voiceless: Thich Tue Sy and His Struggle for Religious Freedom in Postwar Vietnam
Graphic by The Vietnamese Magazine.

The recent passing of the Most Venerable Thich Tue Sy [1] on Nov. 24, one of Vietnam’s most respected and renowned monks, has prompted an outpouring of grief in the Vietnamese social media sphere and among the country’s Buddhist community.

Tue Sy’s demise also received international attention. The United States Department of State released [2] a press statement three days after his death, calling Tue Sy “a tireless champion for freedom of religion or belief and related human rights,” highlighting his decade-long imprisonment imposed by the Vietnamese authorities as a result of his committed advocacy of religious freedom in Vietnam.

Born in Pakse, Laos, on April 5, 1945, Tue Sy is a Buddhist monk, translator, researcher, and a prominent advocate for separating religion from state politics in Vietnam. His tumultuous life is an embodiment of the Vietnamese Communist state’s repression of religion and belief in the face of the passionate yearning for the Vietnamese Buddhist community’s freedom to practice religion and beliefs.

Two Buddhist Churches

In contrast to the spate of condolences and farewells expressed upon the death of Thich Tue Sy on Vietnamese social media, the state media, on the other hand, has remained tight-lipped about this event.

Only two state-run newspapers, Tuoi Tre Online [3] and Mot The Gioi, [4], respectively owned by the Ho Chi Minh City Communist Youth Union and Vietnam Association of Science and Technology Information, have run obituaries about Tue Sy. This silence stood in absolute contradiction to the robust reporting on the passing of another renowned Vietnamese monk last year, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.

This discrimination could be the result of Thich Tue Sy’s relentless advocacy of religious freedom during and after the Vietnam War.

In 1965, having graduated from the Van Hanh Institute, one of South Vietnam’s most prestigious Buddhist schools, Tue Sy became a lecturer at this institute and an editor of its affiliate magazine, “Tư Tưởng” (Thought). But when the Vietnamese Communists took over South Vietnam in 1975, he and other Buddhist practitioners living in southern Vietnam bore the brunt of the new Communist regime’s hostile attitude towards religion. 

In 1978, the authorities imprisoned Tue Sy for three years on the charge of “illegally resided at a residence.” In 1984, the authorities arrested him again, along with Thich Tri Sieu, another prominent monk, and other Buddhist practitioners, on “subversion” charges for allegedly forming a resistance organization that confronted the government. Tue Sy and Tri Sieu were sentenced to death in a 1988 trial, but the government later reduced their punishment to 20 years in prison due to international pressure.

Thich Tue Sy, Thich Tri Sieu, and Thich Quang Do, [5], who passed away in 2020, were members of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCVN). [6] The organization was established in Saigon, the capital of the former Republic of Vietnam, in 1964. The UBCVN, consisting of more than 10 Buddhist sects and associations in the southern region, was formed following the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. Diem was known for approving discriminatory policies against Buddhists in South Vietnam.

It bitterly turned out that the new Communist regime was more heavy-handed [7] than Ngo Dinh Diem’s government in its suppression of independent religions, including Buddhism. In 1981, the UBCVN was banned in Vietnam, and its properties were confiscated following the North Vietnamese victory. In the same year, the new regime established the state-controlled Vietnam Buddhist Church (VBC), subsequently becoming Vietnam's only recognized Buddhist institution. The VBC is a member of the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, an extensive political arm of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

Many UBCVN monks were either detained or kept under house arrest for resisting the government’s efforts to integrate them into the state-sponsored Buddhist church. 

Most Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, the former acting supreme patriarch of the UBCVN, was first arrested in 1977 before being sent into internal exile in Hoi Phuoc Pagoda in Quang Ngai Province in 1982 for protesting the establishment of the VBC. Thich Huyen Quang died under house arrest in an isolated monastery in Binh Dinh Province in 2008.

Similarly, Thich Quang Do, general secretary of the Institute for the Dissemination of Dharma, “Viện Hóa Đạo” of the UBCVN, was arrested along with Thich Huyen Quang in 1977 and four other leaders of the group. The authorities forced Thich Quang Do into exile in 1982 in Thai Binh Province, his hometown. After spending a decade in exile, he went to Thanh Minh Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City in 1994, where he continued to remain under heavy police surveillance. In 2018, Thich Quang Do stayed in Tu Hieu Temple, Ho Chi Minh City, until his death two years later.

The Commitment to Defend Religious Freedom

The Vietnamese government has continuously refused [8] to acknowledge the existence of the UBCVN while keeping the organization’s leading monks under heavy surveillance due to their alleged risks of “threatening national security.” It explains why there is only scant coverage of Thich Tue Sy’s death in Vietnam’s state media, in which the obituaries neglected to mention his involvement in the UBCVN.

Being an ardent supporter of the separation of religious practice and state politics, Thich Tue Sy had spent most of his life in prison or under heavy surveillance by the Communist regime. Against all odds, he continued to preserve the autonomy of the UBCVN, defending its practitioners’ right to practice religion without state intervention.

In a 2008 speech, [9] Thich Tue Sy said he disapproved of including the Unified Buddhist Church inside the Vietnam Fatherland Front. He also opposed the integration and connection between the UBCVN and the state-approved Buddhist church - VBC.

“The Vietnam Buddhist Church is a member of the Fatherland Front, a political organization. We do not do politics, and we are not affiliated with any political organization,” he said, affirming his stance as the regime increased its pressure to coerce independent monks and nuns into joining the VBC.
“It is true that in any country, you must respect the laws. But if you craft your own laws and use them to infringe on the values ​​and ideals of others, then I do not accept those laws.” - Thich Tue Sy


[1] Tuệ Sỹ. (2023, November 25). Tuệ Sỹ: Thiền sư, học giả, thi sĩ, văn nhân. Thầy - tuesy.net. https://tuesy.net/

[2] Statement on the Passing of the Most Venerable Thích Tuệ Sỹ - United States Department of State. (2023, November 28). United States Department of State. https://www.state.gov/statement-on-the-passing-of-the-most-venerable-thich-tue-sy/

[3] Phương H. (2023, November 24). Hòa thượng Thích Tuệ Sỹ viên tịch tại chùa Phật Ân. Tuoi Tre Online. https://tuoitre.vn/hoa-thuong-thich-tue-sy-vien-tich-tai-chua-phat-an-20231124182951247.htm

[4] Vũ T. (2023, November 24). Hòa thượng Thích Tuệ Sỹ viên tịch. Báo Một Thế Giới. https://1thegioi.vn/hoa-thuong-thich-tue-sy-vien-tich-209176.html

[5] Nguyen, W. (2021, October 21). Venerable Thich Quang Do: A lifetime of struggle. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/08/venerable-thich-quang-do-a-lifetime-of-struggle/

[6] Vietnam. (n.d.). https://www.hrw.org/reports/1995/Vietnam.htm

[7] Amnesty International. (1994, April 30). Socialist Republic of Viet Nam: Buddhist monks in detention - Amnesty International. https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa41/005/1994/en/

[8] Phương, T. (2023, November 29). Hòa thượng Thích Tuệ Sỹ: Tù nhân ngoài nhà lao. Luật Khoa Tạp Chí. https://www.luatkhoa.com/2023/11/hoa-thuong-thich-tue-sy-tu-nhan-ngoai-nha-lao/

[9] Sen, T. V. H. (n.d.). Thượng toạ Thích Tuệ Sỹ kể lại một vài chi tiết về giai đoạn thành lập GHPgvn và HT. Thích Trí Thủ. THƯ VIỆN HOA SEN. https://thuvienhoasen.org/a8191/thuong-toa-thich-tue-sy-ke-lai-mot-vai-chi-tiet-ve-giai-doan-thanh-lap-ghpgvn-va-ht-thich-tri-thu

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