Vietnam monk released after flood aid dispute

HANOI, Reuters

Vietnamese police freed a dissident Buddhist monk and his followers after detaining them for 12 hours because they defied a ban on independent aid distribution to flood victims, a Buddhist group said on Sunday.

Penelope Faulkner, of the Paris-based International Buddhist Information Bureau, said Thich Quang Do and a group of followers were detained on Saturday morning at a floating customs post in southern Vietnam’s An Giang province, bordering Cambodia.

The group, who had been travelling by boat, were held for 12 hours for questioning before police cast off their boat and let them return to their hotel late on Saturday night in the nearby town of Chau Doc, Faulkner said after speaking by telephone to members of Do’s party.

“He’s been released — there’s no explanation why,” said Faulkner, adding that Do had apparently not been charged and was determined to continue his mission although he was not well.

Do, who already suffers from high blood pressure, had lost his voice and had a fever after his day on the boat. “He’s pretty ill,” she said.

The worst floods for decades in the low-lying Mekong Delta have killed more than 300 people, including 232 children, and officials say more than 50,000 people are going hungry.

The UBCV was effectively outlawed when Hanoi authorized a single pro-government Buddhist church in 1981. Faulkner said Do’s campaign was driven by his belief that all Buddhist groups should be allowed to take part in welfare programs.

Do was nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize by a group of 30 U.S. Congressmen and his protest comes at a sensitive time for Vietnam’s Communist rulers, who are preparing for a historic visit by President Bill Clinton in November.

Clinton, the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the Vietnam War, is expected to raise the issue of human rights, including the treatment of unrecognized religious groups.

Do left his monastery on Friday to distribute relief packets in defiance of a government ban requiring all aid to be channeled through three state-affiliated organizations.

The last time he attempted a similar mission in 1994 he was arrested and jailed for three-and-a-half years.

Faulkner said Do and about 30 followers had started distributing parcels in Vinh Hoi Dong, a hamlet near the Cambodian border, when police told them they were not allowed to distribute aid with UBCV labels.

She said Do argued he should have the right to label the packages and that it would not have been possible to remove the logo as it was stamped on the packages.