"I Wish I Were Free to Fly Out of My Window"

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TIM LARIMEROf all the dramatic photographs to come out of the Vietnam War, the first to shock the world was of a Buddhist monk in flames. The explosive impact of that 1963 self-immolation, a protest against the U.S.-backed regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, explains why even today, Vietnam's government fears outspoken, independent-minded Buddhist clerics.Thich Quang Do has long topped the list of dangerous clergy. He actively opposed the governments of South Vietnam and was present that day 36 years ago when a fellow monk set himself aflame to protest Diem's repression of Buddhists. When we are struggling for a right cause, we are not reluctant to make that kind of sacrifice, Quang Do, 71, said in November in his first face-to-face interview with a journalist since his most recent release from prison, in September. If we lose our freedoms of religion and expression, we are like beasts. That is why we are ready to burn ourselves.When communist forces captured South Vietnam in 1975, they inherited many headaches, including an activist clergy. Quang Do was arrested, again, in 1977 after complaining that the new government used pagodas to store rice and water buffalo. He spent 22 months in jail. In 1981, the government created a state-sanctioned church and outlawed the existing Buddhist organization. Most monks who objected fled the country. A few, like Quang Do, stayed and resisted. I was not going to be used as their instrument, he said. He was exiled from Ho Chi Minh City to his birthplace in northern Thai Binh province.PAGE 1  |  
The gray men who rule Hanoi continue to pounce on the slightest sign of political dissent
In the late 1980s, Vietnam began to dismantle its Soviet-style system. Shuttered churches and pagodas were reopened; a semblance of religious worship returned. Quang Do in 1992 announced he was returning to Ho Chi Minh City. No one stopped him. He didn't stay quiet for long. In 1994 he and other monks organized a food drive for flood victims. Authorities accused him of using the occasion to foment anti-government activities. He was sentenced to 20 years in jail.Opening one door and closing another, letting people practice their faith but cracking down on church leaders--that's often the government's tactic. Quang Do and several other political and religious dissidents were released in September. But in late October, a United Nations representative on an official visit to review religious activity was stopped by police outside the monk's pagoda. That action made a more powerful statement than anything I could ever say about religious freedom in Vietnam, said Quang Do.He spends his time upstairs in the small pagoda, behind a locked gate in small rooms with tiny windows. I am like a bird in a cage, he said. I wish I were free to fly out of my window. In prison, he translated a Buddhist dictionary from Chinese to Vietnamese. His guards would bring him a notebook and count the pages. When he filled it, they would count again to make sure no pages were missing, and then bring him another. Quang Do said he intends to continue his scholarly work. As for politics, he deferred to Buddha. I am not a prophet, but everything must have an end. When the communists will end, we cannot say. But they will come to an end, said the monk who has survived every regime that has jailed him. That is the law of impermanence.  |  2
The gray men who rule Hanoi continue to pounce on the slightest sign of political dissent