South Viet Nam: The Buddhist Crisis

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Since it knows no sense of sin, and hence no reprisal for error, it is, at least by Western standards, passive, backward and neutral. Buddhism, says Theologian Paul Tillich, "gives no decisive motives for social transformation, and thus provides a nonpolitical opportunity for an invasion of Buddhist East Asia by the Communist quasi-religion with its hope for a transformed world." Although the Red Chinese are wooing the Buddhists everywhere, there is no real evidence so far that the Reds are using South Viet Nam's Buddhists, as the Diem government charges. On the other hand, Diem has not succeeded in using them either—unlike Thailand's Strongman Sarit Thanarat, who has shown that, when handled properly, they can be a solid, anti-Communist force.

Until recently, the Buddhists in South Viet Nam had no real case against Diem. Since the Buddhists were South Viet Nam's dominant group for centuries—and resent Roman Catholicism as the religion of their former French masters—Diem has taken pains not to show obvious favoritism toward fellow Catholics. Only three of 19 army generals and five of 17 Cabinet ministers are Catholics. Though nearly half of the 123-member National Assembly is Catholic, this is largely because Catholic schools turn out better-educated graduates than Buddhist schools.

Most Vietnamese nevertheless believe that Diem's Catholic ruling family has shown bias. Primarily middle-class landowners, Vietnamese Catholics are economically far more advanced than the Buddhists. Thousands of Buddhists have become converts to Catholicism in the hope that this would help them professionally or economically. Buddhists claim that the government gives Catholics better land for schools and church buildings and discriminates against Buddhist students in granting state scholarships. Unlike other religious groups, Buddhists must have special government permits to hold large meetings. "This puts us in the same category as the trade unions," says one Buddhist priest. With their free and easy mores, Buddhists also complain about the morality crusade of Mme. Ngo Dinh Nhu, wife of Diem's brother and closest adviser. Mme. Nhu has banned polygamy, concubinage, dancing, and even fighting fish.

Hard Line. All these discontents need not have erupted if government troops had not stupidly and brutally gunned down nine Buddhist demonstrators at a rally in Hue two months ago. Even then, the Buddhist controversy would probably have died down if the government had offered a public apology, which is the Buddhists' chief demand, along with such practical matters as freedom of assembly, the right to fly their flag, Buddhist chaplains in the army. But Brother Ngo Dinh Nhu has always urged a hard line. What he fears—with some reason—is that if Diem gives in even slightly to the Buddhists, it would only cause new demands that would eventually threaten the government's whole power structure. By week's end, however, in a belated attempt to ease tensions, the government ordered the release of 267 Buddhists arrested during the demonstrations.

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