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Attack on a Vietnam monastery

A recent attack on a monastery practising a non-traditional brand of Buddhism is just one of a number of incidents that has raised concerns about curbs on religious freedom in Vietnam. The BBC's Krassimira Twigg looks at the events at Bat Nha monastery.

Bat Nha monastery sign
The Bat Nha monastery is at the centre of a complex dispute

On 29 June, a group of vigilantes tried to evict the monks and nuns living at the Bat Nha monastery in Vietnam's central highlands.

The attack left monks without food for two weeks and there is still no electricity or water at the monastery.

Although nobody was seriously hurt, buildings were ransacked, personal belongings were taken and monks were threatened.

Phap Hoi is one of 379 people living at the Bat Nha monastery. In a telephone interview with the BBC, he said that although the attackers had stepped back, the monks and nuns were still living with the consequences of what happened.

"Life remains difficult. The biggest problem is water. We have no electricity and without electricity, we can't pump out water from the well," he said.

"The kitchen and the dining hall are blocked, so we can't use them... We didn't have any food supplies for the first week. Now people from the village bring food to us."

Those familiar with the background of the story say the situation is complicated and 'murky'. Eyewitnesses say that in the crowd harassing the monks were other, more traditional, monks who are against the new teachings practised at the monastery.

Uniformed and plain clothes police were present too, but they reportedly did nothing to prevent the attack.

Tackling religion

The monks at Bat Nha monastery follow the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh - an internationally renowned Zen master, peace activist and bestselling author.

He's been living in exile since 1966, when he went to the US to call for an end to the war in his homeland.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh's Zen doctrine is popular among young Vietnamese

He established Plum Village in southern France - a meditation centre and home to his Order of Interbeing.

In 2005, the Vietnamese government invited him to return and lecture in the country. Thich Duc Nghi, the abbot of Bat Nha monastery, also invited him to help with the development of the monastery.

Thich Nhat Hanh's followers say they have bought the land and built buildings on it to accommodate the nearly 400 young Vietnamese monks and nuns who are undergoing training there in Plum Village practices.

But the opening up and the new tolerance towards non-traditional religious teachings was short-lived. The head of the BBC's Vietnamese service, Giang Nguyen, says the government has already taken what it needed from a relationship with Thich Nhat Hanh, and is now turning its back on him.

When a violent conflict like that happens, the authorities have to intervene and they did nothing
Tran Giac Hanh

"At the time, the government wanted to be seen as flexible and able to accommodate different ideologies. They wanted to be taken off the US religion blacklist, become a member of the WTO and attract more foreign investment. They've now achieved that," he said.

Hanh's followers feel that his Zen doctrine is seen as a potential threat by the Vietnamese government, as it is popular with young, educated and independent-minded people.

For Sister Chan Kong from Plum Village, it's clear what the reasons behind the attack are.

"The government fear that we are too dynamic and they can't control us. Local police in every province have been paying visits to the parents of our young disciples, telling them to get their sons and daughters out of Bat Nha because we are 'political'."

'Sensitive situation'

There has been no official statement about what happened at Bat Nha, and the media in Vietnam have not published any reports on the event.

But a clue to how the authorities view the teachings there can be found in a department for religious affairs document from 2008, which criticises the monks from the Plum Village network for having the "wrong approach to the political issues of the Vietnamese state".

Our investment in the youth of Vietnam, many of whom come from the poorest of the poor, has now been lost
Trish Thompson, Thich Nhat Hanh disciple

A local police officer who wishes to remain anonymous told the BBC that the authorities had nothing to do with the attack and it was up to the monks to decide if they wanted to stay or go.

"This is an internal affair between two Buddhist groups. We don't know who the attackers are and where they come from. There was a big crowd of people. Some of them were wearing monastic clothes, so we could not conclude that they are criminals," he said.

"The policemen present at the scene didn't intervene because that is a sensitive situation which needed to be dealt with by the security services and the government religious committee."

Religious freedom is not the only concern for those involved. Trish Thompson, a Thich Nhat Hanh disciple living in Vietnam, says the Bat Nha events raise broader issues.

"People from around the world, including me, have contributed nearly $1m to the development of the monastery. We feel our investment in the current and future youth of Vietnam, many of whom come from the poorest of the poor, has now been lost."



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