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South Viet Nam: The Buddhist Crisis

6 minute read

In Saigon’s huge Xa Loi Pagoda, Buddhist monks and nuns were holding a 48-hour hunger strike against the regime of South Viet Nam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem. Expecting trouble, police sealed off nearby streets with barbed wire. To prevent a repetition of the ritualistic suicide last month, when a protesting Buddhist monk burned himself to death on a Saigon street corner, two fire trucks were on hand.

Suddenly, about 500 saffron-robed Buddhist priests, laymen and women emerged from a nearby alley and started to run toward the pagoda to join their fasting fellow-Buddhists. Stymied by wire and police, the demonstrators sat down in the middle of the street.

Riot squads arrived. Armed with a walkie-talkie radio, two sport-shirted American C.I.A. men delivered a running commentary on events to headquarters. A monk with a portable loudspeaker repeated: “We have been deceived many times and we no longer have any faith in the regime.” Government secret police in civilian clothes yelled back that the Buddhists were being exploited by the Communists.

Then the police charged the peaceful seated crowds, causing one of the ugliest scenes in South Viet Nam’s three-months-old Buddhist crisis.

At Gunpoint. With rifle butts, clubs and tommy-gun clips, the cops battered the demonstrators. Women who had fallen to the pavement in the first police rush were savagely kicked. A young girl had her head split open with a carbine butt, and as blood streamed into her eyes, she was carted away in a police van. From the windows of a brothel, girls shouted insults at the police until forced inside at machine-gun point.

Throughout South Viet Nam, government forces crushed Buddhist demonstrations with similar violence, arrested nearly 300 marchers in Saigon alone, following orders to “use any means” to disperse Buddhist demonstrations. Top U.S. embassy people in Saigon were “shocked and disgusted” by the Diem government’s action. One monk delivered a protest note to the embassy, urging the U.S. to force Diem to relent; U.S. Ambassador Frederick E. Nolting telephoned Vietnamese officials and got assurances that the man would not be molested. But no sooner had the monk left than secret police agents tried to spirit him away in a waiting taxi. The priest fought them off and raced back toward the U.S. embassy. A U.S. official dragged him to safety through the door as a husky Marine guard peeled a Vietnamese cop from the priest’s back.

Morality Crusade. Ironically, the crisis involves one of the world’s most docile religions. Yet, in a sense, that very quality makes Buddhism a problem.

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.

Though Head Priest Thich Tinh Khiet said that he has lost confidence in Diem’s “high virtue,” no top Buddhist has yet openly asked for the overthrow of the Diem government. But a new type of Buddhist leader is emerging—young, well-educated, tough, and impatient with the older men’s relative restraint. As passions mount and the police crack down harder, Buddhists are being pushed into a dangerous attitude of martyrdom. “We don’t want a police state,” says a Buddhist priest. “We do not want terror or discrimination or state control. We are loyal Vietnamese, but the government treats us like Communists, We are willing to sacrifice ourselves and to die to bring freedom to all the people of South Viet Nam.”

. . .

The Communist Viet Cong was obviously trying to capitalize on the Buddhist crisis. Stepping up their attacks, the Red guerrillas wounded 14 U.S. advisers in a mortar barrage on a U.S. compound in Can Tho and killed three Americans when the Reds shot up a U.S. medical convoy north of Saigon. A fourth adviser was killed later in the week when jittery sentries began shooting at each other in the dark. The dead brought to 89 the number of U.S. troops killed in the war in South Viet Nam.

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