HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- Vietnamese monks who helped overthrow three pro-American governments through protest and self-immolation now accuse the communist regime of smothering Buddhism.
'Before, you could spread Buddhism freely,' said one senior monk who led anti-war demonstrations less than a decade ago. 'Now it is better to keep silent.'
In a hushed voice the middle-aged bonze, a buddhist monk, added, 'The temple is surrounded by police.'
The round-faced monk, well-known to students of Vietnamese history, asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals against his pagoda. Speaking in a dimly lit room at the back of the temple he said the Vietnamese government restricts and undermines Buddhism, the principal religion of southern Vietnam.
Although no official decree prohibits laymen from joining the monkhood, the bonze said state regulations require that young men get permission to spend the night in the pagoda. 'There have been no new monks since 1975,' he said. 'The government won't give permits for them to stay here.'
However, he said his temple houses novices, or pre-ordained monks, clandestinely.
'They stay here secretly,' he explained, 'but, when the authorities find out they're here, they defrock them and send them home.'
The government also prevents monks from traveling to other pagodas or holding unofficial meetings with each other.
'I can't leave here,' complained the bonze. 'The officials won't give me permission to spend the night in another temple.'
He said the situation was worse for monks in the countryside because provincial authorities confiscated the pagodas' paddy fields and, in some areas, prevented villagers from offering food to monks. One of the ways Buddhists 'make merit' is by feeding monks.
The well-known bonze who marched in the streets to protect the tenets of Buddhism from previous regimes in South Vietnam said the Communist Party was trying to destroy the basic relationship between the people and their faith.
'Monks have had to quit or starve,' he explained.
However, monks in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, still receive daily offerings of food and money at their temples.
'It's harder to control the city people,' the bonze said.
City monks perform ceremonies and hold daily prayers at their pagodas, but they are barred from giving advice or preaching as they did in the past.
The activist monks of the An Quang Pagoda Sect, the second largest of the Buddhist churches in southern Vietnam, built their reputations by giving advice. Acting as unofficial ombudsmen throughout the Vietnamese war, bonzes from the sect's three main pagodas -- Xaloi, Vinh Nghiem and An Quang -- began their political protests with the blazing suicides that sparked much anti-war sentiment in the '60s. They condemned corruption and called for peace.
'It was our duty to oppose the government when it was wrong,' said the monk, 'Now it is difficult to say. Silence is better at the present time.'
Nevertheless, several bonzes have spoken out against the communist regime only to be imprisoned in re-education camps. More than 10 of Saigon's most respected monks are still held in camps scattered throughout Vietnam. Dozens more have been released in the last two years and many, including one in a Thai refugee camp, have simply fled their homeland.
A few revered monks protest in stubborn silence. Vietnam's most famous bonze, Thich Tri Quang, leader of the An Quang pagoda sect, is proving as irksome to the new regime as he was to the old. In 1977, the government charged his sect with harboring 'bad buddhists' and arrested several monks, but the authorities didn't touch Quang.
Refusing to sign any government proclamations, he lives in a spartan room at the An Quang pagoda, seeing no one except other monks. Some say he's under house arrest. Others maintain it's voluntary isolation. But, the city's people know he's there and speak of him with admiration. He and his pagoda remain symbols of the ill-defined opposition.
One monk, a follower of Thich Tri Quang, said quietly, 'Everything is worse. Before we were free to say what we wanted, travel, lecture. No more. The economy is worse, the people are suffering and everyone wants to go abroad.
'It is pitiful,' he mused, 'We opposed the government before because we wanted peace. Now the war has stopped, but there is no peace.'
He said the government has even drafted young monks to fight in Cambodia or on the northern border with China.
Some monks have accepted the new order and joined various government fronts. Last year they gathered to 'unify Buddhism throughout the country.' The official Vietnamese radio described the meeting as 'a significant step toward unifying the Buddhist circles throughout the country to serve socialist construction and national defense.' If monks agree to serve the state, as many have, they can enjoy limited freedom.
Those who doggedly refuse to submit to the party line say the government spells the end of Buddhism in Vietnam.
'In Hanoi,' the disturbed bonze said, 'young people do not know Buddhism. There are only a few old priests left. The government gets the children and won't let the monks teach. Communism is quite a different religion.'
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