HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – Surrounded by excavators, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Khong Tanh refuses to leave his pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, which authorities want to pull down as part of plans to set up a sprawling financial district.
“I have been here 50 years, I came when I was 22 years old and now I am 72. My duty is to stay, even though all my neighbors have had to leave their houses. The administration warned me they would force me out after the Lunar New Year (which was on Feb. 8 this year), but as of now, there is no news,” the monk told EFE.
The Lien Tri pagoda, built in 1940 in the rural Thu Thiem area close to the city center, has come in the way of the municipal administration’s ambitious plans to turn the zone into the new financial heart of this city of nine million people.
The plans published in the local press project a landscape dotted with skyscrapers and shopping malls with little space for Tanh’s humble temple, one of the few structures still standing amid the dust and noise raked up by construction equipment.
“Everyone has left, but there are families who have ashes of their dead relatives kept here, and some old residents who continue to visit me often,” he says.
Insisting there is no need to demolish the pagoda, the monk maintains that even if the plans are carried out, “the people living or working in the area will need a place to pray.”
Thousands of people living in the area were forced to give in to the compulsory purchase orders issued by the government, receiving about $456 per square meter as compensation, which, according to Tanh, is not enough to buy a new house without incurring debt.
“It is unjust because they will have to seek a bank loan to buy a new house while the government will get rich selling land for the new district construction. But they have no choice,” rues the monk, who turned down the offer of $274,000 and the chance to leave for another pagoda on the city outskirts, because it is “not a question of money.”
Determined to stay unless forced to vacate, the monk is seeking support from international human rights organizations and governments.
He also has the full backing of the Vietnamese inter-religious council representing the country’s five main religions, which also accuses the government of forced evictions.
The same organization says the Lien Tri pagoda is a sore spot for the government as Tanh is reported to have helped members of the South Vietnam Army during the Vietnam War (1955-75) and even those presently persecuted by the regime.
“It is true I helped wounded soldiers of the South and since 1975 have continued helping those persecuted by the government. I sometimes let them organize their meetings here. If I don’t help them, who will?” he says.
Not helping matters is the fact that he belongs to a Buddhist sect not backed by the government, and Tanh is prepared to consider exile if he loses the battle.
He recounts how several international agencies had offered to help relocate him to other countries due to his stand-off with the government, but that he had always chosen to stay “because I had to take care of my pagoda.”
“If they take it away from me, there will be no reason to stay, although I know that if I leave, I will not be able to return.”