129. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1

1038. CINCPAC for POLAD. References: Embtel 1005, Deptel 1066, Hue tels 5 and 62 May 15, following preliminary discussions with Vice President Tho (Buddhist), delegation Buddhist leaders met with President Diem to present series of demands. Secretary Interior Luong and Secretary Civic Action Hieu also were present. Semi-official Vietnam Presse and local press May 17 gave lengthy report of press conference by Buddhist leaders giving their version of meeting with President. According Vietnam Presse, Buddhists demanded following:

Rescission of order prohibiting flying of Buddhist flags. Diem replied both Catholics and Buddhists guilty “disorderly use” of religious flags, which should be confined to temple grounds and subordinated [Page 310] to national flag. (Same issue VN Presse reports communique from Saigon Archbishop that Vatican flag to be flown only inside churches and noting that violations of rule have recently been seen.)
Give Buddhists rights with Catholics. Buddhists pointed out GVN Ordinance Number 10 does not cover Catholic organizations, which still enjoy privileges originally granted by French. Buddhist organizations on other hand considered foreign by Property Registration Office so that presidential permit required to allow them to buy property. Diem stated inconsistencies resulted from administrative errors and that he would have matter investigated.
Stop arbitrary arrests of and halt pressures on Buddhists in Hue. Diem replied that suspending practice of arrests could be taken advantage of by subversive elements. Discussion of facts which had transpired at Hue apparently did not bring agreement.
Grant Buddhists right to worship and propagate creed. Diem stated this right guaranteed by Constitution. Delegation referred to pressures and intimidation on Buddhists and Diem said these should be reported to authorities. Buddhists referred to case of Japanese film “Sakya” which deplored by Buddhists as distortion of Buddha’s life; despite Buddhist protest, import license issued. President replied that import license not same as permission to exhibit. (Vietname Presse has reported separately that informed GVN sources say GVN will refuse film’s admission to country.)
Pay compensation to Buddhist demonstrators killed at Hue. Diem promised financial aid to families, noting that Catholics and other non-Buddhists also among victims.

Two additional requests reportedly made: (1) Protection for delegation to visit families of deceased in Hue. Diem asked Luong and Hieu to look into matter. (2) Memorial for victims to be held in all pagodas throughout VN. Diem agreed if ceremonies inside pagodas and with small groups. Hieu suggested postponement till another holiday in four months time.

Buddhists indicated to Presse they had not yet decided what further action they should take in light meeting with President. Other reported Buddhist actions taken include widespread circulation of protest literature, including bulletins to newspapers (which have not of course published this material) and hunger strikes which started in Hue about May 12 and were perhaps intended secure release of arrested demonstrators. CAS also reports that Cao Dai and Hoa Hao leaders have come to Saigon to discuss concerted action with Buddhists. Under consideration in Buddhist circles are such steps as preparation of a white paper on GVN oppression to present International Buddhist Association, dissemination of films taken during the Hue demonstrations, setting of a national day of mourning for victims of Hue violence, as well as more active measures such as mass meetings and demonstrations. According to Lt. Col. Thuong, National Police Chief for Central VN Plains, a Buddhist plan exists to hold parades and demonstrations in every city and town in central VN on May 21. Such public gatherings would of course contain danger of possible [Page 311] violence. Thuong said police plan to attempt confine demonstrations to various pagoda grounds. Also recurrent rumors that Buddhist demonstration in Saigon planned for May 19 (now postponed to May 21, according to Minister of Interior).

Within Buddhist ranks it appears that religious leaders are tending to counsel moderation based on religious traditions of non-violence (consistent chief bonze Quang Tri’s actions in controlling followers in Hue). On other hand certain lay leaders reportedly urging more activist line involving demonstrations etc. Also appears quite possible that individuals without genuine religious convictions may attempt exploit issue as means unify anti-regime elements.

For its part, GVN has moved quite slowly to placate Buddhist sentiment. Initial GVN reaction was to blame incident on VC agitation. This line has been adhered to perhaps for reasons of face, perhaps because of fear that GVN acceptance of responsibility for deaths would have even more damaging repercussions, or perhaps because GVN wished avoid publicity to extent possible. However, since allegation is widely disbelieved main result has been to damage GVN credibility and to further irritate Buddhists. Vietnam Presse account of Buddhist press conference suggests Buddhists themselves uncertain regarding their future course of action.

May 15 interview with President Diem may now indicate some willingness accommodate Buddhists. In discussion with Ambassador May 16 Secretary Thuan said Diem was contemplating issuing public declaration, an idea which Ambassador encouraged. Ambassador has also spoken to leading Catholic leaders (Papal Delegate and Rector University at Hue) urging a public statement. Thuan also said meeting with Buddhists went well but that President could not agree to demand that GVN accept responsibility for incident. There are other indications GVN trying to find ways to appease sentiment: reportedly Dang (concurrently Chief of Thua Thien Province and Mayor of Hue) to be fixed with responsibility for Hue riot and replaced along with other officials (although culprit in popular mind is Deputy Province Chief Sy). However, it not clear that if taken, these measures will placate Buddhists at this late date. Some high-level GVN officials take view GVN should have acknowledged fault immediately, dropped pressure on Buddhists, offered compensation to families of killed and injured, and tried officials responsible for violence.

At same time, GVN has acted hesitantly, apparently also unsure how to proceed. Buddhist meeting with Diem reported banning of film in response Buddhist demands, etc. suggest GVN understands need for placating Buddhists and erasing image religious discrimination. On other hand, GVN action to date does not yet appear satisfy Buddhists.

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Comment: Apparent that original riot in Hue evolved from series of errors of omission and commission on both sides. Since then, GVN has been slow to make amends and accept responsibility for actions its own officials even where these actions clearly more extreme than situation demanded. GVN reluctance to date assume such responsibility and publicly address basic issue religious discrimination probably explained by difficulty in pinning down facts concerning causes and developments at Hue and assessing extent and seriousness religious cleavage and its future ramifications. GVN well aware seriousness of continued disaffection of any substantial part SVN’s large Buddhist population and of necessity meeting their legitimate concerns. However, to date general GVN efforts appear directed toward damping down situation; positive actions have tended to be piecemeal and played in low key.

What appears needed at this point is a prompt clear-cut statement by GVN along following lines: 1) Affirming constitutional guarantees of religious equality, anti-discrimination; 2) Accepting GVN responsibility for actions its authorities during Hue riot; 3) Confirming GVN willingness to compensate families of Hue victims; and 4) Urging moderation on all sides while discussions continue.3 This is substantially what Buddhists have demanded and President has thus far refused to grant. As alternative he might be willing appoint investigative commission headed by prominent Buddhist, and I plan to suggest this to him. While it obviously would have been better if some such action had been taken immediately following events in Hue, a forthright statement now would go far to redress the situation. Even given this, events of past week will leave substantial scar tissue among members of Buddhist faith. Without it there will be strong possibility of violence in connection planned demonstrations May 21.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, SOC 14-1 S VIET Confidential; Priority. Repeated to CINCPAC.
  2. Telegrams 5 and 6 from Hue are printed as Documents 116 and 117. Regarding telegrams 1005 from Saigon, see footnote 2, Document 112. Telegram 1066 is Document 115.
  3. In telegram 1117 to Saigon, May 21, the Department of State responded: “Concur in your estimate of what GVN should do to dampen down crisis with Buddhist community. Believe you should strongly recommend to Diem various actions contained last para reftel ASAP. You may convey these points as view USG.” (Department of State, Central Files, SOC 14-1 S VIET)