mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Vietnam Dispatches Monks To Occupy Spratly Islands

The image is quite romantic at first glance: Six Buddhist monks have set sail from Vietnam, destined for the chain of rocky atolls and reefs that make up the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. It’s a desolate archipelago with no indigenous inhabitants that plays host to a few scattered military bases belonging to five of the six Asian entities claiming this territory. (China, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia all have remote outposts on the larger of the archipelago’s atolls.) The Vietnamese monks will refurbish and live in Buddhist pagodas, abandoned in the 1970s but now seen as some kind of colonization tool.

The monks have been dispatched by “local authorities in the southern province of Khanh Hoa, which exercises administrative responsibility for the islands on behalf of Vietnam. It has also paid for the refurbishment of the island shrines.”

In the giant chess match of the Great Game in Asia, this is an understated move, perhaps, but a move nonetheless. Six monks re-establishing a Vietnamese cultural outpost on remote, disputed islands where no one really lives should not be a threatening gesture. But it is strategic and creative effort to tie these islands into Vietnam’s cultural and religious legacy and to establish a living presence that could underpin Vietnam’s territorial claims. That will irk the other countries that claim this archipelago.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Lorenz Gude

    Yes, brilliantly irksome. It reminds me of an incident involving Sun Yat Sen at an Asian conference in about 1912. He got in a confrontation with an Vietnamese representative who was aware that the Vietnamese and Sun Yat Sen’s forbears had been neighbors many centuries before in China. The Vietnamese reminded Sun Yat Sen in no uncertain terms that Sun Yat Sen’s people had submitted to the Chinese while the Vietnamese had refused to assimilate. And it was Ho Chi Minh who famously said that he would rather smell French do-do for 20 years than Chinese do-do for the rest of his life.

  • WigWag

    It’s interesting to see Viet Nam using monks in this way. Anyone above a certain age remembers the famous photograph of Thích Quảng Đức immolating himself in a busy Saigon intersection to protest the treatment of Buddhists by South Viet Nam’s Roman Catholic President, Ngô Đình Diệm. Photographs of his protest appeared in newspapers throughout the United States and throughout the world. Unless I am mistaken, it was revulsion in the United States caused by protest that led the CIA to support the coup that assassinated Diem. Other Vietnamese monks followed Thích Quảng Đức’s lead and the massive wave of self-immolations began the process of turning Americans against the War in Viet Nam.

    Interestingly, while the Vietnamese are now using Monks to make a political statement, it is Buddhist monks in Tibet who are currently self-immolating to protest the Chinese treatment of Tibetan Buddhists.

    As for Thích Quảng Đức it is hard to know if it is legend or the truth but supposedly his entire body was burned to a cinder with the exception of his heart which remained intact. This was viewed by believers as evidence of his intense compassion and allowed him to achieve in the eyes of many Buddhists the status of bodhisattva (enlightened spirit).

    The photo of Tức’s death was quite famous and can be seen here,

    It’s certainly dramatically better to see Vietnamese monks reclaiming lost shrines than to see thems burning themselves to death.

  • Corlyss

    Monks? Monks! What would Father Ho think?

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service