Thich Quang Do, a Buddhist monk who became the public face of religious dissent in Vietnam while the Communist government kept him in prison or under house arrest for more than 20 years, has died at age 91.
Do, who died Saturday in Ho Chi Minh City, was the highest leader of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, which has constantly tangled with the government over issues of religious freedom and human rights.
Do was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and received several awards for his activism, including the Rafto Prize for Human Rights and the Hellman/Hammett award, which the New York-based group Human Rights Watch gives to writers for courage in the face of political persecution.
"People are very afraid of the government ... Only I dare to say what I want to say. That is why they are afraid of me," Do told The Associated Press in a rare 2003 interview.
Do said that freedom, democracy and human rights "are more important than economic development" and without them "we cannot make any progress in the real sense".
Do was born Dang Phuc Tue in northern Thai Binh province on November 27, 1928. His defiance of repressive governments predates the 1975 Communist takeover of US-backed South Vietnam and the former Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.
He was first imprisoned in 1963 under Catholic leader Ngo Dinh Diem, and after Vietnam was reunified he protested against its ruling Communists.
After his 1977 arrest on charges of "undermining national solidarity" and conducting "anti-revolutionary activities," Do endured nearly two years of solitary confinement in a roughly three-by-six-foot prison cell until international pressure forced his release, his supporters say.
In 1981, the government created the Communist Party-controlled Vietnam Buddhist Church and forced Do into internal exile in northern Thai Binh province. Do was later offered the leadership of the official church, his supporters say, but he refused and in 1992 fled to Ho Chi Minh City.
In 1995, he was sentenced to five years in prison on charges that included sending two faxes to overseas Buddhists accusing the government of obstructing a church-sponsored flood relief mission. International pressure led to his early release in 1998, but he was again placed under house arrest in 2001.
Although Do was officially freed two years later, a 2005 report by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention cited an unnamed source as saying restrictions on Do were "equivalent to detention".
Australian Associated Press