Home News Vietnamese founder of outlawed Buddhist sect dies in prison

Vietnamese founder of outlawed Buddhist sect dies in prison

Thu, 74, founder of the An Dan Dai Dao religious group, was serving a life sentence in Gia Trung Detention Center in the southern province of Gia Lai

Vietnamese prisoner of conscience Phan Van Thu, who founded an independent sect of Buddhism that later became outlawed by the communist government, died Sunday in prison, the wife of another prisoner of conscience in the same jail said. 

Thu, 74, founder of the An Dan Dai Dao religious group, was serving a life sentence in Gia Trung Detention Center in the southern province of Gia Lai.

Thu complained Friday of feeling ill to fellow prisoner of conscience, Luu Van Vinh, who told his wife, Nguyen Thi Thap.

Vinh escorted Thu back to his cell and asked prison health workers to check on the man’s condition, but they did not, Thap told Radio Free Asia.

“My husband requested that the nurses pay extra attention to him, but they seemed not to care,” she said, adding that Thu’s condition became critical later that day, and his fellow inmates asked that he be sent to a hospital for emergency care. 

“But it was too late. He passed away at 9:30 a.m.” on Sunday, Thap said.

It was unclear exactly what Thu died from, but in 2019 Thu’s family told RFA that they were concerned about his health because of his history of diabetes, arthritis and cardiovascular problems. His wife, Vo Thi Thanh Thuy, said the family sent written requests to prison officials allowing Thu to go to a hospital for checkups and treatment, but he only received approval to do so once. 

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RFA could not reach prison officials at Gia Trung Detention Center to verify information about Thu’s death.

Bui Ngoc Dien, Thu’s daughter-in-law, confirmed that Thu had died and that the family was preparing for his funeral.

Established in 1969, An Dan Dai Dao operated legally under the Republic of Vietnam, but was prohibited and its members persecuted after the communist government takeover in 1975. 

Its followers wanted to create a new utopia in which science, nature and humankind would be harmoniously balanced, and organized conferences and produced leaflets to disseminate their beliefs, according to The 88 Project, which advocates for free speech and civil liberties in Vietnam. 

At its height, the Buddhist sect had a network of 14 temples, hundreds of monks, and thousands of followers until the government expropriated its properties and forced its followers into hiding. 

Under Thu, also known as Tran Cong, An Dan Dai Dao built the Da Bia Ecotourism Area in Phu Yen province in the south central region.

In February 2012, police raided the ecotourism site and arrested Thu and two dozen others on charges of “conducting activities to overthrow the government” and “illegal possession, use and sale of explosives.” 

Thu was sentenced to life in prison in 2013, while 21 others each received sentences ranging from 10 to 17 years. 

Thu was the second member of the Buddhist sect to die in prison. Doan Dinh Nam died at the age of 68 at Xuyen Moc Detention Center in Ba Ria-Vung Tau province, where he was serving a 16-year sentence. 

Vietnam’s one-party communist government restricts independent religious groups in terms of their right to practice religion freely by requiring them to register to do so. 

Even though many religious organizations have a long history in the country, the government makes it difficult for them to practice their religion, and local police often monitor their followers and events.

Copyright © 1998-2020, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036. 

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