by Pham Doan Trang
(VNRN) – On May 11, something unusual happened. More than a week after China placed a huge billion-dollar oil rig in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, Vietnamese took to the streets over several days in what was described by international media as protests “allowed” by the government.
The presence of thousands of protesters in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, as well as at smaller gatherings on the day before and the day after, and in Nghe An, Hue, Danang, Long An, however, belies a darker truth. The government had taken measures to prevent many independent civil society activists from joining the protests, virtually placing them under house arrest, keeping them in their house until the protests were all over.
This proves, once again, that the Vietnamese government, even when faced with foreign aggression, will still restrict free speech and political rights, placing their one-party rule above everything else.
Protests not allowed here
Independent political demonstrations are rare in the communist country. Previous gatherings were frequently broken up. In 2011, for example, anti-China protests broke out after Chinese maritime surveillance vessels cut the seismic exploration cables of a Vietnamese vessel in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. The police moved in and dispersed the protesters.
Dozens of people were taken to the police station and temporarily detained. Even after the demonstrations, perceived leaders were intimidated, harassed and isolated. Some were dismissed from their job under police pressure. State-owned media and cyber troops launched massive campaigns against protesters, accusing them of “seeking fame”, “inciting public order”, “sowing division in the country”, and worst, “attempting to overthrow the administration”.
In 2012, China’s state-owned oil exploration company CNOOC offered up for bid nine offshore blocks within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. This triggered protests in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, all of which were disrupted very soon by the police and the so-called “social order defenders”, or forces hired by the authorities to keep civic order.
Protesters were beaten up, arrested. Photos and videos of the beatings were widely circulated on the Internet. The authorities, obviously, launched no investigation.
Police interference, therefore, was expected long before the May 11 protest rallies which were essentially calling for the same thing as the previous protests in 2011 and 2012. It is even more “politically sensitive” as the government just a few days before had arrested Nguyen Huu Vinh, one of the most prominent bloggers opposing the government’s policy on the South China Sea, deeming it too placating.
At the same time, the Vietnamese government wanted at least some protests to happen, just so they could show their extreme displeasure with fellow Communist China over its actions.
‘Containment policy’ against dissidents
The protests over the past weekend revealed that the government has a strategy to have it both ways: Let the protests proceed but keep out famous bloggers and other potential protest leaders.
One of the main tactics, which proved to be most effective, was to put famous bloggers under house arrest before and during the demonstrations. Recently released prisoner of conscience Nguyen Tien Trung was warned by local police not to go to any demonstration. Many reported that their house being “guarded” by plainclothes police who prevented them from going out. Chau Van Thi (Châu Văn Thi, who uses the handle Yêu nước Việt or “Love Vietnam” on Facebook) and Hoang Dung (Hoàng Dũng), a member of the Vietnam Path Movement, were among those confined to their home, and they had nothing to do but to follow the demonstration online.
“I feel the loss of freedom in this big prison… Around 20 wardens are outside, detaining a burning heart… Outside, in Saigon, my friends are chanting patriotic slogans and demanding freedom for the imprisoned patriots,” Thi mused on Facebook. He declared May 11 “the death of freedoms and human rights.”
Tu Anh Tu (Từ Anh Tú), a blogger from the northern city of Thai Nguyen, reported being harassed by police who came to his lodging house and intimidated the landlord into making sure that he would not join the Sunday demonstration.
Some other bloggers succeeded in joining the demonstration by slipping out of their houses several days before and not coming home at all. Paulo Thanh Nguyen, one of the bloggers detained in Nha Trang when the planned Human Rights Coffee roundtable was disrupted by police, sneaked out several days before and was able to join the protests. His wife Trinh Kim Tien, also previously detained at the Human Rights Coffee, had to stay home to take care of their infant son and was prevented from leaving the morning of the protests. Just a few days before, Tien had told VietnamRightNow.com she felt certain she and her husband would be deterred from the Sunday demonstration.
However, even as those few bloggers successfully joined the protests, they were harassed by “social order defenders” and members of the Communist Youth League. Peter Lam Bui, the former UPR delegate, was shadowed by Communist Youth members who followed the bloggers closely and tried to block them with their own pro-government and pro-Communist Party signs, including a banner with the rather strange slogan, “Live, fight, labor and study like the Great Uncle Ho.”
In retrospect, political demonstrations in the past have been subject to suppression.The May 11 demonstrations did not see the same violent reactions by the government and its supporters. However, it’s doubtful that it is because the Vietnamese government has become tolerant toward protesters; rather, it is because the government is now in urgent need of demonstrations as a political measure to counter Chinese action, so they allow some, as long as they get to keep control.