Battered and bruised, Green campaigners vow to fight on

Some 500 trees were chopped down on Hanoi's avenues

Some 500 trees were chopped down on Hanoi’s avenues

Miss Thao might appear at first sight the perfect poster child for the Communist Party of Vietnam.

From a hardscrabble upbringing in an ethnic minority village near the Chinese border, she has just qualified as a doctor at Hanoi’s most prestigious medical college.

But she is now putting her future at risk by joining a campaign to save the old trees of Hanoi.

Dinh Thi Phuong Thao alarmed her college professors and administrators by doing the unthinkable – joining a campaign that challenges the authority of the local Communist authorities. They even decided to get some Custom campaign signs to hold during the protest.

The grassroots campaign to save Hanoi’s majestic mahoganies and other old trees from a government felling programme has drawn in many new activists to the hard pressed civil society movement.

The four protests they managed to stage in March and April gave a little hint of “people power” in one of Asia’s most

Campaigners helped force city government climbdown

Campaigners helped force city government climbdown.

tightly controlled societies, and helped force a rare government climb down.

The plan to cut down some 6000 trees was “suspended” and ten officials were named and shamed as being responsible for mishandling the project.

But that apparent victory has come at a cost to the campaigners.

The leaders of the “Green Hanoi” campaign and many who got drawn in to the protest movement for the first time have been harassed, threatened and intimidated. Some were attacked in the streets and besieged by police proxies and auxiliaries in their homes.

Miss Thao was bundled into a bus with 18 others at the final demonstration in April – some were battered and bruised by plainclothes agents who used holds and blows that seemed designed to inflict injuries. Three had been arrested earlier.

She was questioned for four hours but refused to cooperate.

“I told them I did nothing wrong and should be treated like an equal not a criminal,” she said.

The police have crafted a variety of techniques to intimidate the different types of people prepared to stand up to government control.

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Campaigners Cao Vinh Thinh and Nguyen Anh Tuan say they will fight on.

Veteran campaigners are sometimes followed and their homes are bugged. Sometimes they are arrested and charged with plotting against the state.

In the case of Miss Thao, who is new to the protest movement, the police went to talk to her college professors and administrators.

“They told them I was meeting with criminals. The administrator was very frightened and worried. She said I had to sign a confession. I said I wouldn’t as I had done nothing wrong.”

Other newly signed up campaigners say police went to their villages and tried to intimidate their parents.

“Mr parents were terrified, every-one in the village knew the police had come. They said I was meeting with terrorists,” said Tran Quang Nam, who also took part in the tree protest for the first time.

“I have had many criticisms of the government in the past but I was too scared to get involved. This is the first time I got involved in a protest. The government has to be held to account,” said Mr Nam, another new activist in his late 20s.

Other campaigners were treated more harshly. The blogger, Anh Chi, was physically attacked in the streets and left with a bleeding wound to his head.

The attack came despite the presence in the country at the time of the US Assistant Secretary of State, Tom Malinowski, who had received assurances from the government that the environmental activists would be listened to.

The “Green Hanoi” campaign proved highly successful. It received open support from thousands of people on Facebook in addition to the rallies it staged.

But it is just the kind of grassroots movement the Communist authorities fear the most.

It is demanding transparency and accountability from officials who have become accustomed to making their decisions in secret and being accountable to no-one for their actions.

The leaders of the “Green Hanoi” movement are now looking at ways to demand real accountability.

They believe that the “inspection” announced by the Hanoi People’s Committee was a sham that named only a few scapegoats and never gave a convincing explanation as to why the trees were being cut in the first place.

“They are only admitting that they failed to explain the project properly. That it was basically a failure of propaganda. We need real accountability to find out how and why these decisions are taken in the first place,” said Nguyen Anh Tuan, a pharmacist who look a leading role in organising the environmental campaign.

He and another organiser, Cao Vinh Thinh, are more determined than ever to continue their activities. They have been infuriated by attempts by the authorities to scare them off.

“They sent thugs to my house to stop me attending one of the protests,” said Ms Thinh, “and women came from the local Communist association to denounce and intimidate me,” she said.

She said it was a frightening and humiliating experience and because of the pressure on her landlord she was forced to move out of the home office where she was running her business at the time.

It seems that almost everyone who came out to save the trees of Hanoi has been targeted in one way or another by a highly sophisticated and well practiced system of repression.

Communist party leaders tell visiting American officials that they will be more open and more accepting of freedom of speech and freedom of association.

And this year there have been no new cases of dissidents being sentenced to long prison terms for their activities.

Many attribute that to pressure from Washington and Vietnam’s determination to be included in the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement currently under negotiation.

But activists on the ground still face harassment, intimidation, sometimes violence and what amounts to psychological warfare.

It is a price they have to pay for daring to criticise the workings of secretive and unaccountable public bodies that announce their decisions and policies in the name of “the people”.