2016 marked by constant harassment and persecution of civil society activists

2016 saw the consolidation of power by conservatives in the Communist party leadership and a continuing crackdown on civil society campaigners. A surge of community activism following the mass poisoning of marine life off the central coast – by a toxic leak from the Formosa steel plant – contributed to the government’s unease about dissent and online criticism:  

January 19: The year began with what some bloggers joked was an ill omen for the Communist party – the death of the giant “sacred” turtle in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake. The carcass of Cu Rua (Great Grandfather Turtle) was recovered the day before the opening of the 12th Party Congress. State news media were ordered to report the event without any commentary or analysis of its significance or symbolism.

January 20: The  Party Congress opens, sparking a proliferation of anonymous political blogs that purport to expose the hidden workings of the Communist party. The reports highlight vicious infighting, long hidden by rigid censorship of mainstream media.

Dung on the way out. (Reuters)

The Congress culminates with a shock defeat for the ambitious and reform minded prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung. Nguyen Phu Trong stays on as party leader after outmanoeuvring his rivals . The hardline security chief, Tran Dai Quang, becomes president and the other top posts of prime minister and leader of the National Assembly are filled by longtime apparatchiks, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan.

February 6: A Facebook campaign is launched to support independent candidates for the upcoming National Assembly elections. Rival state sponsored campaigns are set up to criticise and denigrate independents seeking to challenge the Communist party’s control of the nominating process.

March 15: “Anh Ba Sam”, a clandestinely published book about the famous blogger, still awaiting trial in jail, is introduced on Amazon. Published in Vietnamese and English, it is the first publication about a Vietnamese prisoner of conscience, providing an insight into his life and work. It exposes many of the violations of due process during his two years in detention.

March 23: The trial of Ba Sam and his colleague Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy is finally held in Hanoi. Hundreds of their supporters gather

Convicted for “abusing democratic freedoms”.

outside the court and wave banners calling for their release. They are prevented from entering the court-room. Also kept out are the German MP Martin Patzelt and diplomats from the embassies of Sweden, Norway, and the EU. The court room is filled with police and students from the Academy of Public Security.

Ba Sam is sentenced to five years in prison and Thuy to three years after being convicted on a charge of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the state’s interests”.

March 28: The so-called “outraged masses”, as pro-Communist activists are styled in official statements, throw pungent shrimp sauce at supporters of Hoang Van Dung, who is the first of the independent candidates for the National Assembly election to be rejected in the vetting procedure controlled by the Communist party. He gets only four votes out of 57.

Intimidation by shrimp sauce – one of the perils of challenging party control.

April 4: Tonnes of dead fish begin washing up along hundreds of kilometres of the central coastline, from Ha Tinh to Quang Binh and Hue, after what is suspected to have been a mass discharge of toxic chemicals from an industrial plant owned by the Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa.

Two fishermen in Ha Tinh discover a huge drainage channel reaching far out to sea, while they are diving.  It comes from the project site of the Formosa steel plant in Vung Ang industrial zone.

April 7: An everyday tale of police arrogance and abuse is exposed on social media. Nguyen Van Bac, a police officer at the Trung Liet ward, Dong Da district in Hanoi, demands the right to search an apartment. On being refused, he spits in the face of Tran Phuong Linh, the female resident, without knowing that he is being filmed. The video clip spreads over social media networks. Police are sent to investigate and Bac denies that he spat. Public pressure eventually forces him to apologise to Linh, but no other disciplinary action is taken

Constituents in Dr. Quang A’s neighbourhood

April 9: Dr. Nguyen Quang A, a veteran academic, former Communist party member and prominent pro-democracy activist, is overwhelmingly rejected in his bid for a nomination for a seat in the National Assembly. He is criticised for “not attending regular residents’ meetings in his unit” and “making no contribution to the nation.” He gets only seven votes out of a total of 75 from the party controlled vetting committee. He had  received more than 5000 signatures from supporters across Vietnam recommending him for a seat.

Other leading independent candidates are also rejected, including Dr. Nguyen Xuan Dien and Do Viet Khoa, a teacher well known for his efforts to fight corruption in the education system. Half of the attendees are reported to be plainclothes policemen, and one  accuses him of letting his dog foul a neighbour’s garden.

Another, Nguyen Kim Mon, is overwhelmingly rejected. He is criticised for “not cleaning the sewer.”

Halfway through their local vetting meetings,  Nguyen Thuy Hanh, Nguyen Tuong Thuy and Pham Chi Thanh declare their decision to boycott the procedure.

April 14: A policeman in Ho Chi Minh City,  Luong Viet Ha, beats up and badly injures a street vendor, Pham Thien Minh Phong. The reason is that Phong has refused to contribute a monthly sum of 700,000 VND (appr. US$30) to him as do other street vendors.

April 21: People in the coastal province of Quang Tri say they have collected about 30 tons of dead fish.

April 22: Amid the dead fish crisis which appears to be the biggest environmental disaster in Vietnam in decades, the Communist party boss Nguyen Phu Trong goes to Vung Ang to visit Formosa. He says nothing in public about the disaster and has no contact with local citizens.

April 25: Chou Chun Fan, a communication officer at Formosa headquarters in Hanoi, tells the press that Vietnam has to choose between steel plants and marine products. The statement sparks a furious reaction on social media.  The next day, Chou Chun Fan and other company officials hold a press conference in Ha Tinh where he bows to the audience to apologise. On April 27, he confirms that he has been dismissed and will return to Taiwan.

An officer grabbed banners from protesters. (Tin Mung Cho Nguoi Ngheo)

May 1: Thousands of people join mass demonstrations in major cities, especially Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, to demand government accountability for the environment disaster. Clashes break out sporadically between the protesters and law enforcement agents, including police, security officers, civil order defenders, and many shadowy units known as  “youth volunteers” and “urban management bodies.”

The evening television news reports that police have arrested Truong Minh Tam, a member of the Vietnam Path Movement, and Chu Manh Son, a member of the exiled Viet Tan party for “filming, photographing, and interviewing local people with a purpose to produce video footage for bad websites, abetting people to demonstrate and disrupting public order in the area.”

Son and Tam are released after a few days, which is astonishing as this is the first time activists are released after having been denounced in such a way by state media.

May 8: Protests continue in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Vung Tau, and participants are attacked and harassed by security forces.

Attacked by police for attending an environmental protest. Photo by Nickie Tran

Women with children are also targeted.  Hoang My Uyen, a young woman who owns a fashionable cafe in Ho Chi Minh City, is assaulted and kicked in the face while carrying her daughter. Her photo, showing injuries to her face, provokes an angry reaction. Some pro-government Facebookers blame the victim, saying Uyen deserves punishment for taking her  child to a demonstration.

May 23: US President Barack Obama visits Vietnam with a plan to meet civil society leaders

Large crowds came out to greet President Obama.

on May 24. However, 9 out of 15 seats are left empty in the end. Independent activists and government critics are blocked from meeting him.

In Ho Chi Minh City, thousands block the street to wave to the US President. Just six months previously, many of the same crowd took to the streets in  protest against the Chinese president,  Xi Jinping, when he came to visit .

Environmental activists demand government accountability for the Formosa disaster.

June 5: The environmental group, Green Trees organises a protest rally in Hanoi to call for environmental protection and government accountability over the marine disaster. The rally is quickly broken up by security forces, who take the protesters to police stations and assault the pro-democracy blogger,  Pham Nam Hai.

June 10: Well-equipped police surround the house of Can Thi Theu, a farmer previously jailed for resisting the seizure of her land and leader of Duong Noi land movement. They place her under arrest for “disrupting the peace”, for her attendance at rally in April to mark the anniversary of the pro-democracy movement, Bloc 8406, which was broken up a decade ago.

June 14: An airforce fighter,  Su-30MK2, goes missing in a training session with Senior Lieutenant Colonel Tran Quang Khai and Major Nguyen Huu Cuong  aboard. Cuong survives while the body of Khai is found a few days later.

June 16: A Casa-212 aircraft begins a search mission for Khai and the Su-30. However, it also crashes, killing the entire nine-member crew. According to VnExpress, the search mission mobilises up to 2700 staff from different forces, including coast guard, navy and air force. More than 250 vehicles are deployed, including 14 aircraft and 183 boats. In the end, fishermen find the pilot’s body.

Press card revoked

June 17: Journalist Mai Phan Loi, administrator of the Young Journalists Forum, creates an online poll canvassing opinions as to why the Casa-212 aircraft “exploded”. Suggestions that corruption could have led to poor safety standards lead to a furious backlash.

Loi issues an apology for any offence caused by the online survey, but he is accused of offending the honour of the military and is dismissed and has his press card revoked.

June 30: At 5pm, the government holds a press conference to announce the results of its investigation into the mass death of fish. It identifies Formosa as the responsible party. The company’s chairman,  Chen Yuan Cheng, apologises and pledges to pay USD $500 million as compensation.

Formosa apologises for marine disaster

The minister and Chairman of the Government Office, Mai Tien Dung, states, “Formosa admitted its wrongdoings before the Vietnamese people and made five commitments on compensation and assistance. One should not hit a man when he is down,” “A prosecution against it is something that needs considering. The Vietnamese are naturally tolerant and generous.”

Well known bloggers, including lawyers, journalists, and human rights activists, denounce the government for its deal with Formosa and its hasty acceptance of the compensation being offered. CSOs now change their objective, demanding criminal proceedings against Formosa and the steel plant’s closure.

Assaulted for campaigning against China’s territorial claims

July 7: La Viet Dung, a campaigner against China’s claims in the South China Sea, is assaulted by a group of plainclothes police after he joins a soccer match and has dinner with the club. The assault is believed to be a warning to the anti-China group, known as the “Non-U Football Club”, which has organised demonstrations against China’s growing belligerence.

July 12: The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rules in favour of the Philippines in its case against China’s claims in the South China Sea. The 500-page decision rules that China has no “historic rights” with respect to the South China Sea, and the so-called “nine-dash line” which outlines its claim to most the sea, is legally unfounded and invalid.

July 17: Pro-democracy bloggers in Hanoi stage a rally to express their support for the PCA’s ruling in the Philippines vs. China case. The rally is quickly broken up by security forces. An attempt by activists to visit the Philippine Embassy to celebrate its victory is blocked.

July 29: Noi Bai and Tan Son Nhat airports are targeted by what are suspected to be Chinese hackers. They post messages on information boards, attacking the territorial claims of the Philippines and Vietnam.

August 18: Do Cuong Minh, leader of the forest ranger unit in the northern province of Yen Bai, shoots dead Pham Duy Cuong, the province’s Communist Party secretary, and Ngo Ngoc Tuan, the chairman of the People’s Council. Minh is also shot and dies later in hospital.

August 23: Bloggers Nguyen Huu Quoc Duy (b. 1985) and Nguyen Huu Thien An (b. 1995) are sentenced to imprisonment by the Khanh Hoa people’s court for “conducting propaganda against the state” under Article 88 of the Vietnamese penal code. They were accused of accessing  anti-state Facebook pages and websites that defame the state.”

On the run, ex-party official flees the country.

September 6: Trinh Xuan Thanh, a former senior official, leaves the country and goes on the run. His sudden departure follows a series of articles alleging power struggles and a corruption scandal in which Mr Thanh is suspected to be the scapegoat. The Investigating Security Agency and Immigration Bureau are unable to find out where he is, despite their reputation of enforcing tight control and surveillance of dissidents.

September 20:  Can Thi Theu, the farmers’ leader is sentenced to 20 months  imprisonment for “disrupting the peace”.

September 22: The Supreme Court confirms the prison sentences given to the blogger, Ba Sam ( Nguyen Huu Vinh) and his colleague Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy.

Police deny assault despite video evidence

September 23: A group of police based in Dong Anh (a suburban district of Hanoi) assault reporter Tran Quang The of the Tuoi Tre (Youth) when he is reporting on a traffic accident on Nhat Tan bridge. The video taken by other reporters shows police officers in plain clothes kicking the reporter and breaking his camera.

Hanoi police immediately shield the assailants by releasing an “investigative report” full of evasions and euphemisms.

October 2: Nearly 20,000 people attend the biggest ever demonstration against Formosa in Ky Anh district (Ha Tinh), where the steel company is based.

October 10: Blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (a.k.a. Me Nam, or Mother Mushroom) is arrested at midday and charged under Article 88 of the Vietnamese Penal Code for “conducting propaganda against the state.” The police find several placards at her house demanding the authorities take the  Formosa steel company to court, and an in-depth report on police brutality.

Fish protests in the south

October 13: Dozens of fishermen based in Long Son (Vung Tau) drag dead fish to National Highway No.1 in opposition to 14 sea food processing companies who pollute the environment. Their demonstration blocks traffic on the highway from Vung Tau to Ho Chi Minh City.

October 14: The central region of Vietnam suffers from severe flooding. Water discharged abruptly from the Ho Ho hydropower plant submerges a large area, causing loss of life and serious damage to property.

October 17: A TV presenter, Phan Anh, calls for support for victims of the floods in central Vietnam. He manages to collect 10 billion VND (approximately $450,000 USD) within 24 hours.

The Vietnam Standard and Consumers Association (Vinastas), a registered and state-controlled NGO, releases a survey report on fish sauce in Vietnam. The survey, sponsored by a leading advertising company reaches the conclusion that “the more delicious fish sauce is, the more arsenic it contains.”

At the same time, there are people who distribute a list of producers whose fish sauce is poisonous and advertisements for “industrial fish sauce” made by Masan, a big food corporation.

The campaign with the misleading information it provides causes serious losses to traditional fish sauce companies. It only stops after it provokes public anger against dirty marketing.

October 18: Catholics in Phu Yen (central Vietnam) and their spiritual leader, the parish priest Dang Huu Nam, go to the Ky Anh court to file lawsuits against Formosa. Under police pressure, they are denied taxis and have to walk.

Green Trees provide an independent report on the Formosa disaster

October 19: Green Trees, an independent environmental CSO, goes to the National Assembly to submit its report, “An Overview of the Marine Life Disaster in Vietnam.” This is a report made by Green Trees with the purpose of providing for the legislature an insight into the environmental disaster that affects four provinces in central Vietnam.

November 28: The Communist Party declares December 4  a day of national mourning for the former Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Government critics point out that national mourning for foreigners is not permitted under the law.  Controversy breaks out between human rights activists, who call Fidel a dictator, and those who insist he was a hero and comrade of Vietnam to whom every Vietnamese must be grateful.

December 2: Nghe An police attack activist Nguyen Cong Huan when he is going to the wedding of a former prisoner of conscience.

Attacked for protesting. Photo by Ha Huy Son

December 22: Ha Nam police assault Truong Minh Huong, an elderly farmer who has long protested against the seizure of his land. He is also a democracy supporter. Plainclothes police assault him in the presence of human rights lawyer Ha Huy Son.

December 26: Pharmacist Nguyen Anh Tuan, an environmental activist in Hanoi, hangs a national flag at half-staff in his residency in commemoration of 235 people killed by the recent floods in central Vietnam. In doing this, he means to convey a message that Vietnamese flood victims deserve  national mourning more than a Cuban politician like Fidel Castro.

Local authorities harass and pressure him to take the flag down. They throw stones and bricks at his house. When Tuan refuses to do what he is asked to, two local women climb over the wall, cut the flag down and take it away.

On the same day in Ho Chi Minh City, security officers launch a raid on a class of young activists, confiscating the trainees’ property and personal documents, and putting all of them under short-term arrest. They are interrogated and beaten inside the police station. The leader of the class, Nguyen Ho Nhat Thanh, is seriously assaulted.