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August 20, 2011

Vietnam Security Forces Detain Anti-China Protesters

by Marianne Brown

Police in Hanoi rounded up dozens of people at an anti-China rally in the center of Hanoi on Sunday as they gathered for the 11th week of protests.  

When 50 people gathered on the edge of Hoan Kiem lake in the capital, it was for an event that has become a regular occurrence in the capital over the past few months.

Marching past large groups of plain-clothed and uniformed police, the group waved banners and shouted slogans saying the Paracel and Spratly islands belong to Vietnam.

Demonstrators have turned out in Hanoi every Sunday for about 10 weeks to protest Chinese actions in the South China Sea. The government says Chinese vessels have deliberately interfered with oil exploration activities in disputed waters off its shores.

At previous protests, there has been a festival spirit among the crowds, with participants singing songs and chatting to friends. But this time there was a more menacing atmosphere.  

After a few minutes an empty bus pulled up alongside them. A group of men in plain clothes caught hold of some of the protesters and dragged them into the bus. Soon it was full of people, many still chanting.

The crackdown comes days after Hanoi People's Committee called a halt to the protests, warning that the government would apply "necessary measures" against those who failed to comply.

The announcement charged that in recent days, opposing forces within and outside the country have been inciting and guiding the demonstrations. It demanded that the participants stop all activities and gatherings in the city.

Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch contests the statement.

"In many cases it’s ordinary Vietnamese who, out of their own patriotic feeling are unhappy with what China has been doing and they are taking part," said Robertson. "To smear them with a brush that they are revolutionary elements - there is no evidence to support this."

On Friday, a group of 25 prominent intellectuals, including a retired war hero, sent a petition to the committee contesting the order.  The document denied the protests were connected to outside forces, saying they presented a good image of people’s patriotism.  Robertson said the government themselves may be divided over what to do with the protesters.  

"It’s very interesting that the official order had an official stamp on it but no one had signed it. One wonders whether there is some degree of division within the Vietnam government, trying to incarcerate people who are raising concerns about China’s foreign policy towards Vietnam," said Robertson.  

The arrests on Sunday echo a similar crackdown on July 17, when 40 protesters were bundled into buses and driven to the police station where they were detained for several hours.

The incident followed initial negotiations between China and Vietnam over the territory dispute where both sides agreed to “steer public opinion in the correct direction.”

However, the protests were allowed to continue after footage posted on the internet showing a policeman beating one of the protesters attracted widespread public condemnation.

Professor Carl Thayer from the University of New South Wales in Australia says suppression of similar protests in Ho Chi Minh City after just two weeks also generated negative press.   

"The heavy-handiness of the crackdown in Ho Chi Minh City really rebounded against the government, there was real anger at that," said Thayer.  

But the crackdown in the South succeeded in putting people off forming more protests.  

As relatives and friends of those detained in Hanoi wait for news of their loved ones, it is unclear whether or not the latest crackdown marks an end to last ten weeks of rare public demonstrations in the communist country.