HANOI - Hundreds of people in Vietnam’s two major cities marched through the streets Sunday to protest China’s latest moves against Vietnamese sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.
Policemen outside the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi braced for the first anti-China protest in nearly a year. Just a few streets away, a large crowd was gathering, carrying banners and waving flags.
Videos of the marches were almost immediately uploaded to the Internet.
Le Hien Duc, 83, who was at the protest says about 500 people gathered to attend the protest. Some had travelled long distances to be there. Duc says she took part because she wanted to show solidarity with her country against aggressive tactics by China.
Videos of hundreds of protesters in Ho Chi Minh City shouting and holding posters with words like, "China, the World Hates Pirates, go home," were also posted online.
Witnesses say no one at the protests was detained, but Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch says prominent bloggers were prevented from attending.
"We have reports of a number of bloggers and others who were either prevented from going to the protests or who appear to have been detained," he said. "I think what you have is a campaign of police harassment and intimidation to keep bloggers and others away from the protests."
Many protesters wanted to show support for a law passed last week by Vietnam’s National Assembly. The Law on the Sea states Vietnam's sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, an area believed to be rich in minerals and gas, which is also claimed by China and other countries in the region.
Beijing strongly criticized the new law, saying it was illegal.
Just a few days later China invited foreign firms to bid on energy exploration in nine lots off the coast of Vietnam. Two of the lots overlap with Vietnam’s exploration contracts.
The face-off is the latest in a decades-long disagreement, which came to a head last year when Vietnam accused China of cutting the cables of its oil exploration vessels in the area. The confrontation sparked 11 weeks of rare street protests in Vietnam.
Robertson said by detaining certain people beforehand, the government was trying to control the direction of the protest.
"It reflects a larger concern about people’s exercise of freedom of association and public assembly, freedom of expression where the people who are most likely to use those rights, the people who really push the envelope, are the people that the government targets to try to keep away from these protests," said Robertson.
Some of those at the protest said the area around the Chinese Embassy was cordoned off and guarded by police.
Duc says the police should have allowed people to walk freely and not have blocked the Chinese embassy.
Analysts say Vietnam and China use confrontations over the South China Sea to influence domestic public opinion and crack down only when public opinion gets out of hand.