Authorities in Hanoi have barred a group of activists from paying tribute to Vietnamese soldiers who died in a war with China more than three decades ago amid tensions over an ongoing territorial dispute.
Some 30 activists, mostly bloggers and intellectuals who have spoken out against Vietnam’s current policies toward Beijing, went to lay flowers at memorials in the former capital on Sunday, the anniversary of China’s short-lived invasion of Vietnam in 1979.
They made the visits following an online call to honor Vietnamese soldiers who died during the invasion and in fighting over the Spratly and Paracel Islands, disputed territories in the South China Sea that have provoked a series of anti-China rallies over the past two years.
But police and security officers blocked the group, which also included Hanoi’s former ambassador to China General Nguyen Trong Vinh, from approaching the monuments and laying the flowers, activists said.
Local blogger Nguyen Tuong Thuy said that when the group arrived at their first stop, a memorial for the war with France, the monument was closed off with fence and rope and police cars, plainclothes police, and other security personnel were guarding the area.
“When we approached the monument, the security people came to block us,” Thuy told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“They said the monument was being repaired, but I did not see any signs of repairs and I believe there were none going on.”
“Both sides argued but they were backed by the government forces, so we could not enter the monument. We only could stand outside to pay tribute,” he said.
At the Bac Son War Martyrs’ Monument, authorities at the memorial told them that the writing on their flower wreaths, which read, “Remember the soldiers who died in the war against the invading Chinese,” was “not acceptable,” Thuy said.
“They gave us some complicated procedures making it impossible for us to pay tribute. They told us to register in the office in Ong Ich Khiem Street and to bring our flower wreaths for them to check,” he said.
He said at the Quang Trung monument, the group managed to leave flowers, but security guards likely removed them, he said.
“We snuck our wreath inside and bowed and prayed. After a short time, security guards came and took the wreath away. We tried to keep it there but I think by the time we left, they threw it away.”
Territorial disputes between China and Vietnam have prompted a series of anti-China rallies in Vietnamese cities in recent years, including a wave of weekly anti-China protests in mid-2011, and more demonstrations last year calling on Hanoi to take a stronger stance against “aggressive” Chinese policies.
Police dispersed the protests, gradually using more force as it become clear they were becoming a source of domestic opposition to the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party.
In December, the anti-China rallies flared anew after Vietnam reported that a Chinese shipping vessel had damaged cables on a Vietnamese seismic exploration ship in the South China Sea.
On Saturday, netizens circulated an online call to Vietnamese citizens to remember soldiers who died in fighting over the disputed islands.
“On the occasion of February 17, we ask everyone all over the country to take real action to remember our beloved people who died in the war against the invading Chinese,” the announcement said.
"Please light incense put a flower, or a vase of flowers, or a flower wreath with the text “Remember the beloved people who died in the war against invading Chinese on the northern border, on the southwest border, at the Paracel Islands, and at the Spratly Islands,’ in each house, at each shop stall or store, in classes, monuments and martyrs’ cemeteries.”
Reported by Hoa Ai for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.