Vietnamese authorities branded anti-China protesters as “thieves and prostitutes” and brutally beat them at a weekend demonstration against the recent ramming of a Vietnamese trawler by Chinese navy vessels, an activist said Monday.
Some of the protesters at the rally in Hanoi Sunday were taken to a detention center in batches before they were freed, according to a blogger who was among those held.
Around 150 people protested near central Hanoi’s Hoan Kien Lake before security guards hauled off “more than 20” of them onto waiting buses, blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh—also known online as JB—told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“We patriots were categorized as prostitutes and thieves—more than 20 people were arrested,” Vinh said following his release.
“They took us to Loc Ha [detention center] and separated us into different rooms. Some of us were brutally beaten.”
The gathering—at which demonstrators slammed Beijing’s aggression in the disputed South China Sea and Hanoi’s reluctance to take a stronger stand against its northern neighbor—marked a rare protest in the tightly-controlled one-party communist state.
China claims sovereignty over nearly all of the resource-rich sea, which has been a frequent focus of disputes over oil-exploration and fishing rights.
Activists had gathered at Hoan Kien Lake at around 9:00 a.m. on Sunday, Vinh said, but the protest was shut down by security personnel and “hired thugs” within 30 minutes.
“Just a short time after the protest started, a lot of policemen and thugs were sent out to arrest us and forced us onto a bus,” he said.
“After the bus left we continued our protest, so they carried out a second and third round of arrests … Some of us were arrested and sent to the detention center.”
Vinh said that authorities had tried to persuade him and other detained activists to “work with them,” but said that they had refused to cooperate “because there was no reason for them to arrest us.”
Within the day, all of those detained had been set free, sources told RFA.
Agence France-Presse said that two of its Vietnamese reporters covering the demonstration were amongst those held and later released.
Vietnamese activists have become increasingly vocal over Chinese claims to the Spratly and Paracel island chains—two archipelagos which are also claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.
But Hanoi is wary that the mass gatherings could incubate broader criticism against the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party, which has come under fire of late for economic mismanagement, corruption, and the restriction of free speech.
Another anti-China protest planned for Vietnam’s southern financial hub Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday was shut down by authorities before it began, blogger Hanh Nhan told RFA.
“[The police] prepared very carefully well in advance of the protest date,” Nhan said, noting that the gathering had been advertised on social media platforms including blogs and Facebook pages.
“They had people monitor us at our houses. We knew that we could not leave our homes because, if we did, they would have arrested us and interrogated us for the entire day. So we decided not to go.”
Nhan said that the few people who did travel to the planned meeting site encountered a heavy police presence and decided to abandon the protest.
Last week, Hanoi alleged a Chinese navy vessel had rammed a Vietnamese fishing trawler, damaging it, though Beijing maintained it had done nothing wrong. The incident prompted deputies of Vietnam’s national assembly to urge stronger action by the government to protect the country’s sovereignty.
At a security conference in Singapore on Friday, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung warned that the regional economy and global trade were at risk from the threat of territorial disputes in the South China Sea spilling over into full-blown conflict.
Vietnam’s Deputy Minister of National Defense Col.-Gen. Nguyen Chi Vinh at the same conference on Sunday called on regional powers to avoid the use of force against fishermen.
Territorial disputes between China and Vietnam prompted 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 became clear they were becoming a source of domestic opposition to the state.
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.
Reported by Kinh Hoa for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.