Vietnamese authorities appear to be systematically cracking down on activists, as environmentalists and others have been attacked by security forces and thugs associated with local police over the past week, RFA’s Vietnamese Service has learned.
The attacks do not seem to be linked to any one group as they have targeted environmentalists and religious activists.
On Tuesday, police reportedly arrested and beat several demonstrators as about 500 people were marching to protest Hanoi’s handling of the Formosa steel plant toxic waste spill that poisoned much of the central coast last year.
The protest march leader, Catholic priest Nguyen Dinh Thuc, told RFA on Tuesday that police and security forces beat him, but that he was rescued by protestors who wanted to deliver a petition to Ky Anh district authorities demanding adequate compensation for the losses caused by the spill.
“Catholic marchers came to me when they saw that I was beaten,” he told RFA. “The police arrested some. They towed my vehicle and other people’s too. I was rescued by the petitioners.”
His beating was not the only one over the past week, as environmental activist Nguyen Thi Thai Lai was beaten by four thugs outside a restaurant in Nha Trang City on Feb. 12.
“‘I’m still hurt,” she told RFA. “They beat my face. They kicked me. I’m still in pain.”
She said she was forcibly taken to the police station where she was interrogated about her protests against China and the Formosa steel plant.
“They make it more difficult for the people who come to see me at home,” she said.
They were waiting for her
After Saturday’s incident, Thai Lai told RFA that she reported the attack to the local police in the Van Thanh commune in Nha Trang city where she saw her attackers loitering around the police station as if they were waiting for her.
In June, the Taiwan-owned Formosa Plastics Group acknowledged it was responsible for the release of toxic chemicals from its massive steel plant located at the deep-water port in Ha Tinh province’s Ky Anh district.
The April spill killed an estimated 115 tons of fish and left fishermen and tourism industry workers jobless in four central provinces. Vietnam's government said in a report to the National Assembly in July that the disaster had harmed the livelihoods of more than 200,000 people, including 41,000 fishermen.
The company pledged $500 million to clean up and compensate people affected by the spill, but the government has faced protests over the amount of the settlement and the slow pace of payouts.
Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc had ordered compensation for the affected people by the end of 2016, but many have yet to receive any money.
Vietnam’s one-party communist state closely controls and monitors the Catholic community, the second largest religious group in the country after the Buddhists. Vietnamese Catholics have also been at the forefront of Formosa protests.
While the Formosa spill has sparked rare public demonstrations in Vietnam and resulted in retaliation, the attacks over the past week have not been confined to environmentalists and Catholics.
Religious leaders targeted
Also on Feb 13, some of the leaders of the Inter-Religious Council of Vietnam were attacked on their way from Saigon to the countryside to visit other religious leaders on the occasion of Tet.
Tet marks the Lunar New Year in Vietnam and is the country’s most important celebration, but the council members spent some of the holiday in the local police station.
Buddhist monk Thich Khong Tanh told RFA that he went to visit religious leaders of Hoa Hao and Cao Dai, but was repeatedly harassed by authorities.
“We were stopped at Vinh Long,” he said. “They then took us to the police station and kept us there for several hours. Uniformed police and local security people surrounded us, and they kept our two drivers and then took us to the station. At about 8:30 at night they escorted us back to Saigon.”
A Cao Dai representative in the interfaith council who spoke on condition of anonymity told RFA that two followers of that monotheistic religion officially established in Vietnam in 1926 were also attacked.
“Cao Dai follower Chau Van Gon was beaten by plainclothes police,” the representative said. “He lost two teeth and they took away three million dong (U.S. $132). They wanted to take away his iPhone but he threw it into to the river.”
The representative told RFA that Cao Dai follower Van Tac Rang was also beaten and robbed.
“They took his watch and phone,” the representative said. “At the station, police told them that they would not be beaten at the station, but they would not guarantee his safety outside the station. After he left the Dong Thanh village office, one group of plainclothes police attacked him and took away his belongings.”
Activist Pham Ba Hai told RFA that police told him to stay at his home in Saigon.
“City police and local police came to see me and told me not to leave the house,” he said. “All activists in Vietnam are targets of a crackdown from the government.”
Pham Ba Hai told RFA that the authorities often hire thugs or plainclothes police to beat and harass activists when they lack evidence to arrest them.
“When they don’t have enough evidence to imprison activists, they use thugs,” he said. “They let local thugs or plainclothes police attack activists.”
Prisoner of conscience health issues
While the beatings, house arrests, and other harassment is bad, prison can be even worse, according to the wife of Lutheran pastor and prisoner of conscience Nguyen Cong Chinh.
“On Feb. 10 I visited him in Xuan Loc prison in Dong Nai province,” Tran Thi Hong told RFA. “He has been segregated, and his hands and legs are swollen and his diseases have gotten worse.”
Chinh, who is also an activist, was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2012 for "undermining unity" by maintaining ties with dissident groups and distributing material deemed to have “slandered” government authorities.
“I can only see him every two months, and each time I see him his health gets worse,” his wife told RFA. “He has high blood pressure, sinusitis, and arthritis, and they don’t give him medicine at Xuan Loc prison.”
Reported by Gwen Ha for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.