As Vietnam prepares to host a major international meeting starting a week from now, the country’s leaders appear to be running scared.
Since early last year Vietnam has been cracking down on citizens who advocate democratic reforms.
A record number of dissidents and bloggers have been jailed. Many have been harassed and beaten not only by the regular police but also by unidentified thugs working on the Party’s behalf.
All of this has been happening as Vietnam prepares for the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings to be held in Da Nang Nov. 6-11. Leaders from 21 member countries are expected to attend.
One cause of official nervousness in Hanoi could be what happened when Vietnam hosted the annual APEC meetings 11 years ago, in 2006.
On the eve of the 2006 APEC Summit, a coalition of Vietnamese dissidents issued a manifesto advocating democratic reforms. The group called itself Bloc 8406, based on the date when it issued the manifesto—April 8, 2006.
Following that summit, the Vietnamese authorities arrested, tried, and imprisoned leaders of the group.
On Aug. 1 this year, Carlyle A. Thayer, a leading Australian expert on Vietnam, published a background brief for his consultancy on the more recent increase in arrests of activists, bloggers and citizen journalists.
Thayer said that the timing of their arrests and trials indicates that Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security has been “taking preemptive action far in advance of the APEC Summit…”
Vietnam doesn’t want a repeat of 2006, said Thayer.
The aim this time, he said, is “to break up networks of troublemakers and to intimidate other would-be activists from making public protests on the internet or in street demonstrations.”
Thayer lists several other factors that would explain the increase in arrests of activists and bloggers. They include a likely assessment by Vietnamese security officials that the Trump administration will make “only routine protests” about the arrest of activists and bloggers.
David Brown, a former U.S. diplomat who closely follows Vietnamese developments, takes a different view.
“The crackdown on dissident activists has nothing much to do with Donald Trump or with APEC,” says Brown. “It’s an attempt by Party ideologues … to return Vietnam to those halcyon pre-internet days when the dissident community numbered at most a thousand people who hung out in certain Hanoi and Saigon coffee shops.”
During a Communist Party Congress last year, the Party’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and his allies imposed a hard line that diminished the influence of Party reformers.
Another factor involved in the preemptive arrests of dissidents relates to Vietnam’s relations with China, according to Thayer.
In May 2014 a series of anti-China protests erupted in Vietnam in response to China’s deployment of an oil drilling rig to a disputed region of the South China Sea not far from the coast of Vietnam.
The Vietnamese government at first permitted some of the protests to go ahead in order to show its displeasure with China’s move. But when the protests erupted into violence, some of it against Chinese-owned factories, the government began cracking down. At least four Chinese citizens were killed in the rioting.
China removed the oil rig, and Vietnam and China began gradually repairing badly strained relations.
Thayer notes that many of the recent arrests have included bloggers who have been critical of Chinese actions in the South China Sea. Those actions have included Chinese Coast Guard and maritime militia attacks on Vietnamese fishing boats in disputed waters claimed by both China and Vietnam.
Visitors to Vietnam sometimes detect strong anti-Chinese feelings based on much more than the oil-rig incident. A history of battles between Vietnamese and Chinese that went on for centuries has not been forgotten by many Vietnamese.
And a brief war in 1979, during which China invaded the northern region of Vietnam and was repulsed, also left bad feelings, partly because of the Chinese army’s destruction of towns, villages, schools, hospitals, and a railroad line during the Chinese retreat from Vietnam.
At the same time, pro-American feelings have been on the rise for some time.
Thousands of young Vietnamese are now studying in the U.S.
Human rights issues
On Oct. 26 during a visit to Hanoi, Michael Mazza of the conservative Washington D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute described the state of U.S.-Vietnam relations as he sees it.
Mazza notes the increase in U.S. trade with Vietnam and how the two countries have “begun to pursue a relationship that, over time, “may become one with real strategic heft.”
But he also mentions impediments to a deeper relationship, the greatest of which is Vietnam’s approach to human rights.
“There has been modest if uneven progress when it comes to religious freedom and the rule of law,” he says.
But democracy is not on the horizon and, though the number of prisoners of conscience had been slowly declining through 2015, “there has been a crackdown on political dissent since the beginning of last year.”
“Vietnamese people enjoy neither freedom of speech nor freedom of assembly,” stressed Mazza.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranks Vietnam this year close to the bottom of its World Press Freedom Index--175th out of 180 countries.
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.