Police in Vietnam attempted to prevent bloggers from participating in two anti-China demonstrations over the weekend, prompting rights groups to criticize the government for its heavy-handed tactics in obstructing peaceful protests in the country.
The rare demonstrations, which came in response to growing tensions over a territorial dispute in the South China Sea, saw protesters on Sunday march to the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi and to the Chinese Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.
More than 100 protesters attended each rally, waving Vietnamese flags and shouting “Down with China.”
Police largely stood by and watched the demonstrations, but in some cases bloggers in both cities reported being harassed by police and even detained to prevent them from spreading information about the event.
In Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, protesters marched on the Chinese Consulate, but police prevented them from accessing the area, according to witnesses.
Bloggers and other participants also complained of police harassment and detentions before and during the rally in the southern city.
Blogger Huynh Cong Thuan said he was under police surveillance ahead of the rally.
“The police are watching me closely,” he said. “However, I will try my best to evade them and go to [the city center] where the demonstration will take place.”
Andre Menras, a dual citizen of France and Vietnam and the creator of a banned film about the territorial disputes, said that police were unnecessarily forceful during the peaceful protest.
“The demonstrators held a non-violent protest to express their opinion on China's aggressiveness against Vietnam,” he said.
And another participant, Le Hieu Dang, said authorities only allowed the protest to proceed after protesters convinced them of their goal and promised to remain civil.
“At first, the police and security forces tried to prevent us from demonstrating,” he said.
“But we argued with them convincingly, so they let us go.”
Blogger Nguyen Hoang Vi said she and a number of her friends were briefly detained by police after the protest.
“A group of five or six of us was stopped by the police after the protest in [Ho Chi Minh City] and then taken to a station,” she told RFA’s Vietnamese service during a call from her cell phone while being held by the police.
Nguyen Hoang Vi was released later that same day.
Blogger Phuong Bich told RFA that participants in the capital of Hanoi were willing to brave heavy rains to express their outrage over China’s increasingly assertive actions in the South China Sea.
“We are responding to the Internet call for today’s protest,” Phuong Bich said. “Despite the rain, we will gather with the other protesters.”
“There are around 100 people here and half of them are journalists—both Vietnamese and foreign.”
Blogger Nguyen Tuong Thuy said the signs carried by protesters were largely in support of Vietnam’s official stance on the South China Sea and called for a tougher approach to the country’s claims in the disputed waters, which include the hotly contested Paracel and Spratly island chains.
"Some placards said 'Government work should justify the tax of the people', 'The Paracels and Spratlys belong to Vietnam', and 'We support the Maritime Law.'"
In June, Vietnam’s National Assembly, or parliament, approved a maritime law in June which places the Spratlys under Vietnamese sovereignty.
No arrests were made, according to protesters in Hanoi. Police stopped traffic and made no attempt to shut down the rally, though they did form a security line around the Chinese Embassy.
Efforts to restrict the anti-China protests drew criticism from Phil Robertson, deputy director of New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, who accused Vietnamese authorities of employing a “knee-jerk reaction to harass and obstruct any form of peaceful public protest, no matter what the cause or issue.”
“It’s sadly ironic that even those supporting the government’s policy on China faced a gauntlet of police pressure, including intimidation of activists and their families, restrictions on movement, and in cases of some well-known activists and bloggers … arbitrary detention that prevented them from joining the protests,” he said in a statement.
Robertson said Vietnam’s actions demonstrated a “continuing intolerance for basic human rights” and suggested that the country could not justify seeking a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, which Hanoi has indicated it will do in the near future.
China and Vietnam have a long-running dispute in the South China Sea over potentially valuable oil deposits, fishing rights, and the Paracel and Spratly island chains.
China also has competing claims with the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan for territories in the sea.
The latest protests in Vietnam come as China announced Sunday that it had deployed four patrol vessels to the Spratly islands and warned Vietnam to back off reported aerial patrols of the chain.
They also follow an announcement last week by the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) that it had opened for international bidding nine oil and gas lots which Hanoi says lie within Vietnam’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
State-owned PetroVietnam has said it will continue to honor contracts signed with ExxonMobil, Russia’s Gazprom, India’s ONGC, and PetroVietnam affiliate PVEP in the area.
In response to the demonstrations in Vietnam, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Liu Weimin on Monday called on Hanoi to “act more accordingly in the interests of bilateral relations and for peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
The spokesman said that China had “never agreed to the moves of interested parties to expand and complicate the situation,” adding that Beijing was willing to discuss disputes in the sea “according to previous agreements reached by our leaders.”
Anti-China protesters held 11 rallies in Vietnam last year over the sea dispute. Authorities allowed the first demonstrations to go ahead without disruption, but detained dozens of participants at later protests following talks between Hanoi and Beijing.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.