Vietnamese authorities now seeking ‘small fish’ in widening crackdown

Hanoi attempts to wipe out remaining critical voices after targeting prominent activists.
By RFA Vietnamese Service
2024.01.04
Vietnamese authorities now seeking ‘small fish’ in widening crackdown Vietnamese activist Phan Van Bach protests a gas price increase. He was arrested by authorities Dec. 29, 2023.
Facebook/Phan Vân Bách

With a campaign targeting outspoken critics of the ruling Communist Party largely complete, authorities in Vietnam say they are now turning their attention to the country’s “small fish,” according to political and human rights activists.

Over the past six months, authorities have been conducting a dragnet of Vietnam’s activist community, “inviting” people to police stations for warnings, forcing them to meet with security officers at restaurants and cafes, and even arresting them in their homes – as was the case with YouTuber Phan Van Bach on Dec. 29.

In conversations with RFA Vietnamese, three rights campaigners in Vietnam who asked to be identified only by their first initial, citing security concerns, said they had been summoned many times over the past few months by security officers who questioned them about their activities – some of which had occurred several years earlier.

Mr. L, a resident of the capital Hanoi, said he had been “invited” for conversations with police twice in the second half of 2023 alone.

“They claimed they had already arrested all the ‘prominent’ activists and bluntly said that it was time to catch the ‘small fish,’” he said. “After threatening me in that way, they started using psycho tactics, advising me that I should ‘think about [the safety of] my family.’”

Mr. L said that after the second warning, he had “stopped all activities,” fearing that he could end up detained, or worse.

“If I am arrested now, my family would fall apart,” he said.

Besides him, Mr. L said, “almost everyone” who had previously spoken out about Vietnam’s socio-political issues had been told to meet with security forces.

“They began to check on the remaining people – even those who used to post stories online or take part in [pro-democracy and human rights] activities,” he said. “All were invited.”

Mr. L said anyone using YouTube to post videos about sensitive topics was told to stop or face arrest, and that if police were repeatedly ignored after issuing a summons, “they will go straight to that person’s home [to arrest them].”

Targeted ‘whether active or not’

Another activist, who gave his name as Mr. H, told RFA of a similar situation in Vietnam’s commercial capital, Ho Chi Minh City.

He said that while he had refrained from taking part in pro-democracy and human rights activities or criticizing the government for two to three years, he had recently been invited to three separate meetings with police.

“They grilled me about things I had done in the past,” he said, adding that police had also asked him about his Facebook account, as well as foreign media reports about his activities.

“They threatened me, saying my file was ‘completed’ and that they could imprison me at their discretion at any time,” Mr. H said. “I heard that there is currently a campaign underway to arrest all people who have engaged in any previous activism, regardless of whether they are still active or not.”

Mr. B, another human rights activist in Ho Chi Minh City, described a similar situation, noting that even though YouTuber Phan Van Bach had ceased activities in recent years, “they did not spare him.”

“Many [who were targeted] were confused, as they had quit [activism] but were still arrested,” he said.

Eradicating the democratic movement

Commenting on the current situation of activists in Vietnam, rights researcher Minh Trang suggested that Vietnam’s security forces “no longer differentiate between active and inactive activists.”

She said that tactics used by authorities that include “reminding, warning and threatening” activists to stop appear to be working.

“All the prominent activists in Vietnam have been arrested or migrated to another country to live,” she said. “Therefore, the authorities are inviting those who are left to meetings to collect information, create records, and make new arrests. Their goal is to eradicate the democratic movement and civil society activities in Vietnam.”

Nguyen Tien Trung, an activist who authorities sought to arrest throughout 2023 before he fled to Germany as a refugee in December, said the Communist Party wants to “hunt down and wipe out” political dissidents because they worry that global developments beyond their control could negatively affect Vietnam and “cause unrest” at any time.

“The government is afraid that when upheavals take place, and there is a democratic force waiting to take over the leadership, the people will stand up … and remove the totalitarian one-party regime,” he said.

He noted that the war in Ukraine could impact food and oil prices in Vietnam, while potential conflicts resulting from China’s territorial claims over Taiwan and the South China Sea could have profound political implications.

“The Communist Party itself gained power after the end of World War II amid a power grab in the country at that time,” he said. “Therefore, the authorities want to destroy all ‘sprouts and seedlings’ of the democratic leadership so that there is no opposition waiting to lead a popular revolution.”

Translated by Anna Vu. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.

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