Authorities in Vietnam have come under fire from dissident groups for blocking peaceful anti-China rallies in the capital Hanoi and the economic hub Ho Chi Minh City only weeks after permitting such demonstrations, which had turned violent and tarnished the country’s image among foreign investors.
Activist Nguyen Anh Tuan said the authoritarian government of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung had “taken advantage” of last week’s violence when enraged mobs torched or otherwise damaged hundreds of foreign-owned businesses, killing two Chinese nationals and injuring about 140.
He said that a text message sent to Vietnamese cellphone users at the weekend saying Dung had ordered the security forces to prevent any illegal acts following the violence in Binh Duong and Ha Tinh provinces implied that the government associated the violent unrest with peaceful rallies that were planned in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday and that were eventually barred.
He said peaceful protests are key to preventing China from making territorial gains against Vietnam following Beijing’s deployment of a giant oil rig in disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam on May 1 which ignited the anti-China riots and caused the worst breakdown in ties between the two Communist neighbors since a short border war in 1979.
“It shows that they are very cunning, but to me this is unwise because one needs to employ a smarter strategy against China’s [actions],” Tuan said.
Vietnamese Catholic priest Dinh Huu Thoai, of the Saigon Redemptorist Church in Ho Chi Minh City, also criticized the government’s response.
“This was not a wise move by the government—it was a cowardly and stupid thing to do,” he said.
“If they keep doing this, the risk of losing our country will become more obvious. How can we defend our nation when there is no resistance from the people?”
Dissidents said Vietnamese were becoming increasingly frustrated with their government’s internal response to the territorial spat with China.
“When they forbid the people to voice their opinion, then who will tell the world about Vietnam?” Hanoi-based writer Thuy Linh asked.
“I feel that the Vietnamese have become lonelier than ever before. We have no friends, no allies. Who will stand up for our country when invaders come?” she said.
Linh said that Dung’s text message, which also urged the Vietnamese people to maintain their patriotism and defend their country’s sovereignty, was a contradiction and had left the public confused.
“It’s been like this for a long time and this is just the peak of [the government’s] flip-flop behavior,” she said.
“Now the people are frustrated, weary and almost desperate because of their policies. With all the suppression [by the government], the situation is just like a bubbling cauldron that can explode at any time.”
At the weekend, police in Hanoi closed off streets and a park close to the Chinese Embassy and dispersed journalists and protesters.
Police were also stationed outside well-known dissidents’ houses, preventing them from leaving, according to activists.
One of those arrested on Saturday, named Trung, was severely beaten by uniformed police and thrown into a van with government license plates, a protester who spoke on condition of anonymity said. It was unclear where he was taken.
“Thousands” of security forces surrounded the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi, blogger JB Nguyen Huu Vinh told RFA, adding that in the city’s central Citadel area “at least two regiments” of police supported by several vehicles were “ambushing people.”
In Ho Chi Minh City, police dragged away several demonstrators from a park in the city center.
Huynh Kim Bau, one of 54 people who signed a petition last week calling for protests in Ho Chin Minh City, told RFA that he and all the other signatories had been guarded by authorities and denied permission to leave their homes.
“There are three policemen for each of us,” he said Saturday, adding that “they told us that we are not allowed to go out, and that if we do, they would detain us.”
“At the moment, it is very quiet outside. Today, the government is controlling the situation by force.”
Police in Ha Tinh province detained 16 people on Sunday for their alleged involvement in deadly riots last week, state media reported Monday, bringing to 96 the total arrested in the province for “causing public disorder,” “intentional assault,” “destroying or deliberately damaging property,” and “stealing property.”
Last week also saw 800 people arrested in Binh Duong and over 200 others detained in Dong Nai province for their involvement in riots in several industrial parks in the two localities on May 13 and 14, according to the official Tuoi Tre news agency.
But some groups said that anti-China protesters had capitalized on the situation to create violence that had tarnished the image of the country.
Pham The Duyet, the former chairman of the Vietnam Fatherland Front—an umbrella group of pro-government “mass movements” which has close links to the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam—told RFA in an interview that protesters had been using patriotism as an excuse to break the law.
“Expressing patriotism in this way has only caused more harm,” said Duyet, who is also a former member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.
“Nobody has the right to destroy things and treat factory owners like that, even if they are Chinese. They are doing business with us and they are not the focus of our retaliation. We need to respect the law—that is what we need to do to contribute to building the nation.”
Duyet applauded recent peaceful protests in Hanoi, adding that the people “must be allowed to express our concerns … [and] can’t simply be quiet.”
He said that the authorities will handle the responsibility of punishing those who have broken the law, adding that people who were “not involved in instigation should not be disciplined.”
“We need to bring to justice the people who destroyed things, and who jeopardized production and relations with the people who came to work with us,” he said.
Reported by Anh Vu and Mac Lam for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.