Bloggers across Vietnam launched an online campaign Tuesday demanding that their authoritarian government keep the people closely informed about national and foreign policies, including its dealings with giant neighbor China whose territorial disputes with Hanoi have led to riots and a sharp deterioration in bilateral relations.
Vietnamese activists have become increasingly vocal over what they call China’s aggression in the disputed South China Sea and Hanoi’s reluctance to take a stronger stand against its northern neighbor.
The “We Want to Know” campaign was launched by a Vietnamese bloggers’ group early Tuesday and quickly spread on the Internet through Facebook and other social media sites across the one-party communist state, Haiphong-based blogger Pham Thanh Nghien told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“At 12:00 a.m. last night, Vietnam time, the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers began the campaign 'We Want to Know,’” said Nghien, who was freed from prison in September 2012 after her online writings earned her a four-year term behind bars.
“Our network believes that free access to information helps people exercise their rights as citizens of the country,” she said.
“Today, I say ‘I want to know’—and I have the right to know—because society cannot develop if people don’t know about the policies that govern their lives, especially policies that affect the survival of their country.”
Although the campaign asserts the right of Vietnamese citizens to access information “in all fields”—including education, the environment, and health—the focus of the bloggers was on Hanoi’s actions in its long-running row with China on overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“The people of Vietnam often are caught unprepared by China's aggressive moves, and confounded by information released by the Chinese government,” the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers said in an online statement outlining the objectives of the “We Want to Know” campaign.
“Meanwhile, the Vietnamese regime represses anyone who wishes transparency, and tries to shed light upon this existing ‘black hole’ and seeks the truth of what has happened and is happening,” the group said.
Of particular concern was China’s deployment in May this year of an oil rig, HD-981, to waters off the Vietnamese coast claimed by both countries, which prompted a storm of anti-China protests in Vietnam.
Hanoi initially allowed the protests in a rare move widely seen as a way to amplify state anger against Beijing, but the government backpedaled after protests turned bloody, with riots targeting Chinese business interests. Beijing says four Chinese citizens were killed in the unrest.
When China—to support its claim over disputed territory—released the contents of a 1958 diplomatic note signed by then Vietnamese prime minister Pham Van Dong, apparently acknowledging Chinese sovereignty over the disputed area, the Vietnamese people were “astounded,” the statement by the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers said.
Beijing withdrew the rig in July, citing bad weather and the completion of exploratory work.
The terms of a “secret” treaty signed in Chengdu, China, in 1990 by Chinese and Vietnamese leaders preceding the normalization of relations between the two countries have also been kept hidden from the citizens of Vietnam and must now be openly declared, the posted text said.
“Until now, nearly a quarter of a century has passed, and still there is no official information regarding the signed agreement from the Vietnamese government,” according to the statement.
“The inter-related interests of the top two groups in the Communist Party of Vietnam and China always compel them to cover information relating to sovereignty, human rights, and economic, social, and cultural issues in Vietnam.”
“Based on information [already revealed], every citizen is concerned about the prospect of Vietnam turning into a part of China,” the statement said.
Vietnam and China fought a brief but bloody war in 1979 triggered by Hanoi’s invasion of Cambodia. Ties normalized in 1991 but anti-Chinese sentiment remains strong in Vietnam.
The campaign “stems from the basic rights of every citizen,” a second blogger, Pham Van Hai, told RFA, adding, “We joined this campaign because it involves events concerning our lives and community.”
The Vietnamese people’s demand for unhindered access to information “may not be answered in the short term, but if we are patient I believe there will be a result,” blogger Nghien said.
“Even though I think the party will not comply with our request today, if we maintain legitimate pressure the truth will someday be revealed,” she said referring to the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party which does not tolerate dissent and has been using vague charges to detain and jail dozens of writers and bloggers.
About 150 to 200 activists and bloggers are serving prison time in Vietnam simply for exercising their basic rights, activist groups say.
Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.