There are growing signs that the Vietnamese government is moving to smother dissent, as the one-party regime in recent days has labeled a pro-democracy group a terrorist organization, imprisoned a blogger critical of the government and blockaded a group of activists trying to conduct a civil society workshop.
It is unclear why the Vietnamese government decided to make the moves at this time, but the ruling troika of President Tran Dai Quang, Communist Party Secretary-general Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc appear to be sending a message that they will tolerate little criticism.
On Tuesday, the Ministry of Public Security said in a statement that Viet Tan, or the Vietnam Reform Party, has been carrying out terrorist activities to end communist rule in Vietnam and warned that anyone who might contact the organization will be dealt with harshly.
“Viet Tan is a terrorist organization, therefore, anyone who joins, propagandizes, instigates others to join, sponsors, receives sponsorship from Viet Tan, participates in training courses arranged by Viet Tan, operates under instructions of Viet Tan will be an accomplice in terrorism … and will be dealt with in accordance with Vietnamese law,” the statement said.
The Viet Tan is not listed as a terrorist entity under U.S. law and the U.N. has described the Viet Tan as "a peaceful organization advocating for democratic reform.”
Viet Tan was founded by exiles from the Saigon government in that was deposed in 1982 and says as its mission to "overcome dictatorship and build the foundation for a sustainable democracy.”
While the organization has been outlawed in Vietnam for years, the move is the first time the government has declared it a terrorist organization.
The organization dismissed Vietnam’s claims, accusing Hanoi of using “scare tactics” by “regurgitating baseless propaganda that they have routinely used against peaceful voices.”
“To justify its human rights abuses, Hanoi has often portrayed critics as engaging in terrorism, subversion and social unrest,” Viet Tan wrote in a statement. The group pointed out that three of its members are “currently serving long prison terms for their blogging and community organizing.”
Mother Mushroom arrested
In a separate move, Hanoi appeared to underscore the government’s intention to throttle dissent as it arrested a popular blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who writes under the pen name Mother Mushroom on Tuesday.
Quynh co-founded the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers, one of the few independent writers’ associations in a country where the news media and publishing industry are tightly controlled by the governing Communist Party.
The network defended Quynh, writing in a statement that she is an “activist who has advocated for human rights, improved living conditions for people, and sovereignty for many years.”
She blogged extensively about the Formosa Plastics Group steel plant chemical spill in April that killed tons of marine life and left fishermen and tourism industry workers jobless in four provinces.
In June, the company acknowledged it was responsible for the pollution that killed an estimated 115 tons of fish and pledged to pay $500 million to clean it up and compensate those affected by it.
The spill sparked large protests across Vietnam, where public demonstrations are rarely tolerated. Hanoi’s move looks to be aimed directly at criticism over the environmental disaster, the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers wrote in their statement.
“Blogger Mother Mushroom has recently been focused on environmental protection, [criticizing] Formosa and other projects that have bad effects on the environment,” the network wrote. “These activities have led to her urgent arrest.”
Freelance journalist Huynh Ngoc Chenh told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that the “Formosa situation has become more tense and people think that is the ‘death point’ of the regime.”
“There will be more protests in the future, and it will be more tense, and more people will join the protests,” he said. “That is why the government is looking for a way to clamp down on social activists.”
Freelance journalist Pham Chi Dung told RFA “this is a clamp-down campaign initiated with the recent announcement by the Ministry of Police about Viet Tan party. The crackdown will be harsher in the future.”
While Quynh’s arrest looks like a stern signal, blogger Pham Thanh Nghien, a co-founder of the network of Vietnamese Bloggers, told RFA that the activists were unbowed.
“This does not damage us in terms of worrying about being arrested or jailed,” she said. “We are fighting for basic freedoms for ourselves, even though those freedoms might be paid for by our imprisonment.”
While activists are prepared to go to jail, the recent activity may only be aimed partially at them, said blogger Truong Duy Nhat.
“It is possible that anybody can be arrested in the future,” he said. “The way they behave, making laws and implementing those laws, means that any citizen can be alternate prisoners. Anybody can become Mother Mushroom.”
‘Hearing me shouting, four or five security policemen beat me’
It’s not just bloggers who have been harassed by the government as security forces in Vietnam’s southern city of Vung Tau on Saturday detained a group of around 20 activists who attempted to conduct an informal workshop on civil society.
The local police interrogated and beat the activists who had hoped to talk to young Vietnamese about the development of civil society. Instead they ran into squads of police who broke up the meeting, attorney Le Cong Dinh told RFA.
“They shoved me into a car, and I shouted ‘police’ so others could hear, but they could not because many people were still inside a closed room while I was in the lobby at the time,” said the attorney, who served a prison term for “propaganda against the state.”
“Hearing me shouting, four or five security policemen beat me,” he added. “They grabbed my neck and twisted my arms. Four people took me to the car.”
The police drove him to the police station in Than Tam commune, where other activists had been rounded up, he said.
Le Cong Dinh told RFA that the meeting was designed to be an informal one where people could stand up and speak about a topic although some had prepared material for the talk. He was prepared to talk about legal matters related to civil society in Vietnam.
“We went to our meeting at Phan Chu Trinh Street,” he said. “Upon our arrival, we saw that there were many policemen, including traffic police, fast reaction troops and security policemen. They had cameras to film our arrival.”
The activists were blocked from their original meeting place, and when they tried to go to another, the police pounced and arrested them. They were eventually released.
“They drove all their victims out of Vung Tau,” he said. “And dropped them on deserted streets.”
Reported for RFA's Vietnamese Service by Mac Lam. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.