Vietnamese authorities fanned out across the country on Thursday in what appeared to be a coordinated attempt to block people from marking the day the country lost disputed territory in the South China Sea 43 years ago.
Plainclothes police in Hanoi beat demonstrators and herded them onto buses as they attempted to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of the Paracel Islands, according to an eyewitness account by RFA’s Vietnamese Service.The demonstrators laid a wreath in the lake near the Ly Thai To monument when they were attacked.
“Everything was normal until we were leaving, then a bunch of people that later police confirmed to be plainclothes officers stormed in, snatching our phones, arresting some people and putting them on a bus, while beating some others and bringing them to Long Bien police,” said one witness.
Truong Anh Dung who was present at the event told RFA that he saw police beat and arrest Pham Quang Thuan.
“When Thuan was on the road, the police jumped on him and hit him very hard and then they kicked his crucifix,” he said. “Then they put me and some others onto a bus where they vulgarly cursed us.”
A memorial in Nghe An province was also met with force, but the demonstrators there managed to hold off the authorities and dropped a wreath in the sea to commemorate the battle.
“The government came to stop us, but then they had to retreat due to people’s protest,” an eyewitness said. “We did drop a wreath into the sea to commemorate the sacrifice of heroic soldiers.”
Meanwhile authorities in Ho Chi Minh City blockaded the houses of likely demonstrators, but they failed to prevent people from memorializing the event.
“Just last night a lot of people were blocked in their houses,” according to a journalist covering the event.
But as more than 100 people including the journalists Le Phu Khai, Le Cong Giau, and the poet Hoang Hung, successfully completed the ceremony.
The battle's repercussions
The 1974 battle cost the lives of 75 Vietnamese soldiers and allowed China to establish de facto control over the islands which it claims under the “nine-dash line” Beijing asserts marks its historic territory in the busy waterway.
The brief bloody battle has repercussions to this day as China builds up its military presence in the South China Sea.
Beijing has been fortifying the islands it claims in the vital waterway with weaponry, runways and deep water berths. China has also created artificial islands in the South China Sea by dredging massive amounts of sand and Chinese officials have promoted tourism to the islands.
Vietnam still lays claim to the islands, but the government has shown little patience with demonstrations of any kind.
On Saturday, the two nations released a joint statement in Beijing, saying they would try to peacefully settle their conflicting claims.
State-run media in both countries reported on the statement released during a four-day visit to China by Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. He met with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the visit.
The Vietnamese news website Vietnamnet.vn reported that the two leaders agreed to speed up talks on joint development in the Gulf of Tonkin.
The report said the agreement means “effectively stepping up” joint projects in “less sensitive” areas.
Reported for RFA’s Vietnamese Service by Mac Lam. Translated by Lan Huong. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.