In the first half of 2019, Vietnamese media have reported at least three separate incidents of gang violence against the police. In each incident it was reported that groups of thugs armed with weapons, ranging from knives and swords to metal pipes, confronted police officers and sometimes attacked them.
But activists and human rights groups in Vietnam say that this fairly new development appears to be a consequence of the common practice for authorities, including police, to hire thugs to bend people to their will through violence. RFA’s Vietnamese Service has reported on many cases where plainclothes thugs have harassed or beaten activists, bloggers, clergymen, reporters and environmentalists.
Can Thi Theu, a petitioner in the Duong Noi section of Hanoi who was imprisoned jailed for 20 months for public disorder charges for protesting government-sanctioned evictions used to clear the way for commercial development, is certain that police hire thugs to assault the people.
“That's a fact. Police, authorities and interest groups all use thugs. In Duong Noi, they hired a group of tattooed thugs with swords to chase people and we even got them on video,” said Can.
Can expressed dismay over the lack of action by police, even those who were present during the 2015 attack on protesters.
“Imagine when thugs can freely bring knives and swords and walk around in daylight, and the people report them to the police, but the police trying to ignore their complaints,” she said.
“Sometimes, they even help those thugs in court and get them out of jail for free,” said Can.
Related to the same 2015 land dispute, Nguyen Thanh Ha, who was part of an activist group called “Rescue the Petitioners,” said he and his colleague Lai Son Tien were followed and assaulted by thugs on their way home from the protest.
“When I got close to Khuat Duy Tien and Le Van Luong Street, [we] were suddenly attacked by four thugs,” he said.
Meanwhile, Vu Quoc Ngu, the director of local human rights organization Defend the Defenders, said that police routinely form alliances with gangs to suppress the people and businesses.
He said the recent violence between the police and thugs is a case of one party stabbing the other in the back.
“Your grandparents might say the phrase, ‘If you play with knives, you’ll eventually get cut.’ This will lead to a lawless situation in Vietnam. The police are supposed to be a law-protecting force but they can’t fulfill that purpose. They can’t suppress the criminals, they can only [ally with criminals to] suppress the people with no voice,” he said.
Vu said that while the police and the gangs might temporarily be on bad terms, in the long run, only the people will suffer from damage caused by any of the violence, rather than the police or the gangs themselves.
“When the lawlessness continues, police and the gangs may be in a bit of a conflict of interest, but then the old circle comes back, that is, police and thugs join hand-in-hand to suppress people and oppress businesses. At the end the damage only affects the people. ”
Beyond hiring the gang members to suppress the people, several activists have said that police sometimes pretend to be thugs so they can attack people out of uniform.
Domestic advocate Dinh Quang Tuyen claimed that two activists he knew were beaten severely in May 2015 by police dressed as thugs.
A similar attack occurred this week when Truong Min Huong, a petitioner and social justice advocate, was returning home after visiting political prisoners in jail. He was attacked by four people who he claims were plainclothes security.
Dinh said that the police relationship with gangsters is indicative of Vietnam’s failing institutions.
"The Communists want to rule the country and the people of Vietnam with their unjust laws and constitution. The Vietnamese communists do not know how to operate, leading the away from the rule of law towards lawlessness,” he said.
He said that with lawless institutions, only outlaws have true power.
Reported and translated by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.