Vietnam protests `reveal limits on freedom`

Activists say anti-China rallies reveal the limits to freedom of expression in Vietnam.

Updated: Jul 22, 2011, 09:14 AM IST

Hanoi: Vietnam has seen an unprecedented seven weeks of anti-China rallies but activists say the demonstrations essentially reveal the limits to freedom of expression in the authoritarian nation.

Authorities in Hanoi tolerated five small peaceful protests near the Chinese embassy, but police forcibly dispersed two other demonstrations and briefly detained people in the wake of talks between Hanoi and Beijing in June.

In a country that bitterly recalls a millennium of Chinese occupation and, more recently, a 1979 border war, many routinely express dislike for the Chinese and the giant neighbour makes an easy target for protest.

"Up to now the only thing which can incite demonstrations is relations between Vietnam and China," said a blogger who asked for anonymity.

The neighbours have a longstanding dispute over sovereignty of the potentially oil-rich Paracel and Spratly island groups, which straddle vital commercial shipping lanes in the South China Sea.

Tensions flared in May when Vietnam said Chinese marine surveillance vessels cut the exploration cables of an oil survey ship inside the country`s exclusive economic zone.

Activists say word of the protests spread through social media and the Internet, where independent comment flourishes despite the arrests of some bloggers and official attempts to allegedly block Facebook.

The maritime dispute prompted a renewed outburst of patriotic sentiment on the web, leading Pham Duy Hien, 74, a nuclear scientist, to expect greater participation in the protests.

But most of the rallies drew only about 50 to 100 people.

Overtly political demonstrations are rare in Vietnam, despite fairly frequent protests in the form of land-rights rallies outside government offices and strikes by factory workers.

Those taking part risk arrest and jail -- one reason why the China gatherings are unusual.

"This is something political because it concerns the relationship between two brothers," communist neighbours Vietnam and China, said Hien, who was one of several senior intellectuals to join the rallies.

In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam`s southern metropolis, protests have occurred less frequently and demonstrators cited a stronger initial response from security forces.

The blogger said the harsh police response makes a broadening of Vietnam`s protest movement unlikely, particularly in a one-party state still lacking a political consciousness.

Nguyen Quang A, an economic analyst who joined the Hanoi rallies, said the police action "undermines the image of the government".

He said the protesters were orderly and anyone who wanted to "expand the scope" beyond the China issue was reminded by other demonstrators that their rally had only one purpose.

Hien was also keen to stress that the maritime-related protests were not against the Vietnamese government or the Chinese people, but against China`s "aggression".

"Our country now is in danger. So we called each other to go there to express our concerns, our anger," he said.

Some activists speculate that the government may now fear political protests inspired by this year`s uprisings against authoritarianism in North Africa and the Middle East.

While the authorities have been broadly successful in muting open public criticism, the government is not wholly immune to the opprobrium of the Vietnamese people.

Many of the intellectuals involved in the recent rallies spoke up two years ago against a Chinese-backed bauxite mining project which sparked unprecedented criticism from a broad-based coalition led by the scientists, researchers and writers.

Party sources said the bauxite issue helped to weaken Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, but he survived a leadership challenge and is expected to be re-elected to another five-year term by the National Assembly next Tuesday.

Vietnam`s Constitution allows for the right to demonstrate.

"But there is no law and decree to specify the procedure... how you can organise a demonstration," Quang A said, urging a "wise" government to issue legislation that will allow protests "in a civilised way”.

Activists have not ruled out another protest this Sunday.

Bureau Report