Today| marks the 73rd year since Ho Chi Minh stood at Ba Dinh Square on September 2, 1945, and proclaimed that all people shall enjoy their natural rights in the pursuit of happiness. Thus, it is quite hard to imagine that the current regime – who is supposedly following Ho Chi Minh’s teachings – has decided to mark such an auspicious occasion with a stern, yet illegal, warning to all citizens: do not go out and protest.
But that is precisely how the Vietnamese authorities have decided to honor the birth of their nation this year, by loudly ordering the people not to participate in any form of public demonstration on Vietnam’s Independence Day.
Throughout August, high-ranking officials in the Vietnamese Communist Party have taken turns assaulting the human right to assembly, a right enshrined in Vietnam’s 2013 Constitution.
First, it was To Lam, head of the Ministry of Public Security (in charge of the national police force). Lam assured the Standing Committee of the National Assembly on August 13, 2018, that the police would take all possible measures to prevent people from participating in protests after he was admonished by Committee members for the mass protests that took place in June.
A few weeks later, Hanoi city leader and high-ranking police official Nguyen Duc Chung also vowed that he would not allow “any crowds to publicly gather” under his watch during Independence Day weekend.
Several state-owned media outlets during the past week “coincidentally” published articles condemning both the June 10th protestors and the call on social media accounts for a nationwide protest on September 2nd. The government seems to blame overseas groups, some of which have been declared “terrorist organizations” in recent years by Vietnamese authorities.
News has also surfaced both on social media and on official news agencies that the police have arrested a small number of individuals disseminating information “against the state”, including one who was caught trying to enter Vietnam through Cambodia with several weapons.
Minister To Lam has publicly congratulated the police forces of Binh Dinh and Phu Yen provinces for arresting the armed individual whom the government believes to be a member of Viet Tan, one of the aforementioned overseas groups. Viet Tan denied this accusation on the same day the individual was arrested.
While no protest broke out today, the political sphere remains tense, and Vietnam is not in much of a celebrating mood compared to previous years.
The Special Economic Zones draft bill is still dangling over citizens’ heads. The people are continuously wary of their country becoming ever more dependent on China.
The government is not exactly helping, with the national bank announcing last Thursday that the Chinese renminbi could soon be used in trading activities along the country’s northern border, starting in October.
There were also reports of the internet being down – again – due to cable issues during the last week of August (the fourth time in 2018 thus far). In Vietnam, internet outages often “coincide” with periods of social and political turmoil, as was observed when Vietnamese protested the Taiwanese steel mill, Formosa Ha Tinh, back in May 2016.
Earlier this month, activists were also brutally assaulted by police officers for simply gathering at a small concert in a Ho Chi Minh City cafe. Many of these activists were also placed under surveillance this holiday weekend.
Are the reactions from the Vietnamese government in August just overblown paranoia or do they have reason to fear the people?
It is difficult to say.
However, we do know from the writings of several state-owned newspapers that the government is extremely wary of anything remotely resembling the “color revolutions” or the Arab Spring in Vietnam. They prefer to take pre-emptive measures, using all means to prevent demonstrations, even if doing so would mean breaking their own laws and constitution.
Moreover, the Vietnamese government does not distinguish between peaceful dissidents and those who call for a violent overthrow of the government, and the case of one of their most famous political prisoners, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, is the best example.
Thuc was sentenced to 16 years imprisonment back in 2009 for “subversion against the state,” and the evidence used to uphold the conviction included his writings pleading with the government to take rapid and immediate action to preserve economic growth and avoid over-dependence on China.
Before his arrest, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc was one of Vietnam’s most successful entrepreneurs, with the government unable to find any evidence of wrongdoing within his multi-million dollar business after raids. Western countries have offered Thuc political asylum on multiple occasions, but he refuses to leave his country to live in exile.
His latest defiant act—a hunger strike—protesting what he calls “an unjust judicial system,” again put the Vietnamese government in a predicament: they could not justify his imprisonment to the increasingly informed public. September 2, 2018 marks the 20th day of Thuc’s hunger strike.
Up until last month, Thuc had received the longest sentence for a political prisoner: 16 years imprisonment, followed by 5 years of house arrest.
In August, the record was surpassed by Le Dinh Luong, who was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, again for “subversion against the state.” Luong was known by his peers as an activist who campaigned against the environmental destruction caused by corporations and development projects.
The VCP has managed – especially in recent years – to ensure that its human rights records rival that of its big Communist brother, China, with more suppression and harsher sentences against activists.
But will more suppression lead to a stable and peaceful society as the VCP hopes for, or will blurring “peaceful dissent” with “subversion against the state” further chip away at the government’s legitimacy? The answer remains unclear.
What we do know, however, is that history has never been on the side of regimes that refuse to engage in dialogue with dissenters, that refuses to heed the people’s discontent. One need only look at Vietnam’s own history to see this fact in action.