Shackled By The State: Vietnam’s Restrictions On The Freedom Of Movement

Shackled By The State: Vietnam’s Restrictions On The Freedom Of Movement
Photo: Human Rights Watch.

In their ongoing battle against oppression, dissidents in Vietnam have to constantly contend with harassment and abuse from Vietnamese state forces. Several of their human rights, such as freedom of expression and freedom of association, are undermined and invalidated by the Vietnamese government. As a result of their struggle, government critics, activists, and human rights defenders are faced with the inevitability of imprisonment under trumped-up and dubious charges.

Since these human rights violations tend to have drastic, direct, and life-changing effects on individuals and groups, conventional rights reporting on Vietnam tends to hyper-fixate on these issues. As a result, other infringements of human rights in the country tend to be overlooked or merely mentioned in passing.

On February 17, 2022, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a comprehensive 65-page report titled, “Locked Inside Our Home: Movement Restrictions on Rights Activists in Vietnam,” which discusses one such human right which is often glossed over by several rights watchdogs, but which is repeatedly subverted by the Vietnamese State; namely, the freedom of movement.

The unrelenting attack on freedom of movement by the government has to be given the same scrutiny and attention provided to other rights violations since, according to the HRW report, there have been more than 170 instances of people being banned from leaving Vietnam since 2004.

The cases of freedom of movement violations quickly show the appearance that the State’s assault on this right is more widespread and severe than originally expected.

House Arrest, Extralegal Detention, and Passport Confiscation

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
  2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

As such, instances that deny a lawful individual’s movement, migration, or travel– both locally or internationally–  may be considered a violation of that person’s right to Freedom of Movement.

In Vietnam’s case, HRW’s report provides three examples of how the Vietnamese government erodes this universal human right: house arrest, the prevention of people from attending certain events, and passport confiscation.

House arrest, which refers to the confinement of a person within the limits of his residence, is one of the more common methods used by the Vietnamese government to restrict or limit the activities of dissidents.

The report states that authorities use the following tactics to carry out this punishment:

  • stationing plainclothes security agents outside homes;
  • using external padlocks to lock people in their homes;
  • erecting roadblocks and other physical obstacles and barriers to prevent individuals from leaving their homes and others from entering;
  • mobilizing neighborhood mobsters to intimidate people into staying home;
  • applying very strong adhesives— “superglue” —on locks.

HRW adds that house arrests often coincide with certain national or religious holidays, days when sensitive political incidents occurred in the past, dates of international summits taking place in Vietnam, or during the trials of high-profile political dissidents.

The report underscores the fact that although most activists can usually guess the reasons why they are forced to remain at home, there are certain times when this is not clear; the Vietnamese government does not make it a habit to formally inform anyone of the logic or reasoning behind being placed under house arrest.

The Vietnamese government also prevents some dissidents from attending any event it considers to be politically sensitive and the state does this through arbitrary arrest, illegal detention, or abduction until the event concludes. HRW states that this is often done by forcing people into a car and driving them around or by locking them up in police stations.

To better illustrate this occurrence, the report provides several examples. Among them is the June 2011 detention of Mother Mushroom by the police and the detention of several activists during the visit of former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2016.

Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, also known as Mother Mushroom, is a dissident blogger who wrote about various social issues which plagued Vietnam, such as land confiscation, police brutality, and the lack of freedom of expression. HRW states that when she went to Ho Chi Minh city to visit her friends, they detained her for a day before sending her back to her hometown; this was done to allegedly prevent her from attending an anti-China protest that was supposed to happen in the city.

When former U.S. President Barack Obama traveled to Vietnam in 2016, the actions of the Communist Party came into full view of the international community.

Several activists and civil society representatives were prevented by state forces from meeting him. The report states that only six of the 15 invitees were able to meet the former U.S. president with high-profile activists, such as Pham Doan Trang and Nguyen Quang A, being detained by the police until Obama left.

Several Vietnamese citizens have also been prevented from entering or leaving the country and are placed on a travel ban list which the government never publishes. The report states that individuals who are on this list only find out about the travel restriction when they are stopped by police at airports or when they have their passports renewed.

The report specifically mentions that religious freedom campaigners, former political prisoners, independent bloggers, journalists, and even family members of rights activists are often the targets of this restriction on international travel.

HRW adds that these individuals are prohibited from leaving the country to stop them from engaging in any human rights advocacy in other nations. However, activists have been banned from leaving on personal trips or for medical treatment as well.

As such, it appears that Vietnamese authorities will impose travel bans on anyone as long as there remains even a remote possibility that the person might use the trip to expand one’s advocacy, meet with foreign officials, or engage with exiled dissidents.

Sustained and Widespread Prosecution

The actions of the Vietnamese government in restricting freedom of movement are not done in isolation. In reality, government critics, activists, and human rights advocates face several instances of such restrictions throughout the course of their advocacies. The report enumerates several emblematic cases which clearly present the interplay of the government’s abuse of individuals and groups.

The examples of Nguyen Thuy Hanh and the Dong Tam land dispute incident are just two of the numerous cases provided in the report.

Before her arrest on April 7, 2021, for allegedly violating Article 117 of the Penal Code, a retired businesswoman, human rights advocate, and founder of the 50K Fund, Nguyen Thuy Hanh, participated in several protests and even attempted to run for public office in 2016.

Her career in activism was fraught with several instances of house arrest of varying lengths since the early 2000s; she was prevented by police from leaving her home on multiple occasions to join mass protests, such as the demonstration following the Formosa incident, or to commemorate national holidays, such as the 1988 Gac Ma Battle.

Despite the relentless harassment by the State, her arrest, and the sadness of being unable to see her son after being banned from traveling internationally, she continues to remain strong, resolute, and unwavering in her beliefs.

HRW’s report further expounds on the January 2020 Dong Tam incident which resulted in the arrests of 29 people and the deaths of 3 police officers along with 84-year old Le Dinh Kinh, the de facto leader of the commune.

The morning after the violence took place, the report holds that security forces prevented outsiders from entering the village or from contacting the families of those arrested; restrictions remained in place for some time.

Many activists in Hanoi were also indirectly affected by what happened with several of them being placed under house arrest of varying lengths. The report also makes a connection between what happened in Dong Tam to the increased persecution of various Vietnamese land rights activists which started in February 2020.

The government’s response in handling the cases of Nguyen Thuy Hanh and the aftermath in Dong Tam provides insight into how pervasive and serious the attacks on Freedom of Movement can be.

It costs the government very little manpower and resources in order to sustain pressure on an individual for an extended period of time. Likewise, it is also fairly simple for the authorities to prohibit travel and impose house arrests on a large number of people.

HRW’s report ends with a brief discussion of the domestic and international laws which govern freedom of movement while also providing recommendations for the Vietnamese government and other concerned organizations and countries.

For local laws, the report points out several inconsistencies and contradictions in the 2013 Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

While Article 23 states that all Vietnamese citizens have the right to freely live and move anywhere within the country and to go abroad and return,  Article 14(2) and Article 15(4) give the government too broad authority to severely restrict the freedom of movement.

These statutes give the government and the police the legal basis to ignore this right under the guise of vague terms such as “national defense, national security, social order and security, social morality, and community well-being.”

Also mentioned in Vietnam’s 2019 Law on Immigration is the vague interpretation of “national security” as a valid reason to deny people from entering or leaving the country and to prevent them from obtaining any travel documents such as passports.

Article 36(9) of this law also states that anyone can be denied travel if authoritative offices consider that person to be a threat to national defense and security.

Lastly, the report affirms that the 2019 Law on Immigration “allows the authorities to arbitrarily prohibit anyone from leaving or entering Vietnam without a court order, without providing any concrete explanation why a travel ban is imposed, or, in supposed national security cases, without providing notice to the person on the travel ban list.”

HRW asserts that international human rights law safeguards freedom of movement and that Vietnam is a signatory of The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). As such, the actions of the Vietnamese government have to align with these international standards. However, it is plain to see that they do not.

Article 9(1) of the ICCPR states:

“Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention.”

HRW’s report makes it painfully clear that Vietnam falls short of even coming close to meeting the standards set by the ICCPR and that the “Vietnamese government actions against activists and other critics of the government violate prohibitions against arbitrary deprivation of liberty…”

As such, HRW implores Vietnam to “end arbitrary restrictions on the right to freedom of movement, including house arrests, detention, harassment, surveillance, and domestic and international travel bans, against activists and other critics of the government,” and to hold certain officials in government and in the Ministry of Public Security accountable for the country’s violations.

HRW also urges Vietnamese lawmakers to repeal, amend, or revoke several unreasonable laws and to ensure that “anyone arbitrarily denied of their freedom of movement or arbitrarily arrested or detained has access to effective remedies.”

Likewise, other countries and international organizations such as the United Nations, The World Bank, and Asian Development Bank, are urged to “publicly and privately call on the Vietnamese government to end arbitrary restrictions on freedom of movement” and to escalate these concerns to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Whether the Vietnamese government will concede to some of these recommendations or acquiesce to international pressure is uncertain. Honestly speaking, it will most likely ignore demands for change or will only provide lip service in addressing these concerns; change, if there ever is any, will be minute and unnoticeable.

Permanent change comes from small concessions and minor adjustments that build on each other with the passage of time while abrupt transformations often lead to instability or collapse.

As more information is released to the world regarding the various atrocities committed in Vietnam, calls for reform will finally bear fruit with tiny shifts towards lasting democracy. And eventually, all Vietnamese citizens will truly be free.

Human Rights Watch’s February 2022 report can be accessed here.


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