Vietnam's Violent History of Suppressing Peaceful Protest

Vietnam's Violent History of Suppressing Peaceful Protest

In the summer of 2011, Vietnam witnessed its longest anti-Chinese protest since 1975, spanning a total of three months. Citizens from all walks of life united their voices in opposition to China's invasive actions in the South China Sea. People gathered in front of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi and its Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City every Sunday throughout this period. Initially, the Vietnamese government tolerated these displays of anger from the populace. However, in late August, state forces began to arrest and disperse the protesters, resulting in the detention of 47 individuals. Following this incident, the Hanoi government issued a stern warning, urging citizens to refrain from participating in further protests.

Since taking power in 1975, Communist-led Vietnam has constantly used violent tactics to quell anti-government and anti-state sentiment. However, the state has also used these methods to suppress the right of peaceful assembly regarding other issues such as religious freedom, workers' rights, and infringements upon land rights.

On June 20, 2023, the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) jointly released a comprehensive report titled “A History of Violence – Repression of the Right to Freedom of Assembly in Vietnam." The report discusses the almost three decades of protest movements in the country, as well as the government's systemic pattern of repression against peaceful gatherings and demonstrations. The report also provides insight into the relentless crackdowns, arrests, and intimidation tactics used by the Vietnamese government, revealing a disturbing pattern of stifling dissent and suppressing the fundamental right to freedom of assembly.

Pre-2000 Timeline of Repression

The 58-page report goes into detail about the many peaceful demonstrations that took place in Vietnam from 1988 to the present day. While the report does not examine all the protests that occurred after the Vietnam War, the incidents it discusses capture the essence of these events, leading to a vivid portrayal of their impact on shaping modern Vietnamese culture and society.

The report states that the period from 1988-1989 was marked by a “climate of growing tension and popular discontent” following the first decade of Communist rule after 1975. It adds that the protests of this period were inspired by the student-led democracy protests in China during that time. Vietnamese youth of this era from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi rallied against the poor conditions of university hostels and canteens and police brutality against students. Likewise, coal miners in Quang Ninh Province demonstrated against the state’s non-payment of their wages. The report also mentions the summer protest of 1988 that saw thousands of southern peasants and farmers gathering in unison against “forced collectivization, [the] confiscation of their lands, and power abuse by local CPV cadres.” Despite the great personal risk and the very real risk of death, protesters from this period expressed their discontent, leading to the government’s “brutal suppression” aimed at silencing their voices.

May 1993 witnessed the “largest ever protest in Vietnam.” FIDH states that 40,000 Buddhists gathered in Hue to denounce state repression of The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) for its refusal to join state-sponsored religious organizations. They also criticized the government's many human rights violations. The protest was sparked by the actions of Nguyen Ngoc Dung, who set himself ablaze in the Linh Mu Pagoda. In response, local police removed his body from the premises, and state-run media was quick to denounce the man as “a desperate drug addict suffering from AIDS.”

The report adds that the authorities forced the abbot of the Linh Mu Pagoda, Venerable Thich Tri Tuu, to confirm their version of events by coercing him to sign a written statement. In order to quell the protest, FIDH states that the police used "water cannons, electric batons, and tear gas to disperse the crowds." This disastrous event led to the conviction of several UBCV monks and some of the religion's followers. They were convicted for "disturbing public order" and were sentenced to 3-4 years imprisonment; none of them were given access to defense counsel before and during their trial.

Four years later, in May 1997, the situation that led to the 1988 protests reached a boiling point. The report states that "tens of thousands of farmers from 128 villages" converged on the provincial capital of the Thai Binh Province "to protest against excessive taxation, unfair rice prices, and rampant official corruption." Due to the government's refusal to address the farmers' concerns, violent clashes erupted, which led to the burning of several houses belonging to state officials and an attack on a People's Committee chairman. Police later arrested more than 100 individuals who were "forced to parade on national television" as punishment; many of them were later sentenced to up to 11 and a half years in prison. Despite this, the protests continued, and eventually, the Vietnamese government was forced to deploy 1,000 police officers to "quell the demonstrations."

In November 1997, 10,000 residents and local farmers from Thong Nhat District clashed with local authorities over "land rights and corruption of [the] CPV and government officials." In response, the government imposed a media blackout and dispersed the protesters. FIDH states that at least nine people were arrested following this incident.

Post-2000 Concerns and Affairs

At the turn of the century in the year 2000, the Vietnamese government continued its persecution against those who gathered to voice their concerns and opposition to many of the state's policies and actions. Unresolved issues surrounding the oppression of farmers and workers, land dispute issues, and general human rights abuses remain. However, more recent affairs such as the oppression of religious ethnic minority groups, the Formosa disaster, the resistance against the Cybersecurity Law, and the Dong Tam incident have come to the forefront of public consciousness.

Vietnam's persistent oppression of religious communities has manifested itself once again in the ongoing suppression of the Hoa Hao Buddhists. FIDH mentions an event that occurred in December 2000 where police used tear gas and batons to disperse Buddhists who had gathered in their prophet’s place of birth. The report states that "[many Buddhists] were beaten, placed under house arrest, or sentenced to prison terms of up to 14 years on charges of ‘disrupting security.’" Increasing government suppression led to another case of self-immolation on March 19, 2001, when 75-year-old Hoa Hao follower, Nguyen Thi Thu, set herself on fire during a protest in Vinh Long Province.

Also representative of ongoing religious suppression is the government’s constant attacks on the Christian ethnic minority highlanders, also known as Montagnards. In 2001, thousands of Montagnards protested in Vietnam’s Central Highlands “to demand religious freedom and restitution of confiscated lands.” The report states that this incident was sparked by the arrests of  Rahlan Pon and Rahlan Djan - two regular highlanders - where the government stated an outrageous reason of “illegally converting to Christianity” for their arrest. As protests spread all across the region, Vietnamese authorities fought back with “armed troops, military helicopters, and riot police,” as well as placing the affected areas under a media blackout and martial law. State suppression against this ethnic minority group continues to this day, forcing many Montagnards to seek asylum in neighboring countries.

The right to freedom of assembly of the ethnic minority Hmong people is also under attack. FIDH states that on April 11, 2011, 7,000 Hmong people gathered in the Muong Nhe District, Dien Bien Province, because they believed that their "messiah" would arrive in that location. However, on May 3, the Vietnamese government deployed military forces and police to the area to prevent the collusion of "extremists" and "hostile forces," who they claimed were trying to establish "Hmong self-rule." The government's use of violence to break up the gathering led to the deaths of at least 60 Hmongs while thousands of others "fled to hide in the jungle or attempted to escape across the border to Laos."

Protesters from the Duong Van Minh religion were dispersed by police in 2014 during a demonstration in Tuyen Quang Province. They were protesting the state's condemnation of their religious traditions, such as their burial practices, which the government has labeled "evil." After the police used force to disperse the protesters, seven individuals were sentenced to two years imprisonment for "abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state." Recently, the authorities broke up a religious gathering of Duong Van Minh followers when they attended the funeral of their founder in 2021. Then in 2022, armed police raided eight centers of the Duong Van Minh faith in Cao Bang Province; the reports state that "[the police] broke down the doors of people's homes, destroyed altars, and hung pictures of late President Ho Chi Minh in their place."

The April 2016 Formosa environmental disaster led to the destruction of Vietnam's coastline and the loss of livelihood of thousands of fishermen. The Vietnamese government's slow response and callousness to the situation prompted massive protests. The FIDH report states that thousands of people took to the streets from the end of April until June. Vietnamese citizens rallied in major cities all across the country. However, the state responded once again with violence and even hired local thugs to initiate harm and intimidation by assaulting the protesters. Eventually, Formosa acknowledged responsibility, but the general public was unsatisfied with the compensation offered by the company. This led to more protests in succeeding years and to several activists being "beaten, harassed, and arbitrarily detained for documenting or peacefully protesting this environmental disaster."

In early June 2018, large public protests against the draft Law on the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and the draft Law on Cyber Security erupted in many major cities and provinces across Vietnam. Thousands of Vietnamese citizens gathered to express their concerns on the major issues present in both drafts: the draft Law on the SEZs could be used by China to establish a “long-term” presence in the country, and the Cybersecurity draft could grant sweeping, overreaching surveillance powers to the Vietnamese government. The report states that aside from using physical violence, police and riot control officials utilized Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs) to disorient protesters with painful high-pitched sounds and arrested people en masse. To control public discontent, the government decided to postpone the passage of the draft Law on the SEZs. However, the Cybersecurity Law came into effect in January 2019.

The Dong Tam Village land dispute case exemplifies the brutality of the Vietnamese government. What started as an initiative of local farmers to resist government land seizures and protect their rights turned into an armed assault by state forces on January 9, 2020. The report states that 3,000 police officers “stormed Dong Tam Village and forcefully reclaimed the disputed plot of land using tear gas, explosives, and grenades.” This attack led to the death of 84-year-old Le Dinh Kinh, three policemen, and the arrest of 29 other villagers. FIDH emphasizes that the government's use of extreme force against a small group of villagers opened the public's eyes to the injustices faced by Vietnamese peasants and farmers.


The Vietnamese government's approach to protests, rallies, public demonstrations, and other forms of freedom of assembly has been consistent throughout the years, as illustrated by FIDH’s report. When faced with large-scale gatherings of citizens, the state responds with acts of intimidation and violence; the state consistently resorts to such acts in an attempt to swiftly suppress dissenting voices and pacify anger or severe public discontent.

What the Vietnamese government fails to realize is that its citizens' actions result from underlying social or political woes that they feel remain unaddressed. Rather than working together towards a solution or a compromise that benefits all parties in the long run, the state resorts to its usual tactics of fear and terror. Open dialogue and tackling systemic issues head-on is the first step in reaching meaningful and long-lasting reforms. However, by choosing the stick over the carrot, very little progress will be made.

Moreover, Vietnam's position as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) underscores the importance of recognizing, respecting, and upholding its international obligations to protect human rights and freedom of assembly. Regrettably, the actions of the Vietnamese government suggest that its membership is a farce and that the Vietnamese government lacks commitment to the principles and values associated with its position; the spirit and heart of what it means to be a member is not one of their concerns.

FIDH's report serves as a way to bring Vietnam's transgressions onto the global stage and expose its shortcomings and misdeeds to the rest of the world. It serves as concrete evidence for the international community to hold the country accountable for its ill-treatment and abuse of its own citizens. The United Nations and all other members of the UNHRC should use the knowledge in this report to pressure the Vietnamese Communist government to halt their oppressive practices.

For decades, the people of Vietnam have gathered in protest, tirelessly striving for their voices to be heard. Perhaps now someone will listen.

The report from the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) can be found here.


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