The detention of a Houstonian in Vietnam, arrested while joining protests in Ho Chi Minh City, has again drawn international media attention to social unrest in this fast-growing nation of close to 100 million. The protesters gathered on June 9, 10 and 11 in several cities including Hanoi, Da Nang, Nha Trang, and Phan Thiet — where rioters burned the provincial People’s Committee building and several vehicles. Many were protesting proposed changes in law to create special economic zones available for 99-year leases, alarming some Vietnamese who argue Chinese control over land impinges on their sovereignty.
The crowds reportedly exceeded numbers gathered during the 2016 Formosa fish kill protests and the 2014 riots after China moved an offshore oil rig into the waters of Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. Ho Chi Minh City saw some of the largest protests, as thousands of demonstrators converged on the streets, including William Nguyen, 32, a graduate of Yale from Houston who is studying public policy at the National University of Singapore. Nguyen had reportedly asked officers to move their police vehicles from the crowd’s path, and then climbed on top of a police car when they refused to move. Nguyen was then bloodied and dragged away by a group of men, according to video recorded at the scene.
Nguyen has since been charged with disturbing the social order, and hundreds of others were detained and later released as part of an investigation launched by the Ministry of Public Security. Several known activists are reportedly being closely watched by security agents placed outside their homes, while others are being rounded up for questioning by authorities and dozens still remain in detention, including Nguyen. As reported in the Houston Chronicle, with pressure applied by U.S. officials, Nguyen’s family has received word that he was OK but still in police custody.
So who is behind the protests? In a society lacking transparency and scoring low on press freedom (175 out of 180 countries), all sorts of conspiracy theories abound. Some believe the government orchestrated the protests to demonstrate the need for tighter internet security to contain public unrest. Facebook is often the medium of choice for organizing protests, and these demonstrations happened to coincide with the passage of an internet security law just two days after the protests. It requires Facebook and Google to open offices in Vietnam and store data on its users which will be accessible to Vietnamese authorities.
Other fingers point to the Viet Tan, or New Viet Revolutionary Party, a U.S. registered group “with members in Vietnam and around the world, [which] aims to establish democracy and reform Vietnam through peaceful means.” According to the state-run Tuoi Tre newspaper, four Vietnamese were arrested in Ho Chi Minh City for disguising themselves as police officers in order to attack protesters, and they were found carrying knives, screwdrivers, tear gas sprayers. So far, the three fake cops have not been linked to the Viet Tan, which Vietnam considers “a terrorist force.”
However, the Vietnamese I spoke to in Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City were less concerned about the organizers than the issues being addressed. The issues had been distilled into a simple messages such as “No leasing land to Chinese communists for even one day” and “Cybersecurity law kills freedom.” Most protesters could hardly be blamed for not knowing how special economic zones actually worked. As for the new cybersecurity law, many believe the government was only writing into law what it already practices.
But beyond the basic anti-Chinese sentiment and desire for internet freedom was economic frustration and hope for change through peaceful assembly in a system long deemed corrupt and beholden to Chinese money. While General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong and his officials have prosecuted some notable corporate bigwigs, the party still has a long way to go before the people are convinced that they are active participants in Vietnam’s rapid economic growth of near 7 percent, and that their land is not being confiscated and sold off to Chinese investors, with all of the proceeds pocketed by unscrupulous Vietnamese government officials.
For now, Vietnam’s National Assembly has overwhelmingly approved the cybersecurity law and Hanoi has chosen to postpone a decision on the 99-year leases until October. But some will not wait for change and are moving forward to relocate to the United States or Australia to pursue higher education or higher paying jobs, having lost all hope of sharing in the latest economic spoils.