Vietnamese government taken aback by scale of protests

Did the Vietnamese government have a role in the anti-China protests which turned violent? No, says Mr David Kor. The communist government was taken aback by the scale and intensity of the protests, he writes in a Straits Times online-exclusive commentary.Yes, the government gave tacit approval, says Ms Phuong Nguyen in her piece which discusses events leading up to the riots and the aftermath.

Contrary to reports in foreign press, recent anti-China rallies to protest against Chinese oil drilling in a part of the sea claimed by Hanoi were not sanctioned by the Vietnamese government. In fact private conversations with officials and businessmen suggested that the government was taken aback by the scale and intensity of the protests.

The Vietnamese authorities generally discourage public demonstrations of any sort as they are worried that such events could be exploited by overseas Vietnamese to oppose the communist government.

But in the case of the anti-China marches, the communist government is in a bind: it cannot forbid orderly protests without being seen as acquiescing to China. Such is the label that oppositional forces outside Vietnam have always tried to pin on the communist government.

It is noteworthy that apart from Binh Duong and Ha Tinh provinces, the protests that took place in other big urban areas such as Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Hai Phong (the three biggest cities of Vietnam) were peaceful and orderly.

Binh Duong is home to many industrial parks, while Ha Tinh is a poor central province that is largely rural but undergoing rapid social change because of urbanisation.

Big cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh have experienced anti-China protests in the past, starting from the middle of the last decade. Hence the protest leaders are well known to the police. This explains why the police were out in force last week in the big cities. Despite the big number of protesters, the marches in these areas remained largely peaceful and orderly.

In Binh Duong, where the Vietnam-Singapore Industrial Park is sited, things soon got out of control because of a weaker police presence. The authorities were caught off-guard as it was the first time protests spread to these places.

It is believed that criminal elements used the protests to damage property and carry out looting. At least two people died and 100 were injured in the riots.

The proliferation of smart phones in Vietnam in recent years certainly played an important role in spreading news about the protests beyond the big cities and getting people to join in the protests.

Previously, the Government managed to thwart large-scale protests either by physically restraining the organisers or persuading them not to proceed. This time around, it was just not possible because the protests occurred spontaneously in too many places.

After the experience in Binh Duong and Ha Tinh, the government also paid for phone messages which were sent to all phone subscribers to ask them not to take part in protests and if they do so, to obey the law.

On May 17, the Government shut off access to Facebook in an attempt to reduce the eventual scale of the protests. The following day, a strong police presence was evident when protesters took to the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city again.

The government also issued a directive for the police to arrest people immediately if there was any sign of disorderliness.

In future, the Vietnamese government is likely to devote more resources to the monitoring of protest movements as well as public education on peaceful protests and criminal behaviour.

It should also compensate investors, and look for ways to allow the protests to take place without affecting economic production and public order.

The Vietnamese should also learn to be nationalistic without being seen to be xenophobic. It is also possible for Vietnam to be anti-China but not anti-Chinese, just as its government during the Vietnam War was anti-US government but not anti-American.

The Vietnamese have to distinguish between protesting against China, and acting in ways that threaten its own 1 million-strong ethnic Chinese population.

It is also quite possible that strong protests will happen again, given the unconfirmed reports circulating in Vietnam that China is amassing military equipment along its border with Vietnam.

Things are by no means fully calm. The Vietnamese government can do more to ensure that future protests are peaceful and do not affect businesses and innocent bystanders.

David Koh is an independent consultant who has studied Vietnam for twenty years. He is also the Chairman of the Board of Directors of a Vietnamese NGO that helps marginalised and vulnerable populations.