Vietnam protest. Photo: AFP
Vietnam protest. Photo: AFP

The detention of an American citizen in Vietnam, arrested while participating in a protest 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 9-11 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 a 99-year lease, alarming some Vietnamese who argue Chinese control over land impinges on their sovereignty.  

While anti-Chinese sentiment remains high among Vietnamese, land-lease deals involving Chinese companies have caused similar alarm elsewhere, including Kazakhstan in 2016. Fears have also grown in Sri Lanka, where China currently maintains control over the southern port of Hambantota under a 99-year lease. In 2014, Chinese submarines docked in Colombo, where a Chinese firm was building a $1.4-billion port city on reclaimed land.  

The crowds reportedly exceeded numbers gathered during the 2016 Formosa fish kill protests and the 2014 riots following China moving 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 protesters converged on the streets, including William Nguyen, 32, a graduate of Yale from Houston, Texas, 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 dragged away by a group of men and bloodied, according to video footage taken at the scene. Other protesters were reportedly assaulted by police.

Beyond the basic anti-Chinese sentiment and a desire for internet freedom was economic frustration and hope for change through peaceful assembly and protest in a system long deemed corrupt and beholden to Chinese money

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, who has since apologized on state television.  

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 the protests happened to coincide with the passage of an internet security law just two days after the protests, requiring Facebook and Google to open offices in Vietnam and store data locally on its users which will be accessible to Vietnamese authorities.  

Other fingers point to the Viet Tan, or New Viet Revolutionary Party, a US-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 restore public order, and were found carrying knives, screwdrivers, and tear-gas sprayers.  So far, the three fake cops have not been linked to the Viet Tan, which Vietnam considers “a terrorist force.” Other protestors have confessed to having been paid to protest.

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,” as most protesters could hardly be blamed for knowing how special economic zones actually worked, were aware that foreign companies can currently lease land for up to 70 years, or knew of the Chinese submarines docking at a port in Sri Lanka controlled by China.  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 a desire for internet freedom was economic frustration and hope for change through peaceful assembly and protest 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%, 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 land-lease law until October.  A survey by Gallup in 2017 revealed that the Vietnamese were the fifth-happiest among nations, with high hopes for economic prosperity in 2018. But many Vietnamese I spoke with will not wait for change, with many moving forward on or making plans to relocate to the US or Australia to pursue higher education or higher paying jobs, having lost all hope of sharing in the latest economic spoils.       

Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, US News and World Report, Newsweek, The Diplomat, The National Interest, EurasiaNet, and the South China Morning Post. He spent six years in Shanghai, four years in Ho Chi Minh City, and is now based in Taipei.

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