This year has been dire for Vietnam’s harried and harassed pro-democracy movement, with at least 50 activists jailed and many of them severely sentenced since January.
The crackdown has not been scattershot, but rather has aimed squarely to dismantle connections between growing political groups and organizations that increasingly present a challenge to the ruling Communist Party’s legitimacy and dominance.
Foremost among them is the Brotherhood for Democracy, a civil society group of political dissidents that has spoken to the urgent desire and need for political change in the one-party authoritarian state.
In April, eight Brotherhood for Democracy members were sentenced to between seven and 15 years in prison on charges of “attempting to overthrow the state”, an anti-state charge frequently used against dissidents.
It was one of the harshest set of sentences the ruling Communist Party had handed down in years, and many of the defendants had been in pre-trial detention since 2015.
A ninth member of the organization, Nguyen Trung Truc, who served as its representative in Vietnam’s central region, was sentenced to 12 years in prison last month.
The Brotherhood’s co-founder, Nguyen Van Dai, who was initially jailed for 15 years, and his assistant Le Thu Ha, were later released into exile in Germany in response to international pressure.
“The Brotherhood for Democracy is facing a sustained crackdown as Vietnam seeks to punish its leaders for daring to advocate for basic freedoms to speak out, join a group, and peacefully protest,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“The country is now becoming a giant prison for anyone who speaks up against the government or acts to advance basic rights,” he added.
Nine senior members of the Brotherhood have been jailed or exiled this year alone. They join at least 120 other political prisoners currently serving jail time. The crackdown has intensified since the 2016 Party Congress, at which Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong retained power and tightened the screws on dissidents.
The Brotherhood is one of many independent organizations the Party is bidding to wipe out. In the last two months, police arrested more than a dozen alleged members of Trieu Dai Viet, a Canada-based organization deemed as a terrorist outfit by the Vietnamese government.
The group started as an offshoot of the US-based Provisional Government of Vietnam, an organization still loyal to the now defunct country of South Vietnam. Hanoi claims members of the Trieu Dai Viet were behind a bombing of a police station in Ho Chi Minh City in June.
Last month also saw the arrest of an alleged member of the Viet Tan, another pro-democracy group Hanoi deems a terrorist organization for, among other reasons, allegedly smuggling weapons into Vietnam from Cambodia.
The Communist Party has incentive to want to stifle these organizations, which have grown with Vietnam’s civil society over the last decade. Nguyen Van Hai, a prominent independent blogger and former political prisoner, wrote in a recent essay about the conditions for Vietnamese activists in the late 2000s.
“I realized that in Vietnam there would not be demonstrations with millions of participants any time soon,” he wrote. “In fact, we are at the assembly stage, so the tool for connecting the people who want to change the Vietnamese society is to form and develop a free media network, and through this network, gather people.”
These networks started to blossom as early as 2006. The first two independent trade unions, the United Worker-Farmers Organization of Vietnam and the Independent Worker’s Union of Vietnam, were formed that year.
The two major groups formed in 2006 were Bloc 8406, a coalition centered around a manifesto that called for democratic reforms, and the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam, an advocacy group co-founded by Dai.
However, these groups remained largely separate from one another, focused on their own particular agendas and concerns. But that started to change around 2009, as a rising tide of environmental activism brought previously disparate cliques together.
That year, mass protests against Chinese-run bauxite mines in Vietnam’s Central Highlands region galvanized the activist community. For the first time, urban liberals, trade unions, religious leaders and rural land-rights campaigners coalesced to protest against the government’s actions.
A similar coalition formed in 2016 after the toxic spill of the Formosa steel mill, which badly polluted the sea and land of areas of central Vietnam.
Some analysts, however, are skeptical of the staying power of these environment-centered coalitions to effect change. “These types of coalitions eventually dissipate and do not form an existential threat to one-party rule,” Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert, told Asia Times.
But that threat had arguably coalesced in the Brotherhood for Democracy, which was initially created in 2013 as a loose association of pro-democracy activists, many of them former political prisoners.
At the beginning, interaction between members was conducted mainly online. But they soon began to engage in offline activities, such as creating forums where activists could meet in person and talk tactics, or by providing legal advice to victims of state-sponsored rights abuses.
The Brotherhood expanded to have regional chapters across the country, as well as representatives in each locale.
Just after he helped form the Brotherhood, the exiled Dai said that “it is time for domestic democracy activists to gather to discuss and find the shortest path for democracy in Vietnam.”
Before the Brotherhood’s creation, Dai told Radio Free Asia, pro-democracy movements in Vietnam “were just individual-based” and “there was no coordination. That was why they were weak.”
The importance of the Brotherhood, and other larger political organizations, isn’t just their size; it’s also about how they strengthen pre-existing networks.
Dai noted that “we can maximize the strong points of each individual, creating collective strength to fight more vigorously and, at the same time, help one another to overcome weak points. This helps to create a solidarity between us.”
One explanation of how this works is provided by network theory, a relatively new area of study in political science. In simplistic terms, a distinction can be drawn between horizontal networks and vertical hierarchies, according to the theory.
Over the last two decades, Vietnam’s pro-democracy movement has been dominated by horizontal networks, based on associations with no real sense of superiority of any individuals, nor a structure of seniority.
What they did have, however, were influential “nodes,” or highly-connected people who helped link disparate individuals to one another.
Dai was clearly one of the movement’s most important “nodes”, given that he helped create the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam and the Brotherhood for Democracy. Equally important was his role as a human rights lawyer, which allowed him to meet and build trust with hundreds of activists.
What the Brotherhood for Democracy and other large groups envisioned, however, was not just forming bridges between disparate groups and individuals, but also development of an overarching organization that smaller groups could coalesce into, something akin to a functioning hierarchy.
“If there are only a few associations or political groups, there is no way to force a big change in Vietnam,” Dai said in 2013. “At the moment, we need many associations and groups to develop in different areas, including people from all walks of life, so in the future they can be big and strong enough to create a coalition, a bigger organization.”
In one sense, the Brotherhood for Democracy could have become that “bigger organization” and, at some point in the future, even a competent hierarchy that could compete against the Communist Party’s. But Hanoi was quick to the threat, and the chances of forming such a hierarchical organization now look slim with the recent slew of arrests and detentions.
In August 2014, then-Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung called on the Ministry of Public Security to stop citizens from “forming organizations of civil society and non-state organizations.”
Tran Dai Quang, minister of public security at the time and who served as president from 2016 until his death last month, instructed his own security forces “to crack down on any political organizations.”
What started in 2015 has been sustained with a vengeance by the current Party administration, as prominent activists are jailed wholesale to prevent larger independent political organizations from taking root.
None of this is particularly new thinking by Hanoi, though the crackdown has been more severe under a more draconian Party administration led by Trong.