The Diplomat: What’s Behind Vietnam’s Rising Violence?

The rise of physical violence committed against activists is a troubling trend.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch, “No Country for Human Rights Activists: Assaults on Bloggers and Democracy Campaigners in Vietnam”, documents the rise of physical violence committed against activists, mainly by plain-clothed “thugs,” some of whom may be police or soldiers, and most of whom target their victims in very public place.

Nguyen Trung Ton, a pastor and blogger, and a friend, were set upon by a group of men after exiting a bus in February:

[They] took our belongings, stripped our clothes off, covered our heads with our jackets and beat us repeatedly with iron tubes. They did not tell us any reason. The van moved and they continued to beat us [in the van]. There was a driver and at least six other men.

And this happened to the pro-environment activist Nguyen Thi Thai Lai when she was leaving a restaurant with a friend:

Four young men, like four water buffalo, blocked our motorbike. They grabbed me by my neck and threw me on the ground. They beat me until I fainted. They kicked me in the face – look at my [bruised] face. They kicked me in the face. They kicked me and beat me until I fainted.

While “physical attacks against human rights activists and bloggers in Vietnam are not a new phenomenon,” as the Human Rights Report notes, there does appear to be a trend away from detention and towards public violence. The report states:

In 2014, during an especially contentious phase of negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership between Vietnam and the United States, the number of people convicted for political crimes in Vietnam decreased to 31. However, according to the Association of Former Prisoners of Conscience, the number of physical attacks increased to at least 31 incidents targeting 135 rights bloggers and activists.

In 2015, the number of reported convictions continued to decrease, with only seven activists convicted throughout the year. On the other hand, according to research by Human Rights Watch, roughly 50 bloggers and activists reported that they were assaulted in 20 separate incidents. In 2016, at least 21 rights campaigners were convicted while at least 20 physical assaults were carried out against more than 50 people.

“Marxism needs a dictator,” according to the late Russian-American literary giant Vladimir Nabokov, “and a dictator needs a secret police”. The secret police in Vietnam, however, is hardly that secret. In 2013, Carl Thayer, then of the Australian Defense Forces Academy, estimated as many as 6.7 million Vietnamese work in some fashion for the country’s numerous security agencies – so about one in six people.

In 2015, when I met Pham Chi Dung, an activist who founded the Independent Journalistic Association of Vietnam, and who worked for the Ho Chi Minh City’s security bureau for sixteen years before becoming disillusioned, he knew that two security agents had followed him from his house to our café rendezvous. And he knew they would follow him home again. (He was arrested once again a few months after we met).

The use of paid (one assumes) bullies to attack activists, however, is different from the use of security agents to spy on or arrest dissidents. When an activist is threatened by the police or military, at least he recognizes his attacker. The uniform reveals all. People know who is his attacker and for whom his attacker works. As a result, he understands the message that comes from up-high; we want to cripple all activism. In a sense, then, some credit must go to a government that sends its police or military to do its dirty work; at least it’s being honest about its motives.

The use of plain-clothed attackers is different. It’s dishonest. It’s cowardly. The removal of a police or military uniform (if that is the case) before an attack is an effort to distance the boss from the violence. Not only that, it is an attempt to say: the regime isn’t against activists, fellow citizens are.

Because of this, a corollary is necessary to the view of Human Rights Watch; the use of plain-clothed thugs isn’t just an effort to “sow fear and uncertainty among activists” but, as well, to sow fear and uncertainty among those who might become activists.

For the secret police to arrest an activist is to silence that critic. For the police or military to beat an activist is to demonstrate that the regime won’t put up with criticism. But for a plain-clothed thug to attack an activist is to publicly humiliate that activist.

Indeed, an imprisoned activist is removed from society; a beaten activist is forced to show his scars to all, perhaps a more effective deterrent. A detained activist, also, often inspires more activism; his or her release becomes a motivating reason for protest.

The fact that friends and family are often targeted in the attacks, as the Human Rights Watch report makes clear, also changes the game. Every committed activist has considered their own imprisonment. But violence against one’s family compels a different response. Self-sacrifice is one thing but having to also sacrifice your family makes a person think again about continuing.

The changing tactics of the Vietnamese regime no doubt reflect changes in the pro-democracy, human rights movement. Social media, the modern-day samizdat, has become almost impossible for the regime to censor as it would like. Activists have also become more emboldened, willing to protest and demonstrate publicly. And with closer ties to the United States and the European Union (which agreed to an important free-trade agreement that will probably take effect next year) the risk of irking these partners is potentially too important economically. Plain-clothed thugs, therefore, provide some distance between the regime and the violence.

Moreover, the rights-movement is simply much stronger than it once was. As I have written before, the growth in environmental activism has coalesced disjointed parties: middle-class urbanites and poor rural farmers, democrats and nationalists, have been united under the banner of they all have a stake in. (The fact that some of the attacks were committed while activists were visiting one another was most likely intended to show the dangers of solidarity.) This is unprecedented in modern Vietnamese history, and the regime knows it.

The Guardian: How Vietnam locked up its most famous blogger – Mother Mushroom

One of Vietnam’s most influential political bloggers, given a courage award by Melania Trump, faces a decade behind bars for her ‘reactionary’ work.

Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known as Mother Mushroom, on trial in the city of Nha Trang. Photograph: Vietnam News Agency/EPA

“Each person only has a life, but if I had the chance to choose again I would still choose my way.”

They are the words of one of Vietnam’s most influential bloggers — known by her online pseudonym, Mother Mushroom — minutes before she was handed the shock sentence of a decade in prison. Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh directed her defiant comments at her 61-year-old mother, who was watching a live feed in a room next door as she was not allow into the courtroom.

The 37-year-old was accused of defaming Vietnam’s communist regime in her blogs and interviews with foreign media.

“I clapped my hands in the room, where 20 security officials looked at me with very angry eyes, but I was not afraid; I was OK, very proud of her,” said Nguyen Thi Tuyet Lan.

Arrested in October while attempting to visit another dissident in prison, Quynh, 37, has already spent nine months behind bars, in what her lawyer said were desperate conditions.

She subsisted only on a diet of anchovies and spinach soup for the first seven months, and was denied both sanitary pads and underwear, Vo An Don said.

After Quynh was arrested on 10 October, her mother heard nothing about her whereabouts or wellbeing until a brief reunion in prison hours before her 29 June trial for crimes against the state.

The months had taken their toll on her daughter, Lan told the Guardian in a phone interview from her home in the southern coastal city of Nha Trang. Quynh appeared sickly during their meeting, she said.

“I said: ‘My dear daughter, now I believe you are still alive.’ But she looked weak with very pale skin,” she added.

Vietnam is infamous for its limits on freedom of expression, yet Mother Mushroom’s detention and unusually lengthy sentence raised fresh alarm among the country’s blogging community, which avoids the censorship of state-control print media. The US state department quickly called for all prisoners of conscience to be released immediately.

While Quynh has been branded a “reactionary” by the state for her anti-government blogging, her friends and family defend her as a champion of free expression in a country where dissent against single-party rule is outlawed.

“My daughter has done a normal thing in an abnormal society, so she has to pay the price of prison and being denounced,” Lan said.

Quynh rose to fame in Vietnam’s blogosphere in the late 2000s for her doggedly independent citizen journalism. A founding member of the underground Vietnamese Bloggers Network, she is especially passionate about environmentalism, police brutality and Vietnam’s dispute with China over control of the South China Sea.

Lan said her daughter’s political awakening began after studying foreign languages in university.

Upon discovering the pluralistic online world, Quynh came to her mother with difficult questions.

“She asked me: ‘Mum, do you know this or that [about the government]?’ I said I did, she questioned me, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’” recalled Lan.

“I told her I knew, but in this society we are living in, it is not the society where you can speak out, and they will denounce you.”

Quynh has since become a prominent figure outside Vietnam, and has championed efforts in Vietnamese civil society to hold political discussions on Facebook. The government has become so angered by the movement that it has called on all companies in Vietnam to stop advertising on YouTube and Facebook.

The Guardian: How Vietnam locked up its most famous blogger – Mother Mushroom
Quynh championed efforts in Vietnamese civil society to hold political discussions on Facebook. Photograph: Tracey Nearmy/AAP

In March the US first lady, Melania Trump, awarded Quynh the International Women of Courage Award, which Vietnam said “was not appropriate and of no benefit to the development of the relations between the two countries”.

Quynh’s friends described her as frank and hot-tempered but true to her word.

“She always spoke out what she was thinking, so that’s why it’s not good for her when she caused trouble with such a personality, but she was a person who always does what she says she will,” said Trinh Kim Tien, a 27-year-old Ho Chi Minh City-based activist.

Quynh’s last posts on Facebook, her favoured blogging medium before her detention, were a combination of repostings of articles by other activists and brief, poetic, biting attacks on the state.

“What kind of a society is it where people responsible for their [high] positions, where the officials consider the citizens more stupid than pigs?” she wrote on 29 September.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said her involvement in protests against the Taiwanese-owned Formosa Ha Tinh Steel plant in north-central Vietnam, which was linked to a catastrophic fish die-off in 2016, was the last straw for the authorities.

“Mother Mushroom’s prominent ties to the anti-Formosa movement, which the government is increasingly viewing as a security challenge to its authority, means she became the ideal candidate for a heavy sentence designed to sideline her and intimidate others,” Robertson said.

The Guardian: How Vietnam locked up its most famous blogger – Mother Mushroom
Environmentalist protesters demand that the Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa leave Vietnam. Photograph: Bennett Murray for the Guardian

 

Human Rights Watch says there are about 110 known political prisoners in Vietnam, although the country denies holding any. Speaking at a press conference on the day of the trial, foreign affairs ministry spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang said “all violations of laws must be extremely punished in accordance with the laws of Vietnam”.

Pham Than Nghien, a friend of Quynh whose own blogging led to her being imprisoned from 2008 to 2012, said she cried when the verdict was delivered.

“While I wasn’t astonished because she had committed many crimes according to the regime … I could feel my hands and legs shiver,” she said.

“We’re friends, we’re also both women, and I feel sympathy for her children, her family.”

Quynh’s mother, Lan, is now tasked with raising her two grandchildren while their mother remains in prison. Unless the state grants Quynh clemency the children will grow up parentless.

“I feel empty now,” Lan said.

Cease Reprisals Against Mother Mushroom’s Family

Civil Rights Defenders has been informed that the family of detained blogger Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh (also known as Me Nam or “Mother Mushroom”) has been surrounded and confined by security police. Vietnam’s authorities should immediately lift this brazenly illegal measure and cease reprisals against Mother Mushroom’s family, which add to the injustice already made to the prominent blogger and her loved ones.

On 20 May 2017, according to her mother Nguyễn Thị Tuyết Lan, the family’s house in Nha Trang was surrounded by over 50 security policemen in both plain clothes and uniforms, effectively placing it and Mother Mushroom’s family members under siege. Nguyễn Thị Tuyết Lan posted a message on Facebook reporting the events.

She added that nobody notified her of the reasons behind such treatment, and that such behavior of the state and Khanh Hoa province police reflected a pattern of abuse of power and state oppression of the elderly, the weak and vulnerable children.

The confinement of Mother Mushroom’s family is believed to be related to the upcoming Vietnam-US Human Rights Dialogue, which is scheduled for 23 May 2017 in Hanoi. The arbitrary detention of bloggers such as Mother Mushroom is expected to be a topic for discussion between the two states. The act of confinement may be an attempt to prevent a US diplomatic delegation from meeting Mother Mushroom’s family ahead of the dialogue, a few weeks after she was awarded the prestigious 2017 International Women of Courage Award.

Prominent blogger Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh, who is known by her pen name “Mother Mushroom,” has been detained incommunicado since 10 October 2016. She has been denied the right to meet with her family, including two young children, and lawyer. She stands accused of conducting “anti-state propaganda” under Article 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment.

Civil Rights Defenders reiterates its call on Vietnam to immediately and unconditionally release her and to repeal Article 88 and other “national security” provisions of the Penal Code which are used to silence human rights defenders, bloggers and other critical and independent voices.

Resource: https://www.civilrightsdefenders.org/news/vietnam-cease-reprisals-against-mother-mushrooms-family/