Spratlys row gives Vietnam youth a taste for protest – Feature


Hanoi – For two weekends in a row, hundreds of young people have marched and chanted in the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, waving protest banners and dodging phalanxes of helmeted riot police. The cause they are demonstrating for is one the government approves: Vietnam’s claim that it, and not China, owns the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

But authorities are trying to tamp down the protests, which threaten to damage relations with Vietnam’s giant northern neighbour and to encourage students to participate in politics in other ways.

For their part, the students are elated.

“I was so happy to be able to raise my voice,” said 24-year-old university student Nguyen Van Nhat, who marched with the protestors in Hanoi last Sunday. “I think it’s the right thing for me to do.”

The protests were triggered by China’s decision earlier this month to establish an official locality, called Sansha, which it claims administers the Spratlys and Paracels. Vietnam officially protested the move on December 3, as government spokesman Le Dung said the issue should be resolved through peaceful dialogue.

The demonstrations in front of the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi and the consulate in Ho Chi Minh City began the following Sunday. The fact that police tolerated the first demonstration for roughly an hour before dispersing it led to speculation that it had been instigated by the government.

In fact, the protests appear to have been largely spontaneous, organized by students through blogs, online communities and mobile phone messaging, with some participation by veteran pro-democracy activists and dissidents.

“We found out about the demonstration through blogs and emails,” said 23-year-old student protestor Ngo Quynh. “I joined the demonstration based on my love for Vietnam.”

Vietnamese have used blogs like hoangsa.com (named for the Vietnamese term for the Paracels) and networking sites like Yahoo360 to spread the word about the demonstrations. The blogs have continued to discuss the Spratlys issue furiously.

A number of democracy activists were also active in the demonstrations. They include Le Quoc Quan, a lawyer who spent six months in the United States earlier this year on a fellowship from the National Endowment for Democracy, and was imprisoned for three months by the Vietnamese government on his return.

Quan said he had participated in the demonstrations in Hanoi on December 9, but that police prevented him from reaching this past Sunday’s protests. He said his brother, Le Quoc Quyet, was arrested at Sunday’s demonstrations in Ho Chi Minh City, and held for four hours before being released.

Quan said police at the demonstration had also arrested and released one of his uncles and his uncle’s friend.

Last Sunday’s demonstrations, in contrast to those on December 9, were met by dozens of riot police who had pre-emptively blocked off the street in front of the Chinese embassy and the adjacent park. Vietnamese blogs related the stories of three students who were arrested at the demonstrations in Hanoi, and released several hours later.

Vietnamese police sources refused to comment on the arrests, except to confirm that they had occurred.

But the harsher police response followed a Chinese statement condemning them last week. The Chinese news agency Xinhua reported Wednesday that Chinese Foreign Ministry Qin Gang had urged Vietnam to prevent any future anti-Chinese demonstrations, which he said could harm bilateral ties.

Vietnam’s government-controlled press has printed numerous articles over the past two weeks laying out Vietnam’s claim to the islands. They rely on documents dating from medieval Vietnamese emperors and from 17th-century European explorers.

The arguments are widely taken for granted by Vietnamese, who view China’s claim to the islands as the latest in a long series of Chinese incursions on Vietnamese territory.

The dispute has intensified because the waters surrounding the Spratlys and Paracels are believed to contain substantial petroleum deposits. A Vietnamese agreement with British Petroleum to begin exploration in waters near southern Vietnam was scrapped earlier this year because of concerns over the sovereignty conflict.

The protestors say they will try to march again this weekend. That will present the government with a dilemma, as it tries to restrain protests involving independent democracy activists it opposes, but which also reflect widespread patriotic and anti-Chinese sentiment.

“When we were marching in Hanoi in the demonstration, passers-by were excited, and some of them joined us,” said university student Nhat. “There must be measures to stop China’s conspiracy to invade the islands.”

“I think the best solution is democracy,” said Quynh. “The issue must be discussed publicly so that all people will know about it, not just the Communist Party, so that we can unleash the nation’s power.”

Such unauthorized political activity, however, is precisely what Vietnam’s government would like to avoid.


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