Harassment of Vietnamese rights workers intensifies
Catholic activists, bloggers and others targeted ahead of key political meeting
Abby Seiff, Phnom Penh - UCANews
January 11, 2016
Tran Minh Nhat mostly stays indoors these days. Since his release from prison last August, the Catholic activist has faced almost constant police intimidation.
Over 10 days in November, Lam Ha district police twice assaulted him. Late last month, his brother's plantation was hacked down and his family's farm chemically poisoned. On New Year's Day, another brother saw his plantation destroyed. A day later, men pelted his parents' house with rocks.
"Friends who have tried visiting me have been intimidated and interrogated by police. My own siblings, nieces and nephews who visited me for English lessons have been stopped. Many of my students are afraid of attending my classes due to harassment from police and their school," he wrote in a petition sent to the United Nations, embassies, church leaders and the Vietnamese government on Jan. 9.
In January 2013, Tran was among a group of 14 convicted of plotting to overthrow the government — a common charge leveled at those who publicly criticize the government. A reporter at the Vietnam Redemptorist News, Tran was arrested in August 2011 as part of a large-scale crackdown on outspoken writers, bloggers, activists and critics.
In prison, Tran held hunger strikes for better conditions. He refused to sign confessions that would have shortened his sentence. And when he was released on probation four years later, he went out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Starting on Jan. 20, the Vietnam Communist Party will hold its 12th national congress. Held every five years, the eight-day congress adopts major policy decisions and elects a new Central Committee that selects candidates to stand for the country's top leadership. Politically, this has major ramifications for the party with factions jostling for better positions. Socially, this is a key time for mass repression.
"The Vietnam Communist Party Congress is coming, so these harassments are ways to give a warning signal to those who want to reform the political system," Tran said in an early January interview.
"They spread fear among people to show that the authority is still so strong and able to oppress any dissidents. Perhaps they think that I am a dangerous man to them."
In the weeks and days leading up to the congress, arrests and physical attacks have increased.
On Jan. 9, Truong Minh Tam, an activist pushing for multiparty democracy, was kidnapped and robbed of his belongings in Nghe An province, before being stripped to his underwear and dropped alongside the road. On Jan. 7, land rights activist Nguyen Huy Tuan was beaten up and robbed in Hai Dong. On Dec 31, the outspoken Catholic priest Dang Huu Nam, who has called for better treatment of the poor, was assaulted in Nghe An as a commune police chief looked on. On Dec. 16, the prominent rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai and his colleague Le Thu Ha were arrested on charges of conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and held incommunicado.
Stockholm-based Civil Rights Defenders released a "nonexhaustive" timeline of all incidents of harassment and attacks on human rights defenders between June 1 and Dec. 15. There are 55 names listed.
Vu Quoc Ngu, of local rights group Defend the Defenders said the true figure is almost certainly higher. "Not every case is reported," he said.
"They intensify crackdowns ahead of the party's national congress."
The current crackdown follows a common pattern seen during each congress. Before the last party congress in 2011, rights workers were rounded up en masse and even an American diplomat experienced police harassment when trying to visit a Catholic activist priest. Five years earlier, the government went after journalists who broke news of a massive corruption scandal just ahead of the 2006 congress.
"A major reason why the ruling Vietnam Communist Party wants to silence any criticism or unrest before its most important meeting is different factions within the party are usually competing to gain more power," said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
While the lead up to most party meetings has involved widespread arrests, Robertson said the government appears to be favoring physical intimidation this time around.
"We're seeing a new norm developing, where harassment or violence by government connected thugs, sometimes accompanied by plainclothes police, is the Vietnam government's new preferred course of action. The aim is to instill fear of retaliatory violence," he wrote in an email.
While such tactics played well in the past, it is unclear if they can still have the desired effect of stifling dissent. Robertson pointed out that the Internet has ensured that news of intimidation travels faster and farther than ever, permitting unprecedented opportunities for activism and education.
Tran believes such oppression cannot succeed in the long term.
In Nghe An, he said, an attack on the charismatic Father Dang Huu Nam has led to extensive public discontent.
"Fifty thousand Christians in Thuan Nghia [commune] and many people in Nghe An are ready to protect him and command the government [to answer for its actions]," he said.
"We have to accept that the Communist Party is so strong and has many tactics to deceive people. However, nothing is impossible. The change is a natural law."