A new generation of Vietnamese migrants is protesting against their home government


The Conversation | May 9, 2024

More than 200 mostly young people gathered outside the Vietnamese embassy in London to protest against Vietnam’s ruling communist party, demanding the release of all prisoners of conscience and to call for democratic reforms.

What was interesting about this protest, that I attended in December 2023, was the age of the protesters. They were mostly young people who grew up in Vietnam, and this was the first protest many had ever participated in, having only left the country a few years ago.

Back in Vietnam, there is almost no space to challenge communist rule and values. These citizens grew up in a nation where TV, radio and education were heavily censored by the authorities, and there was limited access to international media. Critical voices were stifled, so most people understandably don’t get involved in politics.

This changes when younger people move abroad, as I have learned during my ongoing research with recent immigrants to the UK. With access to independent, more critical news sources, wider discussions and alternative opinions, migrants tell me that they feel emboldened to question what they have been taught, and learn about widespread human rights abuses or corruption scandals back home.

Unlike the earlier generation of Vietnamese migrants (known as “the boat people”) who fled communist rule decades ago, this group is new to protesting.

The demonstration I attended was organised by the Việt Tân Reform party, which is considered a terrorist group by the Vietnamese government. Particularly striking was the yellow flag of the former Republic of South Vietnam. Displaying this flag is viewed as a form of sedition by Vietnam’s current government.

Another banner laments that it is 50 years since China occupied the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, which is also claimed by Vietnam.

Labour movement

Since the 1990s Vietnam’s government has increasingly encouraged young people to move abroad. From the state’s perspective, labour export programmes have two main advantages:

First, it ameliorates chronic levels of high youth unemployment, especially in areas of Vietnam which have received little economic investment. The emigration of discontented young people can also act as a safety valve to avert popular protest in authoritarian regimes.

Second, migrant remittances back to Vietnam constitute a crucial and reliable source of revenue – over $10 billion per year (£8.03 billion), making it among the world’s top 10 remittance-receiving countries. Another factor is that rising inflation in Vietnam makes foreign currency even more valuable, increasing the attractiveness of labour migration for people in low-paid jobs.

However, the number of people wanting to depart vastly exceeds the availability of regularised migration opportunities through approved labour export agreements. So over the past 20 years Vietnamese migrants have increasingly resorted to irregular transnational journeys in the hopes of finding work and transforming the lives of their family back home. Europe has emerged as a popular destination due to the strength of the euro and the pound.

Officially, Vietnamese authorities denounce irregular migration, but in practice brokers and agencies continue to operate and expand, with local authorities often turning a blind eye or even being actively involved.

A new generation

For decades, criticism of the Vietnamese government was spearheaded by Vietnam’s “boat people”, who fled their home country in the 1970s-80s after the Vietnamese Communist Party defeated US forces and “reunified” the country. The trauma of their desperate escapes and resentment towards communism runs deep in these diasporas.

The US hosts by far the largest Vietnamese diaspora from this period, which is highly critical  of Vietnam’s Communist Party, and is quite influential in the US.

Back in the UK, a representative of Việt Tân’s much smaller UK chapter, explained to me how the first generation of protesters are reducing in numbers as they age. However, this trend of decline has recently been reversed by the significant influx of recent arrivals in the UK.

The long-term, established old guard (and their descendants) now call the UK their home and do not expect to move back to Vietnam, giving them a degree of security from which to criticise the Vietnamese government.

Conversely, more recent migrants still have friends and family back home, and most of them want to return at some point. The stakes are higher for them. One protester told me of his fear that police guards would be waiting for him at Hanoi airport. So the increasing numbers of participants at such events sends an all-too-rare message that Vietnamese authorities must be held to account.

On April 29, another anti-communist embassy protest in London attracted similar numbers. What is clear is that large swathes of Vietnamese people continue to emigrate in the hope of a better life, but sometimes in moving away they see their home country in a completely different light.




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