Vietnamese police detained at least 15 people on Sunday in a crackdown on an anti-China rally in central Hanoi, after protesters defied orders to stop a rare series of rallies over a territorial spat.
Just minutes after the protest began at a Hanoi lake popular with tourists and locals, plainclothes agents moved in to force the demonstrators onto two waiting buses and drove them away, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.
Overtly political demonstrations are rare in authoritarian Communist Vietnam, but analysts said authorities had previously allowed the anti-China rallies because they helped express Hanoi’s displeasure with Beijing.
Sunday’s rally was the 11th since early June to protest Chinese actions in the tense South China Sea, the scene of long-standing tensions between the neighbouring countries over rival territorial claims.
Before security forces moved in, about 30 people, some of them middle-aged, had time to unfurl their banners and chant slogans beside Hoan Kiem lake in the city centre.
“Down with China’s invasion. Protect the Vietnamese nation,” the demonstrators shouted.
One sign compared China to the Nazis of World War II Germany. “Danger. Stop China Chinazi,” it said.
One woman wept as her fellow demonstrators were detained, across from a square where protesters had in the past gathered but which was occupied by a noisy youth rally on Sunday.
“No one is allowed to abuse the citizens’ right to freedom and democracy to call for gatherings,” an official called over a megaphone.
Two protests in July were forcibly dispersed by police after talks between Hanoi and Beijing, but subsequent rallies were allowed to go ahead until authorities in the Vietnamese capital on Thursday issued a stop order.
Published in Hanoi Moi, a mouthpiece for the ruling Communist Party, the order said those who continue to gather illegally could face “necessary measures”.
It said the protests were linked to “anti-state forces” who were “instigating national hatred” – allegations which prominent intellectuals involved in the protests deny.
Nguyen Quang Thach, 36, who has attended all of the rallies, said he considered staying at home this time until the government issued its order to end the gatherings.
“Because they had the notice, I had to come,” he said. Reached later by phone at a police station, he said he was among those detained, but later attempts to contact him by mobile phone were unsuccessful.
Police at the station declined any comment.
Intellectuals linked to the protests on Friday rejected the government’s order, describing it as illegal, and said all rallies had been peaceful.
US-based Human Rights Watch said the Vietnamese government is “blatantly turning its back” on international obligations to respect citizens’ rights to peacefully assemble and freely express their views.
“It’s the police that have caused public disorder when they used excessive force to drag away and, in some cases, beat peaceful protesters,” the group said in a statement issued just before Sunday’s crackdown.
The protests began after tensions flared in May when Vietnam said Chinese marine surveillance vessels had cut the exploration cables of an oil survey ship inside the country’s exclusive economic zone.
Analysts say the government has to balance its relationship with China by not overly offending its giant communist neighbour while avoiding the appearance of weakness before its own people, who bitterly recall 1,000 years of Chinese occupation.
Some activists speculated the government may fear political protests inspired by this year’s uprisings against authoritarianism in North Africa and the Middle East. -By Ian Timberlake