By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK (IPS) – Democracy movements in Vietnam, a communist country, appear to have got a sudden fillip through solidarity from hundreds of farmers making their presence felt on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City over the past month.
On Thursday, though, Hanoi’s reaction took a predictable turn when a large police force swooped down on the peaceful demonstrators, tearing down banners and signs, and arresting some of them, states Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based global rights lobby.
”Police surrounded the area, jammed cell phone reception, and carried the demonstrators into waiting vans,” added Viet Tan, a pro-democracy group in the South-east Asian nation, in a statement released shortly after the Jul. 19 crackdown. It estimated that ”over a thousand uniformed and plainclothes police” were used to clear the area of ”about six hundred protestors.”
This act of suppression appears to have been timed to avoid further embarrassment for the Communist Party, which has enjoyed a monopoly on power since the end of United States’ war in Vietnam in the 1970s. Thursday marked the opening of a fresh five-year term for the newly-elected National Assembly, based Hanoi. The farmers had staged their protest outside the building of the legislature’s southern office in Ho Chi Minh City.
The farmers took to the streets on Jun. 26 to demand compensation for lands that they allege were seized by authorities for ‘development’ plans. Officials were also accused of rampant corruption during the protests that had attracted close to 2,000 people, according to some estimates. The farmers who had come from at least nine southern provinces in the Mekong Delta clearly showed preparedness for a long-drawn battle, since they put up tents on the pavements close to where they were making their demands.
”Protests for land rights is not unusual because (farmers) have protested for more than a decade. What is unusual is the scale of the protest. It is larger,” says Robert N. Le, president of the Vietnam Human Rights Network, an independent group based in the U.S. state of California, where many Vietnamese who fled the country during and after the war live. The regime believes that land belongs to the government, ”not the people; people have no ownership of land.”Such protests excite the nascent pro-democracy movement in the country due to the repressive political environment that prevails, he added during an e-mail interview. ”
Currently there is no space for opposition groups to operate and they are struggling to have it.”The farmers also won sympathy from the country’s most famous dissident Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Do, the deputy leader of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV).
<< Ven. Thich Quang Do
The 78-year-old monk, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times, has spent the past 26 years in detention — or ‘pagoda arrest,’ under which he was prevented from leaving the premises of his monastery in Ho Chi Minh City.
Do and seven other UBCV monks gave the police outside the Thanh Minh Zen monastery the slip on Wednesday and headed to the protest site. ”Thich Quang Do told the farmers that the UBCV shared their plight, and had come to show them that he shared their despair and distress,” says Vo Van Ai, a leading spokesman of the UBCV’s international network.
”It was a deliberate act of civil disobedience. He hoped that his presence would give encouragement to the farmers, help to focus international opinion on their plight,” he revealed in an e-mail interview with IPS. ”He simply could not stand idle before the misery and despair of these peasants who had spent 25 days under the hot sun and rain, without food or sanitation, and with absolutely no reaction by the authorities, no attempt to listen to them or seek remedies.”
Do’s public speech to the farmers was the first of its kind made in the past 26 years. The rare gesture confirmed that the man who has been a thorn in the side of the Vietnamese regime would not easily give up his struggle for justice. Once, he upset Hanoi by urging governments in the West to consider aid to the country after reviewing its human rights record.
Hanoi’s confrontation with the farmers is the latest in a series of repressive acts in the wake of growing number of individuals challenging the regime’s hold on power. April 2006 saw the birth of one group, which published its ”Manifesto for Freedom and Democracy” and issued an ”Appeal for Freedom of Political Association.” This group, which goes under the name Bloc 8406 — for the date, month and the year it was launched — includes an academic, a writer and a priest as its leaders.
”The Internet has played a crucial role in the recent emergence of a number of pro-democracy initiatives in Viet Nam and amongst exiled dissidents,” says Brittis Edman, of Amnesty International (AI), the international rights lobby. ”Although the authorities try to control it, the Internet has facilitated a lot of discussions about issues previously off-limits. The on-line democracy movement Bloc 8406 is one such initiative, unauthorized unions and political parties are other examples.
”The initial reaction by Hanoi to such opposition voices was not harsh,” adds the South-east Asia researcher for AI in an interview. “Such accommodation was attributed to the country being in the glare of the international media having gained accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2006 and hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit the same year.”
But since the APEC summit last November ”there has been a serious crackdown against lawyers, trade unionists, religious leaders and Internet dissidents, who have been detained or imprisoned, harassed, or been under surveillance,” Edman reveals. ”The rights to freedom of expression and assembly are denied individuals and groups that the authorities — at their whim — deem intolerable.”
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