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Vietnam: how to circumvent state repression

As repression of dissident groups became officially enshrined in the Vietnamese Constitution, activists, including many well-known scholars, needed alternative tactics of resistance.

lead Anh-Susann Pham Thi. Twitter. Fair use.

Vietnamese scholars, activists and lawyers are increasingly charged with “subversion” or conducting “anti-state propaganda” or  “aiming to overthrow the state” under the provisions of the Articles 79 and 88 of the penal code. In 2015, the Vietnamese National Assembly revised its penal code which now includes a penalty of up to 20 years and the death sentence for the aforementioned activities. According to the numbers provided by Amnesty International, almost 100 prisoners of conscience, bloggers, and activists alike face continuous harassment, physical attacks, interrogation and surveillance both inside and outside prisons. In order to find ways of expressing their discontent, activists are obliged to find alternative, or rather covert, forms of resistance. Some of these strategies and tactics are explained in the following.  

Many Vietnamese dissident groups embrace ideologically charged strategies (i.e. anti-Communism, nationalism, religious motivations, reactionary Communism “red flags” etc.) which the Vietnamese state fears will become a threat, impinging on the current Communist Party’s authority over the population.

Among the most outspoken dissident groups in Vietnam are democracy and human rights movements, such as the “8406 bloc” that was founded in April 2006 with 118 members including religious leaders, scholars and doctors, but also retired military officers. While a number of activists dispute the continuous economic dependency on China (e.g. nationwide demonstrations against Special Economic Zones in June 2018), and the lack of freedom of expression (e.g. protests against the new draft law on cybersecurity ), democracy and politico-civil rights more broadly, others demand specific land rights, improvement of labour conditions (e.g. wildcat strikes in factories), minority rights (e.g. LGBTQ Movement) and the protection of their local environment (e.g. Anti-Formosa protests in 2016).

Anh-Susann Pham Thi. Twitter. Fair use. But it has become increasingly difficult to express public discontent. How difficult is shown in the numbers and lengthy reports provided by Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International and Freedom House among others. According to Reporters Without Borders, for example, Vietnam ranks 175 out of 180 in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, emphasising that the only sources of independently-reported information are provided by bloggers and citizen-journals, i.e. online platforms that allow citizens who are at the scene to report breaking news and upload content that is not covered by mainstream media. Amnesty International reports that arbitrary restrictions on social and political rights continue, and the crackdown on freedom of expression and criticism directed against the government has intensified, causing many activists to flee the country. Particularly concerned are bloggers, pro-democracy activists, Anti-China activists and environmentalists. Among the politically persecuted are former teacher Đao Quang Thực who was sentenced to 14 years in prison, teacher Vũ Văn Hùng who has been arrested several times since 2008, and scholar activist Nguyễn Quang A. who is now barred from leaving the country. All of these activists were committed to non-violent forms of action.

Four tactics: Hiding, fleeing, creating and merging

Social movements are usually concerned with four main tasks: first, to strengthen the voice of the oppressed and the marginalized. Second, to learn from other movements’ knowledges, strategies and tactics. Third, to build networks of international solidarity. Fourth, to work towards an emancipatory political programme that provides the groundwork for these strong international ties.

Yet, different contexts demand different actions. In authoritarian countries like Vietnam, activists (and non-activists) are required to embrace tactics that facilitate the circumvention of acute state repression, including hiding, fleeing, creating and merging. In the following I provide an explanation of how these tactics are being used in the Vietnamese context.

Hiding

Hiding as a tactic of resistance by subjects largely incapable of resisting through other means, was extensively discussed by James Scott (1987). With the example of peasants in Malaysia, he demonstrated that everyday resistance was being used against a party of greater formal power, i.e. the state. Beneath the servant’s shallow obedience to the master lies the “hidden transcripts” – the quiet, piecemeal process by which opponents and the marginalized often find ways of encroachment aiming at tacit, de facto improvements of their livelihoods. Heated debates in taxis, or discussions amongst workers when no supervisor is around, ranting about the news while it broadcasts national and international politics, are the kind of hidden transcripts one may observe by paying closer attention to everyday life in Vietnam and elsewhere.  

Hiding, however, also exists in more explicit forms. This might sound contradictory at first sight, but encrypted technology and social media platforms carry both features: anonymity and a tool for ‘hidden’ horizontal mobilization. After years of organising through Facebook groups (53 million Facebook users in a country of 93 million), the Communist Party passed a law that required Internet companies to scrub critical content and hand over user data to the government. In less than a week, not only activists but 100,000 newly active users in Vietnam registered to use minds.com, a crypto-social network. Currently, 10% of Minds total user base of a little more than 1 million accounts are for users located in Vietnam. As these platforms provide secure communication, activists and critics alike communicate through tactics of electronic hiding, while the government’s hands remain tied.

In less than a week, not only activists but 100,000 newly active users in Vietnam registered to use minds.com, a crypto-social network.

Fleeing

Fleeing and domestic migration has always been part of everyday resistance, and thus a way of circumventing state repression. Particularly for dissident activists, journalists and intellectuals living in repressive environments, fleeing may be the only way to avoid incarceration or obtain early release. Human rights attorney Nguyễn Văn Đài, for example, was charged under Article 79, an ambiguous clause that regulates activities aimed toward the ‘overthrow of the People’s Administration’. A charge under Article 79 carries a sentence of up to life imprisonment, and possibly the death penalty. However, an early release of prisoners of conscience can be granted if they agree to go into exile. After serving two years in prison Nguyễn Văn Đài received the Human Rights award 2017 of the German Association of Judges and was thereupon granted asylum in Germany. Similarly, Bùi Thanh Hiếu (PEN Germany, Writers in Exile Program), one of the most prominent bloggers and organizers active since 2005, was repeatedly arrested. In 2013 he received the invitation of the German city of Weimar and left the country.

Members of minority and religious groups have also been subjected to state repression. For example, the prominent member of the Catholic church Đặng Xuân Diệu who has been involved in social activism, community organising and the blogger scene, was arrested in 2011. After serving six years of a 13-year sentence, he was finally granted asylum in France. Another member, Pastor Nguyễn Công Chính, was released after five years of an 11-year sentence and fled to the US in exile in 2017.

However, these activists’ stories do not end with them living in exile. Rather, new political opportunities, that is to say, new resources for publishing and organising, join the activists’ repertoires, while more direct collective actions are yet to be realised by those who stay in the country.

Creating

With activists (and former political refugees) in exile, national community organizing is complemented by international support groups. Local activists are increasingly strengthened by self-organised – however partly ideology driven – networks including the Việt Tân Party (former NUFLV or The Front, an international underground movement formed in 1982 initially aimed at toppling the Communist regime through popular uprising, while today it aims at the country’s reformation towards a democratic state), diasporic news agencies, groups and campaigns for religious and ethnic minorities and International NGOs.

One of most prominent movement groups is Brotherhood for Democracy, which partly grew out of Bloc 8406. Both groups comprise of intellectuals, journalists, bloggers, lawyers, former Party members and business people. The creation of alternative news websites and blogs such as The 88 Project, The Vietnamese and RFA are also a major component for distributing information despite state censorship. While these websites are banned in Vietnam, the power of these online spaces should not be underestimated. Foreign-based online forums, including talawas.org, ykien.net, Yahoo! 360* (shut down since 2009) and danchimviet.info, have also become influential domestically.

Besides the creation of safer online spaces, it is the protected offline spaces that bring together a large number of activists. No-U FC football association is one example of how activists create spaces by using loopholes. Appealing to the Vietnamese constitution, by which every natural person has the right to exercise and sports activities, No-U FC chose to agitate within the defined limits of the one-party regime. They re-appropriate the spaces of sports for the purpose of grassroots politics. What is unique, although not new, is that members and supporters of the soccer association itself found themselves being part of a dissident movement.

What is unique, although not new, is that members and supporters of the soccer association itself found themselves being part of a dissident movement. Organised since 2011, the “U” in No-U FC symbolizes the U-shaped “nine-dash line” that China draws on maps to demarcate their sovereignty over a major territory in the South China Sea including the highly disputed Paracel and Spratly islands. In brief, the No-U FC criticizes the Vietnamese government’s compromising attitude towards China’s aggression and the infinite economic dependency on China, but also raises questions of democracy, freedom of press and assembly, environmental issues, and social justice for political prisoners.

While meeting on a regular base to play football like other ordinary football clubs, they in fact also talk politics, exchange news, plan campaigns, demonstrations and petitions etc. In contrast to everyday forms of resistance conducted by peasants (in the Scottian sense), members of No-U FC seem not to be confined by structures of everyday life but, on the contrary, seek to transform those structures into political tactics.

Merging

Finally, a lesson to learn from the strengths of dissident groups in Vietnam lies in their habit of raising cross-sectional demands that address issues of the environment, labour, foreign direct investments, social rights and political accountability. Tactical alliances, however, were hardly standard practice a few years ago. With the emergence of some uproarious environmental activism in 2009 (against Chinese-run bauxite mines in the Central Highlands region) various groups with different political aims and concerns started to strengthen their ties. Ties that linked previously separate subjects and groups together, began to provide a common ground for trade unionists, religious leaders, human rights & democracy campaigners, as well as peasants and workers.

Another example of such a tactical alliance gained a voice during the nationwide June 2018 protests. Activists and first-time demonstrators, lawyers, farmers and doctors jointly criticized the government’s draft law. They demanded the government to withdraw the proposal on new Special Economic Zones (SEZ) and maintain the country’s sovereignty vis-à-vis China, and to guarantee freedom of speech and personal data security.

Yet, some Vietnamese activists argue that issues like environmental protection and the critique of SEZs are misappropriated by right-wing ideologues and opportunists whose actual strategy contains a nationalist agenda that fails to analytically distinguish between Chinese imperialism and Sinophobia. Having said this, it remains to be seen whether the tactics of merging carry valuable opportunities for the creation of progressive movements, or whether a ‘politics of coalition’ ends up being a fatal aberration.

Beyond the given power structures

The activists’ awareness of the complexities and entanglements of various social, political and economic issues is the key condition for going beyond struggles over personal or identity-based gains. Moreover, it allows them to address large sections of Vietnamese society, while ties and cooperation among different groups grow organically.

Anh-Susann Pham Thi. Twitter. Fair use. The various campaigns, protest events and collective actors represent a starting point for societal transformation. Certainly, insights into the tactics of Vietnamese activists might not explicitly contribute to a direct learning effect for non-Vietnamese as both internal and external tactics to circumvent repression must vary. However, it does help to identify the diversities and common elements that make a further step towards a world based on international solidarity and support structures possible.

In addition, knowing about the tactics and strategies of other struggles enhances our imagination and our aesthetic power to create the tools for another future. Yet acknowledging the existence of alternative tactics and possible alternative political strategies is not enough. International solidarity based on a progressive agenda that emancipates us from the dualism of capitalism vs. socialism and reaches beyond the given power structures remains fundamental.


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