[Vietnam] A dark year for bloggers

The brutal assault of blogger Nguyen Chi Tuyen (a.k.a. Anh Chi) on May 11 last year marked the commence of a bitter struggle between Vietnamese political bloggers and the government. It was even the starting point of a “communication war” among the bloggers themselves.

In the early morning of May 11, Nguyen Chi Tuyen took his little son to school as usual. Then the 41-year-old father kissed the child good bye and returned home without knowing he may have been followed by some young guys.

10 minutes later, he was encountered with a group of five masked men who surrounded him with long iron bars. There was a savage attack when the guys hit Tuyen many times on his head with the bars until he fell down in blood. He managed to go to hospital after they left, and the doctors had to give him six stitches for his head wound.

“Face and clothes covered in blood… Tear on skin tissue on top of the head, seemingly crushed and tear at 6cm length, bleeding… Other injuries on facial soft tissue observed… Multiple bruises on face areas, which appear to be painful and swelling,” wrote the doctor’s report.

None of the assaulters spoke a word to let Tuyen know why they beat him up. However, his active involvement in the previous anti-China protest rallies and the ongoing tree protecting campaign in Hanoi suggested that he may just be another victim of state-sponsored violence against human rights activists.

Tuyen reported his story to the local police station. A few weeks later he would be given feedback that it was impossible for the police to find the perpetrator.

Tuyen’s physical health was recovered at last, but the assault may have left an emotional scar when he kept questioning why it was so dangerous for a blogger just to take part in social movements to protect sovereignty or the environment.

Eight days following the assault against Nguyen Chi Tuyen, another blogger named Tuyen in Saigon was also badly attacked by a group of men whom he did not know. They broke his nose and the blogger had to undergo surgery on his face. The perpetrators were never found likewise.

Violence became a real threat to bloggers supporting democracy in the country.

Violence as a tactic

 Early on September 23 morning, the police in Hanoi raided the homes of some bloggers and TV editors, and took six of them into custody. They included Le Thi Yen, the 23-year-old anchor of Conscience TV, an independent video news service being broadcast on Youtube.

Violent scuffles broke out outside police headquarters in Hai Ba Trung District after some thirty protesters went there to demand the release of the bloggers. At least three were dragged by the police on the street and got hurt. The bloggers were released at midnight.

Three months later, the founder of Conscience TV, human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, was arrested and charged with “conducting propaganda against the state” under Article 88 of the Vietnamese Penal Code. His assistant Le Thu Ha, also an editor for Conscience TV, was arrested and faced the same charge. The television had stopped working since their arrest.

Violent tension increased particularly on the eve of the visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Hanoi. On October 30, the No-U football club was attacked by plainclothes agents while celebrating its fourth anniversary at a restaurant, and a 19-year-old girl had her foot cut by broken glasses. No-U means “No U-line”, a group organized to resist China’s U-shaped territorial claims in the South China Sea.

At the same time, blogger Ly Quang Son, 23, a student activist, said he was attacked on October 24 by a plainclothes man with a sword. He was struck on the head and arms and warned that the Communist Party was out to punish those who stood against the state.

Son’s motorcycle helmet protected him and he managed to get away, but had suffered cuts on his arms and fingers.

On November 3, two days before Xi’s visit, plainclothes men also attacked a group of young people who held up placards with anti-China slogans at Dong Da Mount in Hanoi – the site of a historical defeat of Chinese forces in Vietnam.

It is believed that violence is used as a tactic by the government and their supporters to cause fear among those who call for freedom and democracy. Physical damage and emotional pain may have had some impact while the perpetrators can never be found. The police may simply attribute all cases of assault to “some outrageous masses.”

Temporary arrests

The year 2015 was also marked with many temporary arrests and financial fines against bloggers. On July 11, a group of youth, labelling themselves as anti-communist “Zombie”, organized a walk along Nguyen Hue street in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City. Nearly 100 people were arrested in the end, among them was Nguyen Thanh Phuoc (a.k.a. Phi), a 23-year-old blogger and leader of the group. Phuoc was detained for almost two weeks without any charge.

In August, amid the controversial university entrance examination, Hoang Thanh, a 25-year-old former student of Japanese, stood outside the Ministry of Education, holding up a placard that said “Students are not lab mice.”

The image was shared many times on Facebook as part of an online campaign to challenge the government’s recent efforts to change the much criticised school exam system. It was a rare example of students showing defiance in the face of government policy. Three days later, police came in and detained Hoang Thanh for questioning during the day. He was detained twice for two successive days. Following the interrogation, Thanh was made jobless and homeless when his landlord expelled him under police pressure.

At the same time, financial fines proved to be an effective measure for the police to curb freedom of expression. On September 10, Doan Huu Long, a blogger based in the coastal city of Vung Tau, was given a fine of approximately 250 USD for his writings on blog, which appeared to be critical of the government.

In mid-November, local authorities in the southern province of An Giang imposed a similar fine on Le Thi Thuy Trang, a teacher at Long Xuyen high school. What she did before was to publish a facebook status describing the chairman of the local people’s committee as “haughty.”

One of her friends, Phuc, who “liked” and commented below her status was also fined.

The successive fines sparked outrage over social media networks, which so far remain the only space for Vietnamese bloggers to voice their disaffection – at high risk.