Police detain and beat protestors demonstrating against new laws

Mass nationwide demonstrations were reported in Vietnam on 10th June 2018, including in the cities of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, Danang, Nha Trang and Binh Thuan. The protests were primarily against two bills, currently before the National Assembly, on Special Economic Zones (SEZ) and Cyber Security.

Bills on Special Economic Zones and Cyber Security

A draft law on Special Economic Zones (SEZ) would allow foreign investors to lease land in the Van Don, Phu Quoc and Bac Van Phong economic zones for up to 99 years. Although the proposed legislation does not identify any country in particular, many in Vietnam fear that these economic zones could be dominated by Chinese firms. In the face of mounting opposition, the authorities have postponed the discussion and approval of the SEZ bill to the next session of parliament scheduled for October 2018.

Concerns have also been raised about a Cyber Security bill, on which the National Assembly is due to vote on 12th June. According to Amnesty International the law would give sweeping powers to the Vietnamese authorities, allowing them to force technology companies to hand over potentially vast amounts of data, including personal information, and to censor users’ posts. Many articles in the proposed law are vaguely worded, allowing for broad interpretation by authorities. One article of the draft legislation rules it a crime to post material online that “offends the nation, the national flag, the national emblem, the national anthem, great people, leaders, notable people, and national heroes.” The US and Canada had urged Vietnam to delay the vote on the bill to ensure it aligns with international standards.

Protesters detained and allegedly beaten in custody

The mass protests reportedly began on 9th June 2018 by thousands of workers in Tan Tao Industrial Zone in Ho Chi Minh City.

The following day, thousands gathered in various locations in Ho Chi Minh city to protest against the two bills. Participants used banners stating “No land lease for China ” or “Stop Voting on Bill on Cyber Security.” Dozens were arrested by the police and allegedly beaten in custody. Some were forced to admit to "causing public disorder" before being released.

In Hanoi city, police quickly dispersed small groups gathering in the city’s center, and detained dozens of them. Some were released after a few hours. Some protesters were also bundled into buses and driven away.  They were reports that Hanoi police detained ten activists, including Nguyen Thuy Hanh, at the Trung Tu ward police station and brutally ill-treated them. They were released in the early hours of 11th June with severe injuries to their heads and bodies.

Activists report that the authorities used Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs) against protesters. LRADs emit high volume sounds at various frequencies, with some ability to target the sound to particular areas. Used at close range, LRADs can pose a serious health risks which range from temporary pain, loss of balance and eardrum rupture, to permanent hearing damage. LRADs also target people relatively indiscriminately, and can have markedly different effects on different individuals and in different environments.

In Binh Thuan, some protests reportedly turned violent when hundreds gathered in front of the People's Committee Headquarters in Phan Thiet on 10th June, lobbing rocks and petrol bombs. Authorities said more than a hundred people were detained.

Repressive environment for protests

While Article 25 of Vietnam's Constitution  guarantees the right to freedom of assembly, in practice demonstrations are tightly restricted. Organisations must apply for official permission to assemble, and security forces routinely use unnecessary or excessive force to disperse peaceful demonstrations.

The authorities also have used various provisions in the Penal Code to criminalise protesters, including “causing public disorder” (Article 245 of the 1999 Penal Code); “resisting persons in the performance of their official duties” (Article 330 of the 2015 Penal Code) and “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State” (Article 331 of the 2015 Penal code) and other national security laws.

As documented previously on the CIVICUS Monitor, in 2016 and 2017 authorities cracked down heavily on mass protests around the Formosa ecological disaster in the central coastal region in April 2016, that destroyed livelihoods and the environment. Dozens were arrested and tortured or otherwise ill-treated and some were charged and convicted for their involvement in organising or participating in the protests.

Civic space in Vietnam is rated as closed by the CIVICUS Monitor, a tool that tracks conditions for civil society in all countries.