It seems like Vietnam’s New Year’s resolution for 2016 is the same as it was in 2015: find new ways to intimidate, harass, and otherwise abuse the human rights of activists. Recent events in the country demonstrate the increasingly non-traditional and interconnected ways by which the government cracks down on dissent.
During a protest in Hanoi last week over land grabs, Radio Free Asia reports that the police detained 30 participants. There were 100 participants in total. There were at least double that amount of police officers present. They also report that police had recently been trained in “an anti-terrorism drill,” including one training situation involving a confrontation with the public over land rights issues.
Bui Thi Minh Hang, a land rights activist, is currently serving a three-year sentence in Vietnam. Her arrest in early 2014 was on the charge of a traffic violation, not a charge related to her activism– a tactic used by authorities in the case of Le Quoc Quan, who was arrested for tax evasion, and Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, who was originally arrested for theft of telephone wires, as well. All three prominent human rights advocates went on to serve time in prison, and Thuc still has ten years left of his sentence.
Sometimes, authorities also pair arrest with physical assault. Human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai was arrested in late 2015 under Article 88 for conducting propaganda against the state. Amnesty International notes that just a week and half before, he and three others were attacked by plain clothes assailants after conducting a human rights workshop.
And in other circumstances, the government inflicts wounds on activists that are not visible to the naked eye. Tran Huynh Duy Thuc continues to be targeted in prison for continuing to advocate for what he believes in. Most recently, the structure of Thuc’s one-hour, monthly family visits were changed. Instead of meeting with his family in person, Thuc must now meet with them from behind a glass divider, using a phone. His family believes this meant to facilitate recording of family interactions and so that Thuc can be deprived of direct contact with his family. January 20th marks six years since his arrest.
In addition, Vietnam cuts off activists from community and family by forcing them into exile after their release from prison, such as in the case of Dieu Cay and Ta Phong Tan. In a recent Committee to Protect Journalists interview, Tan, who was released early in September 2015, reflected on the forced necessity of leaving home.
“It was not hard because I had no other choice. Either I stayed in Vietnam and spent another six years in prison plus five years of probation on release, or I went to America. If you were in my position, you would decide as quickly as I did.”
Source: Committee to Protect Journalists, https://www.cpj.org/blog/2015/12/exile-the-price-of-freedom-for-vietnamese-blogger-.php.
Tan did not have a chance to say goodbye.
The international community can no longer use just numbers of arrests and releases as a measure of progress with the human rights situation in Vietnam. Instead, it must look at the myriad of smaller, less visible human rights violations used to wear down and torment activists. While some recent news has given attention to the physical attacks on activists, more attention must be given to those attacks in the context of, and often in connection with, other abuses. It is only through this method that international policymakers and organizations can see the full picture of what Vietnamese activists endure on a daily basis in their fight for freedom of expression and other human rights.
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