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Thayer Vietnam: Public Protests Today and in the Past

Thayer Vietnam: Public Protests Today and in the Past

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Published by Carlyle Alan Thayer
An assessment of Vietnamese regime reaction to public protests today compared with the past.
An assessment of Vietnamese regime reaction to public protests today compared with the past.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Carlyle Alan Thayer on Jul 28, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Background Brief:Vietnam: Public Protests in thePast and TodayCarlyle A. ThayerJuly 26, 2012
[client name deleted]Q1. Public protests in Vietnam were rare in the 1990s. Why have they become morefrequent in the last decade?ANSWER: I would make a distinction between public protests over local issues such asland and treatment by local officials and political protests. The former have been anenduring fact of life in Vietnam since the late 1980s. Peasants have staged protests intheir local districts and/or have assembled outside of the offices of the NationalAssembly in Ho Chi Minh City. In 1997 there was a massive peasant protest in Thai Binhprovince involving over 10,000 persons. Public political protests are a product of themobile phone and internet era. They are a product of globalization where protests inother countries, or protests in Vietnam that are reported in the foreign media becomeknown in Vietnam. New technology gives publicity to protests. One protest spurs
another. Two other factors facilitating public protest are the growth of Vietnam’s
economy and travel abroad, including education. People are better educated and haveresources to spend time in political activities.Q2 Hanoi reportedly paid students to take part in a protest against the US over the Iraqwar in 2003. What was the thinking behind this compared to the first anti-China rally in2007?ANSWER: I have no information about paying for public protests in 2003. Was this tocompensate people for loss of income?The first anti-China rally in December 2007 was spontaneous. Students and youthsnetworked using mobile phones and text messages. The Iraq war was distant and did notinvolve Vietnam directly. In 2007 the issue was the announcement that China had raisedthe level of government and created SanSha as an administrative unit with responsibilityover the Paracel Islands, Macclesfield Bank and Spratly Islands. The protestors felt
outraged at China’s affront to national sovereignty.
Q3. Why do you think the Vietnamese state has allowed the latest anti-China protestsbut suppressed recent protests by Catholics and land rights campaigners?ANSWER: The communist regime confiscated Catholic land in the 1950s and again afterreunification. The government has closed the door to any review of these decisionsincluding compensation. In recent years the government argues it has offered alternatepublic land for religious services. Catholic demonstrations are a direct political assault on
Thayer Consultancy
ABN # 65 648 097 123
the legitimacy of Vi
etnam’s one party regime. Land issues also strike at the nexus of 
political and economic power of local officials. The loyalty of the Catholic community hasalways been questioned. Land rights activists attempt to organize aggrieved peasantsand form associations the regime views as illegal and a challenge to its massorganisations.The anti-China protests do not involve any challenge to economic power. They are largelypatriotic displays of nationalism. They reflect views widely held among the elite. But theydo represent a challenge to nationalism as one of the basis of regime legitimacy. To theextent that anti-
China protests are an indictment of the central government’s failure to
stand up to China, they are viewed as a challenge. Many of the demonstrators in Hanoicome from well connected families.Q4. Academics say politics in Vietnam is driven by the belief that those in power have ahigher moral capacity than the everyman and are therefore trustworthy. How much doyou think this influences official reactions to public protests?ANSWER: Vietnamese political culture includes remnants of Confucian values.Government officials are supposed to uphold high moral standards and serve thecollective rather than the individual. This is an ideal type that has been undermined byperceptions of extensive corruption by government officials. I would say there is adisconnect between how the public views government officials and how governmentofficials view themselves. Government officials generally have a self-serving view of themselves. For example, political reformers inside the system often share similar viewswith those outside the system. But there is little likelihood the two would form acoalition. Those inside the system are aghast at those outside the system for the temerityof advocating political reform. Political reform is the prerogative of the elite
those tothe manor born
not those on the outside. They are viewed as pursuing individual andpersonal interests.Q5. Why do you think the government has allowed the anti-China protests to continuethis year?
ANSWER: China’s actions this year have been over the top. It suits the government to
permit public displays of anti-China sentiment
up to a point. In June last year China andVietnam reached agreemen
t “to steer public opinion”. This meant halting the anti
-Chinaprotests in Vietnam. There is widespread and growing public support for the protestsamong the elite.Q6. IN an earlier assessment you wrote that one reason for the crackdown againstbloggers is diplomacy with both China and the US. Are there any other reasons at play?ANSWER: Domestic politics and international relations are inextricably mixed. But whenyou leave the level of high politics to public protests, there are party and public securityconservatives who see any manifestation of organised public protest as subversive. It isusually linked to peaceful evolution. But it is also linked to a degree of governmentfrustration that despite the best efforts to intimidate and curtail demonstrations, theycontinue. In sum, public protest is viewed as a challenge to the authority of governmentofficials. Government officials want to be in control. They are sensitive to the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the colour revolutions andthe Arab Spring.
Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “
Vietnam: Public Protests in the Past andToday
Thayer Consultancy Background Brief 
, July 26, 2012.

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