Decisive State Repression? An account of “Hit the Streets for the Environment” Week 3.

In my last entry, I presented translations of two Facebook posts I thought useful for any would be participants in Sunday’s events. In the meantime, there were a few important developments that set the stage for Sunday.

First, on Saturday at 7:32 am Vietnam time, Facebook user Thuy Trang Nguyen posted “URGENT WARNING: THE POLICE WILL CAUSE VIOLENCE IN ORDER TO JUSTIFY ARRESTING PROTESTERS”. In the post, Thuy claimed that she had somehow obtained information from a District 1 security meeting that detailed a plan to employ agent provocateurs to vandalize and loot the shops along Bui Vien street, Saigon’s de facto bar and red light district. This would give police reason to hold protestors at least until after next Sunday, when the simultaneous occurrence of both Barack Obama’s visit and the elections are set to significantly stress police forces. Painting the protestors as looters and thieves would also be an added propaganda victory, as it was used in Binh Duong and Hong Kong, she adds.

As we know now, this did not happen. However, this post was shared 6,700 times, likely influencing a number of would be demonstrators. Further, though the figure of the agent provocateur is somewhat omnipresent in protest movements, and often used to denounce the radical wing as acting on behalf of government agents, it’s inconceivable to this writer that this movement has such a wing. Considering the widespread and obvious use of plain-clothed muscle to assault protestors, whether or not Thuy discovered such a plan, it doesn’t seem as far fetched as it would in other contexts.

Friday, the night before Thuy’s post, I went to Bui Vien and spoke to some friends and shop owners. While there, I witnessed the police call on a number of shop owners, and when I asked one shop owner, with whom I am quite close, if he was ready for the protests on Sunday, I was quickly, quietly, and firmly scolded. The atmosphere was already quite tense, and the agent provocateurs rumor could only exacerbate it. By Saturday night hundreds of officers and barricades were already prepared at the planned locations around the city.

At noon Saturday, about 5 hours after Thuy’s post,  Facebook and Instagram were completely blocked. Though free access to Facebook is fairly recent, it was historically blocked at the DNS, making laptop access somewhat simple and mobile access unimpeded, this time, it was completely blocked and could only be accessed by VPN, making mobile access more difficult, though not impossible. Although a number of popular Facebook groups were active again within the hour, it seems plausible that the majority of residents were significantly impeded from regular and especially mobile access to social media.

At 5:27pm on Saturday, state media acknowledged the protests for the first time with Tuoi Tre Online publishing an article entitled “HCMC Police confirm that ‘Viet Tan are Organizing Chaos” (a slightly different English edition can be read here). The article reports that the police have uncovered the “terrorist organization Viet Tan’s” plot to cause public disorder under the guise of environmental protest, including assaulting and rewarding the assault of police officers and youth volunteers (TNXP). Viet Tan is a partly real, partly mythical organization of Vietnamese American activists seeking to overthrow the communist party. While its safe to assume that there truly are Vietnamese American activists seeking any way possible to delegitimize the Vietnamese Communist Party, Viet Tan is often trotted out as a scapegoat for any failure or discontent. Publishing this article the night before the 3rd demonstration was a clear signal that there would be zero tolerance. The protestors are terrorists, reactionaries, and criminals, they are intent on the obstruction of the election, and the collapse of the regime, and therefore will be treated as enemies of the state.

Finally, as collected in this post (please view edit history), 3 separate afternoon demonstration targets had gained traction on social media: a 3pm sit-in on Nguyen Hue ‘walking street’ in front of the People’s Committee near the Ho Chi Minh statue, a 4pm demonstration at 23-9 park near Ben Thanh Market, and a 5pm demonstration at the intersection of De Tham and Bui Vien, the heart of the backpacker district (a short documentary has just been made about Bui Vien street, and can be viewed here).

Though I didn’t see any calls to another 9am demonstration at 30-4 park, I went anyway. There was an incredible police presence, however all traffic was flowing freely, and when the bells struck 9am, the only people in the street were a young couple taking wedding photos.

 

weddingducba
Picture taken from BBC Vietnamse

 

Nguyen Hue

At 2:30pm I arrived at Nguyen Hue to check on the proposed sit in. The whole street was closed to vehicle traffic, allegedly for maintence, so I parked near Bitexco. Under the guise of landscaping, electrical, and building repairs, the police had made the vast concrete square a sun beaten no-mans-land surrounded by dozens– maybe hundreds– of police officers, stacks of mobile barbwire fence, plain-clothed thugs hugging the shade, and conspicuously empty busses. A few tourists ambled about the vast emptyness of the square, seemingly oblivious to the unsettling tension and overwhelming police presence. The atmosphere was anxious and skittish; a far cry from the jubilant hollering that initiated last week’s short-lived march.

Still no sign of a gathering, I went up a few floors for a broad view of the street. From here I was able to admire the scale of the police presence, but I didn’t see any sit-in, and my view of Ho Chi Minh’s statue was obscured. I did see one person put into a headlock by a few plain-clothed officers. A piece of paper was taken from him as he wrestled free and exchanged some words before consenting to his arrest and walking in under his own power. I assume it was a sign, but he was both far from me and far from the statue. I’ve been told this was Huynh Ngoc Chenh, the man who called for the sit in (pictured below). After 3pm passed by, I walked down toward the people’s committee. The police were eating a meal out of Styrofoam boxes, so I headed toward Ben Thanh Market figuring that the officers’ relaxed attitude was a sign the threat had passed. I’ve heard and read that there were confrontations along the blocked roads, but I didn’t see anything.

alonenguyenhue
Picture of solitary protestor moments before his arrest, taken from Bui Dzu’s post here.

23/9 Park 

23/9 Park is popular with English students who come to practice speaking and listening skills with the foreigners concentrated around the backpacker area. A number of these groups were congregated around the half dozen or so foreigners who didn’t mind the company. Cops were seated all around Ben Thanh Market (1), and throughout the shaded places of the park and along the street. Other groups of Vietnamese people were seated randomly around. At 4:17 I was starting to doubt anything would take place when I noticed that a group of middle-aged blue-shirted police had gathered around a mixed group of Vietnamese people sitting along a planter in the center of the walkway before the first gazebo. They were being asked to disperse, and some were reluctant to do so. At the same time, other police began butting into the pockets of English students to disperse them as well. This seemed to cause a dozen middle aged protestors (red dots) to walk to the concrete across the lawn from the 1st gazebo (black square) and raise signs with the familiar slogans into the air. The crowd (white dots) gathered around and police quickly piled in from all directions, forming a perimeter behind the protestors (blue line). Video here. Now numbering over a hundred, the crowd cheered as plain clothed officers wearing medical masks and earphones began admonishing the crowd to step back from the grass and put away their phones. After a few minutes of cheering, one plain-clothed officer ran into the center of the grass separating the crowd from the sign carrying demonstrators and surveyed the crowd, pointing out mask wearing camera-wielding supporter standing at the corner of the gazebo. Plain clothed officers immediately began snatching anybody filming who found themselves in a vulnerable position away from the group, or in among a group they thought were supporters but were actually plain-clothed officers (blue Xs). The crowd reacted to the snatching with attempts to free the friends and fellow supporters, but this split the crowd into a number of points, which gave the police the opportunity to arrest all the sign wielding protesters.

15:5
1-Ben Thanh, 2- New World Hotel, 3-blue first phase police, white dots- initial crowd, blue Xs- first police attacks, 4-purple second phase police, 5 pink-final phase police, yellow lines- empty busses, green lines- mobile loudspeakers, green circle-final focus of arrests.

The second phase of the suppression saw the armored police units (purple lines) begin to corral the crowd and push them in the direction of Nguyen Thi Nghia street. There were a number of young western men and women in the crowd, some seemed to be purposefully documenting the events while others were drawn by the commotion. The crowd dragged its feet as it complied with police officers’ haphazard arrangement of lines. Plain-clothed officers continued snatching individuals, sending pockets of the crowd chasing after them. Also at this time, the dispersal orders began raining in from the mobile loudspeakers along Le Lai street (green lines). This week, there was a new message emphasizing the reactionary criminal elements of the protest, and ensuring the audience that a team of international scientists, was determining the cause of the environmental disaster. This message was also repeated in flawless English.

As the crowd was pushed further toward Nguyen Thi Nghia, a number of arrests on Le Lai and a crowd gathering in front of New World Hotel created a new center for the violent arrests . New World guests were hastily forced back into the lobby of their hotel, while police vehicles and plain-clothed officers hustled down the street to begin stripping away this last bastion of resistance. It was only 4:25 and the crowd was already 75% dispersed, making the 8 minute state response an extremely effective one by any measure. The police separated the park from new world, and continued to push spectators toward the last gazebo at the edge of the park (pink lines). The empty busses (yellow lines) were being filled with protestors, and the remaining spectators were largely docile.

A final note, there was a pair of young men filming with what appeared to be an expensive shoulder mounted camera. The police did not harass them even though filming was the primary cause for the arrests of other spectators. Further it didn’t seem like the familiar police tactic of intimidating spectators by recording their faces, since those officers often use a simple handheld camera. Should be expect something to be broadcast on state media?

Not yet 4:45, I decided to make my way to the corner of De Tham and Bui Vien to await the 5:00pm event. Though some accounts of police harrasement have been shared online, it’s not surprising that no demonstation never occurred. One of the plans was to march from the park, and the repression there was completely effective. My friends shop was closed for the night.

Return To Nguyen Hue 

After a couple hours of waiting, I walked back to Nguyen Hue, passing again through the park to see what remained. It was still filled with bored plain-clothed officers (maybe thugs is more appropriate) scattered in small groups sitting on planters chatting about the best headlock techniques and arguing about the optimal amount of force to be used while being filmed. It’s hard to know how many were plain-clothed thugs, and how many may have been potential demonstrators hoping for a reawakening of the protest. Nevertheless there were certainly many officers, both uniformed and otherwise, still in the park.

At 8pm Nguyen Hue was not only still closed to vehicle traffic, it was now completely closed to all pedestrian traffic as well, severely inconveniencing the scores of oblivious families and young couples who had come down to enjoy ‘walking street’ on a hot Sunday night. To close a long and somber day with a hint of hilarity, there was a fashion show on Sunday. Alongside the disappointed families, hawkers, and young couples who were prevented from enjoying the breezy open space of Nguyen Hue, stood fashion models and the smartly dressed well-to-do. It was strangely egalitarian. One apparent fashion model asked the police manning the blockade outside of Bitexco, “How can I get it?”, “Well do you have a helicopter?” he replied with a smirk.

~~~

This is by no means a comprehensive account of the day’s events. The speed of arrests make it quite possible that I missed many incidents around the city. If anyone has anything to add about the build up or timeline, feel free to comment or email me. In sum, whether collectively or individually, it’s clear that the bulk of protestors determined it was not worth risking certain arrest in the face of overwhelming state force. Whether this is a lull before next week, when the concomitant general election and Obama visit will both spread police forces widely across the city and ensure an international media presence, or it was the last gasp of the “Xuống Đường vì Môi Trường” movement, will have to wait till then.

 

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