[Left: Bạch Hồng Quyền, Right: Hoàng Đức Bình. Picture taken from BBC]
An arrest over the Formosa protests was made yesterday morning (May 15th), triggering a large street demonstration in Diên Châu, Nghệ An, which saw three undercover police officers taken hostage.
Over the last month, the increasing frequency of media reports condemning the activities of two “reactionary” priests, Nguyễn Đình Thục and Đặng Hữu Năm, have signalled the impending suppression of the almost weekly, largely Catholic led, anti-Formosa protest movement, which is demanding the closure of the steel plant culpable for a mass pollution event roughly one year ago. Tensions rose significantly one week ago when various party affiliated mass organizations, including the Women’s and Veteran’s organizations, held an anachronistic show trial denouncing the priests and calling for their execution [below].
Three days ago, official arrest warrants were filed seeking the capture of Bạch Hồng Quyền for the crimes of “disturbing public order” and “illegally detaining an individual”. While not one of the targeted priests, Bạch Hồng Quyền is accused of provoking the April 3rd protest wherein 2,000 people surrounded the Lộc Hà people’s committee and temporarily captured a police office. In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Quyền explained that the charges were “baseless” and “designed to muzzle him in public opinion and prevent him from helping the people”. Bạch Hồng Quyền is an activist affiliated with Con Đường Việt (Vietnam’s Path), an independent organization that sought “positive national development without vendettas, extremism, prejudices about the past, or prejudices about political perspective, but rather sought to question how we can most positively carry out national development in unity”. Many, including currently imprisoned famed dissident blogger “Ba Sàm”, stated that the organization was either incredibly naive or a party sponsored trap.
These events have been taking place within an atmosphere of instability, with scattered but unprecedented public expressions of explicit anticommunism. First, on April 9th, former Republic of Vietnam (RVN- South Vietnam) flags were filmed being flown at protests in front of the house of the Kỳ Anh Township Chairman, in Hà Tĩnh. Possession of a former RVN flag is a serious crime. It’s worth mentioning that Hà Tĩnh is north of the 17th parallel and was never a part of the Republic of Vietnam, furthermore it’s entirely possible that this small group doesn’t represent the majority of demonstrators. That being said, Sunday mass on April 30th, the 42nd anniversary of the fall-liberation of Saigon, dissident priest Đặng Hữu Năm rejected police invitations to celebrate the “nation’s victory”, and instead used his sermon to describe the day as “the most miserable day in the history of the Vietnamese nation, the day when we lost it all, lost our freedom, lost our right to dignity and fell into interminable suffering.” He then led a march of parishioners holding signs with RVN President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu’s famous phrase, “Look not at what communists say, rather one ought to look at what communists do”.
One might assume that Catholics hold a special nostalgia for the former Republic of Vietnam, but the flag is strictly refered to as a precommunist national symbol. Recent activities by a limited number of Mekong Delta millenarian Buddhist Hào Hảo members attests to the fact that this interpretation has some currency outside of Catholic circles. Vương Văn Thả, a Hoà Hảo faithful who has been fined and forced to make public apologies for “superstitious activities”, began Facebook live streams calling for revolution while seated beneath the RVN flag, and alternately yelling cureses at Hồ Chí Minh from his window on a megaphone. His house was soon surrounded by supposed angry neighbors throwing eggs and rocks. Critics argue that these are undercover police and party members pretending to be regular citizens in order to uphold the myth of widespread support.
On May 2nd, another Hoà Hảo member, Nguyễn Hữu Tấn, was arrested for “propagandizing against the state” after allegedly hanging RVN flags around the Mekong Delta city of Vĩnh Long (his family disputes this, arguing that he was in fact in possession of yellow fabric from birds nest drink packaging). He died in custody, allegedly pulling a letter opener out of the detective’s briefcase and cutting his own throat. Though state media claimed the suicide was recorded and shown to his family as proof, the video hasn’t been released. His family maintains that the video was staged and does not in fact show Tấn, further arguing that bruises on his head and the neck wounds are inconsistent with the state’s story. Numerous discrepancies between the video and other photos show the state’s claims to be very dubious.
A third incident took place yesterday (May 15th) and involved a Ho Chi Minh city resident named Tommy Nguyễn painting the flag on the front gate of his barbershop. He Facebook live streamed the response as police and plainclothes ‘thugs’ broke into his shop attacked him, trashing his residence as he threw household items and threatened to blow up a natural gas canister [below]
A final important precursor to this morning’s arrest was the April 15th police hostage situation in Đồng Tâm Village, 25 kilometers south of Hà Nội. Decades before, villagers were given permission to settle on a plot of land previously set aside for a military airfield. Viettel, the military owned mobile phone company, was trying to push the villagers off the land to resell it. After police struck a resistant old man who refused to give up his land, villagers attacked the police with rocks and sticks [below], capturing more than three dozen officers, barracking the village, and holding them for more than two weeks in a tense standoff. The Đồng Tâm villagers continuously broadcast their explicit support for the party-state, only airing grievances against corrupt local officials. The standoff ended after officials agreed to the villager’s demands, allowing them to release the hostages without no charges being filed. Though we may cheer this result, critics have classified the extralegal means employed alongside the other above events as further proof of an epidemic of lawlessness and corruption.
This morning’s arrest takes place against this backdrop of unrest. According the account in Dân Luận (People’s Commentary), dissident priest Nguyễn Đình Thục was travelling with a number of friends through Diễn Châu, Nghệ An, when their vehicle was pulled over by squad of traffic police. When the vehicle stopped, a group of plainclothes “thugs” violently pulled Hoàng Bình [pictured at top] out of the car. According to well-reputed independent journalist Lê Nguyễn Hương Trà, Bình is vice-chairman of the organization “Phong Trào Lao Động Việt” (Viet Labor Movement), an umbrella organization which seeks to coordinate affiliated groups to secure fair wages and safe working conditions through legal and strategic education.
Viet Labor published an open letter soon after the initial disaster last May, wherein they demanded a thorough investigation, the cessation of protest suppression, transparency in the state’s contractual arrangements with Formosa, and called for workers to emotionally and financially support the affected fisherman. The open letter concludes, “Protecting the environment, protecting the ocean, and protecting fishermen is a collective responsiblity. Protecting the environment is protecting humanity, it’s protecting our children and later generations from the consequences of today’s environmental disaster”.
Though it’s not clear how large a role the organization has played in organizing protests over the last year, popular critical blog site Dân Luận claims that Hoàng Bình, and the still fugitive Bạch Hồng Quyền, were “always side by side with the fisherman of Hà Tĩnh”. Lê Nguyễn Hương Trà adds that they were both constantly threatened with arrest, and on April 2nd were involved in an armed brawl with the Thạch Bằng township police officer Giáp, wherein gunshots were fired, one individual had their head split with a rock, and one individual was seriously injured by a machete strike. After Bình’s arrest, the provincial newspaper published an article titled “Hot: capture of the suspected reactionary Hoàng Đức Bình”, detailing his official charges as, “obstruction of an officer in the line of duty”, and “taking advantage of democratic freedoms to infringe upon the legitimate interests and power of the state, organizations, or citizens”. It would be difficult to invent a more Orwellian list of crimes.
After Hoàng Đức Bình’s arrest, word quickly spread on both pro and anti government Facebook sites. Within an hour large crowds had gathered on Highway A1, the only north south highway, blocking traffic for miles in each direction while marching toward police headquarters demanding Bình’s release.
The demonstrators reported capturing four police and army affiliated plainclothes agent provocateurs, who were held as ransom “after the example of Đồng Tâm” in order to demand Bình’s release. It’s not clear whether they are still being held at this time.
The provincial authorities quickly dispatched thousands of military and riot police to the area to clear the road. Pro-government sites teased the cowardice of the “reactionaries”, who they say fled. Some critical sites report a number of arrests and severe beatings. Dân Luận reports that a severe rainstorm prevented the anticipated “bloodbath”, while Fr Nguyễn Đình Thục told Voice of America that he heeded his friends and superiors advice to avoid a direct confrontation after recieving word of the official arrest announcement, which he believed made it unlikely that the state would negotiate at that time.
It’s impossible to know what will happen next, but the revelation regarding the close cooperation between various civil society, religious, and labor organizations is significant. Though we expect the state will declare this a foreign plot to smear the regime, the actual relation between overseas support and domestic opposition seems to be becoming more sophisticated. Unfortunately, with such strict restrictions on research and media, it’s hard to estimate how broadly these activists’ concerns are shared among the general population, both inside and outside of the Nghệ-Tĩnh region.