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Internet Stirs Activism in Vietnam

The quick connections and passion forged over the internet challenge authoritarian governments worldwide. Vietnam is no exception. Social media and blogs connect social activists as well as the diaspora, reports Huong Nguyen, research fellow at the Center for Constitutional Democracy at the Indiana University in Bloomington. Notably, many activists take recourse to igniting nationalistic feelings in order to criticize the Communist government for its foreign policy initiatives, particularly relations with China. China’s regional dominance, a history of millennial conflict and recent territorial disputes contribute to anti-Chinese sentiments among Vietnamese, though China is also Vietnam’s top trade partner. Rowdy online articles and discussions influence traditional coverage by government-controlled newspapers and broadcasters. The government has successfully shut down what became known as Sunday protests, but so far can’t control the online exchange of symbols, prevalent during planned Sunday activities, that signify discontent. Huong concludes, “It is more difficult than ever for the Party-state to control its citizens’ minds and their human bonds.” – YaleGlobal

Internet Stirs Activism in Vietnam

Social media-based attacks on foreign policy connect Vietnamese diaspora and activists
Huong Nguyen
YaleGlobal, 11 May 2012
Protest and surf: Vietnamese protesters hold anti-China posters during a Sunday rally in the center of Hanoi (top); Vietnamese students surf in a Hanoi internet café

BLOOMINGTON: As in many other authoritarian countries, the internet has opened up doors for dissent and social criticism, but in Vietnam, it also connects the diaspora and draws critiques of the country’s foreign relations.

Vietnam acquired connection to the internet in the 1990s, and since then, internet users in Vietnam have rapidly increased to 24 million users in 2010, or 27 percent of the population. For the last few years, the explosion of social media tools posed new challenges to the Party-state’s capacity to control public opinion. Blogs and Facebook provide alternative sources of information which shapes the behavior of journalists and authorities behaviors in real life. The internet has facilitated self-organization among social activists, and its many communication tools allow them to assemble virtually, strengthen friendships and become empowered as a community.

Blogs and social networks have constituted a cyber-public sphere that expands beyond the physical borders of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, encompassing the significant Vietnamese diaspora. Vietnamese inside and outside the country connect with each other by blogs and Facebook. Political discussions on once-taboo subjects finds an open forum in cyberspace. The market of ideas in the blogosphere is much more diversified than the thousands of official newspapers, magazines, television channels and web portals routinely controlled and censored by the state.

In Vietnam, political discussions on once-taboo subjects
finds an open forum in cyberspace.

Vietnamese intellectuals, whose identities are known to the public, started their blog Bauxite Viet Nam in 2008 to convey their “multi-sided criticism” on the controversial mining project in the Central Highlands. Soon, their blog posts covered more issues than the bauxite project itself, from constitutional reforms and policy debates to the defense of the democratic cause, especially through the case of lawyer-activist Cu Huy Ha Vu, arrested in November 2010 and imprisoned for “propaganda against the socialist state.”

State-owned media have talked about Bauxite Viet Nam as a “reactionary site.” The blog, after having been hacked many times, is now one website, boxitvn.net, with two backup blogs. The authorities have blocked access to these pages. But internet users in Vietnam know how to use proxy servers to bypass the firewall. Bauxite Viet Nam has become a forum for intellectuals inside and outside the country to contribute their critical views on major policy debates and sociopolitical events.

A famous blog in Vietnam, Anh Ba Sam, the Gossiper, at anhbasam.wordpress.com, is run by a former police officer in Hanoi, who also publicizes his identity. He compiles and reviews several times a day all news and analysis about Vietnam from all kinds of websites and blogs: state-own media websites, foreign news agencies, Vietnamese blogs by artists, political activists, journalists, poets inside and outside the countries, and sometimes websites that are considered by the Vietnamese authorities as “reactionary” and “sensitive,” including websites and blogs run by pro-democracy activists and groups. People turn to this blog to get information on issues that are censored in state-own media, thus it has become the most widely read blog. This news-blog is the origin of a quip circulated in the Vietnamese cyberspace that sums up the state of affairs: The Gossiper communicates official news, while the official media merely gossips.

Despite this vibrant free market of ideas in the cyberspace, some people remain skeptical about what this online freedom means for an actual change on the ground. But various recent incidents have revealed how online activism and real-life activism can be complementary and how the internet has changed real-life political debate and political activism.

Some Vietnamese are skeptical about what online freedom means for actual change on the ground.

In the Tien Lang land-grabbing case early 2012, in which the shrimp farmer Doan Van Vuon ended up in desperation, using self-made weapons to resist armed enforcement by the cohort of local cadres, police and army, the blogger community has proved its power. Blogger-journalists took initiative to visit Vuon’s family and investigate the incident, and published their independent findings and recommendations on their blogs about illegal confiscation of Vuon’s land and destruction of his home. In blogs and on Facebook, people circulated new facts, alternative analyses and counterarguments to local authorities’ discourses.

The alternative sources of information in the blogosphere have had an impact on how journalists from state-owned media perceived and approached this affair. “Facebook and blogs provide a new choice for journalists and citizens to exercise their freedom of expression,” as one senior journalist in Vietnam put it. “Thanks to these new tools, even when official media draws back and confines itself, a space for free expression still opens up. Blogs and Facebook shape reporters’ behavior, because before, the authorities’ and state-owned media’s malfeasance was not immediately discovered like it is now. Information from blogs and Facebook put pressure on official media to make them tell the truth in some cases, like the Tien Lang affair.”

Blogs and Facebook also made a difference in political activism. In June and July 2011, following an attack by Chinese patrol boats on a Vietnamese oil survey ship off the south-central coast of Vietnam, anti-Chinese protests were held every Sunday in Hanoi and Saigon for two months, before the authorities succeeded in suppressing them. Similar anti-Chinese protests had been held in December 2007 in Hanoi and in 2008 in Saigon, but protesters then could not organize second protests. A young Sunday protester suggested that Facebook made a difference in 2011. The connectivity and intimacy on Facebook helped them to spread the words of appeal to resist China and work out strategies to bypass authorities’ control. The authorities have succeeded in stopping Sunday protesters from joining in the streets. But they failed to stop activists from forming networks that continue to strengthen, despite harassment and control.

Authorities stopped Sunday protesters from joining in the streets, but failed to stop the online networks.

In reality, Sunday protesters have not stopped their protests. They have only displaced them from the streets to many other locations, and continued to protest with different expressive means. They distribute and wear T-shirts, raincoats and caps emblazoned with the printed No-U symbol and the slogan, “Say no to the ox-tongue line” – with the U-shaped dotted line, also known as ox tongue, representing the Chinese claims of sovereignty covering most of the South China Sea – as a way to continue their protest in an individual way. They form the No-U football club to play on Sundays, another symbolic continuation of their Sunday protests, and formed a network of friendship to support one another in difficult times when the police treated them like criminals for their patriotic activities. Their activities are reported on members’ Facebooks and blogs, where they share pictures of events, publish conference speeches, and inform their online networks of the pressure from the authorities. Sunday protesters are not only active Facebookers and bloggers. They actually defy power in real life.

It is true that those who seek to exercise their political freedoms are still always at risk. People are being arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for blogging, protesting or organizing political groups. The Party-state can always choose to use its coercive apparatus to silence dissent.

But alternative sources of information and interaction in the cyberspace have contributed to expand the boundaries of political debate and facilitated networks of like-minded individuals and empower them, as a community, to defy power. It is more difficult than ever for the Party-state to control its citizens’ minds and their human bonds.

 

Huong Nguyen is research fellow at the Center for Constitutional Democracy and PhD student in Law and Democracy at the Indiana University in Bloomington. The author will field readers' questions for a week after the publication date

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