~ Le ViÍt Nam, aujourd'hui. ~
The Vietnam News

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Protests draw many interests

HANOI - Nationalistic street demonstrations in Vietnam last month over a long-running island dispute with China have tested the limits of protest in the one-party ruled state, as myriad political interests weighed in. Political analysts said the protests outside Beijing's diplomatic missions over ownership of South China Sea islands may suit Hanoi, which is historically wary of the giant neighbour meddling in sea lanes along Vietnam's 3,200km coast.

Online activists this week called for more student-led demonstrations, which the communist government tolerated on Dec 9 and Dec 16, but has since strongly discouraged. A government spokesman described them as ''spontaneous acts of students and youths'', despite people arriving prepared with placards, wearing T-shirts printed with maps and patriotic red and gold colours. Others were photographed standing on communist China's flag. The protests also happened simultaneously in front of China's embassy in Hanoi and its consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.

China chided Vietnam over the protests and its unwavering claims to the Spratly and Paracel islands, rocky outcrops that may be rich in oil and gas. China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines all make claims to the Spratlys. In the opaque world of Vietnam politics, observers knew little about how the rare street activism got going, aside from a stirring of nationalist emotions. The protests may have been spurred by reports of China planning a new city administration incorporating the islands, analysts said. Beijing denied making any such statement.

Over the past month, everyone from cyber activists, students, land rights protesters, overseas Vietnamese opposed to communist rule and a leading Buddhist dissident monk added their opinions. Witnesses said protesters told police on the scene that demonstrating was within their rights under the constitution.

''This is reminiscent of how political space was carved out in places like Taiwan and South Korea but I sense this kind of thing is new for Vietnam,'' said Martin Gainsborough, who teaches Vietnam politics at the University of Bristol in England. Some activists questioned the government's competence to defend its territory. Police monitored the peaceful gatherings and detained a few people. Police were deployed in both cities to prevent further protests on Dec 23 and again this week, activists said. The ruling Communist Party, which has opened Vietnam's economy and foreign policy to the world, usually clamps down on public, non state-sanctioned civilian activism.

In 2002 a computer instructor was jailed when the government said he broke the law by posting articles accusing Hanoi of making territorial concessions to China in 1999 and 2000. Veteran Vietnam watcher Carl Thayer of the University of New South Wales in Australia said, ''You could speculate that the government gave a wink and a nod to allow demonstrations... How do you get publicity and not get the government involved?'' Ironically, China itself has allowed similar nationalistic demonstrations during past diplomatic rows. In 2005, amid a dispute with Japan over Japanese leaders' visits to World War Two shrines, Beijing allowed protests in Beijing and Shanghai. The few public protests seen in Vietnam are by peasant farmers seeking compensation for redistributed land.

Mr Thayer noted that the students' actions presented an opportunity for anti-communist overseas Vietnamese activists to stage their own protests in the United States and Europe. As did dissident Buddhist monk Thich Quang Do, largely restricted to his pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, who argued in an e-mailed statement that multi-party democracy was one way to safeguard Vietnam's sovereignty and territorial integrity. ''Three million Communist Party members and a 500,000-strong army have not enough authority or power to defend the homeland,'' he said. Vietnam was ruled by the Chinese for 1,000 years and the two countries fought a border war in 1979, but relations are generally good following restoration of ties in 1991. Three years earlier, their navies had clashed in the Spratlys.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Le Dung said Vietnam wanted to settle all disputes through negotiations. Both sides will ultimately talk their way through the issue, said Liang Yingming, a Southeast Asia expert at Beijing University. ''I think they will return to diplomacy because currently neither China nor Vietnam are willing to create a major conflict over this. They simply wouldn't be willing to.''

By Grant Mc Cool - Reuters - January 12, 2007.