June 5, 2021, is exactly 10 years that have passed since the start of consecutive large anti-China protests across the country. The protests during the summer of 2011 are considered by activists to be an important milestone, ushering in a flourishing period of the independent civil society movement in Vietnam. It even changed the perception, work, and life of some people who chose to engage in socio-political activities.
In the summer of 2011, China cut the cable of Vietnam’s Binh Minh 02 ship, in addition, Beijing increased its aggression in the East Sea (South China Sea) by sending a maritime surveillance ship to sink many Vietnamese fishing boats. These actions sparked anti-China protests that broke out on June 5, 2011, with the participation of thousands of people in both major cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Protests continued on Sundays of the following weeks. It was not until the Government strongly arrested, beaten, and detained the participants that the marches ended. Protests in HCM City took place for more than a month, while in Hanoi, they lasted 11 consecutive Sundays, with different sizes and forms.
Activist Nguyen Lan Thang shared with RFA his feelings, celebrating 10 years ago when he first took to the streets to protest in Hanoi:
“2011 was a very big milestone in my life. Because it was the first time that I participated in an anti-China protest event. It must be said that this is a very large protest at both ends of the country that took place for many days, especially in Hanoi where I live, there were 11 demonstrations.
Joining the protest came from a number of calls on social networking sites. I was also in the mood to be someone who took to the streets to observe and take pictures, but later on, I became more and more fascinated by this activity. Because I was also very surprised to be able to participate in the street to express my opinion, it was very fun. Out of 11 protests in 2011, I also participated in about five, six or so.”
From Saigon, an activist named T. recounted that that year he took to the streets because he was angry at China’s actions in violating Vietnam’s maritime sovereignty, which the state media continuously reported:
“Back then, on the Tuoi Tre and Thanh Nien newspapers, there was news that my blood was boiling, but I was still very scared. Roughly, I have the feeling that the Ministry of Culture and Information “turns on the green light” for the whole people to know. But when people started to take to the streets too crowded, they were afraid.
At that time, the atmosphere was very happy, people went along the road to give spring water and also supply. Even though they didn’t follow, they cheered on the side of the road. At that time, I saw no direct intervention from the security forces, arresting on the spot. But that was only the first week. Later, there was a movement to take to the streets every Sunday, then after the second week, there was repression, and after the third week, they began to violently persecute some people they considered traitors.”
Opening a period of strong development of independent civil society organizations
When the series of anti-China protests ended, many participants also connected with each other. In the 2013-2014 period, successive independent civil society organizations were born, operating in many fields and belonging to different sectors of Vietnamese society. Typically, the No-U Club, the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, the Association of Former Prisoners of Conscience, the Vietnam Bloggers Network, the Brotherhood for Democracy, et.
In addition, over a period of 10 years, there have been many times when people have dared to publicly speak up or take to the streets to oppose China, as well as the unreasonable policies of the Vietnamese Government. Notable events include: Protests against China deploying the oil rig HD-981 into Vietnamese waters in 2014, Greenery demonstrations in Hanoi in 2015, protests against Formosa causing an environmental coast disaster in 2016, protesting against the 2018 Special Economic Zone Bill…
Mr. T. said it was those times on the street that changed both his work and his life. He gradually overcame his fear to participate in civil society activities, promoting freedoms and democracy in Vietnam:
“It was like a milestone that changed me a lot. Since then, I feel that protesting is normal and gradually makes me less afraid. After that, I am no longer afraid to do things that are considered sensitive.”
Mr. Nguyen Lan Thang assessed the 2011 street movement as a very important hinge. Not only does it change individuals, but it also contributes to redirecting the resistance in Vietnamese society from “underground waves” into public voices, simultaneously on social media:
“Since 2011 is a tremendous development, because there are social networks, there are blogs, so the connection of dissidents has increased both qualitatively and quantitatively. The number of people who began to feel and understand the state of the country rapidly increased. From there was the seed to create countless civic groups starting that ‘red summer and beyond.”
Mr. Phi, who is providing cybersecurity assistance to civil society organizations, cautions that the emergence of a series of independent civil society organizations in the past ten years depends on many factors. However, the fact is that since 2011, the civil space of Vietnam has expanded a lot:
“It is not wrong to say that it is a milestone for the development of civil society. Actually, talking about the civil society movement, there are many other reasons. It’s like a turning point, a landmark to reaffirm the development of civil society.”
Suppressed and receded
People interviewed by RFA assessed that now, many groups are no longer active or active in public, as strong as they were nearly ten years ago. There are many reasons, from subjective to objective, but the biggest one is still the government’s increasing repression, arresting and imprisoning leaders of civil society organizations that the Government considers to be a threat to their control.
“From that time until now, I also know and connect with many people. But until now, there are not many people left. Some people are no longer active, some have gone to refugees while others have been imprisoned,” said Mr. Phi
According to Mr. T, now it seems that the political and social situation in Vietnam is being tightened. However, overall, compared to 10 years ago, people’s awareness of democracy and civil rights is much higher:
“The scene now feels to me like a setback for the opposition-leaning civil society movement in Vietnam. Also normal! Waves sometimes go up and sometimes they go down, but it’s definitely not lost, the next wave will push the wave first.”
Mr. T. hopes that 10 years ago, his generation took to the streets and engaged in social activities with a fiery spirit, now, the next generations should be organized and have a more effective strategy for Vietnam to become a free and democratic country in the future.