In the ongoing aftermath of demonstrations that rocked the country last weekend, hundreds of people have been detained and dozens now face criminal charges.
Authorities, who expressed shock at some of the violence and vandalism that happened in some places, allege some of it was instigated and even pre-planned.
The demonstrations first broke out last Sunday with thousands taking to the streets across the country, protesting draft laws on special economic zones (SEZs) and cybersecurity.
They gathered in Hanoi, Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh City as well as other provinces including Khanh Hoa, Binh Thuan, Dong Nai with banners and signs calling for the draft law on SEZs, and to a lesser extent, the cybersecurity bill, to be scrapped.
In several places, the protests turned violent, as people started blocking roads and clashing with the police.
In Binh Thuan, where the protest became the most intense, hundreds stormed the office of the provincial People’s Committee, pulled down the main gate, vandalized the building, burnt down vehicles and threw rocks at the police.
The violent demonstration also continued on Monday when protesters vandalized and looted the local fire police’s headquarters, blocked National Highway 1 and threw rocks, bricks and petrol bombs at the police.
The demonstrations are reported to have been triggered primarily by a particular provision in the draft law on SEZs that would allow foreign investors to lease land for 99 years, while the maximum period under the current Land Law is 70 years.
On a number of banners and signs displayed at the demonstrations, many protesters claimed that the provision would allow foreign countries, particularly China, to undermine Vietnam’s national security and sovereignty, a concern dismissed by the government.
A smaller number of protesters also called for the draft law on cybersecurity to be dropped. The bill has caused controversy as it would give the government greater control over online information and users’ data.
The bill could also make it difficult for foreign digital companies to provide their online services in Vietnam as they would be required to store Vietnamese users’ data in Vietnam.
The law was passed on Tuesday last week and Facebook and Google are said to be okay with it. Lieutenant-general Hoang Phuoc Thuan, director of the ministry’s Cybersecurity Department, told VnExpress: “They said that this law was appropriate and that they will research to modify their companies’ strategies accordingly.”
However, Vietnamese police have said that not all protests were sparked by genuine grievances. They say that they have uncovered evidence that the protests were anti-state actions incited by organizations based in other countries using false, distorted information on the draft laws.
Under police questioning, some protesters said they were told by strangers that the government was “selling land to China” or that the police were “beating the people.” Some said they were also given money, food and drink to participate in the protests.
Police in Binh Thuan say the rocks, bricks and petrol bombs used by protesters were prepared beforehand, while police in Ho Chi Minh City have arrested three people who allegedly dressed up as police officers and were planning to have themselves filmed beating protesters.
A day after the protests broke out, the National Assembly, Vietnam’s top legislative body, approved a government request to have the SEZ bill deferred. The draft law on cybersecurity, however, was passed after over 86 percent of the MPs voted in favor.
Commenting on the demonstrations, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, chairwoman of the National Assembly, praised the people’s patriotism and concern over matters of national importance.
She also condemned those who “abused democracy, distorted the truth to incite violence and disrupt public order and security, heavily affecting the people’s daily lives and the operations of businesses and organizations.”
Since the demonstrations, police have detained and fined hundreds of protesters, and at least 17 people in Binh Thuan, 18 in Dong Nai and 7 in Ho Chi Minh City are facing criminal charges for disrupting public order and inciting violence.
As Vietnam has delayed passing the Law on Demonstration several times, acts to incite public protests are currently deemed illegal.
The latest series of protests however have prompted some members of parliament to resume calls for the law, which was last discussed but then shelved in 2016, to finally be issued.
Vietnam saw major protests against China’s installing an oil rig within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in 2014, and over Taiwanese steel plant Formosa discharging toxic waste into the central coast in 2016.
In both instances, several people were arrested and sent to jail under charges of instigating protests with false or distorted information.
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