Vietnam Inflicts Massive Official Force on Catholic Demonstrators

Dozens seriously injured in protest against arrest of two Christians.

Protestors injured in confrontation with authorities in north-central Vietnam. (FVCMM)

Protestors injured in confrontation with authorities in north-central Vietnam. (FVCMM)

LOS ANGELES (Morning Star News) – An estimated 40 people on Vietnam’s north-central coast were seriously injured after authorities on Wednesday (Sept. 4) broke up a protest over the arrest and detention without charges of two Catholics.

Several of those injured were in life-threatening condition after hundreds of police and militia with tear gas, batons and police dogs beat demonstrators in Nghi Phuong Commune, Nghi Loc District, Nghe An Province. The demonstrators were protesting the arrest on May 22 of two Catholics from the area’s My Yen Parish church.

A shrine to St. Anthony at the church building in Nghi Phuong Commune attracted Catholics from far and near. In May, men believed to be plainclothes police began interdicting people on the road to the site and subjected them to searches, detaining some for hours. Catholics demanding to see identification from those stopping and searching them were refused.

Catholics complained about this abuse through normal channels without any redress.

In the course of such interdictions, Nguyen Van Hai, 43, and Ngo Van Khoi, 53, were arrested and incarcerated without official charges on May 22. Their families were later notified that they were charged with “disturbing pubic order,” but no incident was named.

Local Catholics began to lobby and petition for their release from this extrajudicial detention. They hoped the two men would be released under the annual national amnesty on Sept. 2, and when this did not happen, a large number of Catholics demonstrated peacefully in front of the district Peoples’ Committee office in Nghi Phuong on Tuesday (Sept. 3).

The local district chief issued a paper promising their release on Wednesday (Sept. 4) at 4 p.m., according to Catholic sources. That afternoon, when family and friends of the two prisoners approached the compound of the Peoples’ Committee to pick them up, they were told no such promise had been made. Church bells then summoned hundreds of others. The Catholics announced they would stay there until the men were released. When some tried to push their way in, authorities responded with massive force, and the protest turned into a melee.

According to initial reports, 3,000 police and military personnel as well as hired thugs appeared. This may have been an exaggeration, but photos show hundreds of authorities, including phalanxes of police with shields and full riot-control gear. In the melee that ensued, authorities fired live ammunition into the air, liberally used tear gas and pepper spray, beat demonstrators with batons and terrorized them with police dogs.

Church authorities from the diocese came quickly to investigate. A Vinh Diocese press statement on Thursday (Sept. 5) stated that officials chased people into their homes, beat them and smashed their religious statues.

About 15 people arrested during the protest were released the following day.

On Sunday (Sept. 8), the Federation of Vietnamese Catholic Mass Media released a press statement about the abuses. The previous day the government-controlled media, including the Voice of Vietnam (VOV) and police media, had launched a large-scale, coordinated propaganda campaign on the Internet taking on allegations in Catholic reports.

The government-sponsored reports painted authorities’ force as a measured and completely law abiding response to an unruly mob of “Catholic believers.” They claimed some officials and police were injured. But unlike Catholic reports that provided many photos of their injured, the government stories carried only photos of a crowd outside the government offices and protest banners.

While the government reports concur that the arrest of the two Catholics sparked the protest, they say their use of force stemmed from Catholics mistreating three officers who were investigating alleged “crimes” of the two men. Ostensibly, to justify the arrests, authorities announced after the protests that they had charged the two Catholics with four infractions related to “disturbing public order.”

The government went so far as to report that the two men had “confessed their crimes,” though the alleged infractions were still not specified. Photos accompanying government Web pages suggest the men were smuggling. In Vietnam, authorities often create conditions for “criminals” to “confess.”

Authorities say that protesting Catholics carried anti-government banners and, armed with sticks, stones and bricks, attacked the chairman of the Nghi Phuong Commune, hitting him in the face and tearing his clothes. The reports in the state-sponsored media assert the protestors forced the chairman to sign a release paper for the two Catholic prisoners and also forced the deputy head of the Nghi Loc District Peoples’ Committee to sign it in order to attest to its authenticity. Photos of the state’s overwhelming forces and church reports of heavy-handed tactics, make such assertions by authorities virtually impossible.

The VOV story ends with the statement, “The truth is clear – we completely reject all charges made on the Internet in which evil elements, both local and foreign, distort the truth and incite divisions in our great national unity bloc” – a return to old-style propaganda that includes the blaming of foreigners.

The government battle on the Web to influence public opinion against Catholic Internet reports also shows the ineffectiveness of Vietnam’s growing, harsh regulations to control online content. Decree 72, which became effective on Sept. 1, for instance, forbids quoting other sources in social media. Unable to regulate the Web, authorities are forced to counter reports that show them in a bad light with words and arguments. The entrenched communist culture of lies, denials and cover-ups is not well positioned to win in media where photos speak volumes and truth has equal footing. Very few in Vietnam or abroad will believe the government’s complete denial of wrongdoing and its propaganda painting demonstrating Catholic believers as unruly, brick-throwing hooligans.

The protest was a serious and peaceful attempt to hold unrestrained local officials accountable for the illegal arrests and detention of two co-religionists they knew to be upstanding citizens. Church banners and placards were carefully made and displayed for some time. Some of them read:

The My Yen Parish vehemently opposes the actions of Nghi Loc, Nghe An government officials in illegally arresting people. (Hung over the gate of the main My Yen church building.)

The My Yen Parish lights a candle of love in the face of oppressive violence. 

Request the Nghi Loc District police immediately release my Dad.     

We strongly protest the action of Nghi Loc District police in stopping people from going to worship.

We live or die for our faith as a sacrifice to our Lord.

The same day in Nghe An Province, another troubling event took place. Was it a coincidence that General To Tam, head of the Ministry of Public Security, was in the province giving a rousing speech to his forces to beware of nefarious plots and anti-revolutionary schemes and to be prepared to unearth them and stop them cold? His officials in Nghi Loc District would not have been deaf to this message.

Nghe An is considered by Vietnamese communists as an important seat of the Vietnamese revolution, and some observers speculate that authorities there are especially quick to suppress anything that might be perceived as contributing toward undoing the revolution. Protestants too have faced hardship in this province.

In spite of some hopeful sounds from some Hanoi officials, it appears many if not most government officials in Vietnam still categorize religion (and other civil society manifestations) as “national security problems” and thus as a threat to their one-party state. With this label they rationalize widespread suspicion of religious people and organizations and any means to oppress them.

It is hard to believe that such a well-organized and massive show of force against citizens asking for fairness and justice was not carefully planned for some time. The consequences of covering and protecting officials who break Vietnam’s laws will be to further exacerbate citizens’ distrust of the country’s rulers, and to show Vietnam on the world stage as a bullying some of it best citizens whose religion has long contributed to human flourishing.

Is this event an indication of the growing desperation of authorities so insecure that they will strike out at any imagined threat? In any case, it constitutes a huge blot on Vietnam’s claim and desire to be seen as a nation of laws and basic human rights.

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