Viet Nam: Arrests and social media crackdown follow deadly clashes over land

  • Social media, particularly Facebook, is increasingly becoming weaponised by Viet Nam to go after those who peacefully speak their mind.” – Nicholas Bequelin

Vietnamese authorities have stepped up a countrywide crackdown marked by arrests and widespread social media censorship as they attempt to stifle public debate about a deadly land dispute, said Amnesty International today.

The intensifying assault on peaceful criticism follows clashes last week between police and residents of a village at the heart of a high-profile dispute, which left four people dead and sparked nationwide outrage. Official collusion over land deals have been a major source of discontent in Viet Nam.

“The Vietnamese government’s heavy-handed efforts to censor discussion of this land dispute are the latest example of its campaign to assert control over online content,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Regional Director.

“Social media, particularly Facebook, is increasingly becoming weaponised by Viet Nam to go after those who peacefully speak their mind. This is an unacceptable attack on freedom of expression and a clear attempt to stamp out dissent.”

In the past week, three activists have been arrested in relation to social media posts about the dispute in Dong Tam village, while dozens of Facebook users say they experienced restrictions on their activity.

Deadly land dispute

At 4am on 9 January, police launched an operation in Dong Tam village, 40km from Hanoi, the country’s capital. Dong Tam’s residents have protested the lease of the land to a military-owned telecommunications company for several years.

Authorities allege that the villagers used violence and that four people, including three police officers and the 85-year old village leader, Le Dinh Kinh, were killed in the clashes. They added that police arrested 30 people for “disrupting security.” On 14 January, authorities announced that they would bring charges of murder and “resisting a law enforcement officer” against 22 people.

The situation in Dong Tam has frequently been of huge interest to Vietnamese netizens, with villagers and their relatives in Hanoi sharing regular updates and Facebook Live broadcasts on the saga.

While Dong Tam village has been cordoned off by security forces since 9 January, a video testimony from Du Thi Thanh, Le Dinh Kinh’s wife, emerged on Facebook on 13 January. In the video, she alleges she was severely beaten by security forces in an attempt to force her to confess a role in the 9 January events.

While Thanh was released, dozens are still being detained incommunicado and are at grave risk of torture and other ill-treatment. In her testimony, Thanh states that four of her family members are in detention.

Amnesty International has documented appalling detention conditions in Viet Nam, with evidence of prisoners being tortured and otherwise ill-treated, routinely held incommunicado and in solitary confinement, kept in squalid conditions, and denied medical care, clean water, and fresh air.

“Authorities must urgently de-escalate this shocking situation,” said Nicholas Bequelin. “They must also establish the facts of what happened on 9 January, particularly in light of claims by an elderly woman that she was severely beaten. Anyone suspected of perpetrating violence, whether police or Dong Tam resident, should be brought to justice in fair trials.”

The land dispute in Dong Tam previously received national and international attention in April 2017, when villagers held 38 local officials and police officers captive for several days following the police’s arrest of four villagers for their alleged role in a blockade.

Rise in social media repression

Amnesty International is aware of a significant uptick in the Vietnamese authorities’ crackdown on social media activity in the aftermath of last week’s events at Dong Tam village.

Some Facebook users said they received the following message: “Due to legal requirements in your country, we have restricted access to your profile on Facebook. This means that other people in your country cannot see your profile, and may not be able to interact with you over Messenger.”

These restrictions were likely prompted by the Vietnamese authorities’ deployment of cyber troop capabilities to flood Facebook with reports complaining of individual users’ social media activity. Viet Nam is believed to have a cyber troop force numbering 10,000.

The YouTube channel of Radio Free Asia (RFA)’s Vietnamese service, which has half a million subscribers, likewise incurred a penalty from YouTube on the grounds of violating community guidelines, though no further explanation was provided. This prevented the news outlet from uploading videos or livestreaming for seven days, although the restriction had been lifted by Monday after RFA appealed.

On Saturday 11 January, state-run media outlet Hanoi Moi reported comments from a representative of Viet Nam’s Ministry of Information and Communications, praising Google and YouTube for their quick action in responding to requests from Vietnamese authorities after the clashes at Dong Tam. The same representative also lambasted Facebook for “reacting very slowly and bureaucratically.”

“The authorities want to muzzle discussion of what happened in Dong Tam and avoid it becoming yet another touchpoint for popular discontent. Silicon Valley cannot become complicit in this blatant attempt to keep Vietnamese citizens in the dark about human rights violations,” said Nicholas Bequelin.