Sunday, July 10, 2011

Police break up S. China Sea rally in Vietnam

An unprecedented series of protests in authoritarian Vietnam have taken place peacefully in Hanoi recently (AFP/File, Hoang Dinh Nam)

HANOI — Vietnamese police forcibly dispersed an anti-China rally on Sunday and arrested at least 10 people, including a cameraman, after a series of protests over tensions in the South China Sea.

Plain-clothed police moved in to detain the demonstrators almost immediately after they gathered within sight of the Chinese embassy in the capital Hanoi, an AFP reporter observed.

An unprecedented series of protests -- which are not common in authoritarian Vietnam -- have taken place peacefully in Hanoi on the past five weekends over an escalating maritime dispute in the South China Sea.

China and Vietnam have been at loggerheads over the potentially oil-rich Spratly and Paracel island groups, which straddle vital commercial shipping lanes and are also claimed in whole or part by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

While Vietnamese authorities allowed the earlier public protests as a means of expressing displeasure with Beijing, analysts said, they are now reining in the demonstrators after holding talks with China to resolve the dispute.

Protesters struggled on Sunday morning as the security men led them onto a public bus, which had been on standby in the area, and took them away to an unknown location. "We did not do anything!" they shouted.

Among those seen detained was a Vietnamese cameraman for Japan's NHK television.

The first rally in June drew close to 300 people, but after that the numbers dwindled to about 100. Some protesters felt their actions were "in vain" after China and Vietnam held talks on June 25 in Beijing, one activist said.

At the bilateral meeting, both sides agreed to resolve their territorial disputes peacefully "through negotiations and friendly consultations", state media from both countries said.

The official Vietnam News said Beijing and Hanoi "also laid stress on the need to steer public opinion in the correct direction".

That meant Vietnam must rein in the demonstrators, while China should control its media whose comments on the maritime issue have upset Vietnam, said Carl Thayer, a long-time Vietnam analyst based in Australia.

Before they began the arrests in Hanoi, police announced over a megaphone that the dispute "has been the subject of talks between the two states".

They warned protesters "not to complicate the situation" and to leave the area.

Asked on Thursday how much longer Hanoi would permit the protests, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said only that the demonstrations were "the response of the Vietnamese people to developments" in the South China Sea.

While only small numbers joined the rallies, many Vietnamese routinely express dislike for the Chinese, and the maritime dispute prompted a renewed outburst of patriotic sentiment on independent blogs and on Facebook.

Analysts say the government has to balance its relationship with China by not overly-offending its giant communist neighbour while also avoiding the appearance of weakness before its own people.

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