Thursday, April 3, 2008


HANOI - A year after it was founded, Vietnams Bloc 8406 pro-democracy movement is under attack from a communist government unwilling to tolerate political dissent, say analysts and human rights groups. While Vietnam is winning plaudits for its booming economy, red-hot stock market and global integration, a series of arrests and the jailing of an activist Catholic priest have been condemned as a return to darker days. The crackdown against the underground movement, with more trials expected soon, has soured otherwise blossoming relations with the United States. The US State Department said it was deeply troubled by the jailing of Father Nguyen Van Ly and an increase of harassment, detention and arrest of individuals peacefully exercising the legitimate right to peaceful speech. On the movements first anniversary yesterday, Human Rights Watch said Vietnam is cracking down on Bloc 8406 organisers and their families. Targeting the most vocal, visible activists sends a message to the others: dont speak out or youll suffer the same fate, it said. Bloc 8406 takes its name from the date it was founded, the 8th of April 2006. Largely ignored by the outside world, 118 dissidents signed an online manifesto for a non-violent struggle and declared the one-party political regime must be once and for all buried in the dustbin of history. They have called for a boycott of National Assembly elections next month.

The movement, a small minority unknown to many of Vietnams 84 million people includes academics, clergy, writers, medical doctors, engineers, nurses, businessmen, army veterans and ordinary citizens. Working under the threat of arrest, they communicated online with each other and exile groups and gathered signatures, now claiming 2,000 members. Vietnams leaders publicly ignored them while negotiating entry into the World Trade Organisation and readied to host an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, seen as Vietnams debut as a new key Asian player. Days before US President George W. Bush arrived for the November APEC summit, Washington took Vietnam off a religious freedom watch-list, and weeks later it granted it full trading rights, paving the way for WTO entry. Human rights groups protested, pointing at the ongoing repression of some Buddhist and Christian groups. When the APEC leaders met and a parallel business summit celebrated the birth of a new Asian Tiger, police kept Hanoi dissidents under tight lockdown. In February, on the eve of the Tet Lunar New Year, police arrested three of Vietnams most prominent dissidents, Father Ly as well as Hanoi lawyers Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan, who are to face trial soon. Human Rights Watch said Vietnam, emboldened by international recognition, was launching one of the worst crackdowns on peaceful dissidents in 20 years.

When Father Ly was on trial, where he was sentenced to eight years in jail, Vietnam took the unusual step of allowing foreign diplomats and media to watch. But it earned condemnation for the swift trial, in which a guard muzzled Ly with his hand. The open trial, meant to signal transparency, instead showed a throw-back to VietnamýËs communist past, said Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy. As pressure has mounted in the US Congress for a tougher line against Hanoi, US ambassador Michael Marine last Thursday called on Vietnam to free Ly and five other dissidents and ultimately end one-party rule. Tension rose when police barred the wives of two key dissidents from visiting Marines residence in ugly scenes that the diplomat said were at risk of spiralling out of control. Vietnam says it has no political prisoners and only jails criminals. Domestically, said Thayer, it has succeeded by leaving Bloc 8406 in disarray and on the defensive ahead of the May elections. The regime had to move to intimidate the rank and file Bloc 8406 supporters, he said. They have had fair sailing up to now, but now the regime has moved to take the winds out of their sails. (SBTN)