Truly extraordinary times

The situation in Vietnam is as fluid as it is fascinating. In the space of the last three days, the national mood has seemingly changed in dramatic fashion. Virtually all Vietnamese are following closely what is happening. I am not simply reporting the echo-chamber of cyberspace.  The sense of uncertainty and possibility is palpable.

Beijing’s decision to tow its giant oil-rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone was an unexpected, bold, and invasive move that has triggered a concatenation of events no one could have envisioned.

Yesterday’s speech by Nguyen Tan Dung in Manila has impressed Vietnamese. At the very least it represents Vietnam’s determination to resist what it sees as Beijing’s bullying. At most, recent developments amount to a watershed in Vietnam’s politics, effectively forcing Hanoi to contemplate a new strategic outlook.

Not two days ago the situation in Vietnam was extremely tense, in largely foreboding ways. It still is. Yet the character of those tensions has also shifted dramatically from one of resignation to one of possibility, as it seems apparent (or is it illusory?) that Vietnam is on the verge of fundamental changes, the great irony of which is that the whole process has owed to Beijing’s own short-sighted rapaciousness.

The riots

While a great deal of discussion has been given to the riots of last week there are a substantial amount of questions that remain. While the outside world has been fixated on the images of chaos and destruction, much less attention has been given to Beijing’s apparent effort to harm Vietnam’s image. Here is what, according to my own understanding, we know and do not know about the riots of last week.

  1. The precise causes of the riots are still unknown. While it is true that Vietnamese authorities organized or gave green-lights to protests in more than 20 provinces, it is not the case, as has been widely reported, that the chaos extended to 22 provinces. We do know that violence and chaos were concentrated in Ha Tinh and Binh Duong provinces. We also know that protests around the same time were undertaken peacefully and without incident. The 22 provinces figure was traced to Vietnam’s Minister of Planning and Development, but indicated the number of provinces in which demonstrations were held, not the number of provinces in which there was chaos. I have met the Minister on several occasions a few years ago as part of child-poverty reduction projects and know him to be a man of integrity.
  1. Reports on the number of fatalities has fluctuated from a figure of two (according to Vietnamese authorities) and four (according to Chinese sources). And yet as recently as last week Reuters was still circulating a figure of 20 deaths, a figure that was also recently quoted in the Guardian. In fact, the total number of fatalities is not know.
  1. There are mixed accounts of the causes of the chaos and violence, with unconfirmed reports that payments were made in Binh Duong (where the largest scale chaos was seen), with rumors swirling around. I am only reporting here the ideas circulating in Vietnam: Unconfirmed reports from Ha Tinh report Vietnamese protesting non-violently were provoked by Chinese workers around an industrial site in which relations between the Chinese and Vietnamese were already extremely tense. Hypothesized sources of the payments in Binh Duong have include: (1) The banned Viet Tan Party, (2) Corrupt local authorities and criminal elements along with foreign (read mainland) elements (3) A combination of 2 and an inept response force.

What occurred is consistent both with a mob run amok but also an organized campaign to cause widespread damage and destabilize Vietnam. In such an opaque political environment it is near impossible establish at this point precise causes. To ply in conspiracy theories is as easy as it is dangerous. Again, with respect to these points I am only reporting ideas circulating in Vietnam.

What is certain is that Vietnamese of all brands are shocked and disappointed at the scale and indiscriminate manner of the damage wrought in Binh Duong. The fact that the damage was indiscriminate is difficult to understand. Particularly as Vietnamese (contrary to certain media portrayals) are generally polite and know the difference between Korea, the mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

The mood swings

The biggest change in recent days has been the change in the national mood. The most recent event was the Prime Minister’s unprecedented speech in Manila in which he steadfastly stated that Vietnam be not part to a subordinate relationship. But bigger than that is the unprecedented sense, however ephemeral, that Vietnam is making a clear break from China as must boldly embrace both fundamental institutional changes and new friendships and alliances, which Vietnam lacks. Yesterday a woman self-immolated herself in Saigon, adding still further tension.

I don’t have time for any more comments at the moment… more soon. These are very interesting and exciting if occasionally scary times. Best regards to the undercover security agents stationed across the street and in my hotel lobby.

Stay tuned!
JL, Hanoi

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