Preliminary thoughts on the riots

As AP has reported, mobs “torched up to 15 foreign-owned factories and trashed many more in southern Vietnam amid rising anger over China’s recent installment of an oil rig in disputed Southeast Asian waters, officials and state media said Wednesday.”

Below are some of my initial thoughts as stated in an interview this morning with RFA:

The riots reflect popular outrage but also illustrate the hazards of nationalist fervor unleashed, particularly in repressive institutional environments such as Vietnam. The vast, (I emphasize) vast majority of Vietnamese, including those highly critical of the Party-state, condemn such actions, as they risk putting Vietnam in a bad light at a time when the country’s sovereignty has come under direct external threat. We can expect authorities to clamp down with maximum urgency and force.

The situation illustrates the domestic challenges Hanoi faces in handling the crisis. For while it must promote national unity as best it can, nationalist sentiment of the intensities we observe in Vietnam are difficult to manage from the top down. Prominent civil society advocates such as Nguyen Quang A have emphasized that chaos is not the answer, while rightly maintaining that a constructive role for civil society in the current crisis will require human rights protections to which Hanoi has so far only paid lip-service.

The riots are unfortunate. Vietnamese people are understandably upset at what it occurring but they have virtually no experience in participating in real politics of any sort. It is still unknown exactly what is behind the riots, with theories ranging from organized – but not state-sanctioned – incitement to spontaneous outbursts. If Hanoi is going to confront the crisis in an effective manner it will require a more unified and civil society, which cannot be created by decree.

More later, JL