For Vietnamese, no harmony in torch journey
24 April 2008

By all accounts, the Ho Chi Minh City leg of the Olympic Torch relay taking place on the 29th of April is expected to be relatively trouble free for the Beijing government. Most likely, we will not see protesters in support of Tibet or Darfur in the streets due to Vietnam's strict laws governing public demonstrations. However, that does not mean that the Vietnamese people are welcoming the Olympic torch with open arms. On the contrary, for the past months, there have been intense discussions on internet forums and blogs of Vietnamese both inside and outside of Vietnam regarding the coming of the torch to HCMC.

Many Vietnamese, especially the educated young are actively campaigning for demonstrations on April 29th, which happens to coincide with the eve of the Fall of Saigon in 1975, to protest Beijing's aggressions in Vietnam's Eastern Sea (South China Sea). Vietnamese anger directed at Beijing is exploding once again fueled by recent renewed reports of the Chinese navy's capturing, shooting, and killing of Vietnamese fishermen. Previously anger surfaced in response to China's seizure of Paracel Islands in 1974, then again with the Spratly Islands seized since 1988. China asserts claims on all of the Paracel and Spratly Islands, and over 80% of Vietnam’s Eastern Sea, an egregious action that has no basis in international law. As a result, many Vietnamese fishermen who make their living in these waters have fallen victim to Chinese navy patrols.

Recently, Le Minh Phieu, a Vietnamese selectee to bear the torch in HCMC wrote to the IOC President to inform the Committee of Beijing's violations of Olympic rules by politicizing the sports festival. Phieu pointed out that Beijing took advantage of the Olympics to legitimize its illegal claims of Paracel Islands by depicting the archipelago on its relay route maps as Chinese territory. The tiny islands totaling only a few square kilometers in area appear enlarged and boxed off on the route map.

In December of last year, Vietnamese students staged protests in front of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi and the general consulate in HCMC for two consecutive weekends in response to Beijing's decision to establish the administrative region of Sansha to govern the Paracel and Spratly Islands. The protests in Vietnam spurred anti-Beijing protests staged by Vietnamese in many cities in Europe, Asia, and America.

Similar to its neighboring counterparts of New Delhi, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta, Hanoi is also expected to be intolerant of protests on the occasion that the Olympic torch arrives to HCMC. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in a weekend meeting with officials in HCMC ordered them "to conduct the relay safely and solemnly, showing the patriotic, sports-loving and peace-loving spirit of the Vietnamese people and the Vietnam-China special friendship."

Hanoi has welcomed the Beijing's "men in blue" to help keep the relay incident free. But unlike the past protest attempts in which Vietnamese students were stopped by the police even before they made it to the designated site, this time, it is not possible, unless the city wants to stage an "audience-less" torch relay. So, everyone will have to be allowed to come to the site of the event.

But we can be sure that not everyone in the crowd will come to cheer for the torch. Some are expected to have a trick or two up their sleeves. If they do manage to pull off a protest or some sort of public gesture to show their anger at Beijing's aggression in Vietnam's Eastern Sea, the Vietnamese will most likely have all the media attention to themselves since it is unlikely that they have to compete with Tibet and Darfur groups. This was the obstacle that Vietnamese protesters faced in Paris and San Francisco, where virtually all the media attention was given to the Tibet issue, leaving the Vietnamese cause unnoticed.

The Olympic torch will come and go, but it is certain that the dispute over the Paracel and Spratly Islands will remain a quagmire for a long time to come. As China's economy grows along with its unceasing appetite for natural resources, Beijing will find it even harder to give up its claims on the islands and the waters of Vietnam's Eastern Sea, no matter how fragile those claims are from a legal standpoint. It has also been building a nuclear submarine base in Hainan Island to advance its ambitions. However, Beijing can also be sure that the Vietnamese people, especially the young generation, sense an urgency to defend Vietnam's territorial integrity and the lives of Vietnamese fishermen.

As Vietnamese are aware of Beijing's increasing aggression in the region, they are more likely to gather support and join hands in a concerted effort to thwart a possibility of Chinese hegemonic reality in Southeast Asia. When Beijing decided to establish Sansha last year, it probably did not expect that there would be such a strong reaction from the Vietnamese people. The issue at hand is whether Hanoi and the world is ready to take more assertive actions in the face of Beijing's outrageous violations against the Vietnamese people and their national territories.


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