(Reuters) – Anti-China demonstrators staged another in a series of weekly marches in central Hanoi on Sunday, testing authorities’ tolerance of protests on an emotive issue in Vietnamese society.
Up to 200 people singing patriotic songs, carrying banners and flags and chanting slogans drew stares from bemused tourists and honks of approval from motorists as they filed around Hoan Kiem Lake.
How much longer protesters will be allowed to hold rallies on a sensitive issue – accusations that China violates Vietnam’s sovereignty in the South China Sea – is unclear.
Demonstrations are rare and normally snuffed out swiftly in Vietnam. Similar anti-China protests in Ho Chi Minh City, which drew more than 1,000 people, were shut down by police in June.
But the Hanoi rallies have been staged for nine of the last 10 weeks, despite two weekends in July when police detained several protesters and journalists.
“This has become a regular thing. In the minds of the people who come out to do this it’s like having a meal or drinking water,” said Nguyen Quang Thach, a regular at Hanoi protests.
On Sunday, traffic police redirected cars and motorcycles past the demonstration. Plainclothes police followed the protesters and filmed the procession.
POLICE MOVE BACKFIRES
The apparent attempt by police to forcibly end the demonstrations backfired when video on YouTube of a demonstrator being kicked in the face by an undercover policeman while being hauled onto a bus sparked an outcry online.
Hanoi police chief Nguyen Duc Nhanh denied the demonstrator had been beaten. He told reporters police had no intention of suppressing demonstrations or arresting protesters whom he described as patriotic.
Protesters have tried hard not to antagonize the police by sticking to their anti-China message, staying on the sidewalk and remaining far from the Chinese embassy.
“When the problem of the Sea is solved, when we find some just solution, then there is no reason for demonstrations anymore,” said Nguyen Quang A, an economic analyst and retired businessman who attended the demonstration.
That could take a while. The South China Sea disputes stretch back hundreds of years and also involve the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Few relationships are as important to Vietnam as ties with China but the good will created since the neighbors restored relations in 1991 rests on a history of enmity and mistrust.
Activists, demonstrators and others say they have come under pressure from police to stay away from the protests — a sign the government does not want the demonstrations to grow.
Some believe the government is wary of irritating China and ordered the protests moved away from the Chinese embassy. And the number of protesters in Hanoi has not grown in 2 months.
Some protesters say there are more deep-seated fears of dissent though analysts doubt large-scale anti-government protests are likely any time soon.
“They are worried about a Vietnamese-style Jasmine Revolution,” said one activist who declined to be identified.
Others seem aware of the limits involved.
“I’m sad. People should be stopping their cars and motorcycles to get off and join the protests,” said a retired teacher. “But they’re scared. And they want Chinese money.”