May 11 (Bloomberg) -- Vietnam’s communist government allowed thousands of citizens to protest in the nation’s biggest cities to denounce a Chinese oil rig placed in contested waters that has led to clashes between ships from the two countries.
About 1,000 people marched in Ho Chi Minh City streets while hundreds gathered in a public square in front of the Chinese embassy in the capital city of Hanoi as police officers watched without interrupting. There were smaller protests in Danang and Hue in central Vietnam, Tuoi Tre newspaper reported. Protestors carried signs and banners, sang and chanted to protest China’s exploration offshore.
Vietnam’s government has called the placement of the exploration rig by its communist neighbor in waters near the disputed Paracel Islands a violation of its sovereignty. Officials are using the protests to galvanize public support during the standoff, said Le Hong Hiep, a lecturer at Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City.
“Vietnam is determined to protect its interests and to get the Chinese rig out of the East Sea,” said Hiep, speaking by phone ahead of today’s rallies and referring to Vietnam’s name for the South China Sea. “So far the government has been strongly supported by the population.”
About 2,000 people attended a rally in an auditorium in Ho Chi Minh City yesterday, while more than 100 protesters gathered outside the Chinese consulate, Tuoi Tre reported.
The dispute comes amid rising tensions between China and its Asian neighbors, who are pushing back against its efforts to exploit resources in disputed maritime areas. In a separate incident, Philippine police detained 11 fishermen on May 8 near a shoal close to the contested Spratly Islands.
At a meeting in Myanmar yesterday of Southeast Asian countries, foreign ministers issued a statement calling for self-restraint by all parties and for progress in formulating a code of conduct for the waters.
Vietnam on May 7 said Chinese boats rammed its vessels, fired water cannons and used low-flying aircraft in a confrontation over the rig close to the Paracel Islands that both countries claim. China the next day accused Vietnamese ships of provoking the clash by crashing into its boats.
The U.S. has criticized China for taking “provocative” and “unilateral” actions. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on May 8 that China had engaged in “dangerous conduct and intimidation.”
Protesters in Hanoi chanted “Down with China’s invasion of Vietnam” and held banners calling the Paracels and Spratlys the “flesh and blood of Vietnam” while using the Vietnamese names for the islands. In Ho Chi Minh City, police blocked routes to the Chinese consulate with barricades, as about 1,000 demonstrators walked on nearby streets, marching past the U.S. and British consulates and singing patriotic songs.
“We don’t want to have war, but we don’t want them to come here to take our land,” said Nguyen Van, a 42 year-old office worker wearing a shirt with the Vietnamese flag as she spoke in Ho Chi Minh City before the protest marches started. “We wish to stand up and protect our land, as our parents did.”
The demonstrations in both cities drew students, retirees and families with young children. More than 20 different organizations had called for the protests on the Internet.
Vietnamese stocks rose 2.9 percent May 9 to close at 542.46 after falling the most since 2001 the day earlier, when the VN Index plunged 5.9 percent.
Protests are rare in Vietnam and authorities carefully control demonstrations to make sure they do not get too big or become vehicles for activists to protest other issues, Hiep said. “They allow it within boundaries,” he said. “They want to make sure the protesters do not go too far.”
While calling for people to protest China’s actions, the U.S.-based Ba Sam blog, which at times has been blocked in Vietnam, also urged demonstrators to demand the release of arrested bloggers and denounced the “trampling” of human rights. Toward the end of a march through the Hanoi capital, protesters briefly unfurled a banner that read “Freedom for Those who Love Their Country,” a reference to recently arrested bloggers.
Officials arrested blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh for Internet postings that included “wrongful information” that “made citizens lose trust in the state,” according to a statement May 5 on the Ministry of Public Security website. Blogger Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy was also arrested, it said. Vinh’s blog posts called for the government to take stronger action against China.
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