All over Vietnam, young toughs are being employed as a sort of police auxiliary who administer beatings to citizens that the national police aren’t yet ready to arrest, or perhaps would rather not arrest, according to a new report issued on June 19 by the New York-based Human Rights Watch NGO.
The report, titled “No Country for Human Rights Activists,” focuses on assaults on civil rights activists. In numbing detail, it recounts incident after incident: people dragged off buses, waylaid on their way to demonstrations or meetings with reporters, besieged in their own homes. Photos document their injuries: bruises mostly, caking blood, and the occasional broken arm or leg.
Some 36 incidents are examined in the HRW report. Representing perhaps two-thirds of the known total between January 2015 and March 2017, they were collated and cross-checked by an unidentified but assuredly skillful Vietnamese researcher in HRW’s Asia division. The pattern is clear, the cumulative impact sickening. As I forced myself to read all 36 pages, Hannah Arendt’s discourse on “the banality of evil” came insistently to mind.
Arendt famously argued that evil is often the result of the tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion while state officials, accepting the premises of the state and keen for promotion, energetically do ugly things in an organized and systematic way.
Beatings routinely applied
Thuggery has been normalized within Vietnam’s criminal justice system. Beatings are applied routinely to citizens who get conspicuously out of line, including, of course, hoodlums and petty miscreants whose existence poses a problem for their more law-abiding neighbors. Anyone who argues back to a policeman risks a painful thumping, usually inflicted not by uniformed police but by their informal auxiliaries. Passers-by stay well clear, lest they also receive a few blows.
In the last decade, Vietnam’s social media have provided ample evidence that beatings by informal police auxiliaries are a rung on the hierarchy of intimidation employed against people whose offenses would not be considered criminal in democracies. This includes humble people who protest against expropriation of their land rights or against avoidable ravages to an environment upon which their livelihoods depend. It includes activists who proselytize for sects the state has not approved or urge workers to protest bad treatment by their employers. It includes idealists who claim that the state is insufficiently robust in its posture toward China, or hold teach-ins on the meaning of civil liberties accorded by Vietnam’s constitution.
Vietnam’s internal security agencies don’t employ corrective blows and beatings until they’ve been amply provoked. If the police sense that someone in their jurisdiction is coloring outside the approved lines, or thinking about it, he or she will be invited to the precinct station for a chat. When, after an extended discussion, the guest is allowed to return home, he’s well aware of what behavior he’s expected to cease. If, notwithstanding, he does not show a correct attitude, police officers visit his neighbors, employers, teachers or parents to explain that his behavior has become problematic. Step three, if the behavior persists, is an unannounced visit to the miscreant’s home, often at about midnight. Perhaps they’ll borrow his computer for examination.
Learning from the rod
Most miscreants modify their behavior by this stage, if not their way of thinking. They find less provocative outlets for their idealism.
Political scientist Ben Kerkvleit, who says he is fascinated with how ordinary people deal with big pressures on their lives, has constructed a typology of ‘democratization advocates’ in Vietnam. These include, he says, some who “think the Communist Party leadership itself can and should lead the way; others form organizations to openly and directly challenge the regime; still others urge remaking the current system by actively engaging it; and some favor expanding civil society in order to democratize the nation.” Within these groups, and particularly the second and third, there is always a fraction that favors bold action and habitually tests the boundaries of permissible behavior. It’s that fraction, a small part of Vietnam’s dissident community, that sooner or later is apt to be bloodied and beaten.
There’s nothing random or improvisational about police-sponsored thuggery in Vietnam. By the time dissidents reach this rung on the hierarchy of intimidation, the regime’s internal security agencies have compiled a thick dossier. When the dissident leaves or returns home, a neighbor phones that information to the precinct police. If it has been decided that a dissident’s persistent refusal to correct his behavior merits a harsher lesson, he’ll be intercepted, beaten and left in some lonely spot as an example to others.
Being beaten up is the last rung before arrest, incarceration and imprisonment, the rung where the courts are engaged and, if at all, the rest of the world tunes in to the civil rights situation in Vietnam.
Save perhaps a few regime theoreticians, few are fooled by Hanoi’s insistence that there are, in fact, no political prisoners in Vietnam, just ordinary criminals. In the internet era, such myths are no longer sustainable. It’s said that there’s a current within Vietnam’s leadership that recognizes that the nation’s prosperity and the Communist Party’s claim to absolute power rest more on an ever-expanding role for civil society than on its repression. That’s all it is. The mainstream of the party is gripped by foreboding that loosening the apparatus of repression — including, evidently, relying less on extrajudicial thuggery — will lead inevitably to massive demonstrations and a Gorbachevian disintegration of Vietnam’s one-party regime.