HANOI, Vietnam—The 7-iron resting against the wall in Le Quoc Quan’s office is for self-defense, not sport. The human-rights lawyer and blogger has not left home without the golf club since being beaten last month by iron-bar-wielding men he suspects were sent by the police.
If the assault was meant to silence him, it failed. Within days he was back online, and reporting about the incident.
The internet has become the principal staging ground for dissent in Vietnam, and its communist rulers are trying to clamp down with new laws, stepped up arrests, intimidation and longer prison sentences. But so far, it’s a battle they are losing.
Facebook and other social networking sites are blocked here, but the state firewall is so flimsy that even schoolchildren know how to fiddle with computer settings to get around it. The government has announced bans on websites, only to see traffic to them skyrocket. Three bloggers were sentenced to prison this week—one for 12 years—but many others continue to pursue their causes.
Vietnamese activists on the Internet highlight high-level corruption and feuding within the economic and Communist Party elite, as they demand freedom of expression, religion and political activity. They receive cautious moral support from the United States and other Western countries, which are pressing for reform in Hanoi even as they seek closer economic ties with it.
“The growth of the Internet is endangering the government,” Quan told The Associated Press in an interview in his office in the capital Hanoi. “People can actually read news now. There is a thirst for democracy in our country.”
Experts say Hanoi lacks the money and know-how to comprehensively censor content like its neighbor China, which has a solid firewall and big tech companies that operate their own popular social media products that Beijing can easily control.
Vietnam is also undergoing a sharp economic downturn, and the more it restricts the Internet, the more it diminishes an engine of growth that sustains small businesses, connects exporters to markets and encourages innovation.
Cracking down also risks international censure, but allowing bloggers to go unchallenged goes against years of suppression from the government, which main concern is eliminating any threat to its grip on power.
Quan is one of Vietnam’s better-known dissidents and a leading blogger. In 2007, he was detained for three months on his return from a US-government funded fellowship in Washington. He needed hospital treatment after last month’s attack outside his home.
His post about the beating drew words of support and defiance.
“[Because] of these brutal individuals, the Communist Party of Vietnam must perform penitence or otherwise they will be brought to justice by the people in this decade,” wrote one anonymous commentator after his post. “Perhaps, it’s time for the people to stand up to throw them into a cesspit.”
Quan told AP he suspects local police in the assault, perhaps out of frustration because they couldn’t find grounds to arrest him. In a statement, Foreign Ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said Quan’s allegations were “groundless.”
The internet is crucial for Vietnamese dissidents for organizing dissent and networking among themselves quickly and securely. Activists in Vietnam post not only their opinions online, but also video of protests and even details of their arrests.
“There will be more arrests, more protests, but that is OK,” Quan said. “It will bring change.”
Land seizures by party officials are an increasingly common online complaint, and the issue is seen by many as one of government’s most vulnerable spots. Protests of seizures are often organized online and blogged about afterward.
Such efforts are getting easier as more Vietnamese get online. Around 30 percent of them have Internet access, which in Vietnam is growing at one of the fastest rates in Asia. A survey by McKinsey and Co. in April found that the Internet sector currently contributes one percent of Vietnam’s gross domestic product.
“The government is somehow scrambling to put the genie in the bottle, but you have a much more assertive citizen that has been empowered by new information technology,” said Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch. “The organizing ability of the new social media allows people with disparate agendas to link up more closely.”
The government signaled its intent to take a more aggressive line this month when the prime minister ordered police to arrest people behind three popular news blogs that had been reporting on alleged tensions between him and the president. Traffic to the sites shot up in the hours after the announcement.
The government’s website then published several quotes on the dangers of blogs from what it described as “ordinary people.”
“I think the information on these bad web sites is like wild grass and poisonous mushrooms,” said one of those quoted. “These web sites aim to sow division among the top leaders of the party and state. I’m wondering why these websites with such ill intentions have been allowed to exist for so long.”
On Monday, three prominent citizen journalists—including one whose case was mentioned by President Barack Obama—were sentenced to between four and 12 years in power for “spreading anti-government” propaganda. The sentences were longer than others previously handed down for online activism.
The government is currently drafting three decrees that would make it easier to prosecute bloggers and place strict controls on foreign Web companies. The US government has privately and publicly registered its concerns with parts of the proposed laws.
In its original wording, the legislation required companies like Google and Facebook to have servers in Vietnam and filter content for the government. Those requirements have been dropped from more recent drafts, but prohibitions on freedom of speech remain.
Google and the Asia Internet Coalition, a lobbying group for Web companies, declined to comment, citing the sensitivity of their discussions with the government.
Asked to comment on criticism by the US and others, Nghi, the foreign ministry spokesman, said Vietnam has the right to “manage the use and exploitation” of the Internet to “prevent negative impacts on the society and community.”
Meanwhile, people who have been challenging the government for years are discovering how the Internet can make their activism more effective.
Nguyen Van Dai was released from prison last year after serving 4 years for organizing human rights workshops. Last month, he began blogging on human rights after some friends showed him how.
“There are many bloggers who every day reach millions of people, who can then start a group against the government,” Dai said. “The government worries about the Internet, but they can’t stop it.”