Boris, who boasts he could bring 1,000 people onto Hanoi’s streets at a day’s notice, said he had also played a key role in organizing regular protests against China’s territorial goals in the South China Sea — a claim backed by other bloggers. The government allowed anti-China protests to go ahead last year, but soon clamped down on them after it became clear they could be a lightning rod for broader discontent.
Some activists exhibit a boldness that is startling, considering the stiff jail terms that have been handed down to others for “anti-government propaganda.”
Alfonso Le, a 42-year-old blogger who writes the Homeland Arise blog, spoke to media at a tiny Hanoi cafe within earshot of a green-uniformed police officer across the room.
“Now that social networks are more popular, it’s not so easy for the police to arrest people,” said Le, using his Facebook nickname. “If the police make trouble, I just send a status message on Facebook and a lot of people will come.”
His activism has come at a price. He said he has been arrested three times and divorced his wife after she gave information to the police.
Another blogger, who asked not to be identified, also occupies the world of tolerated blogging. She believes she is safe as long as her writing stays within certain “red lines.” In her blog, a protest march might be described as a “parade” or a “walk.”
Still, she is sometimes followed by police and was arrested at an anti-China protest this month and kept for a day at a rehabilitation camp for “drug users and prostitutes.”
“They [the authorities] are scared to death after what has happened in Burma [Myanmar] and the Arab Spring,” she said.
Former military officer Le Thanh Tung became the latest online activist to be punished this month, receiving a five-year sentence after a trial that lasted an hour, according to Reporters Without Borders. That came less than a week after blogger Dinh Dang Dinh was handed a six-year sentence.
The trial of three other -prominent bloggers was postponed this month after the mother of one of them committed suicide by setting herself on fire.
Washington has voiced concern to Vietnam over a proposed new decree that would require Internet users to register with their real names, enabling the government to track its online critics more easily.
However, Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said the government’s attempts to control the Internet were probably futile given the Web’s deep penetration and bloggers’ talent for sidestepping technological barriers.
Vietnam has among the world’s fastest-growing rates of Internet use, according to market research firm Cimigo.
Internet penetration in Hanoi and the southern commercial capital Ho Chi Minh City has risen above 50 percent.
“It is a battle I don’t think the Vietnamese government is going to win,” Thayer said.
The thorny problem of land rights, which goes to the heart of the Vietnames Communist Party’s legitimacy in its traditional power base of more than 10 million farmers, is where the bloggers have had the biggest impact.
In the wake of the Van Giang and Hai Phong violence, some lawmakers and academics have called for private land ownership to help protect farmers — an unthinkable proposal until recently in a country where the state’s ownership of all land is enshrined in the constitution.