HANOI – Vietnam’s prime minister ordered an end Saturday to all “illegal protests” in the country after a week of violent demonstrations against China’s deployment of an oil rig in a disputed section of the South China Sea.
Last weekend, Vietnam’s government took the unusual step of permitting anti-China street protests — a move widely seen as way for the authoritarian state to show its displeasure with Beijing for positioning the massive oil rig on May 1 in strategic waters claimed by both countries.
In a text message to millions of people on Saturday, however, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said the Ministry of Public Security and provincial governments had been ordered to “conduct concerted and determined measures not to allow illegal protests that cause security and social order disturbances.”
All protests are technically illegal in Vietnam.
The message appears to represent a shift in government policy regarding the recent protests — on Thursday, Dung sent a text message calling for heightened patriotism.
Nationalist and dissident groups, which are also demanding basic democratic reforms that challenge the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party, have called for large protests on Sunday in front of the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi and in Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam.
The public mood in Vietnam is currently anti-China, and breaking up the rallies might reinforce dissident claims that the government is kowtowing to Beijing. In the past, authorities have allowed small anti-China protests to take place for a limited period, and harassed journalists covering them.
The public unrest this past week was the most serious to hit Vietnam in years. Dozens of factories close to Ho Chi Minh City were trashed following peaceful anti-China protests by workers. In central Vietnam, a 1,000-strong mob stormed a steel mill, killing one Chinese worker and wounding hundreds more. Hundreds of Chinese and Taiwanese people have fled the country by land and air.
There has been no reported violence or major demonstrations since Thursday.
Earlier this month, Vietnam’s government sent a flotilla to confront Chinese vessels protecting the oil rig, setting off a tense standoff. The government also has whipped up patriotic fervor via state media, undoubtedly swelling the numbers of protesters, while also trying to rally international support for its cause.
The streets protests last weekend were the largest in years in Vietnam. The government has condemned the violence, which it said was carried out by “extremists.”
In a phone conversation Saturday with his Vietnamese counterpart, Chinese Public Security Minister Guo Shengkun urged Vietnam to protect Chinese companies and nationals, according to a statement posted on the ministry’s website. Guo also demanded that Vietnam severely punish those involved in the violence.
In 2011, Chinese vessels cut a supply cable to a Vietnamese oil exploration vessel in the South China Sea, angering Vietnam’s government. Vietnam allowed protests for a while before gradually cracking down on them after they became a forum for anti-government activists.