The Vietnamese government is routinely placing activists under arbitrary house arrest, employing tactics including stationing guards outside their homes, setting up roadblocks nearby and using superglue and padlocks to jam their doors shut, according to a report.
The study by Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented cases involving 170 rights activists, bloggers, dissidents and their family members who were prevented from domestic and international travel between 2004 and 2021. The real number of those affected is likely to be higher, the report warned.
Those targeted had worked on various issues, from land rights and environmental activism, to advocating for media freedom and the rights of political prisoners, to participating in anti-China protests.
Detentions are often employed around sensitive political dates and anniversaries, or to prevent individuals from attending protests, court hearings and meetings with diplomats, according to the research. Dissidents are also regularly stopped from travelling abroad, and prevented from returning to the country, it found.
It is so common for activists to be subjected to arbitrary house arrest that bloggers have developed a code name for the practice, the report said, calling it banh canh, after a southern dish – banh is a Vietnamese word used for cake or noodles, while canh means either soup or to guard. Activists post on Facebook that they are eating banh canh to signal that they are under house arrest.
Some try to bypass restrictions by leaving their homes in advance of dates that might prompt a clampdown, or by taking alternative transport to attend events. Often, they are intercepted.
In one prominent case, when then-US president Barack Obama visited Hanoi in 2016, more than half of the civil society representatives he invited to the US embassy were unable to attend. One of the invitees, Nguyen Quang A, an economist and activist, was forced into a car and driven around for hours. Others were blocked from attending or detained en route.
Restrictions were also imposed during visits by Presidents Bill Clinton in 2000 and Donald Trump in November 2017 and February 2019 , when he attended the Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un, and activists were stopped from meeting UN officials.
“The Vietnamese government apparently considers it a crime for some people to attend human rights or freedom of religion events, or meet with visiting foreign dignitaries,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Such practices had become more common during Covid lockdowns, he added, when the authorities intensified their crackdown on dissidents. During the pandemic, while foreign governments were distracted with health crises at home, the Vietnam authorities also ramped up arrests and imposed longer sentences, said Robertson.
“The government realised they could run the table, they could go after all the dissidents, try to lock up as many people as possible, and the international community would not react in a concerted way,” he said.
People who are subject to travel bans or detentions are not notified or told how long they will face restrictions. A lack of judicial independence means it is often impossible to challenge the measures in the courts.