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Internet battlefield pits dissidents against the State

The Times November 19, 2006

Internet battlefield pits dissidents against the State
From Richard Lloyd Parry in Ho Chi Minh City

IF NGUYEN DAN QUE had any doubts about the danger of the internet,
they were dispelled the night that he began his last long spell in
captivity. It was a Monday evening, and Dr Nguyen, a veteran opponent of
Vietnam's communist Government, was quietly working in his local cyber-café.

The plainclothes security police had severed the telephone line at his
home, so he depended on the café to read the news and exchange e-mails with
Vietnamese dissidents at home and abroad.

"I was surfing the internet when somebody grabbed me with an arm,
choking my throat," he recalls. The police dragged Dr Que away from his
screen, and into jail. It would be two years before he was released for the
crime of "abusing democratic rights" - posting on the internet statements
denouncing Vietnam's suppression of the media.

"The internet is a battlefield of the Government and dissidents," he
said at home in Ho Chi Minh City, as government spies with cameras hovered
outside. "It's a dangerous weapon of repression in the hands of the
Government. But we have to exploit this tool, even if it means going to
prison."

This weekend, as President Bush and the leaders of China, Japan,
Russia and 17 other countries fly in for the Asia Pacific Economic
Co-operation (Apec) Forum, Vietnam has a rare opportunity to present an
attractive modern face to the outside world. Behind the smiles, however,
ugly realities are concealed.

The Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, says that homes of
dissidents in Hanoi have been blockaded by police and signs posted in
English ordering foreigners to stay away. Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, as it
was called until 1975, is such a lively city that it is difficult to imagine
it as a place of repression. A visit to Dr Que reveals the reality.

Two plainclothes policemen stand by the gate and film me as I arrive,
and my taxi is followed by a relay of young men on motorbikes when I leave.
Inside, Dr Que, 64, draws the curtains and gives me an envelope containing
an account of his career as a dissident.

"Take this now," he says. "If they come in after you, we will not have
time to talk." Since 1978, he has spent 20 of his 64 years in jail, and has
suffered torture, beatings and grievous medical neglect.

For much of the rest of the time he has lived, as he does now, in a
state of virtual house arrest - his phones bugged and frequently
disconnected, his movements followed, his friends and family harassed.

Politically, his demands are the bare democratic minimum - a free
press, freedom of speech and assembly, and an end to the 31-year old
monopoly of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Until recently his was a lonely
and isolated voice.

Dr Que insists that it is the harshness of the repression that has
silenced the majority - but the internet is fast changing that.

"You have to face brutal measures when you stand up to these
authorities," he says, "but this year the democratic movement has been
progressing a lot compared with the past two or three decades. That momentum
will continue."

One in six of the 84 million Vietnamese people is estimated to be an
internet user, compared with one in nine a year ago. Most do not have home
computers but use the 5,000 cyber-cafés for a few pence an hour.

Dissidents also make use of online voice services such as Skype to
speak in person to one another in a medium less susceptible to tapping than
fixed or mobile telephone lines.

Even the Venerable Thich Quang Do, the 77-year old Buddhist monk who
is perhaps the most eminent and revered dissident in Vietnam, is installing
an internet connection in the temple where he has spent eight years under
"pagoda arrest".

The authorities are now blocking access to dissident websites and
recruiting the proprietors of cyber-cafés to spy on their customers.

Some dissidents suspect that anonymous contributors to chat rooms may
include agents provocateurs hoping to flush out and identify dissidents.
"The communists are like a person afraid of the wind blowing outside," says
the Venerable Do. "They won't open the door because they fear they will
catch a cold."

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