Vietnamese police swooped in and crushed an anti-China rally Sunday, arresting dozens of protesters who refused to stop chanting and forcing them onto two buses that were driven away.
The move followed stern warnings last week that Hanoi would no longer tolerate the weekly demonstrations that have taken place in the capital for the past 10 weekends over disputed territory in the South China Sea.
About 50 protesters showed up at Hanoi's landmark Hoan Kiem Lake, unfurling banners and shouting anti-China slogans. Main streets in the capital's tourist district were quickly blocked off by police and the protesters were dragged onto public buses by security officers. Many clung to the windows and doors, still shouting from inside while holding up their signs.
"Down with the police who repress patriotic protesters!" one man wearing a Vietnamese flag T-shirt screamed out the window. It was unclear where they were being taken.
"These protesters have done nothing wrong, the police should release them unconditionally," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
A petition that denounced Thursday's order to silence the protests as illegal and unconstitutional was signed by 25 prominent intellectuals and former government officials. It was sent to the Hanoi People's Committee and posted online Friday.
It questioned why the Communist government reversed its earlier announcement that said police had no intention of interfering with the protests following two other similar arrests.
The government said the protests have caused public disturbances and traffic jams and were being led by exiled "hostile forces." Vietnam does not tolerate any threat to its one-party rule, and protests are very rare and typically quashed quickly by police. Public city loudspeakers blasted repeated warnings Sunday for residents to stay away from the protests.
"I am not afraid," said Trinh Tuyet Trinh, who held up a sign before the protest was broken up. She was born in Vietnam but lives in Germany and had traveled to Hanoi to attend the rally. "I am still Vietnamese, and I love my country."
Some observers say tensions between Vietnam and China have eased after Hanoi sent a special envoy to Beijing and a tentative agreement between China and other southeast Asian nations was reached at a regional security meeting last month in Indonesia.
"Vietnamese leaders realize that there are limits as to how far they can press China on the South China Sea issue," said Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
Relations between Vietnam and China hit a low point this summer after Hanoi accused Beijing of interfering with its oil exploration activities. The two sides, along with several other Asian nations, claim all or part of two disputed island chains believed to be rich in natural resources in an area that's home to vital shipping lanes.