Yale alum William Nguyen arrested in Vietnam protests against special economic zones

Image Caption: Active police presence in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam photographed by YRIS Editor Muriel Wang

William Nguyen graduated from Yale College in 2008 and expected to complete a master’s degree at the University of Singapore this July. He was visiting Vietnam, the country of his parents’ origin, when protests erupted across the country.

On June 9th, hundreds of demonstrators flooded the streets of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and towns all over Vietnam. William Nguyen joined the march in Ho Chi Minh City, and his friends have said he was extremely interested in the development of Vietnamese society. However, the police cracked down, attacking and arresting many protesters. A video shows William with blood running down his face being dragged by several men into a police vehicle.

In many other parts of the country, protests were forcibly suppressed by police using tear gas and riot gear. For weeks, William’s location has been unknown, but he most likely is being held in the Ho Chi Minh police ministry. He has no access to legal aid, nor any way to communicate with his family or the U.S. embassy. The apartment in which he stayed was raided. The Vietnamese police have not charged him with a crime and have stated that he is being held for causing public disorder.

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The protests have their roots in the Vietnamese government’s plan to create three new “special economic zones” where foreign companies may lease land for up to 99 years. The expectation and fear among the Vietnamese public is that this land will be quickly snapped up by Chinese companies who will own it for nearly a century. Anti-Chinese sentiment has greatly increased in the country due to Chinese assertion of control over the areas of the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam. In 2014, the construction of a Chinese oil rig within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone precipitated rioting, including cases of arson and looting at Chinese factories and businesses in Vietnam.

More recently, China has threatened military conflict unless the state oil company PetroVietnam ends its plans with Spanish energy company Repsol to build a drilling station in the South China Sea. PetroVietnam withdrew from the deal with Repsol in April. Chinese investment has helped drive Vietnam’s recent rapid economic development; however, this growth has been accompanied by public resentment against Chinese geopolitical and economic bullying.

Protests also addressed a proposed cybersecurity bill. The national assembly recently passed a law that gives the government the ability to demand tech companies share user data and block certain web traffic. Many Vietnamese people fear that this law could compromise the internet as one of the few ways to criticize their government with any degree of safety.  

Despite marked economic improvement over the last decade, Vietnam remains under single party control. Recent corruption scandals involving foreign commercial interests have accelerated demand for reform. The Communist party has been unwilling to expand civil liberties and often jails activists and journalists. Increasingly, online bloggers who criticize the government have been targeted and arrested.

After hearing of his arrest, William Nguyen’s friends and family immediately contacted members of Congress and the State Department, urging them to do whatever they can to secure his safe release. It was unknown whether or not William had even received important medical treatment for his head injuries. Representatives Ian Lowenthal, Jimmy Gomez and Jose Luis Correa have requested that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump put pressure on Vietnam to release William. The State Department confirmed that consular officers secured a meeting with William on June 15th and reported that he was in good health.

On June 20th, a tape of William reading a prepared confession appeared on state-run television. He said that he understands his actions violated the law and regrets disrupting traffic. It is still unclear when he will be released.