By: Our Correspondent

Although Tran Minh Nhat, a former prisoner of conscience who was freed in August* after four years in prison, it appears authorities are not letting up on him, he says.  In an email to Asia Sentinel, Nhat said that although he was able to spend Christmas and New Year with his family, he and other family members have been continually harassed by thugs believed to be hired by police who destroyed his property and threw rocks at his house.

Nhat was one of 14 Vietnamese Catholic and Protestant bloggers, writers and political activists who were convicted in 2011 in a sensational trial in which they were accused of plotting to overthrow the government via links to the California-based Viet Tan, the Vietnam Reform Party, which is banned in the country itself. The mass conviction was the largest such show trial to be prosecuted in recent years. The defendants apparently had attended a training course in Bangkok held by Viet Tan.

In the 1980s, Viet Tan led a resistance movement against the Vietnamese Communist government, but for the past few decades it has declared that it is committed to peaceful political reform, democracy and human rights. Nguyen Thi Hue, a defense lawyer, told The Associated Press at the time of the two-day trial in the city of Vinh, in Nghe An Province that three defendants had been sentenced to 13 years and that 11 others had received terms of three to eight years. One of the three-year terms was suspended.

Nhat apparently was released early. He told local media that he was repeatedly asked to sign a confession but refused to do.  Local media said he and others staged a hunger strike in prison to demand better treatment for inmates.

Although Vietnam appears to be slowly letting up, there are still incidents in which local police hire thugs to seek to quell dissent with their fists, particularly in property confiscation cases. Tran Minh Nhat is such a case, as was Nguyen Van Dai, a human rights lawyer and three friends who were attacked by as many as 20 plainclothes policemen while they were returning home to Hanoi after leading a forum in Nghe An Province after facilitating a human rights forum in Nam Dan district, 300 km. south near the Laotian border.

David Brown, a former US diplomat who writes regularly for Asia Sentinel, wrote recently that “In their zeal to simplify, both the Vietnamese party-state’s ideological guardians and its most vocal foreign critics obscure the real story: that though law and ideology have been slow to change, de facto the citizens of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam have become, in the last couple of decades and particularly in the last few years, remarkably more free to manage their own lives.”

Vietnam, Brown wrote, is no longer an insular state. Some 44 percent of citizens are now online and the regime has given up trying to block access to Facebook.

Young, mainly urban Vietnamese keep pushing back against arbitrary restrictions.  Some pointedly question abuse of police power, but many more, presumably with less forethought, just resist being herded. Also, voluntary groups are emerging as significant actors in public life.  They address the needs of an increasingly complex society.  By law, all organizations must be approved by the state and are subject to state supervision. Some professional organizations, like the Lawyers Association or the Chamber of Commerce, have achieved substantial autonomy within that framework.