Anti-China protesters hoping to lay wreaths at a famous statue in the Vietnamese capital yesterday were obstructed by an unusual sight of ballroom dancers and an energetic aerobics class held to a thumping sound system.
The demonstrators suspect the government deployed the dancers as a way to stop them from getting close to the statue and make their speeches inaudible. The few who tried to get close to the statue of Ly Thai To, the founder of Hanoi and a nationalist icon, were shooed away.
The protesters were marking the 35th anniversary of a bloody border war between China and Vietnam, where anger over Beijing's increasingly assertive territorial claims on islands in the South China Sea that Hanoi insists belong to it is already running high.
Relations with China, Vietnam's ideological ally and major trading partner, are a highly sensitive domestic political issue for Hanoi's rulers. They do not want anger on the street against Beijing to spread to other areas of its repressive rule.
Nguyen Quang A, a well-known dissident, and others attending the rally in Hanoi said the government deployed the dancers at the statue of Ly Thai To, and at another statue nearby, to prevent them gathering there.
The tactic appeared to be part of a low-key approach to policing the event to avoid confrontation. There were scores of plainclothes security officers at the rally, but very few wearing uniform.
Quang said he asked the dancers to stop for a few minutes but they refused.
Last year the government organised old women to hold a street protest to prevent a visiting US government official from reaching a dissident's house, where he was due to talk to him about Hanoi's human rights record.
About 70 people took part in yesterday's rally close to Hoan Kiem Lake in downtown Hanoi.
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They shouted anti-China slogans and took video and photos of each other to be posted on dissident blogs and Facebook pages. After 90 minutes, they managed to lay their wreaths commemorating the Vietnamese dead in the war at a pagoda before dispersing.
Previous anti-China protests in the capital have resulted in demonstrators being dragged into buses or scuffles. The government is keen to avoid such images spreading on social media because they make it seem it is defending China against nationalist anger, which is widespread in Vietnam.