Vietnamese police have arrested two bloggers and a journalist for their involvement in a plan to print T-shirts opposing China's investment in a bauxite mining project and its claims over disputed islands, sources said.
The arrests underscore how sensitive Vietnam considers relations with China while highlighting the challenge Hanoi faces in keeping public opinion in check as Internet usage blossoms -- and where it draws a line on organized dissent.
Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, 30, who blogged under the name Me Nam, or Mother Mushroom, was arrested on September 2 for abusing democratic rights and harming national security, her mother said by telephone from the beach town of Nha Trang.
About 10 or 15 police came to arrest her at around midnight, said the mother, Nguyen Thi Tuyet Lan.
Last Friday, police in Hanoi arrested Pham Doan Trang, a journalist with the pioneering online news portal Vietnamnet, saying she had violated national security, editor-in-chief Nguyen Anh Tuan said.
Those two arrests followed the detention of Bui Thanh Hieu, who blogged under the name Nguoi Buon Gio, or Wind Trader.
Like many Vietnamese, the three opposed China's claims of sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. They were also critics of a government plan to partner with a Chinese state-owned company to exploit bauxite reserves in Vietnam's Central Highlands.
The bauxite issue came into the spotlight last year when war hero Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap urged the government to reconsider it.
But Hieu, Quynh and Trang went a step further, said a diplomat who closely follows dissident issues. They promoted a campaign to print and give away T-shirts that said SOS, keep green and keep Vietnam's security and Stop bauxite. No China. The Spratlys and Paracels belong to Vietnam.
Those were the three that were largely the drivers of the shirt campaign, although other people may have been involved in funding, the diplomat said.
The Communist leadership apparently thought it was an escalation, he added.
Vietnam's relationship with China is laden with baggage from centuries of conflict, and the Vietnamese Communist Party performs a delicate balancing act between the need to stay on good terms with China and a populace that is highly suspicious of the giant neighbor to the north.
New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the arrests and called on Hanoi to release Hieu and Trang. Vietnam is already one of the world's worst violators of Internet freedom, and recent actions only underscore that reputation,it said in a statement.
SHIRTS AND BAUXITE
Quynh's mother, who was allowed to talk to her daughter at the police station on Thursday, said Quynh told her she was arrested because of the shirt and because she opposed the bauxite project.
Bauxite is an ore mined to make aluminum, and Vietnam is believed to sit on one of the world's largest reserves. Critics of the project think China's involvement poses a security risk.
Nha Trang police declined to comment on Quynh's case, but in late July, Radio Free Asia quoted her saying she was questioned for six hours by police after wearing the shirt and posing for a photo in public, which was subsequently posted onto the Internet.
She was also quoted as saying police asked if she had any connections with the Democratic Youth Movement, a group reportedly formed by Nguyen Tien Trung, who police arrested in early July.
In mid-July, an online group called Nguoi Viet Yeu Nuoc, or Vietnamese Who Love Their Country, reported it had printed and distributed 100 of the shirts to people in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Danang and Nha Trang, and was planning to print another 300 due to popular demand, according to its Web site.
The green shirt arrests were apparently unrelated to the sacking last week of popular blogger and Communist Party member Huy Duc from his job as a reporter for the newspaper Saigon Tiep Thi (Saigon Marketing) after the paper came under heavy pressure from authorities over postings on his Blog Osin.
More than a quarter of Vietnam's population of nearly 86 million use the Web.
The Ministry of Information and Communication issued a circular last December that aimed to limit blogs to personal topics and banned subversive blogs.
(Editing by Bill Tarrant)