Hundreds of protesters clashed with riot police during a funeral this weekend in northern Vietnam, officials and state media said Monday, in a rare incident highlighting the alleged impunity enjoyed by top-ranked officials in the one-party communist nation.
The violence broke out in the Vinh Phuc provincial capital Vinh Yen on Sunday, according to the Tuoi Tre daily, following the death of Nguyen Tuan Anh, whose mutilated body was discovered in a sewer drain in nearby Hoi Hop commune earlier that day.
Initial findings from a police investigation indicated that Anh had drowned, but family members rejected the claim, alleging that he had been murdered by the son-in-law of Phung Quang Hung, chairman of Vinh Phuc province, during a gang attack. They have called for a new investigation.
A resident of the town, who spoke to RFA’s Vietnamese Service on condition of anonymity, said that police had been powerless to restrain the large number of mourners, who had gathered to protest after authorities announced Anh’s death.
“I only know that the body was found in a kind of sewage ditch and that authorities said he drowned,” the Vinh Yen resident said.
“A lot of people gathered to protest, overwhelming the police force,” she said.
Photos and video clips circulated online by Vietnamese netizens showed police trying to hold back a surging crowd of hundreds as they paraded Anh’s coffin through the town, demanding justice.
One widely circulated image, which shows a police officer knocking down one of Anh’s family members, drew particular ire from Vietnam’s online community.
A member of the provincial people’s committee, who also spoke to RFA anonymously, said that authorities were dedicating a majority of their resources to investigating Anh’s case.
“Everybody is working on this issue. It is urgent because it concerns the people,” the committee member said.
“Many people are upset, so the authorities from several different levels are focusing on it.”
Colonel Ho Si Tien, head of social criminal investigations at the police ministry, said at a press conference Monday that police had so far found no link between Anh’s death and Phung Quang Hung’s son-in-law.
Tien said that police are investigating the “social disturbance” that took place on Sunday, adding that around 500 people took part in the incident, according to police estimates.
Speaking at the same press conference, vice director of the Vinh Phuc provincial police Colonel Do Van Hoanh said an initial investigation had found that Anh and a friend had been drinking beer together at a restaurant in Hoi Hop commune on March 14.
On the way home, he said, Anh stopped by another restaurant near his house where he met a group of young people and engaged in a fight. The victim’s family reported him missing soon after, but his body was discovered only at around 9:00 a.m. on Sunday morning.
Hoanh said that police had arrested five suspects in connection with Anh’s death, who he said had admitted to attacking Anh with a kitchen knife at the restaurant, but said they had failed to stab him. According to Hoanh, the suspects said they then beat Anh to death with bricks and with their fists.
Anh’s family members believe that Phung Quang Hung’s son-in-law was either a part of the gang that had confronted Anh on the night of March 14 or is connected with that group of people.
Authorities said that the director of Vinh Phuc province had spoken directly with Anh’s family to “settle the problem.”
Protests are extremely rare in Vietnam, where the government does not tolerate dissent.
But growing public anger over alleged official corruption, most notably in connection with land disputes, has led to a number of violent demonstrations in the last year.