- Associated Press - Friday, September 28, 2012

HANOI, VIETNAM (AP) - The 7-iron resting against the wall in Le Quoc Quan’s office is for self-defense, not sport. The human-rights lawyer and blogger has not left home without the golf club since being beaten last month by iron-bar-wielding men he suspects were sent by the police.

If the assault was meant to silence him, it failed. Within days he was back online, and reporting about the incident.

The Internet has become the principal staging ground for dissent in Vietnam, and its Communist rulers are trying to clamp down with new laws, stepped up arrests, intimidation and longer prison sentences. But so far, it’s a battle they are losing.

Facebook and other social networking sites are blocked here, but the state firewall is so flimsy that even schoolchildren know how to fiddle with computer settings to get around it. The government has announced bans on websites, only to see traffic to them skyrocket. Three bloggers were sentenced to prison this week _ one for 12 years _ but many others continue to pursue their causes.

Vietnamese activists on the Internet highlight high-level corruption and feuding within the economic and Communist Party elite, as they demand freedom of expression, religion and political activity. They receive cautious moral support from the United States and other Western countries, which are pressing for reform in Hanoi even as they seek closer economic ties with it.

“The growth of the Internet is endangering the government,” Quan told The Associated Press in an interview in his office in the capital, Hanoi. “People can actually read news now. There is a thirst for democracy in our country.”

Experts say Hanoi lacks the money and know-how to comprehensively censor content like its neighbor China, which has a solid firewall and big tech companies that operate their own popular social media products that Beijing can easily control.

Vietnam is also undergoing a sharp economic downturn, and the more it restricts the Internet, the more it diminishes an engine of growth that sustains small businesses, connects exporters to markets and encourages innovation.

Cracking down also risks international censure, but allowing bloggers to go unchallenged goes against years of suppression from the government, which main concern is eliminating any threat to its grip on power.

Quan is one of Vietnam’s better-known dissidents and a leading blogger. In 2007, he was detained for three months on his return from a U.S.-government funded fellowship in Washington. He needed hospital treatment after last month’s attack outside his home.

His post about the beating drew words of support and defiance.

“(Because) of these brutal individuals, the Communist Party of Vietnam must perform penitence or otherwise they will be brought to justice by the people in this decade,” wrote one anonymous commentator after his post. “Perhaps, it’s time for the people to stand up to throw them into a cesspit.”

Quan told The AP he suspects local police in the assault, perhaps out of frustration because they couldn’t find grounds to arrest him. In a statement, Foreign Ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said Quan’s allegations were “groundless.”

The Internet is crucial for Vietnamese dissidents for organizing dissent and networking among themselves quickly and securely. Activists in Vietnam post not only their opinions online, but also video of protests and even details of their arrests.

“There will be more arrests, more protests, but that is OK,” Quan said. “It will bring change.”

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