For the third weekend in a row, public protests have taken place in Vietnam — a rare occurrence in a country whose government is described by Human Rights Watch as one of the most repressive in the world — following the mysterious death of an estimated 100 tons of fish which washed ashore in the country's impoverished central coastal region last month.
Large groups of plainclothes and uniformed police stifled protests in Vietnam's two largest cities on Sunday — the northern capital city of Hanoi and southern Ho Chi Minh City — came little more than a week before US President Barack Obama's high profile official visit to the country is due to commence.
The previous weekend, thousands of people demonstrated in rallies which were forcibly broken up with participants tear gassed and beaten by police, according to the United Nations' human rights office.
In preparation for Sunday's protests, government-run telecom firms blocked access to social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram, and one of the country's largest state-run newspapers carried a report in which a Ho Chi Minh City police spokesperson said the protests had been organized by a "terrorist organization."
The blame for the fish deaths has been widely leveled at Taiwanese firm Hung Nghiep Formosa Steel Company in the Vung Ang Economic Zone in Ha Tinh Province. State media reported that an unnamed group of fishermen led Vietnamese reporters to an underwater waste disposal pipe linked to the company, which they claim is the source of the toxins that killed the fish.
Meanwhile, the Taiwanese conglomerate, which has a long history of pollution scandals that have erupted in Cambodia and Taiwan, as well as in the United States, has bungled the handling of the situation.
Last month Hung Nghiep Formosa executive Chou Chun Fan told reporters, "You have to decide whether to catch fish and shrimp or to build a modern steel industry; even the Prime Minister can't choose both." Vietnamese media reported that he was subsequently fired, according to Reuters, though this could not be confirmed — meanwhile his comments galvanized a protest movement that rallied under banners declaring "Toi Chon Ca" ("I choose fish"). The hashtag #toichonca has trended on social media since.
Neither Hung Nghiep Formosa nor the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Hanoi (similar to an embassy) responded to questions sent to them by VICE News.
The company has publicly denied any wrongdoing, and Vietnam's government has issued a string of apologies and conflicting explanations. During a press conference, a Deputy Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources said the deaths had been caused either by a toxic algae bloom or industrial waste, but insisted no evidence linked Formosa to the event.
The World Wildlife Fund's office in Hanoi said it was awaiting confirmation of the cause of the fish deaths from the government and referred all inquiries to the Vietnam Fishery Administration, which didn't respond to emails or phone calls. Government scientists have promised the results of an official investigation will come "soon."
In the meantime, the government has stifled public gatherings, ahead of Obama's arrival in the country on May 23 — the day before National Assembly elections are due to be held.
Last week, police encircled thousands of protesters in Ho Chi Minh City's Paris Square, and up to 300 people were dragged away to a nearby stadium to be photographed, fingerprinted, and made to sign confessions. Others sustained injuries as the demonstration was broken up.
"There aren't as many of us this week because every time we try to raise our voices, they try to stand in our way," said Khang, a 32-year-old IT technician, as he stood among hundreds of protesters in Ho Chi Minh City's September 23 Park on Sunday. While he spoke, government loudspeakers blared and police officers pushed protesters toward buses waiting to ferry them away from the park.
"Attention! This is the law enforcement forces speaking. The cause of the mass fish deaths in four coastal central provinces remain the concern of lowly people. The national and local governments, scientists at home and from overseas are working to identify the causes," said a recording in garbled English that was played repeatedly.
Elsewhere in the city, police shut down a small square in front of the municipal government's assembly building, ahead of another planned protest. At dusk, September 23 Park was cordoned off by uniformed police and military officers, including a small contingent wearing shock helmets and bullet proof vests, who forced a large number onto the buses and ferried them away from the park.
According to Professor Le Viet Phu, a lecturer of Environmental Economics and Policy at the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City, while the recent fish kill may seem large, it only represents a tiny snippet of the environmental damage to food stocks and natural resources caused by reckless industrial activity. In the past five months, four significant mass fish deaths have been reported throughout the country.
"One hundred tons of fish is nothing in terms of environmental impact," said Phu. "But in terms of emotional impact, this has been huge. If the government blames Formosa, the people will come and destroy everything there."
Phu claimed that public outrage has been spurred by fear of China's growing dominance in the region, as well as Taiwanese industrial expansionism, with the two countries often conflated and targeted for criticism by protesters. Two years ago, when Chinese ships towed a mobile oil rig into Vietnam's continental shelf, riots exploded in Vietnam, with scores of Taiwanese factories suffering heavy damage and at least one Chinese worker killed.
The crackdown so soon before Obama's visit will likely cause anxiety among US arms manufacturers, whose representatives gathered at an arms fair in Hanoi last week amid hopes the US president would lift a US embargo on lethal weapons sales to Vietnam — a move likely to draw more scrutiny at a time of heavy-handed policing in the southeast Asian nation.
Adding further tension to the situation, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights mentioned the protests in a statement published on May 13.
"We are concerned about the increasing levels of violence perpetrated against Vietnamese protesters expressing their anger over the mysterious mass deaths of fish along the country's central coast," it said. "We urge the Vietnamese authorities to adopt legal and institutional frameworks that protect against environmental harm that interferes with the enjoyment of human rights."
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