Vietnam’s New Environmental Politics: A Fish out of Water?

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Vietnam’s New Environmental Politics: A Fish out of Water?

Are Vietnam’s recent protests really about the environment, or are there deeper issues at play?

Vietnam’s New Environmental Politics: A Fish out of Water?
Credit: Photo by T.A.

The cross-country demonstrations currently taking place in Vietnam to protest massive fish die-offs along the central Vietnamese coast are truly remarkable. Not only were demonstrations at this scale unheard of even five years ago, but they beg the question of why thousands of demonstrators as far off as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are subjecting themselves to the threat of beating and arrest over dead fish in Central Vietnam.

Has a new environmental sensibility suddenly taken hold of the nation? Is it a rude awakening to the costs of decades of rapid industrialization and economic growth?  Or is it simply a convenient expression of developmental malaise projected onto a foreign scapegoat, namely the Taiwanese Formosa Ha Tinh steel factory ,whose 1.8 km underground waste pipe is widely suspected as the principal cause of the die-off? Even as such sensibilities may be taking shape, they hardly explain the scale or intensity of the current confrontation.

First, these demonstrations must be put in the context of a growing series of confrontations with state authorities that have been rocking Vietnam every year for the past several years. Last year, throngs of Hanoi residents took to the streets to protest municipal plans to cut down 6,700 city trees, including many of the towering colonial era trees that have become emblematic of the Vietnamese capital.  In 2014, mass demonstrations took place all across the country to protest the wavering of state leaders when China began drilling unilaterally for hydrocarbons on Vietnam’s continental shelf in the South China Sea. In 2013, a petition signed by 72 prominent Vietnamese intellectuals collected an unprecedented 15,000 online Vietnamese signatures and sparked an expansive public debate on constitutional reforms. In 2012, thousands of farmers and local residents in a northern province demonstrated against land expropriation by the government, which elicited widespread cross-national support online and in the domestic media.

2011 was perhaps the year that planted the seeds for the current demonstrations. Thousands of demonstrators gathered every Sunday in major Vietnamese cities for eleven straight weeks to protest the deteriorating situation in the South China Sea, until the demonstrations were broken up and dispersed by domestic security. A few years prior to 2011 were several spectacular public debates online and in the domestic press on issues ranging from environmental pollution and urban development to bauxite mining that now appear as the dawn of a new era of Vietnamese citizens nationwide actively and openly contesting government policy. The current demonstrations over dead fish in central Vietnam (which have now reached their third consecutive Sunday) have been a part of this growing trend.

Second, it is indeed curious to note how several of these incidents seem to have revolved around or emerged from environmental issues. But is the environment really the issue that brings all of these disparate manifestations of civic unrest into focus?  Looking back at a few of them can provide some clues.

In 2008, a situation very similar to the fish die-off in central Vietnam emerged along the Thị Vải River in the south, minus the mass demonstrations. Another Taiwanese factory, Vedan, was discovered to be discharging contaminants directly into the river through an extensive underground pipe, which became subject of government investigation only after river life and the livelihoods derived from it had all but died off. However, even as the Taiwanese factory owners were being excoriated in the domestic press, it was not lost on reporters or the public that Vietnamese government officials had been inspecting the factory for environmental violations for the past 14 years. Local residents had also been expressing their concerns on the rivers’ deteriorating condition to the deaf ears of government for nearly as long. The Thị Vải incident showed that even as the foreign factory owner featured as a convenient villain (a detail that perhaps made possible a public discussion on industrial pollution under the politically restrictive conditions of Vietnam), Vietnamese government officials were exposed as either grossly negligent or, as widely suspected, complicit in the hidden contamination.

One year later, an even greater public uproar arose around government plans to mine some 5.4 billion tons of aluminum ore (i.e., bauxite) from the Central Highlands region.  This controversy generated an unprecedented expression of public opposition to a major government policy among Vietnamese from across the country and overseas, which included among them the then 98 year-old military hero of the People’s War and revolution, General Võ Nguyên Giáp.  Even as these debates were complicated by allegations of Chinese geostrategic interests in the mining projects, the flurry of public and expert criticism highlighted the poor planning and evident carelessness in government preparation of the projects, lack of transparency or accountability among government investors and regulators, and a clear lack of available avenues for concerned citizens to raise their voices on an issue of national importance.  Hence, the bauxite controversy in its many dimensions was as much a criticism of the state’s unwillingness or inability to effectively address public concerns as it was about a particular set of mining projects.

Beginning around 2011, as mentioned above, mass demonstrations, notably in urban areas, often focused on Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, began to appear as a new normal.  Yet, even in this upscaling of public dissatisfaction, recurring patterns appear. In addition of the eminently sensible desire to save a historical and unique cityscape, the campaign to save Hanoi’s trees was a statement of frustration against the apparent senselessness of government decision-making and the lack of government transparency and accountability in making those decisions. Even as the central government eventually swooped in to suspend the tree-cutting plans, key questions about who was responsible for issuing the municipal policy and, indeed, what happened to the lucrative timber that was got from the trees that were cut down remain unanswered to this day.

While protests over land expropriation are not exactly uncommon in Vietnam, they became a subject of national concern in 2012 because they made visible the cronyistic practices of government and citizens’ struggles to speak out and demonstrate against injustice without being subjected to violence, abuse or arrest—as they have been without exception in all of the demonstrations mentioned in this article. Even the demonstrations on the very delicate and complex situation in the South China Sea highlight the apparent incapacity of state leaders to address people’s concerns, typical behaviors of evasion and duplicity, and the inevitable resort to violence and thuggery to suppress peaceful demonstrations. Even those few demonstrations that turned into riots in 2014 remain to this day shrouded in a mystery of how and why they happened. The police, despite having arrested more than 1,000 suspects, were only been able to suggest that the anti-communist overseas Vietnamese organization Việt Tân, despite its extremely limited presence inside Vietnam, was responsible—as has been suggested once again in attempts to delegitimize the current demonstrations in central Vietnam.

The current demonstrations in Central Vietnam fit squarely into these patterns. Once again the government has been slow to respond and unable to provide convincing explanations. Information is glossed over or suppressed, partly perhaps out of habit and partly not to reveal too many secrets on who is benefiting from and responsible for all of the investment money pouring in from Formosa. Without avenues to engage the government in a reasonable discussion about the dead fish, Vietnamese citizens have taken to the only means currently available to them. Yet they are confronted with the familiar obstacles of the government shutting down Facebook, blockading demonstrations, and intimidating, beating, and arresting those perceived to be instigating unrest.

While accurate information is obviously difficult to obtain in such a climate, the Internet offers many testimonies and some videos of protestors being harassed and beaten by anonymous assailants widely suspected to be plain clothed police. Some reports have suggested that as many as 1,000 demonstrators across the country have been arrested.

So has the environment suddenly emerged like a fish out of water as the most pressing new concern of the Vietnamese people, or is there perhaps a deeper underlying issue for which environmental problems have made most visibly evident?  The rallying cry for the current demonstrations and attendant Facebook campaign has become the slogan, “Fish need clean water, people need transparency [i.e., transparent government]” (Cá cần nước sạch, dân cần minh bạch).  These are parallel claims.  They are two statements that reflect the same idea.  The first speaks to the current manifestation of crisis, while the latter speaks to a deeper underlying problem. Hence, while environmental issues may currently be the most visible manifestations of crisis, what ties all of these disparate confrontations together—including the demonstrations against China on the South China Sea—is the public’s demand for better government, better leaders and, ultimately, a more transparent, accountable and effective political system.

What becomes increasingly evident with each demonstration directed at government is the deadlock between citizens expressing a need and right to have a say in domestic issues and a political system that continues to deny and refuse that right. Until resolution is found to this deadlock, these confrontations are likely to become only more frequent, more widespread and more destabilizing.

Jason Morris-Jung is Senior Lecturer at SIM University, Singapore.  He has a Ph.D. in environmental studies from the University of California, Berkeley.