Vietnam Arrests Another Environmentalist on Tax Evasion Charges

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Vietnam Arrests Another Environmentalist on Tax Evasion Charges

Hoang Thi Minh Hong is the fifth environmental activist to be arrested for evading taxes over the past two years.

Vietnam Arrests Another Environmentalist on Tax Evasion Charges
Credit: Depositphotos

Vietnamese authorities have arrested another leading environmentalist on charges of tax evasion, a government official said yesterday, continuing a worrying assault on civil society activists working on climate change.

Nguyen Duc Thang, the deputy spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a press briefing that Hoang Thi Minh Hong, 51, was detained in Ho Chi Minh City, along with her husband and two former employees, according to state media.

Hoang is the founder of the non-government organization CHANGE, which prior to being closed down by the authorities last year, sought to raise awareness around climate change, sustainable development, and the need to fight the trade in endangered animals.

As Radio Free Asia notes, Hong is also known for bringing the Earth Hour initiative from Australia to Vietnam and for becoming the first Vietnamese woman to set foot in Antarctica. For her efforts, she has received a long list of international plaudits; she has been garlanded at the Elle Style Awards and the WeChoice Awards, and Forbes magazine. In 2018, she was named an Obama Foundation Scholar.

Hong is just the latest Vietnamese environmentalist to be arrested on financial charges over the past two years. Last June, a Vietnamese court sentenced Nguy Thi Khanh, another prize-winning environmentalist, to two years in prison for tax evasion. This followed the sentencing of activists Dang Dinh Bach and Bach Hung Duong and the journalist Mai Phan Loi to similar prison terms for tax fraud.

The common denominator of these individuals was their criticisms of the Vietnamese government’s heavy reliance on coal, but they were by no means wholly oppositional, a fact that makes the government crackdown harder to understand.

For instance, as the chief executive of the Green Innovation and Development Centre (GreenID), Khanh “was known for her constructive feedback and close collaboration with state agencies,” Huong Thien wrote in the news outlet Mongabay in February. She played an important role in pushing the government to ramp up the renewable energy targets in its 2016 Power Development Plan.

In a statement yesterday, Phil Robertson of the rights group Human Right Watch described the use of tax laws to clamp down on dissenting environmentalists as “a new, extremely troubling development.”

“To solve the country’s looming environmental crisis, the government should welcome the constructive efforts of a range of official and unofficial groups,” he said.

In yesterday’s press briefing, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson denied that tax evasion charges were a cover for political repression. “In Vietnam, there are hundreds of social organizations and non-governmental organizations, which are strengthening and diversifying their activities in the area of environmental protection and climate change response,” he said.

The assault on environmental activists is hard to fathom as anything but an expression of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s sensitivity about any form of political mobilization outside the scope of its own control. As I noted at the time of Khanh’s arrest, it seems to view environmental activism as a “gateway” to open political opposition to the party and its self-appointed status as the nucleus of the Vietnamese state.

While Vietnam has taken laudable steps to reduce its carbon emissions, including installing the largest solar capacity of any nation in Southeast Asia, the government’s legal assault against environmental activists casts a degree of doubt on its longer-term commitment to reduce emissions and embrace green energy.