First negotiation fails between Hanoi authorities and tree-protecting group

"We want government accountability."

“We want government accountability.”

A first attempt at dialogue over the Hanoi city government’s plan to cut down thousands of the city’s famous old trees ended in recriminations and ill feeling.

More than twenty environmental activists responded to an apparent invitation to talk from the local People’s Committee.

They have been demanding for months that officials give an account of their motives and be held responsible for the tree cutting plan which has never been adequately explained.

When they arrived at the meeting, the campaigners from the group “For a Green Hanoi” complained they were met by an intimidating presence of police and “civil order defenders”.

They said they were filmed and blocked from entering the office for the talks.

Eventually only two members, Nguyen Anh Tuan and Cao Vinh Thinh, were allowed to enter despite their protests that they would be outnumbered by officials and put at a disadvantage.

“For a Green Hanoi” has led demonstrations and an online campaign to force the city authorities to drop their plan to fell some six thousand mahoganies and other old trees on some of Hanoi’s most attractive boulevards.

The Hanoi government eventually suspended the plan pending an investigation – but not before hundreds of centuries old trees had been cut down along Nguyen Trai and Nguyen Chi Thanh avenues.

The secretive nature of the plan has highlighted the lack of accountability in city and national governance and fueled  rumours about possible profiteering from the valuable timber.

The campaigners said that the local government’s representatives again failed to give a clear answer.

“Government officials do not have an obligation to answer any questions from the people, except when they are direct stakeholders who have legitimate rights and interests directly affected by the government’s decisions,” Mr Pham Chi Cong, the Deputy Chief of Office was quoted as saying. He declined to answer the group’s questions, insisting that everything had been clearly explained in the Hanoi Inspectorate’s report.

Plainclothes police and civil order defenders were watching the group's members.

Plainclothes police and civil order defenders were watching the group’s members.

Nguyen Anh Tuan for the activists said officials had to be held responsible for the tree cutting plan and its chaotic aftermath.

“The report produced by the official inspection made no reference to the documents that we were asking for,” he told them, “as citizens, we need access to those documents to exercise our rights of supervision over the government.”

Mr Cong and the other officials then called the meeting to a halt. They told the campaigners to go home and read the Inspectorate’s report. Mr Cong was quoted by campaigners as saying there would be no more dialogue on the case and no such thing as “answerability”.

Until the meeting “For A Green Hanoi” had only been able to send open letters to the local People’s Committee, who merely replied that they had received the messages and would investigate the case.

The group’s reports about the face to face meeting and the conduct of the city officials were widely distributed and shared through social media networks.