The police assault on an environmental march on February 14 has highlighted the communist authorities’ sensitivity to what they see as organised protest movements. Heavy handed tactics were used to break up the march by some five hundred Catholic parishioners from Nghe An province. They were heading for Ha Tinh to press their demands for compensation for damages sustained in an environmental disaster last year, in which offshore fish stocks were poisoned by a toxic chemical leak from a Taiwanese owned steel mill. Pham Doan Trang sent this report on the methods used by the police to suppress a movement of local people, who are bewildered by what they see as a callous and increasingly brutal government response.
The first sign of trouble for the petitioners came on the eve of their planned departure for Ha Tinh, where they intend to file lawsuits to claim compensation for their losses from the chemical spill.
They had signed contracts with local taxi companies to drive them the nearly 180 km to the court in Ky Anh from their homes in a diocese near Vinh.
But the taxi companies notified the petitioners on the evening of February 13 that they would not be able to provide the service. They said the police had warned them not to take any local people to Ha Tinh to file lawsuits against Formosa Ha Tinh Steel (FHS), the company responsible for the toxic leak.
The government had decreed last year that only residents of four central provinces would be eligible for compensation. The residents of Nghe An to the north, who had also suffered losses, would get nothing.
So, early on February 14, the five hundred or so residents decided to travel to the court as best they could, by motorcycle or any other vehicle available. Those who could not find transport would go on foot.
They had only covered some 20 kilometres when they were confronted by police.
Participants said they were subjected to two separate waves of assaults by the police after they were stopped at the town of Dien Hong.
At 4pm, one of the organisers of the March, the parish priest, Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc, was set upon by a group of plainclothes officers. Witnesses said the assault was witnessed by the chief of the Nghe An public security department and the Vice-Chairman of the Nghe An People’s Committee, but they did nothing to intervene.
At the same time, independent journalists and bloggers who were covering the procession were also attacked. At least ten of the journalists were arrested, including Chu Manh Son, Nguyen Thi Phuong, Thai Van Phap, Bui Van Hai, and Le Van Nhan.
They were taken to separate police stations, including the Dien Chau district station and the nearby traffic police post, where they said the assaults continued. They also had their private belongings and documents confiscated. Le Van Nhan said he was hooded, partially stripped and dumped in an isolated spot in Do Luong district some 50 kilometres away.
A support vehicle bringing up the rear of the procession was also targeted by police. The occupants refused to open the doors, so it was towed to the police station. The ten occupants of the vehicle were held for four hours, amongst them Hoang Duc Binh and Trinh Anh Tuan, who have been providing legal assistance to the claimants.
The second phase of the attack began about an hour after the first. Plainclothes officers are believed to have infiltrated themselves into the ranks of the marchers, and they began to throw stones at the police lines.
The agents provocateurs gave the police the excuse they were waiting for and a mass of special force officers, plainclothes police and public security agents, waded into the protesters, who were now conducting a sit-in by the road. They used sticks, tear gas, bangers and crackers in a ferocious assault, in which 50 people were badly hurt and some 20 were taken to hospital for emergency treatment.
Some suffered multiple injuries and will need long term treatment. Tran Van Tan, a resident of Son Hai (Quynh Luu, Nghe An), had his backbone fractured, lost his front teeth, and sustained other injuries. Bui Van Ky from Nam Vuc (Yen Thanh, Nghe An) suffered a broken nose and other cuts and bruises.
Elderly women and children were amongst those hurt in the police assault.
The participants had no choice but to abandon their march and their attempt to file lawsuits against the company.
Local television reported that night that Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc had incited local people to attack the police. However, video footage spread on social media showed clearly that it was the priest and the petitioners who were attacked. The videos showed that Father Thuc had repeatedly told people to remain sitting and praying while the police lashed out with their batons.
Father Thuc has been in the forefront of efforts by local people to get recognition for the losses they sustained in the environmental disaster, and adequate compensation.
FHS pledged to pay US$500 million in compensation after admitting responsibility for the leak in June last year.
However, on September 29, 2016, the Deputy Prime Minister, Truong Hoa Binh, signed Decision 1880 on providing remedies for victims of the disaster. It said only those who reside in four central provinces; Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien-Hue, would be eligible for compensation.
On October 3, 2016, Father Thuc, of Song Ngoc parish in Vinh diocese, went to a local court to submit a formal request for compensation on behalf of 619 families in the three towns of Quynh Ngoc, Quynh Tho and Son Hai (Quynh Luu district, Nghe An province), which are located about 180 kms north of the steel plant. Hundreds of people in his parish joined him.
Of these 619 households, nearly 400 are Catholic. Their request had been sent to the National Assembly, the government office, the Nghe An People’s Committee, and the lower-ranked Quynh Luu People’s Committee.
The petitioners received no response and so they felt they had no choice but to proceed directly to the court at Ky Anh, where the FHS steel plant is located, and sue directly for damages.