The two prongs of Vietnam’s response to the Formosa chemical spill were shown in stark relief on Monday: harsh repression of environmental campaigners – and, at the same time, an attempt to reassure the public that lessons have been learned.
A 22-year-old blogger, Nguyen Van Hoa, was sentenced to seven years in prison for producing videos and writing about the protests that followed the environmental disaster last April.
The environmental ministry, meanwhile, revealed it had drawn up a “black list” of industrial projects, including the Formosa steel plant that caused the disaster, that needed special surveillance
Communist party justice
The government has been alarmed by the scale and organisation of a grassroots environmental movement that grew up in the aftermath of the toxic leak that devastated fish stocks along the north-central coast.
Thousands of local villagers have joined a series of mass protests to demand full transparency, the closure of the steel company, and adequate compensation for their losses.
Nguyen Van Hoa is the latest blogger to feel the full weight of Communist party justice for his involvement in the campaign.
He was the first citizen journalist to broadcast live footage of last year’s mass protests near the steel plant in Ha Tinh province.
Rights groups said he had no legal representation in what was effectively a brief and secret trial.
He was accused of spreading propaganda against the state and of receiving funds from overseas with the intention of damaging the government.
Isolated and vulnerable
It was the same charge used to convict the well known blogger, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known as Mother Mushroom, who was sentenced to ten years jail in June.
She had blogged for years in support of civil rights, but it was her involvement in the Formosa campaign that finally persuaded the authorities to silence her.
The environmental campaign is alarming to a government that seeks to keep its critics isolated, on the defensive and vulnerable to charges of “counter-revolutionary” sentiments amongst a public brought up on communist ideology.
But after Formosa, civil society campaigners in the main cities managed to link up with aggrieved fishermen in poor coastal villages who felt the Communist party had abandoned them.
Endemic corruption in the party convinced many that the authorities were protecting the Taiwanese investors and were more interested in personal profit than protecting the environment and local livelihoods.
Formosa did agree to pay $500 million in compensation last year, but critics say the deal was done in secret, and they question how the funds have been distributed.
By naming 28 companies that will receive special environmental monitoring, the government is trying to convince the public that it is taking action.
The companies listed are in the steel, power, mining and cement industries.
The ministry says the process will help prevent future disasters on the scale of Formosa.
Critics say the effectiveness of any such scheme will be impossible to assess because it will be carried out in the shadows with no public accountability.
The Vietnamese government has shown, once again, that it will move ruthlessly to suppress anything that looks like organised opposition; at the same time it will try to convince ordinary people that it is looking after their interests, just as long as they don’t ask too many questions.