A Catholic priest in Vietnam on Monday dismissed official claims that activists instigated a violent confrontation with local authorities during a February protest over the government’s handling of a toxic waste spill off the country’s central coast.
Dang Huu Nam of the Phu Yen parish, under central Vietnam’s Roman Catholic Vinh Diocese, told RFA he wrote a letter rejecting accusations by officials in Nghe An province that activists protesting Hanoi’s settlement with the Formosa steel plant over its toxic waste spill had touched off the clash.
“I just sent a reply today, following letter number 1022 of the Nghe An People’s Committee about the march on Feb. 14,” Nam told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“We reiterate that there was nothing wrong in what priest Thuc and his parishioners did. What they did was civil and should be encouraged. The government should have helped the people to exercise their rights.”
On Feb. 14, Catholic priest Nguyen Dinh Thuc led around 500 mostly Song Ngoc parishioners to deliver a petition to authorities in in Ha Tinh province’s Ky Anh district demanding adequate compensation for the losses caused by the spill in April, which poisoned much of the central coast.
Police set upon the group, beating and arresting several demonstrators, sources told RFA at the time. Thuc claimed to have been beaten in the melee, but was rescued by fellow petitioners.
On Monday, Nam told RFA that thousands of parishioners gathered Sunday for a church service in Song Ngoc and then marched to the local government office to protest Formosa.
“Parishioners from Manh Son, Vinh Yen, Cam Truong and Phu Yen went to Song Ngoc to attend a prayer service—there were 7,000 people at its peak,” Nam said.
“After the service, we marched to the Quynh Ngoc village office to express our concerns and then returned home,” he said, adding that authorities observed the march, but did not intervene.
In June, the Taiwan-owned Formosa Plastics Group acknowledged it was responsible for the release of toxic chemicals from its massive steel plant located at the deep-water port in Ky Anh district.
The spill killed an estimated 115 tons of fish and left fishermen and tourism industry workers jobless in four central provinces. Vietnam's government said in a report to the National Assembly in July that the disaster had harmed the livelihoods of more than 200,000 people, including 41,000 fishermen.
The company pledged U.S. $500 million to clean up and compensate people affected by the spill, but the government has faced protests over the amount of the settlement and the slow pace of payouts.
Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc had ordered compensation for the affected people by the end of 2016, but many have yet to receive any money.
Vietnam’s one-party communist state closely controls and monitors the Catholic community, the second largest religious group in the country after the Buddhists. Vietnamese Catholics have also been at the forefront of Formosa protests.
In August, more than 200 policemen blocked and assaulted some 4,000 Catholic parishioners who tried to march to Ky Anh township’s administrative offices to protest government inaction over their loss of livelihood following the massive pollution-linked fish kill.
Before that, the marchers tried several times to demand relief from provincial authorities, but the police always stopped them, according to protesters.
Formosa Plastics’ U.S. $10.6 billion steel complex in Ha Tinh province includes a steel plant, a power plant and a deep sea port, and is one of the largest foreign investments in Vietnam.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.