The Catholic clergy in Vietnam has dismissed what they say is a bid by the government to denounce two priests who organized protests against the official handling of a toxic waste spill that devastated the country’s central coast last year.
Last week, the official Voice of Vietnam said in a report that priests Dang Huu Nam and Nguyen Dinh Thuc, who manage the Phu Yen and Song Noc dioceses, respectively, in Nghe An province’s Quynh Luu district, had “worsened the image of God in Vietnam” through their recent work.
The two priests have “incited the laity to take part in activities including marching and causing disorder in the area, used the church to distort the situation in the country, and defamed the authorities to spread insecurity and hate” in the name of the environment, the report said.
They also “denied the fruits of the unification of the country” by holding protests against the waste spill by Taiwan-owned Formosa Plastics Group’s steel plant during celebrations last week marking the 42nd anniversary of the communist victory in the Vietnam War, and did so for the purpose of “enlisting exile support from abroad,” it said.
Responding to the accusations, 18 priests from Thuan Nghia and Mai Vang divisions, under the Vinh Diocese, issued a declaration on May 8 opposing the government’s allegations against Nam and Thuc.
In the declaration, the priests said the two men had instead served the nation by acting in the interest of the victims of the April 2016 Formosa waste spill, which killed an estimated 115 tons of fish and left fishermen jobless in four coastal provinces.
Priest Giuse Tran Thanh Loi, one of the signatories from Thuan Nghia division, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service Tuesday that the declaration was meant to show solidarity among the Catholic priesthood and demonstrate a willingness to “protect justice and truth.”
“What Priest Nam and Priest Thuc have done is protect our country in a way that is recognized by the constitution and the state of Vietnam—even though whenever we organize peaceful protests, we are always oppressed,” Loi said.
“We see [the government denunciation] as a move to accuse the two priests of committing ‘crimes against the state,’ and so on. But we will never let them achieve their goal. We will always join hands to improve the country so that the Formosa victims can return to stability.”
Formosa has voluntarily paid U.S. $500 million to clean up and compensate coastal residents affected by the spill, but slow and uneven payout of the funds by the Vietnamese government has prompted protests that continue to be held more than a year later.
State media had also reported that “thousands of people” gathered in Nghe An province last week to protest Nam for “creating social instability” while leading anti-Formosa protests, but sources told RFA on Tuesday that the demonstration had been organized by authorities as part of a campaign to smear the priest’s name.
One Catholic noted that only the official Nghe An and Police newspapers had reported on the protest, which was attended mostly by members of the War Veterans’ Association, while no other media outlets had covered the event.
“Recently, the authorities from Quynh Luu … and many other places have proposed prosecuting Dang Huu Nam, saying that he must bear criminal liability, but there was no such movement before,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“I am saying this so people know that the authorities were behind the proposal. They organized the protest to be really large and noisy to give credence to the idea of prosecuting him.”
A second Catholic source cited reports that the government had paid people to take part in last week’s protest calling on authorities to bring criminal charges against Nam.
“To be honest, [the authorities] are doing all they can to arrest Priest Nam,” the second source told RFA.
“We heard from … several people that they’re protesting under the lead of the Quyng Luu authorities. [The authorities] even gave money to protesters—something between 20,000 and 50,000 dong (U.S. $0.88 and $2.20),” he said.
“Nobody there was even Catholic.”
Also on Tuesday, the government of Tan Tao A ward, in the commercial capital Ho Chi Minh City’s Binh Tan district issued an order instructing local photocopy shops not to print or copy any documents or leaflets related to the Formosa spill.
The order also informed photocopy shop owners that they are required to notify police about anyone requesting to do so.
Several photocopy shops confirmed to RFA that they had received the order from Tan Tao A ward authorities.
Phone calls to Huynh Dang Ha Tuyen, who signed the Tan Tao A ward order, went unanswered on Tuesday.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Emily Peyman. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.