Vietnamese authorities arrested two people on Monday for inciting public opinion over the way the government is handling an environmental disaster that has seen tons of dead fish wash up on the country’s Central Coast.
Minh Tam, 46, and Chu Manh Son, 27, were arrested on Monday after they visited the provinces hit hardest by the disaster, RFA’s Vietnamese Service has learned.
According to state television Tam and Son had gone to “interview local people, produce TV reports and post them on anti-state web sites.”
The arrests come as people took to the streets in major cities over the weekend in a rare show of protest over the way the government is handling the disaster.
There were demonstrations reported in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Vung Tau and Da Nang. In Da Nang, police were reported to have intervened and broken up gatherings.
Protests are extremely rare in Vietnam, and the government appeared to signal that it is ready to crack down on demonstrations.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc ordered authorities to investigate and apply necessary measures to those who incite people to gather and disturb the public order or adversely affect political security, jeopardizing the economy social order and the investment environment, state media reported.
Protestors told RFA they were shadowed, harassed and beaten.
Former prisoner of conscience Pham Thanh Nghiem told RFA the government’s reaction wasn’t unusual.
“I can assure that what tam and son did was nothing more than to bring the truth to the public,” she said. “What they did was not useless; on the contrary they have a great significance especially at this time of environmental disaster.”
According to VnExpress express, Tam admitted that he joined the Vietnam Path Movement, collected sensitive political information, interviewed dissidents in an effort to spread information on Facebook of the organization in an effort to criticize the Vietnam’s government.
The Vietnam Path Movement, an unregistered civil society organization that campaigns for human rights.
Police confiscated documents related to Tam’s activities in association with Vietnam Path Movement including a chit for a $400 monthly salary. Police say they found evidence that Tam and other members of the organization have received about $3,000 sent from abroad.
According to authorities Son was arrested after he went to Quang Binh province to collect information and pictures to post on reactionary websites to incite people.
Tam was sentenced to 12 months in prison in 2013 with charges of “fraud to steal money,” while son, was sentenced to 30 months in prison in 2011 on an unspecified charge.
While the streets filled up with protesters, Phuc and his government were trying to prove they were making a thorough investigation that would punish the responsible parties.
“Any agency or organization, individual violated laws will have to be subject to investigation based on science evidence and nobody should cover up the issue,” he said according to a report by Vietnamnet.
That includes the Formosa Plastics Corp. steel plant located in the Vung Ang industrial zone. The huge facility is at the center of speculation over the causes of the environmental catastrophe.
Tons of fish have washed ashore in Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien-Hue provinces along a 200-kilometer (120-mile) stretch of the central coast of Vietnam. The dead fish washing up on beaches along the country's central coast include rare species that live far offshore in deep water.
While Formosa denies that there is a link between the fish deaths and the steel mill, the company has been the center of attention during the disaster. A mile-long waste pipe that runs from Formosa’s $10.5 billion steel and port facility.
While Formosa admits it owns the pipe, it is unclear if they had the authority to build or use it.
According to a Rueters report Environment Minister Tran Hong Ha declared the pipe illegal and ordered Formosa to dig it up, even after it found no evidence tying its discharge to mass fish deaths that have triggered health fears and public anger.
"We propose to have measures in place to monitor this system after it is elevated, for easy access and surveillance," Ha told Formosa officials and reporters on Thursday.
“We will examine all facilities, including Formosa. We will not exclude anyone,” Phuc said according to a TuoiTreNews report.
Reported for RFA's Vietnamese Service by Gia Minh. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.