Vietnamese Commune Targeted by Protestors Over Formosa Spill Payments

The protests over compensation caused the commune and village chiefs to flee.

A woman collects dead clams on a beach at Ky Anh district, in the central Vietnamese coastal province of Ha Tinh, April 27, 2016.

About 1,000 people in Vietnam’s Quang Binh province protested the central government’s handling of last year’s Formosa environmental disaster, demanding transparency over compensation payments from Hanoi.

The protestors gathered Saturday afternoon in Quang Loc village’s Con Se Commune yard and at the house of the commune chief seeking an explanation for the uneven payouts that have come from a $500 million compensation fund.

Despite the protests, the villagers apparently got few answers before the commune chief and the village chief fled.

“Both the commune and village heads ran away,” a villager told RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Monday.

The villager told RFA that fishing boat owners were given some compensation for losses from the mass fish die-off last April, but that the pay-out to ordinary fishermen and laborers was minimal from a disaster that caused widespread joblessness.

“The boat owners have received compensation, but the laborer component is still low,” the villager explained. “Around one thousand of the commune’s people have yet to receive any compensation.”

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 Ha Tinh Province.

The April 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 $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, sparking protests like the weekend rally in Con Se commune.

Dissent is often followed by crackdowns

Public demonstrations are rare in Vietnam, but the Formosa disaster has brought people to the streets and the acts of dissent have also caused Hanoi to react.

A Vietnamese activist known for filming the Formosa protests was charged earlier this year with “abusing democratic freedoms,” RFA’s Vietnamese Service has learned.

Nguyen Van Hoa, 22, was arrested by police on Jan. 11 as Vietnamese authorities picked up several activists in advance of the Tet lunar new year holiday, but police notified his family of the charges only on Friday, according to a police notice.

Hoa is accused of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens” under Article 258 of Vietnam’s penal code, the police notice said.

Article 258 is one of several statues like Article 88 that Hanoi uses to prosecute dissidents. If convicted, Hoa faces up to seven years in prison.

In October, Vietnamese authorities also arrested popular blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who blogged extensively about the Formosa steel plant disaster under the pen name Mother Mushroom.

Quynh co-founded the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers, one of the few independent writers’ associations in a country where the news media and publishing industry are tightly controlled by the governing Communist Party.

The network defended Quynh, writing in a statement that she is an “activist who has advocated for human rights, improved living conditions for people, and sovereignty for many years.”

She was charged with violating Article 88 of the Vietnamese Penal Code by “conducting propaganda against the state.” Article 88 is considered a “national security offense” and carries a sentence of between three and 20 years of imprisonment.

Reported and translated by RFA's Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.