Over a year has passed since a toxic spill by a steel mill in central Vietnam polluted more than 125 miles of coastline along four provinces, but tensions in the country persist as activists rely on both organized protest and social media to grow environmental campaigns.
The April 2016 spill by the Taiwan-owned Formosa Plastics Group killed an estimated 115 tons of fish and left fishermen and tourism industry workers jobless in four central provinces, and the damage left by the spill prompted countless protests and outcry on social media.
With over 30 million users now on Facebook in Vietnam, Vietnamese activists, many of them young adults, easily transformed themselves into reporters by posting pictures of dead fish and videos of police abuse of protesters online.
“[Young people] are larger in numbers, and they are savvier with social media and computers and iPhones and networking and Facebook,” San Diego-based Vietnamese Human Rights Network founding member Nguyen Giao told RFA in an interview.
“It’s their future, the young people,” Giao said, referring to their online activism over pollution concerns. “It’s their living environment, and it is being poisoned. It is more a direct threat to them.”
Just weeks after the Formosa plant’s fish kill, the company’s external relations manager told state-run television channel VTC14 that the Vietnamese people needed to “choose whether to catch fish and shrimp or build a state-of-the-art steel mill.”
This false choice offered by the firm prompted the public to respond online with the hashtag #IChooseFish and its Vietnamese-language equivalent #toichonca.
“Vietnamese environmental campaigners are becoming more organized as a group,” former director of the Hanoi-based Vietnam Green Building Council Jalel Sager told RFA.
“As the country has become more integrated in the last 20 years with the rest of the global system, people who in the past were very focused on ideas of national security or domestic concerns have [now] found the stability that allows them to focus on what might be considered second-order issues, such as the environment.”
“But I also think those environmental issues in Vietnam are in some cases bleeding into national security issues—for instance the issues of sea-level rise in the Mekong Delta and how it affects food security in Vietnam.”
Dozens have been jailed
For young activists, Facebook serves as an outlet to call for government reform, as users can organize rallies and express their political views online.
But what human rights organizations call free expression is often deemed anti-government propaganda by Vietnam’s one-party communist state, and dozens of writers and bloggers have been jailed under vaguely defined provisions of Vietnam’s Penal Code.
In July 2017, a Vietnamese court sentenced prominent activist and blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, also known as Mother Mushroom, to 10 years in prison for “spreading propaganda against the state” through her Facebook posts and interviews with U.S. news services.
Meanwhile in May, Vietnamese authorities issued an arrest warrant for activist blogger Bach Hong Quyen, who had written extensively on the Formosa toxic waste spill and had criticized the government’s handling of the disaster.
Quyen, who remains in hiding, told RFA in an earlier report that he is prepared to serve time in prison if he is captured.
“I accepted it when I chose this path fighting for human rights,” Quyen said.
“The possibility of being arrested does not scare me or hold me back, because we must fight when there is injustice.”