Hundreds of Vietnamese Catholics from various parishes of central Vietnam’s Vinh diocese demonstrated on Thursday to mark the one-year anniversary of a toxic waste spill that polluted more than 125 miles of coastline in four coastal provinces.
The spill—the country’s largest environmental disaster—began on April 6, 2016 and lasted for 12 days, killing an estimated 115 tons of fish and leaving fishermen and tourism industry workers jobless.
Two months later, Taiwan-owned Formosa Plastics Group acknowledged it was responsible for the release of the chemicals from its massive steel plant located at the deep-water port in Ha Tinh province’s Ky Anh district.
The company has voluntarily paid U.S. $500 million to clean up and compensate those affected by the spill, but the slow and uneven payout of the funds by the Vietnamese government has prompted protests which continue to be held a year after the spill.
Protesters took to the streets and the beaches of Vinh diocese, carrying black flags decorated with symbolic fish bones and banners that read “Bring Formosa and its supporters to trial,” “Formosa disaster is for all Vietnam people,” and “Formosa—licensed death.”
“Today is the one-year anniversary of the mass fish kill disaster,” a fisherman who joined the protest told RFA’s Vietnamese Service. “I can’t go out to sea anymore, so I have time to join others here.”
“My wish is our sea becomes clean so our children can swim and we can go out to sea again,” he said. “I have not even mentioned the compensation.”
Catholic priest Bui Khiem Cuong of Dong Son parish told RFA, “All of us, from children to senior citizens, including myself, would like to send a message to the whole world and Vietnam’s leaders about the environment.”
“We demand that the government of Vietnam drive Formosa out of the country because we are the victims of this disaster,” he said. “People here depend on the sea, and they have so many difficulties in life.”
In a related development, authorities have charged an environmental activist who sought justice for those affected by the Formosa disaster with abusing democracy and freedom and infringing upon the interests of the state under Article 258 of the country’s penal code.
Nguyen Van Hoa was arrested by Ha Tinh provincial police in February for reporting on the coastal pollution caused by the toxic chemical spill in the country’s central region.
Vietnamese authorities frequently use Article 258, which refers to “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens,” to arrest and imprison those who support democracy and human rights and denounce abuses.
“He signed contracts with foreign news outlets to provide 16 reports a month for U.S. $1,500,” the online Vietnamese news service VNExpress quoted Nguyen Tien Nam, vice director of the Ha Tinh police, as saying.
Police also accused Hoa of setting up many social media accounts to report on pollution and floods in the region, he said.
“Such evidence shows that Nguyen Van Hoa has complicated security and order in the region,” Nam said.
After Hoa was arrested, his sister told RFA that following the Formosa environmental disaster, Hoa decided to speak out about it to ensure justice for the people of the region.
“The police did not like that, so they monitored him,” she said. “They had no reason to arrest him officially, so they kidnapped him.”
Reported by Gia Minh for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.