Beyond Vietnam’s ‘Great Fish Kill’

"If the problem of human rights isn't properly solved," said my friend C.V., "Vietnam is going to be isolated from the international community, and that will make it really hard to develop our country." We spoke just after blogger Mẹ Nấm was taken into custody on October 10, charged with "distorting the truth, opposing the party line and state policies."

Western press reports linked the popular blogger's arrest to her criticism of the Hanoi government's management of an environmental disaster, the hundreds of tons of fish killed in April when a newly commissioned foreign-owned steel mill unaccountably released toxic chemicals into coastal waters. Police told Vietnamese reporters, however, that the charges lodged against Mẹ Nấm were more relate to her compilation of some 31 deaths of individuals in police custody, a list she posted over. two years ago.

Mẹ Nấm is in jail not only because she dares to challenge Vietnam's Ministry of Public Security, but also to caution other bloggers who argue that Hanoi has been too lenient in its bargaining with the steel mill's Taiwanese owner. She is a pawn in another round between those whose objective is normalizing Vietnam as a fast-developing member of the international community and those who think that an excess of zeal in this respect could well undo the Communist Party's authority.

The party numbers perhaps four million of the nation's 90 million citizens. Most members join because they want to get ahead in the public sector or in state-owned enterprises. A party card isn't necessary for success in the private sector but being known as a dissident isn't career enhancing. And then there are those, like Mẹ Nấm and C.V., who just can't tolerate the idea of a Vietnam where a self-selected vanguard of the proletariat decides the nation's course non-transparently and on behalf of everyone else.

Asia Sentinel readers will recall that in January, the 12th Congress ratified Communist Party conservatives' rejection of Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng's bid to lead the party as well as the government. Midway through his second five year term, Dũng had shaken off earlier missteps and won the qualified approval of the general public. However, party stalwarts considered him a dangerous populist. He reminded them of Mikhail Gorbachev, whose feckless attempt to reform the Soviet system led to its disintegration.

Dũng was the flawed exponent of a new order, that is to say of a Vietnam not substantially different from other well-run, rising nations. The current prime minister, Dung's successor, was one of Dũng's deputies. Though in principle buoyed by party and public consensus that Vietnam must 'globalize,' Nguyễn Xuân Phúc is on a much shorter tether than was Dũng. He is liable at every turn to second-guessing by the party's 17 member Politburo, a body that is dominated by police generals and party apparatchiks. Phúc may wish that the cops would lay off bloggers but in fact there's little he can do to dissuade them.

Hanoi's management of the Great Fish Kill is the best measure so far of the new power constellation.

In two important respects, the Phúc government has already failed the test. First, Hanoi took more than two months to confirm the obvious: that toxic discharges from the new Taiwan-owned steel mill at Vũng Áng had put the fishermen of four provinces out of work for many months. Second, though the mill's owner, Formosa Plastics, ultimately agreed to pay half a billion US dollars in compensation, hugely more than any comparable settlement in Vietnam's history, the consensus of Vietnam's blogosphere is that Phúc sold out.

What Price Prosperity?

Environmentally dubious foreign investment projects aren't new in Vietnam. They've been part of the mix since Hanoi began its courtship of foreign investors a quarter-century ago. And before that, while Vietnam was "building socialism," environmental protection was a rarely affordable luxury.

Foreign capital has been pouring into Vietnam in the last few years, including gleaming new factories bearing the logos of firms like Samsung, Intel, Panasonic and Canon. Some ventures, like a huge bauxite mining/alumina smelting complex in the central highlands, the Formosa Plastics development at Vũng Áng, and a zinc mill just proposed on the coast near Huế, are more problematic from an environmental perspective, but well nigh irresistible to provincial authorities in poorer parts of the nation.

It's hard to imagine Vietnam becoming wealthy without hosting big ventures that marry up advanced technology with young, smart Vietnamese workers. Formosa Plastics mobilized US$11 billion to build its steelmaking complex at Vũng Áng and has said it intends to invest more if the business prospers, ultimately providing 30,000 jobs.

When Vietnam was still desperately poor, it didn't produce enough trash for pollution to be a problem. Now Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are megacities with overtaxed sewer systems and chronic air pollution. Developers line the nation's once-pristine beaches with tacky resorts. The wealthy flee to apartment towers or gated communities. For the rest of Vietnam's citizenry, the concomitant of economic growth is a palpably deteriorating environment. With cash in their pockets, Vietnam's urban middle class can these days afford the luxury of caring about quality of life issues. Many are speaking up on social media. Significant numbers are showing up for ad hoc protests.

March 2015 will likely be remembered as the moment that environmental activism went mainstream. Then, thousands of young people rallied to stop the logging of tropical hardwoods that grace Hanoi's downtown streets. The municipal construction department's explanation was lame, its intentions patently corrupt, and after enough ordinary citizens complained, higher authority put a stop to the ill-conceived project. In countries where grassroots environmental advocacy is common, the tree-felling fiasco would have been a routine political event.

In Vietnam, however, the event was revolutionary. Hanoi has signed virtually every international agreement on environmental stewardship, but it's still the party/state that sets the agenda and monopolizes decision-making. The regime's suspicious of civil society in general, and particularly hostile to organized protest. There's no acknowledged space for environmental activism of the sort practiced in democracies by not for profit organizations.

Perhaps hopeful that the tree felling incident had established a precedent, tens of thousands of citizens mobilized this year in Vietnam's cities in April and May to press for punishment of those who released the toxic chemicals that killed the fish. Marching with placards proclaiming "I choose fish," the demonstrators demanded that Hanoi hold Formosa Plastics to account.

It wasn't the first time that public opinion had been roused against a big Taiwanese investor. In 2010, an environmental police unit discovered that MSG manufacturer Vedan had been pumping untreated waste from its factory directly into a river near Ho Chi Minh City for 14 years, deliberately bypassing the plant's waste processing system. Then, as again this year, the government was conspicuously reluctant to punish the perpetrator.

In the Vedan incident, it looked as though Vedan would escape with only a token fine. However, as time was running out, local lawyers mobilized to help 3000 small aquaculturists file claims against the Taiwanese firm. Facing a consumer boycott and an almost certain judgment in favor of the fish farmers, Vedan settled out of court for approximately US$12 million.

In the great central coast fishkill this April, once again it was humble folk – fishermen, aquaculturalists and petty traders – who were the victims. And in Vietnam's cities, the young people who marched in their support were at first tolerated, but on the third Sunday of protests the marches were suppressed, often brutally.

Soon afterward, the US President visited, to the delight of Vietnam's 90 million citizens. On national TV, he pointedly emphasized American support of basic human rights. And then Obama's brief visit ended without incident, to the relief of the party/state. A few weeks later, on June 30, Hanoi lifted the veil on its negotiations with Formosa Plastics. The seemingly munificent half-billion US dollar no-fault plea sounded like a good deal. No other polluter had ever agreed to pay up nearly so much in compensation.

My back of the envelope calculation suggests Formosa Plastics got off cheap. Let's deduct US$100 million to defray the cost of government crisis management action, and let's very conservatively assume that 200,000 people were thrown out of work in the four coastal provinces affected. If the remaining US$400 million were divided equally among them, each fisher family would receive US$2,000, or about four months' average per capita income in Vietnam.

Thanh Niên, a respected daily, asked three prominent lawyers if individuals injured by the great fishkill could additionally sue Formosa Plastics' Vietnamese subsidiary. Perhaps Thanh Niên recalled the Vedan incident. "Yes," its sources answered, quoting from Vietnam's 2014 Law on Environmental Protection.

Or maybe there's no next chapter. On Oct. 1, perhaps 10,000 demonstrators gathered at the front gate of the Formosa Plastics steel mill. Blogger reports said they were organized by local Catholic activists in support of 506 families who had just filed suit for a total of US$2.52 million against the Taiwanese company. After chasing off plant security forces and a number of police, the demonstrators climbed the outer wall of the factory complex and then dispersed when heavy rains began toward lunchtime.

A few days later, the Ký Anh district court returned all 506 complaints. Plaintiffs had failed to provide concrete evidence of the alleged losses, the court said. It's not clear if the court will accept amended complaints or whether, alternatively, its action may be overruled by a higher court.

The Great Fish Kill is still far from resolved as a matter of public policy and will continue to frame the public's estimation of Prime Minister Phúc. Vietnamese reformers want closer scrutiny of investment proposals; thus it's entirely possible that details may leak out of too cozy dealings between Formosa Plastics and Hà Tỉnh province leaders. The government may allow higher courts to consider lawsuits against the Taiwan firm. Party and state conservatives, on the other hand, expect Prime Minister Phúc to manage matters.

The cautionary jailing of blogger Mẹ Nấm is, like the suppression of "I choose fish" demonstrations before President Obama's end-May visit to Vietnam, a warning that environmental complaints will not be allowed to morph into political protest.

David Brown is a retired American diplomat who writes often for Asia Sentinel about events in Vietnam. His four-part report on Vietnam's Mekong Delta was published this month by Mongabay, and may be found here.