'Really Pissed Off:' Vietnam’s Environmental Disaster

Although the international news media described the 100 tonnes of dead fish that washed up on Vietnam's shores last month as "unprecedented," few have bothered to separate the true magnitude of the environmental disaster from longstanding hatred of the Taiwanese factory presumed responsible.

It is unclear how the anger over the disaster will impact President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam this week but the US would be wise to pay attention.

The story, which swiftly went international, broke in Vietnam’s national press on April 20, when low-level officials from Vietnam’s Fishery Administration cited fishermen’s reports of a reddish discharge in the vicinity of the Vung Ang Industrial Zone on about April 6. They told reporters that the toxic tide worked its way south along the coast of four provinces, killing farmed fish as well as free swimming species. Eventually, Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Company, which is building a steel mill, has borne the brunt of the criticism although nothing has been proven.

But the Formosa Steel case pales in comparison to a long list of fish kills and other environmental messes in which powerful interests always walked away Scot free.

As long ago as 2008, a Taiwanese MSG manufacturer made a moonscape of a river just north of Ho Chi Minh City. Agricultural and health impacts aside, the water literally ate its way through ship hulls downstream before the government took any action.

Not much has changed

In February, 1,119 tonnes of farmed fish – 10 times as much as the Vung Ang case – went belly up overnight on the Cai Vung River, a stretch of the Mekong that runs between Dong Thap and An Giang. Farmers and local authorities initially blamed the riverfront Toan Cau Rice Processing Company for having released excess phosphates into the river. Two months later, Dong Thap officials released a report absolving the company of all guilt. They blamed poor farming practices for a lack of dissolved oxygen in the water. They also blamed the record drought caused by El Nino weather conditions.

No one raised a stink, not even when another 10 tons of fish croaked in the river earlier this month.

A World Bank wonk who asked not to name him said the central Government writes Vietnam's environmental laws and then hands them to the miniature fiefdoms in each province to enforce them as they please. In a system like that, no one could put his or her foot down when a rural backwater decides to invite a serial polluter like Formosa to drop 10,000 Chinese workers into an impoverished bottleneck to build South East Asia's largest steel plant.

Former Deputy Minister of Environment Dang Hung Vo told Asia Sentinel that polluted water has caused four major fish kills in the country since January, betraying a lack of capacity and perhaps a lack of will to police, monitor and control waste discharges throughout the country. Furthermore, a huge gap exists between law and practice.

"There's a lack of foresight when making economic development plans,” he said. But even plans can change. "A lot of things in approved plans or environmental impact assessment reports or investment projects are easily adjusted.”

Le Viet Phu, a lecturer of environmental economics and policy at the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program dismissed any attempt to exaggerate the scope of this fish kill. In a discussion about Vietnam's reckless embrace of cheap coal plants, Phu conceded: "it's very, very messy at the micro level. The government knows it very well, the people know it very well. But they accept it as a consequence of economic growth. We are trading economic growth for all sorts of environmental problems."

He guessed that Vietnam wouldn't consider really putting the brakes on some of its more egregious environmental practices for another decade.

Indeed, it is a sad shock that anyone has taken to the streets for the sake of Vietnam's battered, soiled environment. For a long time now, the country has only bothered to rise up when the boldest of lines got crossed.

That often has generated blind, outsized anger at the local level—just ask the country's dog thieves.

Last year, the sleepy fishing village of Vinh Tan shut down the national highway after months of lobbying local authorities to shut down a cheap Chinese coal plant. When the provincial riot police showed up to bust them up, they were met with rocks and Molotov cocktails.

Blame the cops

Police here are constantly described as repressive, even brutal. But what police force in the world would take a hail of firebombs and rocks without letting lose dogs or rubber bullets? The cops, like the people, are viewed as expendable. They're carted out to stand post in the blazing sun. To suffer insults and spit and bile. They take hours to encircle a mob, urge everyone to go home. Then they start punching and grabbing people haphazardly by the collars without even arresting them.

The few who actually wind up on a requisitioned city bus or sandwiched between two secret policemen on a motorbike rarely see charges, so long as they forego righteous anger.

The police play the long game, taking months to "invite" the participants in for questioning before tightening the screws on the few remaining squeaky wheels. A few light sentences get handed out along with compensation and hollow promises for change.

In this way, the state acts more like "older brother" than "Big Brother." Everyone gets crazy; he knows best.

And that works—most of the time.

But when police took the leash off demonstrations in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi after China moved its oil rig into Vietnam's Exclusive Economic Zone, factory workers struck in the provinces around Saigon by the thousands. The "demonstrations" quickly became massive riots that sent investors fleeing the country. The violence gave China a handy bit of leverage in painting the Vietnamese as bloodthirsty fanatics.


Nothing succeeded in this campaign more than the bare-fisted murder of a still unknown number of Chinese steelworkers during a riot at the Formosa factory, which now provides the molten core of the current fish-centric environmental/transparency kerfuffle.

During the factory violence, no one asked Vietnam for better environmental controls, transparency or even laws governing public demonstrations. Instead, multinational corporations (and their national government advocates) wanted apologies and promises that Vietnam would never let anything like it happen again.

When I broached this subject with a certain exiled Vietnamese-Australian lawyer pushing for further protest and assembly rights, he balked.

"The police crushed the protests in the cities and allowed certain criminal elements to infiltrate the protests in Binh Duong and Dong Nai,” he said. “No one knows who those people were."

The cause of the destruction and looting of those factories remains the subject of as much speculation and rumor as the mysterious fish kill. Vietnam's advocates for human rights pinned the whole thing on Chinese agents provocateurs who supposedly paid criminals to set things ablaze. Ho Chi Minh City Police now claim that the current demonstrations are the work of the "terrorist organization" Viet Tan. Their recent "story" in the Tuoi Tre newspaper accused the overseas organization of raising a subversive rabble of criminals and gullible youth using small cash payments and, somewhat unbelievably, snacks.

Paranoia runs deep

On May 14, protesters warned that the police would use agents provocateurs to incite violence during a march into the backpacker district. They never made it far enough to find out.

The reality is that the majority of Vietnam's population is pissed off. Really, really pissed off. The government's fumbling boilerplate response to small environmental SNAFUs didn't work in this case because the whole country began hating that steel plant a long time ago.

In the wake of the rioting and looting that occurred in 2014, thousands of Formosa employees evacuated on Chinese boats; when they returned and attempted to build a shrine to their dead colleagues, the gesture drew national ire.

“Vietnamese have their own pagodas in other countries, but they are permanent communities,” Duong Trung Quoc, a member of Vietnam's National Assembly, told state-owned media. “Here we only have temporary Chinese workers.”

The country has always needed a bogeyman. For a while, America played the part brilliantly. After the Indochina war, China fit the bill. But now all that huffing and puffing has inflated the population's sentimentality for reefs and atolls stitched together with tons of Chinese filler and held down with a few sunbaked fighter jets.

And so Hanoi finds itself grappling with a Frankenstein monster it can't control. The government seems unwilling or unable to put a boot in the presumed villains. In the meantime, it's got to figure out how to tame a population spoon-fed on sovereignty and obsessed with sand it won't ever see.

'Do your families dare to eat fish?'

Following her arrest during the May 9 protest, the former chief of marriage and family affairs for the Ho Chi Minh City Women's Newspaper took to Facebook to decry her arrest and detention at a local sports stadium.

Her dramatic account concludes with a tirade supposedly directed to the police:

“Do your families dare to eat fish? How many fisherman have lost their livelihoods? The sea is dead, the fisherman hungry, the environment, dry land and undersea, have both been threatened. The Paracel islands are lost, the Spratly islands have been partially taken from our control. Are you aggrieved by this? Don’t you want revenge?”

As the neutered newspaper editor Nguyen Cong Khe lamented in his prescient Op-Ed, “The public, including the intelligentsia, has grown so distrustful of state media and the state itself that it is too quick to accept accounts criticizing the government as true, even when they are not well substantiated.”

This week, Obama should demand transparency and freedom for a population that has never known either.

What might that end up looking like?