Viet Fish Kill Spawns Political Crisis

Vietnam's new government, installed after the 12th Congress of its ruling Communist Party early this year, seems to have made up its mind how it will manage its first political crisis, nationwide revulsion over the still unexplained death of 100 tonnes or so of fish along the coasts of four north central provinces.

On May 8, police in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Danang mobilized police and their bullyboy auxiliaries to shut down crowds of demonstrators who had turned out for a second Sunday to protest the environmental catastrophe.

For two weeks, the government has made a show of investigating every possible cause of the great fish kill except what the public has come to believe is the obvious cause: highly toxic chemicals released into the sea at a huge steel mill that is just going into operation. Now it seems that unless the originators step forward and confess to an accident, the sudden death of 100 tonnes of free swimming and farmed fish is destined to remain – officially at least – a mystery.

The steel mill, a power plant and ancillary port facilities have been built on a 3,300-hectare tract at Vung Ang, a bay near the southern border of Ha Tinh province. Local officials reportedly regard the project as essential to the prosperity of their impoverished province. Manager of the US$10.5 billion project is the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Company (FHS), a subsidiary of Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Corporation. The plant's prime contractor is China Metallurgical Group (MMC), a Chinese state enterprise. Other Chinese and Japanese firms have reportedly taken minority shares in the project.

No one contests that the fish kill began in Vung Ang and spread south along the coast. FHS contends, however, that it has no idea what caused shoals of fish to wash up on 200 km of beaches. Its denial is cast into doubt by the testimony of divers, employees of a sub-contractor to MMC, who say they witnessed a huge discharge of reddish liquids from the mouth of a waste discharge pipe 1.3 km offshore on April 4.

FHS claims to have invested US$45 million in its waste management system. On May 6, Vietnamese newspapers reported that officials of the Environment Agency have verified that the system is able to treat wastes to the national standard before their release. The logical inference is that the fish kill was no routine event, but rather that a release of toxic chemicals occurred accidentally when the system was being purged, prior to its being put into service.

At a task force meeting on May 2, the Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, declared that "we will not shield anyone." Also, according to state-supervised media, Phuc ordered that the cause of the great fish kill must be speedily determined, whatever it might be. Accounts of the meeting noted the participation of senior representatives of the National Police and the Communist Party's Propaganda Bureau. More reportage centered on the arrival of scientists from western countries to assist in the investigation.

Activist critics of the regime coordinated another round of demonstrations in Vietnam's major cities on May 8. They had been encouraged by the unusually large turnout of protesters on May 1, reportedly as many as 1,000 in Hanoi and 2,000 in Ho Chi Minh City, 10 times as many as normally turn out to fuss at the government, and the relative restraint of security forces vis-a-vis the protests. On May 1, police units had been on hand but by and large did not intervene as placard-bearing citizens marched around downtown areas.

This time the police were out in force and, according to first person reports posted to Facebook, they employed unusually methodical and professional tactics to "corral marchers like fish in a net" and then to separate leaders from the pack. Again according to Facebookers, phalanxes of non-uniformed police auxiliaries were on hand as usual, and they were busy picking fights with protestors, targeting even women accompanied by children.

What started off as an alarming but manageable environmental event a bit more than a month ago, something that might have been solved by a public apology and a big fine, has morphed into an acutely embarrassing circumstance for the prime minister. In Vietnam's new regime, the party machinery has reasserted its primacy and mere prime ministers are disposable. The regime's decision to amp up police repression of popular demonstrations is of greater import. So is Hanoi's obvious disinclination to put Formosa Ha Tinh Steel in the dock. Yes, Vietnam has worked hard and successfully to market itself as a stable, low wage location for foreign investors. That doesn't mean that Hanoi ought not hold foreign investors to account when something goes wildly wrong.

By Sunday evening, first person accounts were lighting up Facebook. Blogger Lang Anh posted a photo of a woman whose child, she said, witnessed police beating her mother. According to the blogger, "She was attacked only because she expressed her wish that her child might live in a nation that's cleaner and, for everyone, more stable. Hoping to be heard, they marched peacefully, but were violently repressed."

Posting from Ho Chi Minh City on Facebook, blogger Manh Kim reported that "all of the city's security muscle was mobilized to repress the demonstration violently. At about 9 am, the streets leading into the city center were blocked by barbed wire and lines of police… Demonstrators could not march, and instead just milled around in the square in front of the cathedral. Surely there was no need to use force because all of us were encircled like fish in a net. Even so, [the police] began to deal out brutal kicks and punches. A few minutes later, I heard shouts: ‘Seize them! Seize them!’"

Then, he wrote, “I saw a group of plainclothes police beating people as though they were enemies, forcing them to get on a bus. The tactic of suppressing the demonstration this time was very methodical and professional. Security agents mingled and mixed into the crowd of demonstrators so that they could locate those who they judged to be 'dangerous.' These people were pushed little by little toward the perimeter and then . . . hustled onto buses. Everyone in the front rank was arrested, no matter who, even women."

David Brown is a retired US diplomat with wide experience in Vietnam. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.