By: Our Correspondent

In April of 2016, a massive kill of farmed and free-swimming fish in the vicinity of Vietnam’s Vung Ang Industrial Zone, 430 km. south of Hanoi shaped up as a classic conflict between industrialization and the environment as well as a developing test of the new Vietnamese regime’s political acumen.

It is now clear that in the struggle between the environment, industrialization and the administration of Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, the administration and industrialization have won, and activists have been the losers in a climate that grows progressively harsher.

On Feb. 8, Hoang Duc Binh, a 34-year-old activist, was sentenced to 14 years in prison, the harshest penalty yet in a series of actions by the government against protesters or bloggers. Binh apparently had livestreamed a video of fishermen who were stopped and beaten by authorities when they were on their way to protest the fish kill.

The Associated Press quoted Binh’s lawyer Ha Huy Son as saying the activist was “convicted of abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the state, organization and people and opposing officers on duty.” Although Binh denied he had committed a crime, saying whet he had said was true, the court disagreed and said he had slandered authorities. Another activist, Nguyen Nam Phong, was sentenced to two years in prison at the same time for “opposing officers on duty,” according to the Associated Press.

It was clear to everybody but the Vietnamese authorities that the huge fish kill, considered one of the country’s worst environmental disasters, was caused by the opening of the first phase of a steel mill, power plant and port complex being developed by a Taiwanese conglomerate, Formosa Plastics, as the US$10.5 billion Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Company (FHS).

Designed to produce 7 million tonnes of crude steel annually, the first blast furnace went into operation in December of 2015. Hundreds of people in Vietnam’s central provinces held regular protests against Formosa.

Teams deployed to investigate the disaster by the Fisheries Agency, a unit of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD), concluded it was caused by “powerful biological or chemical toxin.”  It was learned that FHS had cleaned its wastewater discharge pipe using toxic chemicals without informing Vietnamese authorities.

The mouth of the 120 cm diameter pipe is a kilometer offshore. “The drainage system is legal,” said vice minister Vo Tuan Nhan at the time. “The problem is what and for how long FHS discharged into the sea.”

The case of Huang Duc Binh illustrates a distressing larger picture, that Vietnam’s human rights situation has deteriorated as the United States and other South China Sea nations have increasingly viewed it as a counterweight to China. In 2017, police arrested at least 21 activists for national security offenses that are used to punish critical speech and peaceful activism, according to Human Rights Watch.

“Vietnamese bloggers and rights activists are being beaten, threatened and intimidated with impunity,” HRW said. Reporters Sans Frontieres, the Paris-based media watchdog organization, condemned US President Donald Trump’s treatment of the press during his 10-day visit to Asia n Novembers, saying the trip “demonstrates a continuing decline in the US government’s willingness to defend press freedom in its bilateral and multilateral relationships with other countries.”

Past US presidents, RSF said, “have typically made it a point to take journalists’ questions during trips abroad as a political showing of America’s commitment to the First Amendment.”  These official visits, the organization said, “have usually been an opportunity for reporters to question foreign officials about issues typically off limits to local reporters, like a given country’s human rights record.”  Vietnam ranks among the world’s worst offenders in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index. Yet President Trump failed to defend access for his press pool there as well.

The 88 Project, which keeps a running tally of activists arrested, sentenced and released, is a rota of depression that doesn’t seem to stop.

“On January 31, Tran Hoang Phuc (left), Nguyen Van Dien (middle), and Vu Quang Thuan (right), were sentenced to a total of 20.5 years in prison in Hanoi under Article 88, cl. 1, of the 1999 Criminal Code. Video blogging partners Thuan and Dien were sentenced to 8 and 6.5 years, respectively. Twenty-three-year-old Phuc was a participant in the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), a U.S. government leadership development and networking program in Southeast Asia. He assisted Thuan and Dien with posting some of their videos and was sentenced to 6 years. The defendants asked the Court to view the videos in question, but the Court denied the request because of alleged logistical obstacles to viewing them, even though Thuan offered to pay for equipment that the Court lacked. Several local activists were prohibited by plainclothes police from leaving their homes to attend the trial. The EU in-country delegation’s request to send a member to watch the trial was denied.“ 

During 2017, according to Human Rights Watch, authorities arrested at least 21 rights bloggers and activists, including former political prisoners Nguyen Bac Truyen, Truong Minh Duc, Nguyen Van Tuc, Nguyen Trung Ton, and Pham Van Troi, for exercising their civil and political rights in a way that the government views as threatening national security. At time of writing, at least 10 other people had already been put on trial, convicted, and sentenced to between 5 to 10 years in prison.

Many others have been detained without trial, according to Human Rights Watch, or faced more ominous actions. “A typical case occurred in February 2017, when a group of men in civilian clothes abducted former political prisoner Nguyen Trung Ton and his friend Nguyen Viet Tu off the street, dragged them into a van, and drove away.

While in the van, the men stripped off Ton’s and Tu’s clothes, covered their heads with their jackets, threatened them, and repeatedly hit them with iron pipes before dumping them in a forest, far from where they had been seized. Nguyen Trung Ton required surgery at a local hospital for the severe injuries he incurred. Police failed to seriously investigate the case or apprehend any suspects.

“Local police use force and intimidation to prevent activists from participating in protests and human rights discussions, or attending trials of fellow activists,” Human Rights Watch said. “In May, authorities prevented prominent activists Pham Doan Trang, Nguyen Quang A, and Nguyen Dan Que from leaving their houses during the bilateral human rights dialogue between Vietnam and the United States government.”

Police also stop rights activists from traveling abroad, sometimes citing vague national security reasons, according to Human Rights Watch’s report. In January 2017, police prohibited former political prisoner Pham Thanh Nghien from leaving the country for a personal trip to Thailand. In April, they prevented political detainee Nguyen Van Dai’s wife, Vu Minh Khanh, from going to Germany to receive a human rights award from the German Association of Judges on her husband’s behalf.

In May, police stopped Polish-Vietnamese activist Phan Chau Thanh from entering Vietnam, and in June, stopped former political prisoner Do Thi Minh Hanh from leaving for Austria to visit her ill mother. The same month, authorities stripped former political prisoner Pham Minh Hoang of his Vietnamese citizenship and deported him to France.