By: Helen Clark

Vietnam’s fish kill saga has been the government’s first test since the national congress of January. With an American president arriving soon, protests couldn’t have come at a worse time and as yet nothing looks to be resolved.

It is unusual for a US president to be visiting just when his host nation’s newspapers are announcing terrorist plots. Even more so when that nation is a one party-state and their papers state-supervised. However, the days and weeks preceding the first US Presidential visit to Vietnam since George W. Bush’s ASEAN turn in 2006 have been odd times for the nation and the party is trying hard to stay in control of it.

Like most good sagas, this one is having a long shelf life and becoming more complicated by the day. From mid-April, huge numbers of fish began washing up on the shores of beaches, first in Ha Tinh province, south of Hanoi and then three more provinces. The total may exceed 100 tonnes, and fishermen’s livelihoods have been badly bruised and could suffer further. A new multi-billion dollar steel mill in Ha Tinh run by Taiwan company Formosa has been blamed by everyone save the government.

After a Formosa spokesman said that people needed either to choose a steel mill (important for economic development) or fish (not, apparently) the busy cybersphere went into overdrive as netizens largely choose fish. Protests in major cities and some in large provincial cities like Hai Phong followed. By the second week in May things had become predictably bloody and people were rounded up, in giant “fishing nets” of police and bussed away, their phones apparently wiped for good measure. On May 15, unprecedented numbers of plainclothes and uniformed police were patrolling the streets

While Facebook has not been fully blocked there have been sustained attempts at censorship that have anecdotally included piecemeal text message blocking with some carriers. Words like Ha Tinh, Formosa or ca chet, dead fish all trigger this.

Looking for “terrorists”

But what of the terrorists?  The government has described as those behind the thousands-strong rallies as being from Viet Tan, the Vietnam Reform Party. Or as Tuoi Tre (in English) lead with, “Police in Ho Chi Minh City have stated that an anti-government organization was responsible for the recent assemblies of people that disturbed public order on May 1 and 8.” The paper said the group had caused disorder and “taken advantage” of the fish death “whose cause has yet to be determined by authorities.”

Viet Tan is primarily based in the US but with offshoots elsewhere. While some of their actions in the 1980s may have been aimed at directly overthrowing the government, their public leadership these days is different. They focus on free speech, internet freedom and the like. While they tend to speak up during protest events they could not even remotely be classified as terrorist. The government prefers not to mention the group too often unless putting card carrying members on trial, which makes this even more spurious.

Government hasn’t a clue

However, that Viet Tan is being blamed for mass protests does say one thing: This governing group of educated, smart people well versed in governance, many with excellent foreign educations and worthy of the technocrat title thrown at them by foreign media, don’t seem to have a clue what to do. Environmental scandals are not uncommon (though rarely on this scale), but a public slap on the wrist may have worked. Instead there has been confusion and prevarication, which has deepened resentment.

The nothing to see here act more or less worked in 2010 after a giant cache of fireworks exploded four days early in Hanoi, before the thunderous end to the Millennium celebrations.  The papers were told to pull their reporting and the excuse that fireworks events had been cut from some dozen to four so the saved money could be given to central highlands flood victims wasn’t quite plausible. The big mushroom cloud in the Southwest of the city could have been a giveaway. However, 100 tonnes of dead fish, and their smell, does not dissipate as easily as a large cloud and grievances are not as nebulous.

Meanwhile Barack Obama arrives Sunday, though it might now be Monday. It has been 10 years since an American president last visited, though varied Secretaries of Defense and State have visited Hanoi. General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong visited Washington last year, a first. At the time it seemed to signal that warming ties were heating up, largely thanks to Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

The main question is: will the US lift its arms embargo on Vietnam? Human rights is always the problem. Bloodied protesters do not augur well at at time like this, though it is likely Washington would have had a few things to say in any case. For China, closer relations and arms sales also do not augur well.

Beijing and Hanoi watch each other’s populations for protests or ideas that may spread. It’s a rare time now that the Chinese may welcome 2,000 protesters in a fellow-traveler nation, with a US President on the way.