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Timeline: The Formosa Environmental Disaster

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(Updated on October 6, 2017)

The Vietnam marine life disaster, also known as the Formosa disaster or the fish death disaster, was a water pollution crisis breaking out in Vietnam at least from April 6, 2016. Its most obvious demonstration was the massive fish deaths in the seas of four provinces in central Vietnam: Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, and Thua Thien-Hue.

The main perpetrator was identified as Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh, Ltd. (FHS), who discharged toxic industrial waste into the sea through their underwater drainage pipes. Formosa itself accepted responsibility for the disaster on June 30, 2016.

Government statistics estimated that at least 115 tons of free-swimming fish, 140 tons of farmed fish, and 67 tons of clams were killed as a result of water pollution. However, real figures must be times higher than these, with tons of shrimp, cuttle, squid, and other kinds of aquatic animals killed as well.

The disaster also cost human lives. At least a diver (Le Van Ngay) was killed after diving in the polluted sea water, a woman (Linh) died of poisonous fish, and a couple (Mr. Le Van Lam and Mrs. Nguyen Thi Huong) got cancers after working for FHS as keepers of their chemical stocks. At least 21 other divers, dozens of fishers and seafood-consumers reported they had got health problems due to their direct or indirect link with the disaster.

The tragic toll caused by the disaster may never be precisely estimated or get public as a result of bad governance and unaccountability.

Worse, and most importantly, the marine life disaster involved a humane and political crisis when the Vietnamese government fails to ensure relevant compensation for the victims; they even go further by brutally suppressing voices of dissent. Widespread human rights violations have made 2016 and 2017 dark years for democracy and freedom in Vietnam, characterized by arbitrary detentions, police violence targeted at civilians, and increasing imprisonment of peaceful activists.

Since October 2016, dozens of activists have been arrested and faced charges related to their activities to protest at Formosa and demand environmental rights. To name some: Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, Nguyen Van Hoa, Hoang Duc Binh, Nguyen Van Oai, Nguyen Viet Dung.

Others have been hunted nationwide, inter alia Bach Hong Quyen, Thai Van Dung, Tran Minh Nhat.

Many have been victims of government-sponsored violence, inter alia Truong Minh Tam, Hoang My Uyen, Vu Huy Hoang, Le My Hanh, Trinh Dinh Hoa, Tran Hoang Phuc, Huynh Thanh Phat.

 

2016

April 2016

April 4

Fisherman Nguyen Xuan Thanh (36 years old, a resident of Ba Dong hamlet, Ky Phuong commune, Ky Anh district, Ha Tinh) dived into the sea and unexpectedly discovered a giant waste discharge pipe. This pipe has a diameter of about 1m. It was discharging a yellow liquid.

The pipe was identified as a submerged pipe belonging to the Formosa corporation, 1.5km in length, buried under the seabed. Formosa confirmed that they have an underground sewage system connecting directly from the Formosa project site in the Vung Ang economic zone to the sea.

 

“Already discovered it three years ago” Mr. Nguyen Trung Huynh (born in 1968, a resident of Ky Anh commune) has worked as a sea diver for tens of years. He said three years ago, around 2013, he discovered a pipe buried under the seabed. “At the time I was working for Belgium. The people here said the pipe must be from Belgium, but when I checked, I told them it wasn’t, this pipe belonged to Formosa. I notified the environmental police.

The police, the marine police, and the environmental police hired me to dive and reached that area. I did so, took some video footage and photographs and submitted everything to them. They said, “We will investigate this issue.” Then we didn’t hear from them for years, the local people continued to fish as usual. In April 2016, we discovered that they discharged waste liquid.”

(Mr. Nguyễn Trung Huỳnh discussed with Green Trees, on 19 August 2016)

 

April 6

Residents in the two hamlets, Hai Phong 1 and 2 (Ky Loi commune, Ky Anh district, Ha Tinh) lost over two tons of groupers and red snappers when they were almost ready for harvest. [1]

According to Nguyen Thai Bao (resident of Tay Ha hamlet, Ky Ha commune, Ky Anh district, Ha Tinh), until the noon of April 6, more than 4,000 red snappers and sea basses – which were over a month old and raised in cages – still ate and moved around as usual. However, around 2 p.m. on April 7, when the tide rose and pushed sea water in, the fish swam slowly and then died en mass. [2]

Not only farmed fish, but wild (free-swimming) fish also died. “Around 9 a.m. on April 6, Mr. Chu Van Dai – a diver working in the area undersea where Formosa Steel Plant discharged waste in Vung Ang (Ha Tinh) – discovered much dead fish surrounding the pipe’s opening. Mr. Dai felt a bitter sensation in his mouth, exhaustion, and toxin in the water. The whole team of 15 divers felt that seawater tasted different and toxic. Their bodies felt ill so they asked to be off work. A few days later, the local people saw much dead fish drifted to the seaside of different types, some lived in deep water.” [3]

April 6-8

During these three days, in the three communes Ky Loi, Ky Ha and Ky Ninh (of Ky Anh district), all of the fish belonging to 14 households raising fish in cage, with 18 cages containing different types of fish (red snapper, cobia, grouper, sea bass, etc.) died in mass. Among these were 37,200 breeders, 2,120 kg commercial fish. The damage was over 1 billion Vietnamese dong, approximately USD $45,000.

Wild fish also died in mass in Vung Ang sea (around Son Duong island, Vung Ang port, and Vinh river’s estuary). [4]

April 10

Dead fish drifted into the coast along Quang Dong commune, Quang Trach district, Quang Binh. Dead fish continued to spread southward, to seaside along Nhan Trach, Nhat Le, Bao Ninh, Ngu Thuy, etc. [5]

April 11

The Northern Environmental Monitoring and Aquatic Diseases Center (Aquaculture Research Institute 1 – MARD) published an announcement about the results of their unscheduled monitoring after the abnormal fish deaths took place in Ky Anh, Ha Tinh.

The announcement concluded that virus causing disease was not the cause of this phenomenon, rather fish died in mass due to “toxic agents in the water” in Vung Ang coast. According to this Center, toxin agents originated from untreated wastewater discharged directly into the sea and rivers, polluting seawater and intoxicated fish. [6]

April 15  

Tens of fish cages belonging to 60 households living in An Cu Dong, Lang Co town, Phu Loc district, Thua Thien-Hue died en mass in a few days, with the largest number of fish dying on April 15. Damage was estimated to be up to hundreds of millions of dong.

According to Mr. Mai Van Xi – Deputy Head of the Division of Agriculture and Rural Development in Phu Loc district, not only farmed fish but also wild fish living in the Lang Co lagoon died.

April 19

After eating fish collected on the seaside, Tran Thanh Thuy (8 years old, Quang Phu commune, Quang Trach district, Quang Binh) vomited and had diarrhea. Her family took her to the commune medical center and she was treated with intravenous drip and monitored. VietNamNet reported this incident and advised people not to buy and sell or eat dead fish while waiting for the authorities to identify the toxic agents. [7]

April 20

A report from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Thue Thien-Hue stated that the amount of PO4 (phosphate) at a benthic layer is 1mg per liter, while the maximum allowable norm is 0.5 mg per liter only. This increased pH concentration. A sudden and drastic increase of PO4 and pH in the water may have shocked the fish and kill them. [8]

April 21

The Deputy Director of the Aquaculture Department under MARD, Pham Khanh Ly, told the press that the government task force is vertical management agencies, however, the Vung Ang industrial zone (including the Vung Ang Thermal Power Plant and Formosa industrial zone) has foreign elements, so they need to form an interdisciplinary task force, with the Prime Minister’s direction, before they can carry out an inspection. [9]

April 22

On the night of 21st and early morning of 22nd April, more than 20 residents of Bo Trach district, Quang Binh province were rushed to emergency service after they ate poisonous seafood in a restaurant in Phuc Trach Commune. Most of the 200 guests who ate the same meal had symptoms of stomachache, nausea, and diarrhea. [10]

Minister of Industry and Trade Tran Tuan Anh signed a document about sending a task force to the Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Co., Ltd. (FHS). [11]

An inspection team of the MONRE led by the Head of the Department of Environment, Nguyen Van Tai, carried out an inspection at the Petro Vietnam Power Corporation in Ha Tinh (Ky Anh Town, Ha Tinh) and the FHS (Vung Ang economic zone, Ha Tinh). [12]

The General Secretary of the VCP, Nguyen Phu Trong, also led a mission to visit and check on the Formosa project’s progress, specifically the Iron and Steel Complex Project and the Son Duong Formosa Ha Tinh (FHS) deep-sea port. In addition, he also visited some production sites in Ha Tinh. He did not once mention the ongoing fish death. [13]

April 23

Responding to an interview question from the Giao Thong (Transportation) newspaper about whether people should continue to eat sea fish and swim in waters where dead fish no longer appeared, Mr. Dang Ngoc Son, Vice-Chair of the Ha Tinh Provincial People’s Committee, said: “For now, many aquatic products raised in cages in Vung Ang (Ha Tinh) are growing normally. Seafood such as squid, shrimp, crab and fish that are alive can be consumed. Furthermore, people can swim in these waters without feeling worried.” [14]

April 24

Le Van Ngay (born 1970, from Khanh Hoa), a diver working for Nibelc Company (the building contractor for Formosa’s breakwater in Son Duong port), died mysteriously a hospital. A few hours before, he suffered from chest pains and breathing difficulties during work and was taken to hospital for emergency treatment. [15]

April 25

Mr. Chou Chun Fan, Deputy Head of Formosa’s External Relations Department, Head of the Formosa Office in Ha Noi, said this in a conversation over-the-phone with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper: “It is impossible to build a steel plant here without leaving any impact on fish and shrimp. Of course, we try to build a plant that meets the State’s requirements. Yet it is normal to lose some things as you gain some things. Just like how when we use this area to build our plant, the soil here is no longer good for growing rice. Between these two things, we must choose one, whether I want to catch fish and shrimp or I want to build a modern steel industry? When this area was cleared the local authorities already made a plan to support fishermen to switch jobs, why do they need to keep fishing in this area?

Do you want to keep fishing or do you want to keep the plant? Go ahead and make your decision. If you want both, even the Prime Minister can’t satisfy you…” [16] Mr. Chou Chun Fan’s comment angered the Vietnamese public on the Internet.

April 26

Quang Binh province called for an urgent meeting. The Chair of the Provincial People’s Committee, Mr. Nguyen Huu Hoai, ordered a ban on swimming in the sea during this time to prevent any mishaps.

The Thua Thien-Hue Department of Natural Resources and Environment announced that they received the analysis result from the water sample taken from Lang Co lagoon and Lang Co seaport (Lang Co town, Phu Loc), the seaside along Quang Cong commune (Quang Dien), Dien Huong, Dien Hai (Phong Dien). According to the analysis, the total nitrogen content (nitrogen, chemical symbol N) calculated on ammonium content (NH4), heavy metal chromium content (chromium, chemical symbol Cr) exceeds the limit allowed by the National Technical Regulation on seawater quality and National Technical Regulation on surface water quality.

This result also pointed out that the cause of both wild fish and farmed fish’s death was not a disease but rather a very powerful agent – a toxic in the water originating from somewhere north of Thua Thien-Hue province. [17]

On the same day, the Ha Tinh newspaper published an article titled “The sea is now clearer, the environment is no longer polluted”. [18] This article encouraged fishermen to continue their work, and “overcome obstacles and losses”. This article was criticized by even mainstream press (such as the Petro Times). [19]

In the afternoon, Mr. Chou Chun Fan and the management team in Ha Tinh organized a press conference and bowed to apologize for their statement of “choose fish or choose steel.”

A petition signed by Vietnamese people appeared on the website “We the People” managed by the White House. This petition requested the American government to assist Vietnam in evaluating the environmental impacts that Formosa Steel Plant was making. This petition was created in English by a person named T.N.

April 27

The Quang Binh Department of Culture – Information & Tourism reported that about 30% tourists coming to Quang Binh canceled their tours and hotel bookings at hotels along the beach in Dong Hoi city during the holiday 30/4-1/5. All restaurants along the beach suffered from slow business due to the fish death.

The first press conference about the fish death crisis was scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. in Ha Noi to announce the cause. However, the press conference was called off, while hundreds of reporters were still waiting outside.

Finally, around 8 p.m., the press conference began and was chaired by the Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, Mr. Vo Tuan Nhan. The MONRE considered two possible causes of the mass fish death: “One cause could be toxic chemicals discharged from human activities on land and in the sea. The second cause could be an abnormal natural phenomenon, in combination with human impact, which leads to the algal bloom, or red tide as it is commonly known around the world.”

Mr. Vo Tuan Nhan also said: “Up to now, through inspection and collection of evidence, we have not been able to infer the relationship between Formosa’s plants and the mass fish death.”  [20]

A female reporter raised a question about heavy metals found in seawater, according to the report prepared by the Thua Thien-Hue Department of Natural Resources and Environment, and the coming tourist season. Deputy Minister Vo Tuan Nhan interrupted her: “Don’t ask that question. That question damages our country.”

The press conference only lasted for 10 minutes and did not provide sufficient information for hundreds of reporters. It disappointed many people.

April 28

Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Tran Hong Ha and local authorities and scientists had a working session at the FHS. After that, he told the press that he would bear the responsibilities[21]. He also said that, according to Vietnamese law (Article 101 of the Environmental Protection Law, effective since 2015), discharging waste liquid through an underground pipe is not allowed; and he would order Formosa to bring the underground pipe to the ground for monitoring. [22]

The MARD reported the result of water sample testing in a governmental meeting, rejecting the theory of red tide. “We can eliminate the cause of the abnormal natural phenomenon in combination with human impact to create algal bloom, which is commonly known as red tide around the world.” [23]

The human rights activist Truong Minh Tam, a member of the Vietnam Path Movement, was arrested by the Ha Tinh and Quang Binh police for “shooting video and taking photographs in Ky Loi commune, Ky Ha commune and Dong Yen parish” in Ky Anh commune.

Hundreds of fishermen in Canh Duong commune, Quang Trach district, Quang Binh province protested fiercely during hot noon on the 28th, 29th and 30th of April, demanding the government to expel Formosa from Vietnam and return clean sea to the people. The protest blocked traffic on National Highway 1 – the connection between the North and the South.

April 30

The Director of Da Nang Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Mr. Nguyen Dieu, and many other staffs of the Department in this city swam in the sea at Pham Van Dong beach (Son Tra district), in order to confirm that seawater in Da Nang was not polluted. Up to that point, dead fish still appeared and drifted to Da Nang seaside. [24]

Facebooker Chu Manh Son was arrested in Quang Trach District, Quang Binh Province by the Ha Tinh police while he was filming the demonstration on National Highway 1A using a mobile phone.

May 2016

May 1

Thousands went on demonstrations in major cities such as Hanoi, Saigon, Da Nang, Nha Trang, and Vung Tau. In Hai Phong, demonstrations were held with banners hung on buses.

Minister of Information and Communications Truong Minh Tuan and a group of journalists went out to eat “Vung Ang seafood” to show that the sea had been free from pollution already, that patriotism meant to eat fish and take sea swimming…

May 2

The 19.00 TV newscast by Vietnam Television (VTV) relayed reportage from the ANTV (a TV channel owned by the police) announcing that the police of Ha Tinh and Quang Binh “took into custody two guys who incited people”, i.e. activists Truong Minh Tam and Chu Manh Son.

May 4

People of Nhan Trach Commune (Bo Trach District, Quang Binh Province) found a reddish brown line of about 1.5 km long, 10 m wide, running along the coastline of 5 villages, very close to the shore. Prof. and Ph.D. Nguyen Ngoc Lam of Nha Trang Oceanography Institute assumed that it might be signs of algal bloom or red tide. In the morning of the following day, May 5, the colored line disappeared. [25]

May 5

20:00, two Chinese-born Vietnamese citizens, Lau Nhat Phong (A Lau) and Mac Vi Luc held a sit-in on Nguyen Hue walking street of Ho Chi Minh City to raise their voice on the dead sea disaster in central Viet Nam. Just in about 10 minutes, both were captured and detained in the police station of Ben Nghe ward until dawn the next day.

May 8

Public protests continued to break up in Ha Noi, Saigon. They were brutally suppressed. In Saigon, the local government deployed strange forces, whose functions were unknown, to snatch slogans, beat and arrest protesters. Hoang My Uyen, a young woman who was carrying her child in the march, was blown up and kicked on her face. Her photo, with scratches on the face, hugging her child in a panic, provoked public indignation on the Internet. Dozens of people were arrested and held at local “social protection centers”. They were beaten, electrocuted, and locked for 2-3 days.

In Hanoi, dozens of people were also arrested and held at various police stations. However, they were released within the day.

May 13

A newspaper named “Nong thon Ngay nay” (Countryside Today) got a fine of VND 140 million for publishing two articles on the “The gioi Tiep thi” (Marketing World) magazine. The articles were titled “The people are always those left behind” and “The lament of fish.”

Paulus Nguyen Thai Hop, Bishop of Vinh Diocese, sent an open letter titled “Public letter on the catastrophic pollution of the marine environment in central Vietnam.” The Vietnam Television described the letter as “a biased depiction of the occurrence, exaggerated, causing anxiety, and using provocative language to abet the parishioners.”

The Office of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (OHCHR) in Bangkok proclaimed their worries about the increasing violence against the demonstrators for Vietnam’s environment.

May 14

HCMC Police gave information to the press that, “Upon investigation and collection of information, it is affirmed that the terrorist organization named Viet Tan held a crowded muster, disturbing public order in the city on May 1st and 8th.” The police also blackened Huynh Thanh Phat, a young blogger, said Phat “had two previous convictions, hometown in An Giang but wandering mainly in HCMC like a vagabond. He participated actively gathered and disturbed in a spontaneous manner.” [26]

May 15

In Quynh Luu district, Nghe An province, thousands of parishioners surrounded the district’s committee office, asking to carry out investigation and clarify the cause of mass fish deaths.

In Saigon, the police suppressed, breaking up every gathering at April 30 Park. Huynh Ngoc Chenh, an ex-journalist, held a sit-in by himself. He was taken a photo by a blogger and photojournalist named Bui Dzu. The photograph soon became famous, captioned “The Lonely Man”, clearly reminiscent of “The Tank Man” in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest.

At the end of the day, still, a small protest broke out like a streak of lightning at An Dong market, participated by Nguyen Nu Phuong Dung (a.k.a. Miu Manh Me), Lau Nhat Phong (A Lau) and some other young people.

In Hanoi, after walking along Hoan Kiem lake for about 3 or 4 minutes, a group of about 20 youths wearing fish-shape masks was arrested by the police and civil defense force. They were soon pushed up on a bus and taken into custody for hours.

May 23

Traffic Police Squad 14 (the Hanoi Police) uncovered and seized a truck carrying about four metric tons of rotten fish en route Hanoi. [27]

May 29

In VTV’s talk-show “60 Open Minutes”, whose theme was “Sharing on social media, what is it for?”, MC Ta Bich Loan questioned Phan Anh, another MC, on his sharing of a clip by VTC News about an experiment on dead fish that the VTC team carried out in Vung Ang. Loan asked Phan Anh what his motive was in sharing the clip. Hong Thanh Quang, a police-background journalist, and Pham Manh Ha, a behavioral psychologist, also questioned him aggressively. The program aroused a storm of public opinion among the facebookers. The great majority of people supported Phan Anh and were indignant with Loan and Quang. After the talk-show, Phan Anh became even more famous for his words, “Don’t be silent.”

The VTC’s video clip was about an experiment in which “the fish died within only 2 minutes’ swimming in Vung Ang’ sea water”. It was broadcast on the VTC’s Evening News of April 26 and got bitterly criticized by state-owned newspapers and du luan vien (public opinion shapers), who alleged it to be “dishonest” and “misleading”.

June 2016

June 1

Blogger Nguyen Chi Tuyen (a.k.a. Anh Chi) started a campaign, “To knock pans for transparency”: Everybody knocked their pans in the kitchen at a certain time to ask the government to clarify information about the cause of dead fish, and, at the same time, wrote slogans on the wall of the kitchen. The activities would be live streamed on Facebook, or filmed and replayed later.

June 2

Mai Tien Dung, Minister and Chairman of the Government Office, announced at the government’s monthly press conference that “the reason for mass fish deaths had been found but not yet made public, for it is pending counter argument”, that is they were waiting for independent consultancy, both local and international, to ensure objectivity. [28]

June 5

Green Trees held a protest march in Hanoi in celebration of the World Environmental Day, sending out the message of “Our future in our hands.” The protesters urged for transparency of mass fish deaths and questioned the role of the National Assembly in the crisis. The march lasted only 10 minutes before it was broken up by the police and civil defense force. The protesters were taken on buses to police stations again.

June 9

Angelina Trang Huynh, a member of the Viet Tan (Viet Nam Reform Party, an exile Vietnamese political party in the US), wrote on her Facebook page: The US Ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, had spoken at the briefing on June 9th at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington D.C., that he used to put forth an official expression to Hanoi’s leaders, saying that the United States could help find out the cause of fish deaths and deal with the environmental disaster, but Hanoi refused. To his knowledge, until then, some Vietnamese and US scientists still had some cooperation, but the Vietnamese government had denied any official assistance.

June 10

Quang Tri’s Department of Health issued the official document No. 549 to the local People’s Committee regarding the inspection, testing, and processing of the frozen seafood which could not be sold due to extremely toxic chemicals found in the fish following the mass fish death incident. [29]

June 11

Inter-branch forces of Quang Tri sealed and confiscated 25 metric tons of scads contaminated with phenol, an extremely toxic chemical, at Dung Thuoc enterprise (An Duc 3 village, Cua Tung townlet, Vinh Linh District, Quang Tri province). [30]

Vo Van Hung, Director of Quang Tri’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, assumed that the issuance of a certificate of offshore fishing and certificate of safe seafood were rather proper. “Issuance of such certificates is to affirm that the fish is clean, yet it does not guarantee safety.” [31]

June 12

Hundreds of parishioners in Quynh Luu district, Nghe An province marched on National Highway 37, starting from Phu Yen Church, to ask the government to “protect the environment, the Vietnamese race, and the country.” They also raised objection against blackening Reverend Father Paulus Nguyen Thai Hop by the Vietnam Television.

June 20

At 9:00 p.m. Hanoi time, PTS Our Island, a Taiwanese broadcast, released a TV report on the fish death disaster in central Vietnam.

The report was also posted on PTS’ YouTube video channel and translated into Vietnamese by Vietnamese activists, evoking strong emotions from the audience. That was the first time a media agency made a TV report about the desperate situation of the fishermen and protesters for environmental protection in Vietnam. Ironically the media agency was a foreign company, and even more, it was from Formosa’s homeland, Taiwan.

June 30

Tran Hong Ha, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, told the VnExpress news site that he had experienced 84 stressful days. He said: “Formosa Ha Tinh could not deny (its responsibility) as we made a list of 53 violations they committed, ranging from the defects in design and construction to poor operation.” “Phenol and cyanide are the main and direct cause of mass fish deaths. We have full data and unbiased evidence to affirm that phenol and cyanide were from the coking plant of Formosa Ha Tinh.” [32]

At 17:00, the government held a press conference to proclaim the cause of fish deaths: It was Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Co., Ltd. (FHS) that was the perpetrator. Chen Yuan Cheng, chairman of the company, apologized and pledged to pay VND 11,500 billion (approx. USD $500 million) as compensation.

Minister and Chairman of the Government Office Mai Tien Dung stated, “Formosa admitted its wrongdoings before the Vietnamese people and made five commitments on compensation and assistance. One should not hit a man when he is down,” “A prosecution against it is something that needs considering. The Vietnamese are naturally tolerant and generous.”

In the evening and at night, dozens of famous facebookers, including lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, etc., raised their frustrated voice to protest vehemently the government who used its discretionary power to negotiate with Formosa and accept an utterly irrelevant compensation. From urging investigation and advocating transparency, independent CSOs now changed their goals to petitioning for criminal proceedings against Formosa or its expulsion from Vietnam, “Formosa get out.”

July 2016

July 4

MONRE leader Tran Hong Ha once stated that Formosa would be forced to bring the underwater waste pipe to the ground for monitoring but now toned down his voice, “The problem is not the underwater pipeline but waste water. Is the waste processed in accordance with environmental standards before it is discharged into the environment through the pipeline? Is the control over it to ensure that the waste is safe made explicit, and if there is a breakdown, what is the possible alternative for it? In case the processed waste reaches the standards, it may be discharged through the current underwater pipeline.” [33]

July 7

Around 3,000 people of Con Se parish, Ba Don town, Quang Binh province, which is 50 km from the Formosa, went on a march, asking the government to shut down the steel company.

July 11

The Inspectorate of Ha Tinh’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment, together with environmental police, entered the farm of Le Quang Hoa (director of Ky Anh Urban Environment Company) in Ky Trinh Ward, Ky Anh town, to examine its operation. Over 100 tonnes of waste from Formosa was found illegally buried underground.

Mr. Hoa explained to Tuoi Tre newspaper that the 100 tonnes were domestic waste of the plant, “It is normal mud, not hazardous waste. It is from some waste treatment stations inside Formosa.” [34]

Although Ky Anh Urban Environment Company was not the unit to deal with industrial waste, it had before signed a processing contract with Formosa.

July 12

Liberty Times Net, a Taiwanese website, reported that on July 11, Fu Yuan Hong, Deputy Chairman of Formosa Chemicals and Fibre Corporation, provided data to reverse and deny the investigative conclusion by the Vietnamese government. Hong’s act was commonly understood as “retracting the statement.” [35]

July 13

Upstream dams near Formosa’s waste landfill site in Ky Anh district suddenly discharged a great amount of water, which was thought to be at Formosa’s request. Local people suspected that such discharge was to destroy the evidence of buried waste. [36]

July 15

The Radio Free Asia (RFA) published results of the first independent test on fish in central Viet Nam. Nguyen Anh Tuan, a pharmacist in Hanoi, who did the test in late June in Quang Ngan commune, Quang Dien District, Thua Thien Hue Province, reported that every index for the scad was below safety standard, or that the scad contained cyanide, phenol, asen, cadmium, and lead. The cuttlefish was contaminated with phenol, a poison not allowed in food.

This independent test, he said, meant that the state should immediately provide a list of the toxic chemicals that caused massive fish deaths and use it as a base to thoroughly and precisely assess the quality of marine products, thereby find ways to help fishermen with their livelihood, to ensure food safety and protect consumers.

July 23

Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, Chairwoman of the Vietnam National Assembly, presided the first press conference one day after taking office. She said the National Assembly would supervise and monitor closely the case of Formosa, and she would personally meet Vo Kim Cu (former secretary of the party cell and chairman of Ha Tinh province, currently a deputy of the 14th National Assembly) for a warning. However, with regard to the protection of national sovereignty, she said, “A number of organizations and individuals raised their voice to call upon the people to do something, but what have they done for the country? Nothing yet.”

July 24

Vo Kim Cu confirmed with the Tuoi Tre that the issuance of the 70-year investment license to Formosa is in accordance with the laws.

“On the assessment of the project, there were opinions of 12 concerned ministries, including the offices of interior section, national defense, and security… Then it was reported to the government and it was agreed that Ha Tinh would grant the license. The legal basis for the 70-year land lease for Formosa includes the Investment Law, Land Law, Decision No. 72 and Decree No. 108 by the government, as well as other legal documents regulating foreign direct investment. The 70-year investment license is (also) based on Article 36 of the Investment Law, which deals with investment projects of large size, slow capital recovery, meeting the criteria to encourage investment in sectors such as steel, seaports, electricity, and with employment of 5,000 workers and above. The project of Formosa met all the four criteria, so the license issuance is in accordance with the laws.” [37]

July 25

Green Trees sent a petition to dismiss Vo Kim Cu from his deputy title for his violations of law when signing a document beyond his authority, slackening control, giving Formosa full powers to cause a lot of faults which lead to the environmental disaster. The petition was submitted to Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, Chairwoman of the National Assembly, and the Standing Committee of the National Assembly as well, but there was no feedback. 

August 2016

August 1

Su Chih Fen, a Taiwanese congresswoman, member of the Democratic Progressive Party, had her passport confiscated and was detained at Noi Bai International Airport for nine hours while she was leading a delegation to Vietnam to inspect FHS. Vietnamese state-owned newspapers published a piece of news that there was a Taiwanese congresswoman going to Ha Tinh to inspect FHS, without mentioning the fact that she was blocked at the airport by the MPS and prevented from doing entry procedures. Thanks to the help of Nguyen Anh Tuan, a civil society activist, together with numerous local people, Su managed, at last, to get to Ha Tinh (with stringent limits), accompanied by two victims of the Formosa disaster the next day, August 2.

August 7

Thousands of parishioners in Dong Yen parish, Ky Anh district, Ha Tinh province went on a march to call for environmental protection, “Clean environment, clean conscience, and clean morality.” The march got to the main gate of FHS. The police, especially mobile ones, were deployed in great number to defend the corporation.

August 15

Over 4,000 parishioners of Quy Hoa parish, also in Ky Anh District, Ha Tinh Province took a march from the church to the district people’s committee, asking for the local government’s transparency of compensation to fishermen.

August 21

The parishioners of Quy Hoa continued to march.

August 22

In Dong Ha City (Quang Tri Province), in the morning, the MONRE and Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology held a conference to review the assessment results of the current state of the marine environment of the four provinces (Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien – Hue). Tran Hong Ha, Minister of MONRE, asserted, “Nearly all the waters in central Vietnam are safe.” He said it is now safe to swim and raise aquaculture, and that there are only some areas 15 km from the coastline, such as Son Duong, east of Nhat Le sea, Son Tra… that need more monitoring on the safety level.

At noon, Mr. Ha together with more than ten leaders of the central provinces went swimming at Cua Viet beach and ate seafood at a restaurant in the area.

August 25

Nguyen Thanh Phong, Head of Department of Food Safety and Hygiene (Ministry of Health), said to the VnExpress that “Even if the environment were restored and the seawater gained standard requirements for swimming, it would not be sure that the seafood will be safe to eat,” “The result of observation on phenol and cyanide is for reference, with the MONRE to assess the pollution of marine environment, not the basic data on which food safety level is rated.” [38]

September 2016

September 1

Approximately 2,000 people in Ky Ha (Ky Anh, Ha Tinh) held a peaceful rally to urge the government to expel Formosa and end its operation in Vietnam. The local authorities sent in police forces accompanied by propaganda bandwagons, but these forces were unable to disperse the rally.

At midday, local authorities agreed to meet some representatives of the protesters. The meeting, held at the Ky Anh People’s Committee office, was fruitless: the local government said they had no jurisdiction in the case; it’s the central government’s business. Moreover, they denied recognizing the disaster as an environmental disaster, insisting that it was “an environmental incident” only. Obviously, this was a euphemism to make the disaster more acceptable to the public.

September 13

Bishop Nguyen Thai Hop of the Vinh diocese signed the establishment of the Committee for Supporting Victims of the Marine Disaster.

September 22

1,088 families in Ky Loi (Ky Anh, Ha Tinh) collectively requested to be given a compensatory payment of over 2,000 billion VND (approximately USD $80 million).

September 26-27

Thousands of people based in the two districts of Quynh Luu and Ky Anh in Ha Tinh province filed civil petitions against Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Co., Ltd. The Ky Anh People’s Court itself received 506 petitions demanding a compensation of 56 billion VND (nearly US$ 2.5 million).

September 29

PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc issued Decision 1880/QD-TTg on the awarding of compensation for those affected by the massive fish deaths in Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, and Thua Thien-Hue. Under this Decision, the compensation for the affected shall be calculated from April to September 2016 with funding sourced from the $500 million compensation paid by Formosa.

The Decision listed seven categories of victims: 1. seafood harvesting; 2. aquatic breeding; 3. salt production; 4. coastal seafood business activities; 5. fishing logistics; 6. coastal tourism services; and 7. seafood stockpiling and purchase.

The provincial People’s Committees of the four affected provinces shall instruct owners of vessels or owners of aquatic and salt production facilities to calculate the amount of compensation required for victims. The People’s Committees are required to review the compensation for affected victims and send their findings to MARD before October 5. MARD shall verify the compensation for each locality and report it to the Ministry of Finance before submitting it to the PM for approval before October 10, 2016.

October 2016

October 2

About 13,000 people attended the biggest ever demonstration against Formosa in Ky Anh district. The protesters surrounded the steel company, holding signs demanding Formosa to get out of Vietnam. Police and army troops were deployed to protect the Taiwanese investor, who closed all its doors to the angry crowd.

At 9.30, troops were put to flight. Live video footages taken at the scene showed police and soldiers fleeing in panic. The protesters scaled walls, waving flags and banners, and chanting, “Formosa has collapsed,” “Authorities, close Formosa down for the future of our nation.” The demonstration remained peaceful, however. At midday, the crowd dispersed in an orderly and peaceful manner.

Though the crowd flocked to thousands of people in the biggest ever demonstration, state-controlled media did not mention it at all. The Thanh Nien’s website published a brief piece of news covering the event, but it was quickly removed after a few minutes. The Voice of Vietnam (VOV) and the local Ha Tinh newspaper, at the same time, reported that there was a gathering of Catholics to cause public disorder and disrupt Formosa’s operation.

October 3

Priest Nguyen Dinh Thuc, leading Song Ngoc parish of the Vinh diocese, went to a local court to submit a formal request for compensation on behalf of 619 households in the three towns of Quynh Ngoc, Quynh Tho and Son Hai (Quynh Luu district, Nghe An province), which are located about 180 km from FHS. Hundreds of people in his parish joined him on the way.

Of these 619 households, nearly 400 are Catholics, the remainders are non-Catholics. The amount they demanded was VND 445,968, 380,000. Their request had been sent to the National Assembly, the government office, the Nghe An People’s Committee, and the lower-rank Quynh Luu People’s Committee.

The NA remained silent.

October 5

The Ky Anh People’s Court rejected the 506 petitions by the people from Quynh Luu and Ky Anh. Nguyen Van Thang, Chief Judge of the Ha Tinh People’s Court, said in a briefing that the petitioners had failed to prove their factual damages.

“The rejection of the petitions is pursuant to the Civil Procedural Code. Clause 5, Article 189 of the Code stipulates that a petition must be backed by proofs of the damages caused by the violation of the petitioner’s legitimate rights. Furthermore, Point C, Clause 1, Article 192 cites issues that have been resolved with a valid decision by the relevant authorities. In this case, the compensation process has been already resolved with Decision 1880/QD-TTg by the Government.”

October 7

The People’s Committee of Nghe An province urged the Bishop of Vinh Diocese to expel Priest Dang Huu Nam, who manages Phu Yen parochial and is authorized by local petitioners to represent them in the proceedings against Formosa. The local government accused Father Nam of “abetting legal actions” against Formosa and “taking advantage of religious gatherings to incite disorder”.

October 18

Green Trees, a Hanoi-based environmental organization, released its first report on the Formosa disaster, “An Overview of the Marine Life Disaster in Vietnam”. The report, clandestinely published in Vietnam, marked the hard effort of an unregistered civil society group to investigate the disaster and push for good governance and accountability. It has three versions in Vietnamese, English, and Taiwanese.

October 19

Green Trees visited the National Assembly in Hanoi to hand them 05 copies of their report on Formosa, but the group’s goodwill was treated only with vigilance and antipathy.

November 2016

December 2016

December 6

Priest Nguyen Dinh Thuc, who manages Song Ngoc parochial, testified before the Legislative Council and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Taiwan about the Formosa-related disaster. On behalf of the Vinh diocese’s committee for supporting Formosa victims, he demanded the Taiwanese president and legislature to make an intervention.

 

 2017

January 2017

January 11

Nguyen Van Hoa (b. 1995), a freelance reporter in central Vietnam, was arrested secretly by the Ha Tinh security officers. His family was not notified of his arrest until one week later.

Hoa had been very active before when he went around reporting news on the life of people in the Formosa-affected areas. He was believed to work as a correspondent for the Radio Free Asia and several Vietnamese media agencies overseas.

January 14

Thousands of fishers in Dong Yen (Ha Tinh province) demonstrated in the rain by blocking National Highway 1A with fishing nets.

January 19

A 100-meter streak of red sea water emerged near the dike protection revetment of the Vung Ang seaport, near FHS, local media reported.

February 2017

Receiving no relevant feedback from the authorities, petitioners decided to sue FHS for damages and bring it to the court of Ky Anh, the place where FHS is located. They declared beforehand that they would go to the court together on February 14.

February 7

Fishers in Quang Tri expressed their concern after their gill nets were found full of strange mud, which made it difficult for them to fish.

February 12

Hundreds of Ha Tinh people blocked National Highway 1A after massive dead fish were found in the Quyen river that runs near FHS.

February 14

“Bloody Valentine’s Day” in Nghe An province. See the attached report for more detailed information.

February 17

Another streak of red sea water was found near the Son Duong seaport in Ky Anh, Ha Tinh.

In the days after, similar streaks of red bubbling sea water were reportedly seen in the seas of Quang Binh, Da Nang, and Thua Thien-Hue.

February 26

Le Quang Nam, Head of the Da Nang Department of Natural Resources and Environment, said the red water emerged in Da Nang as a result of krill shrimps laying eggs.

February 27

Fishers in Quang Trach demonstrated, blocking National Highway 1A with fishing nets.

Phan Van Thong, Head of the Thua Thien-Hue Department of Natural Resources and Environment, said the streaks of red water detected in Ha Tinh and Thua Thien-Hue were actually caused by algal bloom.

The findings by state offices did not satisfy the public, who kept asking about the cause of the red water flows and whether krill shrimps or algal bloom had caused the same phenomena in the previous years.

Public concern remained high also because the red water flows reminded the public of the disaster caused by Formosa in 2016 when “red tides” were sometimes seen in the affected seas.

March 2017

March 1

MONRE published its findings which confirmed that most of the chemical substance contained in the water samples met the normal standards.

March 11

Green Trees published its independent findings, according to which the water in Ha Tinh seas contained phenol, a poisonous chemical compound, at 56 times higher than standard.

April 2017

April 2

Bach Hong Quyen (b. 1988) and Hoang Duc Binh (b. 1983), two active activists who assisted the Formosa victims in Nghe An and Ha Tinh to claim compensations, went to a café near Trung Nghia church (Loc Ha district of Ha Tinh province) at 9pm, where they met a group of local police. The two sides clashed and Giap, one of the police, drew his gun and shot into the air. Quyen and Binh ran to the church asking for help.

Subsequently, hundreds of police were deployed to the church, and Catholics in the area quickly came to support Priest Nguyen Cong Binh and the two activists.

A violent clash broke out between the police and the Catholics, with some people of both sides injured. After the police retreated, the Catholics, in preparation for a planned rally the next day, decided to make additional placards that read, “objections to the police shooting civilians.”

April 3

Thousands of people, mostly Catholics, walked to the local People’s Committee of the Loc Ha district to demand relevant compensations for the Formosa victims and to protest at police violence. At 9 am, they managed to occupy the office of the Committee while local officials and their staffs fled.

In response, Hanoi and Ha Tinh sent in thousands of task force police to surround the area and stamp out the demonstration. A Ha Tinh police officer, Nguyen Bao Trung, in plainclothes, mixed himself in the crowd and threw stones at some local officials in an attempt to trump up a charge against the demonstrators. But the plot was uncovered by the demonstrators, who held Trung down until the end of the day. No more violence was reported, but government-sponsored media described the incidence as utter public chaos and resistance of law enforcement officials. (Initially, they denied that Trung was a police officer but finally admitted that he was a police performing official duties).

April 5

Environmental activist Le My Hanh was attacked by a group of government supporters when she was taking a walk around West Lake in Hanoi. Her companion, teacher Trinh Dinh Hoa, was also beaten up and had his glasses broken, causing his nose to bleed.

Le My Hanh was in Ha Tinh days before and she was filming a lot on some protest rallies by the Catholics in Dong Yen parochial. Her video clips, posted live to Facebook, reached a large audience.

April 6

Nguyen Van Hoa was charged with “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the State’s interests” under Article 258 of the Vietnamese Penal Code, the Ha Tinh Newspaper reported. Though Hoa had been in jail since January, only three months later was he officially charged. This means Hoa may have been arbitrarily detained.

April 8

The Ha Tinh Newspaper’s website published a piece of news reporting that Nguyen Van Hoa, the 22-year-old activist arrested in January, had “admitted guilt”. Attached to the news was a video footage in which Hoa was filmed reading a confession, admitting that he had “conducted propaganda, abetted demonstrations, incited public disorder, and defamed the Party and the State.” He was also made to call on people not to criticize the state and the party’s policies.

April 9

The biking tour held by the Green Trees on the first anniversary of the massive fish deaths was suppressed by Hanoi police and security forces. Around 20 members of the group were arrested by the police who simply labeled them as “anti-state agitators”. Political repression continued in the following days when the police kept exerting pressure on employers and families of the activists to isolate them from the community.

April 13

Two young Saigon-based activists, Huynh Thanh Phat (b. 1999) and Tran Hoang Phuc (b. 1995) were kidnapped and assaulted by a group of thugs, possibly plainclothes police after they visited Con Se parochia in Quang Binh province during their trip from Hanoi back to Saigon. Two months later, Tran Hoang Phuc was arrested by the Hanoi security officers on June 29. On July 3, his family was notified by these officers that he was charged with “conducting propaganda against the state” under Article 88 of the Penal Code.

May 2017

May 2

Environmental rights defender Le My Hanh was once again violently attacked at a friend’s residence in HCMC by a group of five individuals believed to be government loyalists. Two of her friends were also assaulted. One of the attackers filmed and posted the video of the attack on his Facebook page with a threatening message.

Though Hanh and her supporters tried many ways to bring the matter to court, their efforts failed and proved the fact that all violent attacks against peaceful activists are never investigated in obvious criminal cover-up by the police to protect the regime supporters.

May 12

The Ha Tinh police issued a wanted warrant for Bach Hong Quyen, charging him with inciting public disorder and chaos in Ha Tinh on April 3, under Article 245 of the Vietnamese Penal Code. The warrant was signed by Tran Hai Trung, Deputy Chief of the Ha Tinh Investigating Police. Quyen fled from Vietnam with the help of many of his supporters nationwide.

May 15

The Nghe An police stopped Priest Nguyen Dinh Thuc’s car on his way from Song Ngoc parochia, and abducted Hoang Duc Binh, who was accompanying Father Thuc in the car. Hundreds of local Catholics quickly got to the area to protest at the arbitrary detention and call for Binh’s immediate release. An arrest warrant was only issued against him hours later when the police tried to disperse the gathering.

Earlier Binh, a member of the Viet Labour Movement, had been very active and vocal in protecting the rights of local people in the disaster-affected area. He now faces three charges: “inciting public disorder”, “resisting persons in the performance of their official duties”, and “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the state’s interest.”

June 2017

June 1

The Tra Vinh People’s Committee said in an official statement that they would revoke the award granted last year to the painting “Dead Sea” by artist Nguyen Nhan. They also said they would confiscate the painting and impose a sanction against the artist. “Dead Sea” depicted a woman fisher sitting on the sand beach, surrounded by plenty of dead fish.

June 29

Blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (a.k.a. Me Nam, or Mother Mushroom) was sentenced by the Khanh Hoa People’s Court to ten years of imprisonment for “conducting propaganda against the state”. The evidence of guilt against her included a hand-made placard calling for government transparency and demanding the prosecution of Formosa.

September 27

Activist Nguyen Viet Dung (a.k.a. Dung Phi Ho, b. 1986) was abducted by a group of police when he was taking lunch outside of Song Ngoc church (Nghe An province). The police later told his family that he was arrested for “conducting propaganda against the state” under Article 88 of the Penal Code.

At the same time, activist Tran Minh Nhat faced being hunted nationwide. A wanted warrant was issued against him back in July, but he was not yet known about it until late September. Both Dung and Nhat had been very active in supporting the Formosa victims in their legal fight for relevant compensation, and they had spent much of the time working in the affected area in central Vietnam.

References:

[1] Ngo Tuan, “People in distress due to mass fish deaths for unclear reason”,  Ha Tinh newspaper, April 8, 2016:

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lam Chi Cong – Quang Dai, “Fish death catastrophe along the Central coast: A journey of 85 days to search for the cause and perpetrator”, Lao Dong (The Laborer), June 30, 2016.

[4] http://baohatinh.vn/nong-nghiep/ca-chet-hang-loat-o-bien-vung-ang-do-o-nhiem-nguon-nuoc/112165.htm

[5] S. Lam – M. Huyen, “Collecting dead fish along the coast, preventing pollution”, Cong an Nhan dan (The People’s Police) newspaper.

[6] Tuan Nghia, “Fish died en mass in Vung Ang sea due to water pollution”, Ha Tinh newspaper, April 13, 2016.

[7] Duy Tuan – Hai Sam – Quang Thanh, “Vung Ang dead fish whiten the Central Coast, suspected cause is intoxication from Vung Ang”, VietNamNet, April 20, 2016. This article is no longer available on the Internet.

[8] Dac Duc, “Sea fish died in 4 Central provinces”,  VnExpress, April 20, 2016.

[9] Kien Trung – Bao Han, “About fish deaths: ‘We can’t inspect Vung Ang industrial zone’’”, VietNamNet, April 21, 2016.

[10] Hoang Phuc, “Almost 200 people poisoned after eating seafood ‘suspected’ of being intoxicated”, Nguoi Lao Dong, April 22, 2016.

[11] “Investigation on environmental law implementation at Formosa”, Tuoi Tre, April 23, 2016:

[12] Ibid.

[13] Xuan Sinh, “General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong visited and worked in Ha Tinh”, Dan Tri (People’s Knowledge), April 22, 2016.

[14] Van Thanh – Tran Loc, “Ha Tinh Vice-Chair: Rest assured, you can eat fish and swim in Vung Ang”, Giao Thong (Transportation) newspaper, April 23, 2016.

[15] Thuy Phan, “Diver in Formosa project site dies mysteriously”, Giaoduc.net, April 25, 2016:

[16]Formosa representative: ‘Want to catch fish and shrimp or want a plant, make a choice!”, Tuoi Tre, April 25, 2016.

[17] Nhat Linh, “Fish died in Thua Thien Hue due to heavy metals in seawater”, Tuoi Tre, April 26, 2016.

[18] The Internet version has been revised to “Sea is now clearer, fishermen strive to restore production”, Ha Tinh newspaper, April 26, 2016.

[19]What a Surprise: Sea is clean! Pollution is gone”, PetroTimes, April 27, 2016.

[20] “No evidence of Formosa’s involvement”, BBC Vietnamese, April 27, 2016:

[21] Van Dinh, “Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Tran Hong Ha: I admit my shortcoming”, Tuoi Tre, April 28, 2016.

[22] Xuan Long, “Minister Tran Hong Ha forces Formosa to bring up discharge pipe”, Tuoi Tre, April 30, 2016.

[23]“Red tide rejected as a cause”, BBC Vietnamese, April 28, 2016.

[24] Nguyen Dong, “A number of key staffs in Da Nang swim in the sea to disprove rumor”, VnExpress, April 30, 2016.

[25] Hoang Tao – Hoang Phuong, “Reddish brown line appears close to Quang Binh shore”, VnExpress, May 4, 2016.

[26] Vien Su, “Viet Tan incites public disorder, taking advantage of the fish death incident”, Tuoi Tre, May 14, 2016.

[27] Huy Nam, “Truck filled with 4 tons of dead fish caught running to Hanoi”, VnMedia, May 24, 2016:

[28] K. Hung – Le Thanh, “We have found the cause of the fish deaths, but not publicized yet to wait for counter argument”, Tuoi Tre, June 2, 2016: http://tuoitre.vn/tin/chinh-tri-xa-hoi/moi-truong/20160602/ba-bo-truong-tham-gia-hop-bao-quanh-vu-ca-chet/1111879.html

[29] Nguyen Vuong, “What does the local government say about the 25 tons of fish containing phenol?”, VTCNews, June 12, 2016.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Pham Hieu – Vo Van Thanh, “‘I’ve experienced 84 stressful days’, said Minister Tran Hong Ha”, VnExpress, June 30, 2016.

[33] Tuan Anh – Manh Quan, “Following the Formosa disaster, many major issues need addressing”, Dan Tri, July 4, 2016.

[34] Van Dinh, “100 tons of Formosa’s wastes found buried in a farm director’s garden”, Tuoi Tre, July 12, 2016.

[35] Available in Taiwanese.

[36] “Water discharge near the processing site under Formosa’s request”, Doi song & Phap luat (Life & Law), July 14, 2016.

[37] Vien Su, “Formosa would have created huge revenues had the incident not occurred, said Mr. Vo Kim Cu”, Tuoi Tre, July 24, 2016.

[38] Nam Phuong, “That the sea is clean enough for swimming does not guarantee the fish are safe to eat, said the Ministry of Health”, VnExpress, August 25, 2016.

Human Rights

2020: 10 Religious Problems That The Vietnamese Government Doesn’t Want You To Know About

Published

on

Photo courtesy: Luat Khoa Magazine.

Vietnam makes no progress with freedom of religion, which remains tightly controlled. 

Vietnam is among countries with the greatest diversity of religions, but it is also among those that suppress freedom of religion most heavily.

In 2020, ethnic Thuong in the Central Highlands, Hoa Hao Buddhists, independent Cao Dai practitioners, and followers of new religions in the northwest all had to pay the price for exercising their freedom of religion.  


1. No place for new religions

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Muong Nhe District police in Dien Bien Province urge residents not to follow new religions. Photo: Dienbientv.vn.

Vietnam possesses a great diversity of religions, but the government is quite strict with new ones.

Recently, a woman introduced me to Phap Mon Dieu Am. She advised me to eat vegetarian and call a phone number to receive “messages that will be imprinted on your heart”. 

Phap Mon Dieu Am is a new religion, and the Vietnamese government prohibits spreading it. 

Authorities worry that new religions will destabilize security and spur anti-government activities. All new religions are referred to generally as “heresies.” 

In the northwest region, especially Dien Bien Province, two new religions have sprouted, known as the Gie Sua and the Ba Co Do religions. 

The province has initiated criminal proceedings against three people for “acting to overthrow the people’s administration” and “harboring criminals” in relation to the Gie Sua religion. 

Dien Bien police also acknowledged that it has pressured residents to sign forms giving up their new religions.

“We went from house to house, explaining things to the residents and asking them to sign pledges giving up the Gie Sua religion, to not believe in the propaganda about establishing “the Mong Kingdom,” Major Vu Van Hanh told the Dien Bien Phu Paper in February 2020.

“As of today, the Na Co Sa border defense post has gotten 55 households/325 individuals to sign pledges giving up their heresies”, he said. 

Despite the government’s threats, other new religions continue to silently operate across the country. 

The Government Committee For Religious Affairs stated in 2015 that there were approximately 60 instances of new religions in Vietnam. 

And yet, throughout Vietnam, people could sometimes unexpectedly hear information about these strange, new religions like Phap Mon Dieu Am, Thanh Hai Vo Thuong Su, Gie Sua, Ba Co Do, Hoang Thien Long, Phap Mon Di Lac, Buu Toa Tam Giao, or Hoi Thanh Duc Chua Troi Me…

2. Ethnic Thuong living under strict religious policies

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Two of the three ethnic Ba-Na individuals arrested on March 19, 2020 for practicing the Ha Mon religion. Photo: Tran Hieu. 

Since 1975, the Thuong ethnic group has been beleaguered as they have never been in their history.

After the government forced them to give up their traditional faiths, many converted to Catholicism and Protestantism. However, the Thuong have not been able to escape government harassment and are not allowed to freely organize their religious activities. 

Peaceful civil activities such as gatherings and protests are all seen as linked to heresies. 

Dega Protestantism, Ha Mon, and the Protestant Church of Christ are all seen as heresies that mislead the masses.

In March 2020, three Ba Na followers of the Ha Mon religion that had absconded into the jungle for seven years were arrested on suspicion of spreading anti-state propaganda.  In June, rather than being charged, the three underwent criticism sessions before the people.

In July, another ethnic Thuong underwent a public criticism session for illegally crossing the border to Cambodia many times, propagating “heresy”, and distorting state policies.

Thuong refugees in Thailand have stated that members of their ethnic group from the Central Highlands escape across the Vietnamese border every month. Currently, there are a little over 500 Thuong refugees in Thailand.

3. Interfering in the internal affairs of religious organizations

The arms of the state reach deep into the internal affairs of religions.

In June 2020, the Government Committee For Religious Affairs ordered the Tien Thien Cao Dai Temple to “create regulations for active dignitaries and functionaries, as well as regulations to resolve letters of petition and grievance, and the selection of dignitaries to be applied to its followers”. These regulations should be the internal matters that the religious organizations voluntarily manage, but the government is directing them to comply with specific instructions.

In Phu Yen Province, local authorities and the Tay Ninh Holy See Cao Dai Great Temple, Vietnam’s largest Cao Dai organization, tried to take over the independent Phu Lam Cao Dai temple in June 2020.

In a conference marking 25 years of state management of the Cao Dai religion, “the church of churches,” i.e. the Government Committee For Religious Affairs, stated that it will increase its research to study more closely the Cao Dai religion and to manage this religion, preventing it from further splintering and having internal conflicts between the religion’s own organizations. 

In June 2020, the Diocese of Vinh decided to retire Dang Huu Nam, a clergyman well-known for his civil society activities.  After the decision, the People’s Daily and many anonymous pro-government web pages stated that the removal was well-deserved because of Nam’s anti-government activities.

4. Arresting Falun Gong practitioners

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The two women arrested by Ha Tinh Province police at the beginning of April 2020 for illegally spreading Falun Gong. Photo: Kiem Sat Newspaper.

As of October 2020, at least 66 Falun Gong practitioners have been arrested and punished administratively for storing or distributing flyers regarding the religion. You may yourself see in public spaces a number of people practicing Falun Gong, numbers which are growing by the day in Vietnam.

However, distributing flyers or practicing Falun Gong with others at home are considered violations of the law.  In Quang Tri, a high school principle was harshly disciplined for inviting a large number of people to his home to practice Falun Gong.

In July 2020, police arrested 28 people for attending a lecture on Falun Gong at a residence in Ha Tinh Province.

Local authorities state that spreading Falun Gong violates the law because the religion has yet to be recognized by the state.

But Falun Gong practitioners disagree with this.

“Our connections are very loose,” a Falun Gong practitioner stated in an interview with Luat Khoa. “We don’t organize into associations or anything like Catholicism or Buddhism.”

LIV, the organization that manages Luat Khoa magazine, has archived information regarding Falun Gong practitioners that have been arrested. This list is a part of a database on freedom of religion in Vietnam, which can be found at: https://www.liv.ngo/data/

Readers can also check out a number of other Luat Khoa articles to find out more about the Falun Gong: Is practicing Falun Gong legal?…, and our Religion Bulletins from MayJune, and September.

5. Controlling publishing

Arrested Falun Gong practitioners have been administratively punished based on a decree regarding publishing. Specifically, they were punished for distributing flyers without government approval.

Publication policies are particularly strict when it comes to religion or politics.

In 2012, the government stipulated that the borrowing or gifting of publications between citizens requires government permission.

The Government Committee For Religious Affairs manages the Religion Publishing House and is the department in charge of censorship for religious publications. 

Control of publishing certainly exercises a heavy influence on the development of religions, and it is impossible to avoid the idea that the government censors with a heavy hand to purposefully limit this development.

6. Punishing individuals

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Venerable Thich Quang Do.  Photo: AFP.

In February 2020, Vietnam’s longest imprisoned monk Venerable Thich Quang Do passed away. 

Before 1975, Venerable Quang Do actively mobilized for the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. After 1975, he continued to lead this delegation, despite fierce government suppression that continued until his death.

Many other religious dignitaries remain subject to the government’s control and punishment.  

In January 2020, the head of Song Ngoc Parish Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc stated that he was banned from holding mass beginning in August 2019. Father Thuc is widely known by the public for his civil society activities among central Vietnamese fishermen after the Formosa environmental disaster. Between 2017 and 2019, the government banned him from traveling overseas twice.  

In February 2020, a Khmer monk named Seun Ty had his passport confiscated for two weeks, with the government threatening that he had violated Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Law. In May 2020, authorities refused to issue a passport to Nguyen Van Toan, a clergyman that often publicly criticized the government. 

After issuing complaints about discriminatory treatment, including instances of torture, families of a number of imprisoned religious activists stated that they had lost touch with their loved ones behind bars.

The government disapproves of religious activists linking with diplomatic missions of their own accord. 

The authorities ordered four religious activists in the Central Highlands, Pastors Nguyen Ngoc Khanh, Y Kuan E Ban, Y Quy Bdap, and Y Khen Bdap to come in for questioning after they met with an American delegation regarding religious freedom. 

7. Obstructing freedom of association

In 2020, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church continued to operate without legal recognition. As in previous years, members of the group were prevented by police from conducting ceremonies at their headquarters in March and July.

A number of members of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam stated that the government interfered in the February 2020 funeral of Venerable Thich Quang Do, stripping them of the right to manage the event. The attempted seizure of the Phu Lam Cao Dai Temple also demonstrates that the government does not accept the idea of practitioners there operating independently.

8. Seizing property and possessions

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St. Joseph School, which is part of the Da Minh Tam Hiep Parish, is currently a medical facility within the Dong Nai General Hospital. Photo: The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine Siena Tam Hiep.

The government has moved from seizing religious properties after 1975 to now “re-appropriating” them.

In 2020, Thi Nghe Parish in Ho Chi Minh City and the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine Siena Tam Hiep in Dong Nai Province stated that the usage rights for two schools that the government previously borrowed were quietly transferred to state entities.

Policies from 2003 related to land and properties of religious organizations  helped local authorities gain usage rights over religious properties  that they were “borrowing.”

Currently, religious organizations do not have the legal grounds to demand their properties back if the government refuses to return them. 

Religious organizations that possess large pieces of land can also become targets of harassment. 

In Thua Thien – Hue Province, Thien An Abbey and provincial authorities are in conflict over the abbey’s land and property. The abbey’s 107 hectares of land has been continually chipped away by the government since 1975, without notification nor compensation. 

In June 2020, Thien An Abbey’s forests were attacked by individuals who cut down trees and sawed deeply into the roots of many conifers.

On August 13, 2020, an area household mobilized a group of men to hammer down stakes and put up barbed wire on a part of Thien An Abbey’s land.

Another problem is that religious organizations are not allowed to sell or purchase land and must wait on the government to provide it.

In Ninh Binh Province, members of the Dong Dinh Parish were extremely upset when local authorities refused to give their land to their church. After the parishioners had donated the land to the government to pass to the church in accordance with the law, commune cadres announced that they would not turn the land over to the church but instead, would build a flood-prevention dyke between the current church land and the land parishioners had given to the government.

9. Religious organizations hit with reprisals

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Letters police sent to members of Phu Lam Temple inviting them in for questioning. Photo: Cao Dai Orthodox Preservation.

In August 2020, a crowd that included residents and commune cadres protested for two days on land disputed by Thien An Abbey, local households, and the government.  The crowd hung up banners and used loudspeakers to decry the monks “taking their land.” 

In Phu Yen Province, after supporting the unsuccessful takeover of Phu Lam Temple, provincial authorities invited five members of the temple in for questioning. Authorities threatened these members, telling them that they had to accept the government’s takeover order.

In 2020, Central Highland provincial authorities accused the Protestant Church of Christ of using religious activities to incite people to oppose the government. Many members of this church were taken in for interrogation. 

10. Controlling the press

The Vietnamese government maintains a monopoly over all official media. With regard to religious issues, Vietnam’s journalists present information according to government instruction. In February 2020, Tuoi Tre Newspaper had to remove an article about Venerable Thich Quang Do’s career.

In June 2020, many publications simultaneously posted articles rejecting accusations in a 2019 international report regarding religion issued by the United States. In August 2020, the monks of Thien An Abbey issued a rebuttal to a report by Thua Thien – Hue Radio and Television, stating that it was untruthful and smeared the monks. 

In recent years, all official newspapers in Vietnam have criticized the Falun Gong movement and its ‘impropriety.” These publications have only conveyed government views rather than the views of its adherents.

Two Catholic webpages, Good News To The Poor and VietCatholic, remain blocked in Vietnam, as are many press organizations that speak up for religious freedom, such as VOA, RFA, BBC, RFI, and Luat Khoa Magazine.

There are no private television or radio stations that operate freely in Vietnam.

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Religion

Religion Bulletin – October 2020: Authorities Forbid Thien An Abbey Clergyman From Returning Home

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Religious activists in Vietnam are paying a heavy price, sometimes putting their lives on the line.

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The former head of Thien An Abbey has been prevented from returning home after traveling to Europe to treat a suspected poisoning. Check out [The Government’s Reach] to find out how the government punishes religious activists. For the first time, figures for the number of Falun Gong practitioners in Vietnam are available; see them in [Religion 360*]. In [On This Day], a reminder of how the government installs surveillance cameras in many temples, and how the assault of six Hoa Hao Buddhist practitioners last year remains uninvestigated.

If you have any suggestions or would like to join us in writing reports, please email us at: tongiao@luatkhoa.org or editor@thevietnamese.org.


Religion Bulletin, October 2020:

The Government’s Reach: A history of punishing religious activists

Clergyman prevented from returning home to Vietnam after treatment for suspected poisoning

The former head of Thien An Abbey – Father Anthony Nguyen Huyen Duc – is still waiting for the Vietnamese government to allow him to return home.

After a period of leading Thien An Abbey’s resistance against the government’s land reclamation attempts, Father Duc traveled to Europe to seek medical treatment after a suspected poisoning. 

After his second medical treatment in Germany, he returned to Vietnam in September 2019, only to be told by police to return to Europe.  

“Right when I returned to Hanoi, I was questioned by police. High-level officers asked that I return to Europe because they could not ensure my safety or my life if I stayed in Vietnam, that it would be extremely adverse for the Thien An community if I stayed at the abbey,” the organization BPSOS reported, quoting from a letter Father Duc sent to leaders of the Order of St. Benedict. 

On October 16, 2020, the German diocese’s Committee for Justice and Peace sent a letter to Vietnam’s Justice Committee requesting they allow Father Duc to return to Vietnam.

The German committee requested that the Vietnamese government return the abbey’s confiscated property, cease its violence, protect and respect sacred religious objects, and uphold the right to freedom of religion.

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Father Nguyen Huynh Duc’s health conditions after a suspected poisoning. Photo: Good News To [sic] The Poor

BPSOS quoted Father Duc who stated that doctors in Europe also believe he had been poisoned.

Duc believes he was poisoned during the 2016 Lunar New Year at Thien An Abbey, when a person invited him to drink their tea and coffee.

“Right after the person left, I immediately felt sharp pains in my neck and head, aches down to my bones, my jaw became extremely sensitive and teeth came loose, I was unable to walk… a large (3 cm diameter) patch of my hair fell out…. Afterwards, I asked the sitting head Father Bruno for permission to travel to Europe,” BPSOS published, quoting from a letter written by Father Duc in August 2020. 

Father Nguyen Huyen Duc was the head of Thien An Abbey from 2014 to 2017. The abbey is known for its heated and long-running land dispute with Thua Thien – Hue provincial authorities.

Thua Thien – Hue Province rejects Father Duc as head of Thien An Abbey

In past years, Thua Thien – Hue provincial authorities did not accept Father Duc’s presence at Thien An Abbey.

In December 2017, they requested leaders of the Order of St. Benedict to remove him as head of the abbey.  

The authorities stated that Father Duc had allowed many unauthorized construction projects on disputed land, organized clergy appointments without permission, and obstructed government work.

After the government’s requesting letter, Father Duc took time off to travel to Europe for medical treatment. Leadership of the abbey was passed to another person.

In May 2019, as Father Duc was preparing to resume his position as head of Thien An Abbey, provincial authorities continued to insist that he should not take up the position. 

In a May 2019 document, provincial authorities accused Father Duc of “distorting the situation, and inciting ethnic hatred and opposition against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” while he was getting medical treatment overseas. 

Methods used to suppress religious activists

Religious activists like Father Duc have long endured many forms of harassment and suppression. Below are the systematic methods in which religious activists are suppressed, methods which are sometimes openly carried out by police, and at other times, by anonymous individuals. 

  • Smear tactics

In February 2018, many anonymous pro-state web pages published information alleging that  Father Duc had entered a hotel with a woman. 

According to the Catholic webpage Good News To The Poor, Father Duc’s stay at the hotel occurred in September 2017

Accordingly, Father Duc had arranged to meet with a group of overseas Vietnamese from Canada at the hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. This meeting was facilitated by a woman who was acquainted with both sides.

When Father Duc checked into his hotel room, approximately 100 plainclothes and uniformed police officers poured into the hotel in a prostitution raid. Father Duc was interrogated in a room. Police ultimately forced the woman to sit next to Father Duc and took a picture of them together. 

Rumors intended to smear individuals are regularly posted on anonymous pro-state websites and shared with the public. The source of these rumors is one big question mark. 

There are reasons to believe that Vietnamese police are directly involved. In 2008, after Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s Letter #31 spoke of religious freedom and politics in Vietnam, the first students of Hanh’s Plum Village met with difficulties.  

In August 2008, Plum Village students were expelled from Bat Nha Monastery and continuously harassed in a variety of ways. 

During the Bat Nha Monastery affair, the People’s Public Security Daily — the official mouthpiece for police — published an article citing a number of anonymous sources regarding the romantic relationship between Zen Master Nhat Hanh and Nun Chan Khong, as well as the dictatorial way in which Nun Chan Khong controlled Plum Village.

The article was published precisely when Plum Village was receiving public support in the Bat Nha Monastery affair.

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Screenshot of the article published by the People’s Public Security Daily, regarding Nun Chan Khong and Zen Master Nhat Hanh.
  • Assault

According to the webpage Good News To The Poor, in September 2017, a car driving Father Duc’s delegation was purposefully rammed by a pick-up truck after they visited Father Dang Huu Nam – who advocated parishioners sue the company Formosa for polluting the central Vietnamese coast. Father Nam stated that this same pick-up truck had purposefully rammed his vehicle many times.

In October 2019, six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists were ambushed and attacked by a group of people on the road to An Hoa Temple. These six practitioners were planning to prevent a roof re-tiling at the temple but were attacked before arriving.  A practitioner threatened to cut his own throat and set himself on fire as they were being attacked by unidentified individuals. 

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The six Hoa Hao Buddhists after the night of the assault (Photo: RFA) and the temple roof being re-tiled (Photo: Hoa Hao Buddhist Church).

The individuals who assault religious activists are often unidentified plainclothes people, and police normally do not pursue any kind of investigation after such incidents are reported. 

In December 2015, Father Dang Huu Nam stated with Good News To The Poor that his vehicle was blocked by a group of 20 individuals, who pressured him to get out of the car and then proceeded to surround him and beat him. 

“As the crowd of thugs beat me, the police chief of An Hoa Commune stood by on the side of the road and did nothing,” Father Nam told Good News To The Poor. 

In June 2018, according to a Cali Today article, Mr. Hua Phi, an independent Cao Dai dignitary in Lam Dong, was beaten and his beard shaved. He stated that an individual identifying himself as police brought in dozens of others who entered his residence, “covering his head and beating” him repeatedly. The incident occurred just three days before he was to have a dialogue with the Australian Embassy regarding human rights issues. 

  • Accusations of disturbing public order

Religious activists in Vietnam must be very careful in their conflicts with the authorities.  Five out of six Hoa Hao Buddhists are in jail because of their clash with traffic police in April 2017. 

These six practitioners, four of whom are from the same family, had opposed the traffic police confiscating the vehicles of those arriving at their house for a death anniversary.  The tug-of-war between the two sides quickly turned into a case of disturbing public order and obstruction of officials. 

In recent years, many social activists have been charged with disturbing public order in their conflicts with police.

  • Travel bans

Being prevented from returning home, as discussed at the beginning of the article with the case of Thien An Abbey’s clergyman, is rare. More frequently, religious activists are forbidden from traveling overseas; either the government confiscates their passports or they are not issued one at all. 

In May 2020, Father Nguyen Van Toan was denied the issuance of a passport; he is a frequent and public government critic. 

In February 2020, a Khmer monk named Seun Ty had his passport confiscated for two weeks. Police accused Mr. Seun Ty of violating the Cybersecurity Law.

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Monk Seun Ty has his passport confiscated by Soc Trang province police for two weeks. Photo: VOA.

In 2017 and 2019, authorities refused to allow Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc, head of Song Ngoc parish, to travel overseas. 

The issue of travel bans on religious and social activists remains unresolved. 

Religion 360*

Dien Bien Province continues to pressure residents to give up new religions

From the end of September to the beginning of October 2020, many state newspapers reported on the Gie-sua and Ba Co Do religions “raging in Dien Bien Province”. 

The Voice of Vietnam (VOV) newspaper, a government mouthpiece, stated that in Dien Bien Province, 112 individuals returned to the Gie-sua religion after giving it up previously, while 294 others were currently following the Ba Co Do religion in Muong Nhe district.

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Two so-called “propaganda” sessions regarding heretical religions in Dien Bien Province in 2019 (above) and September 2020. Photo: Dien Bien Phu Daily, People’s Public Security Daily. 

Ms. Nguyen Thanh Huyen, vice-chair of the Public Relations Commission of the Dien Bien Provincial Committee stated that the government would push people who followed unrecognized faiths to give up their religion. 

“A number of mountain villages have regulations and conventions, one of which states that anyone who participates in these religions [Gie-sua, Ba Co Do,…] will not receive [the benefits] of the regime and its policies”, Ms. Huyen stated to VOV. 

Dien Bien provincial authorities reported that the Gie-sua and Ba Co Do religions operate differently from one another but shared the same goal of establishing an autonomous Mong state.

Muong Nhe district police chief Major Vu Van Hung added that authorities were using Protestant dignitaries to push people to give up these “heretic religions”.  

“We’ve organized groups penetrating into households that follow these religions, courting group leaders and putting Protestant dignitaries in influential areas so that villagers will give up their religions. But the most economical method must be us using our resources to prevent unauthorized proselytizing online. Only then will we be effective,” Major Hung stated to VOV. 

Two people in Ca Mau arrested and punished administratively for spreading Falun Gong

Vietnamese police continue to arrest practitioners of Falun Gong for spreading the religion. 

The Ca Mau Daily reported that Ca Mau city police administratively punished two individuals on October 1, 2020 for distributing Falun Gong flyers without permission.

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The Falun Gong flyers that city police confiscated from two arrestees. Photo: Ca Mau Daily

Two individuals with the initials N.T.G and N.T.H were arrested on September 21, 2020 after distributing approximately 65 flyers to parents and students in front of a school’s gate. Police confiscated from the two 177 flyers and 30 books on Falun Gong.

According to statistics from Luat Khoa, at least 66 Falun Gong practitioners have been arrested and administratively punished for spreading the religion since the beginning of 2020.

Lam Dong Province television: More than 8,300 Falun Gong practitioners in Vietnam

On October 22, 2020, Lam Dong Radio and Television broadcast a report stating that across the country, there were more than 8,300 Falun Gong practitioners. Lam Dong Province, in particular, has about 110 practitioners.

The news was particularly noteworthy, as up to this point, no one had an accurate count of Falun Gong practitioners in Vietnam. However, Lam Dong Radio and Television did not cite the source of this figure.

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A Falun Gong practitioner during her interview with the Lam Dong Provincial Police. Photo: Luat Khoa Magazine.

According to the report, Lam Dong Province had a number of party members, veterans, and teachers who practiced and spread Falun Gong. Among them was a deputy commune head.

The report stated that spreading the practice in Lam Dong Province was both illegal and harmed the people. 

“Falun Gong is a religion that opposes science, convincing people that you can treat sickness without going to the hospital, it distracts people from finding livelihoods”, Lam Dong Radio’s reporters noted. 

Provincial radio and television stated that those spreading Falun Gong in Lam Dong were being sent materials from other provinces. 

Government Committee for Religious Affairs acknowledges some Cao Dai organizations “operate independently” and “splinter in resistance”

On October 27, 2020, the Government Committee For Religious Affairs acknowledged that there were “Cao Dai organizations that operate independently and splinter in resistance” during a conference on religious management in Ben Tre Province. 

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The Government Committee For Religious Affairs’ Conference on Cao Dai in Ben Tre (Photo on right: Government Committee For Religious Affairs). The unsuccessful seizure of Phu Lam independent temple by the government-supported Tay Ninh Holy See Cao Dai Church in June 2020 (Photo: RFA).

However, the article described the conference without going into detail about the splintering or independent activities of the Cao Dai organizations.

As covered in Luat Khoa’s  September 2020 Religion Bulletin, a number of independent Cao Dai temples are currently being pressured to merge with those temples being recognized by the government.

In recent years, the government has been helping state-recognized temples “take over” independent Cao Dai temples.

Although nearly all independent Cao Dai temples operate in a purely religious manner, the government views their independence as a security risk.

“Familiarizing the law” to religious practitioners 

From the end of September through all of October 2020, the Government Committee For Religious Affairs organized conferences on “advocating the law to religious practitioners” in many locations: Hai PhongKon TumGia Lai, Binh Dinh, and Bac Giang.

These conferences sought to familiarize Vietnam’s practitioners with the state’s strict religious management regulations. Furthermore, conferences in a number of provinces and cities also held exchanges on the teaching of two subjects, Vietnamese history and Vietnamese law, on the premises of religious organizations. 

This is one way in which the state controls the people’s views over religions in Vietnam. Religious practitioners had to pay attention not just to legal regulations but also to the ways state bodies treat them.

Similar conferences are expected to take place across many other provinces and cities. 

On This Day

Government installs camera in front of temple gates

In October 2019, numerous monks raised objections to the government’s installation of a surveillance camera pointing directly at their temple’s front gates. 

In Ba Ria – Vung Tau Province, Venerable Thich Vinh Phuoc stated that authorities had installed a camera in front of Phuoc Buu Temple before he had left for the United States to advocate for religious freedom. 

“It’s been more than just Phuoc Buu Temple; for over a year, they’ve installed many cameras in Xuyen Moc District, as well as the whole Ba Ria – Vung Tau Province,” Venerable Vinh Phuoc told RFA.

The government also installed a surveillance camera at another temple in Ho Chi Minh City.

“Since 2000, there have been many difficulties because Thien Quang Temple refuses to abide by the Buddhist Church of Vietnam (BCV). Their [BCV’s] management has been unbearable, stifling”, Venerable Thich Thien Thuan told RFA regarding the reason for the surveillance cameras.

Also in Ho Chi Minh City is Venerable Thich Khong Tanh. He is temporarily residing at Giac Hoa Temple, which also had surveillance cameras installed. 

“When I asked, they explained that the cameras were simply fulfilling a responsibility to monitor,” Venerable Khong Tanh told RFA. “These surveillance cameras deter democracy allies and friends from coming.”

In recent years, the government has installed surveillance cameras to monitor all kinds of activists. 

These activists have stated that the government wants to monitor who comes and goes from their residences, as well as the activists’ own routines. During special occasions such as visits from foreign delegations, security forces will prevent activists from leaving their homes. 

After a year, police still have not investigated the assault of six Hoa Hao Buddhists

This October marks one year since the roof of Hoa Hao Buddhism’s An Hoa Temple was re-tiled. It also marks one year since six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists were beaten on the way to prevent this re-tiling.

The scuffle occurred on October 7, 2019, at the Thuan Giang ferry pier, about 1.7 kilometers away from An Hoa Temple. 

The independent Hoa Hao Buddhists had all along opposed plans to re-tile the An Hoa Temple roof. However, the state-recognized Hoa Hao Buddhist Church moved forward with the plans anyway, ignoring the opposition.

The six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists involved include Vo Van Thanh Liem, Le Thanh Thuc, Nguyen Thanh Tung, Vo Thi Thu Ba, To Van Manh, and Le Thanh Truc. 

Mr. Thanh Liem stated to RFA: “When we arrived at Thuan Giang ferry, there were about 40-50 people blocking us; they beat Mr. To Van Manh, Mr. Le Thanh Thuc, and Nguyen Thi My Trieu, and my granddaughter, Vo Thi Thu Ba, had her phone smashed.  I saw that they were about to beat me so I poured gasoline on myself to threaten self-immolate, attempting to cut my own throat, and they ran off. They used long sticks and beat people so hard that the sticks were smashed to pieces”. 

Today, more than one year after the scuffle, police still have not initiated an investigation into the matter.

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Human Rights

CIVICUS 2020 Monitor Report Continues To Rank Vietnam As “Closed” Civic Space

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Photo Courtesy: Innovation for Change, East Asia

On December 8, 2020, international organization CIVICUS – a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world – revealed its 2020 Monitor report which tracks Civic Space worldwide. 

CIVICUS defines:

“Civic space is the bedrock of any open and democratic society. When civic space is open, citizens and civil society organisations are able to organise, participate and communicate without hindrance. In doing so, they are able to claim their rights and influence the political and social structures around them. This can only happen when a state holds by its duty to protect its citizens and respects and facilitates their fundamental rights to associate, assemble peacefully and freely express views and opinions. These are the three key rights that civil society depends upon. The CIVICUS Monitor analyses the extent to which the three civil society rights are being respected and upheld, and the degree to which states are protecting civil society.”

More than 20 organizations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor to provide an evidence base for action to improve civic space on all continents. Civic space in 196 countries is categorized as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology which combines several sources of data on the freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression. 

CIVICUS Monitor shows that out of 25 countries in Asia, Vietnam and three other countries, China, Laos, and North Korea, are rated “closed.” 

The new CIVICUS Monitor report also indicates that 90 percent of countries in Asia repress civic freedoms. It also raised concerns about attacks on the media and vilification of human rights defenders.

“Our research shows that civic freedoms, including the freedom of expression, assembly and association, continue to be violated across the region. The percentage of people living in Asian countries with closed, repressed or obstructed civic space is nearly 90 percent,” said Josef Benedict, Asia-Pacific Civic Space researcher for CIVICUS.

The report also stated that “in Vietnam, where civic space is rated ‘closed’ … the authorities continue to harass those who criticize the one-party regime. Scores of individuals were arrested or jailed after summary trials under an array of restrictive laws for ‘abusing democratic freedoms’ and ‘anti-state propaganda’, including activists, bloggers and Facebook users. Most recently, the Vietnamese authorities arrested human rights defender Pham Doan Trang – one of the nation’s most prominent independent journalists.”

Photo Courtesy: Pham Doan Trang Facebook.
Journalist Pham Doan Trang. Photo Courtesy: Pham Doan Trang Facebook.

Furthermore, the report also notes that “the persecution against independent publishers, The Liberal Publishing House, has continued in 2020 after a brief pause due to the pandemic.” It further reports that “members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam – the last independent journalist organization in the country – have also been arrested and prosecuted. Human rights groups raised serious unfair trial concerns and allegations of torture in the Dong Tam trial, which has led to convictions. Many activists were kept under surveillance, or detained for months without access to legal counsel and subjected to abusive interrogations.”

Dong Tam Trial. Photo Courtesy: Tuoi Tre newspaper.

The ASIA-PACIFIC ratings overview can be found here

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