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#SaveTamDao: A Cry for Help from Vietnam’s Primary Rainforest

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Photo courtesy: Save Tam Dao Facebook group

One of Vietnam’s most famous preserved national parks – Tam Dao – is crying for help.

Tam Dao is among the country’s oldest primary rainforests, locates in the Red River Delta – arguably, the heart of Vietnam.

But the heart of Vietnam is bleeding from deforestation committed by business interest groups.

It faces imminent danger from a development project calls Tam Dao II, jointly sponsored by Vinh Phuc Province and Sun Group – a private enterprise.

Sun Group is among of the largest real estate development corporations in Vietnam, but it also faces the most accusations from environmentalists and environmental protection groups as one of the worst violators in major deforestations happening across the nation.

A group of Vietnamese discovered back in October 2018 that the National Park was closed and visitors were not allowed to enter.

Facebook’s community in Vietnam immediately suspected that a private company must have obtained the right to develop their real estate project in the area.

After all, in recent years, Vietnamese people have repeatedly uncovered one deforestation disaster after another in primary rainforests throughout this tropical country.

Every time, the citizens found out that the deforestation resulted from improper conducts of both the provincial government and the private company that won the bid for the development project.

Every time, the last line of defense in protecting the rainforests of Vietnam has been the online campaigns organized by ordinary citizens.

This time, it is the same.

A group of environmentalists created a new Facebook group with a new hashtag #SaveTamDao.

What are the people trying to save? What is Tam Dao?

Tam Dao National Park is a 36,000 hectares primary rainforest, preserving the original ecosystem of the Red River Delta that has been around for some 160,000 million years.

Standing tall at about 1,200 meters above sea level with the highest peak reaching up to 1,500 meters and about 80 km from Hanoi, Tam Dao is known not only for its natural beauty but also the sanctuary and profound spiritual impact it imprints on visitors.

Since 1996, the government has designated Tam Dao as a national park with the highest level of protection.

In 2006, an attempt to develop a resort in Tam Dao with Vietnam Partner, LLC (registered in the U.S.) as the investor was proposed. However, it quickly came to an indefinite halt after facing opposition and harsh criticisms from scientists and others who work on rainforest preservation.

Ten years later, it seemed as if the old development project was revived quietly by a new investor.

According to the Facebook group – Save Tam Dao – in 2016, the commencement of the resort development project was witnessed by Vietnam’s top officials, including Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and representatives from Sun Group.

300 hectares of forest land belongs to the national park will be converted to land that could be used in development projects this time.

Most worrisome, as in other development projects on forest lands across the country, the government did not disclose the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to the public.

The community and the people to date have not had the opportunity to participate in the EIA process.

They could not even take a look at the development’s map.

During an attempt to hike up Tam Dao recently, a group of citizens has obtained testimony from the residents living in a village at the bottom of the trail, that there must be a plan in place to build a “huge hotel.”

This group also took pictures along the way, showing logs from the rainforest’s hundred-year-old trees lying around after got chopped off.

According to Lonely Planet, “there are at least 64 mammal species (including langurs) and 239 bird species in the park” and added, “illegal hunting remains a big problem”.

From Vietnamnet online newspaper in 2016:

“Tam Dao National Park is covered by a rich flora, consisting of 490 species from 34 genera and 130 families.

Tam Dao National Park is also home to 281 species of fauna from 281 genera, 84 families and 26 orders belonging to 4 main classes: animals, birds, reptiles and amphibious ones.

Among the variety of life forms in the park are several rare species, including cheek black monkey, Tam Dao snake-head fish, silver pheasant wood grouse, etc.”

According to Save Tam Dao group, the development project, as planned, will cause detrimental and irreversible impacts on the rainforest’s rich ecosystem which in turn, will affect the livelihood of the nearby residential areas and the people who rely on it for their sources of clean water and air.

Pictures from Save Tam Dao Facebook group showing illegal logging and deforestation in Tam Dao National Park:

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Vietnamese Police Continue Questioning People Over Facebook Activities

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Phan Chi Toan at the police station. Photo courtesy: Vietnamnet.

The police force in Ben Tre Province, Vietnam seemed to have been quite busy in the last few months, going after people’s postings on Facebook.

In January 2019, their Domestic Security Bureau took a university student in and questioned him over his Facebook’s usage, including whether he had joined a group calls “Liking BBC Vietnamese” (Thích BBC Tiếng Việt) – which the police classified as “politically hostile.”

On February 13, 2019, Vietnamnet newspaper reported that Ben Tre provincial police conducted an investigation and interrogated a 35-year-old man, Phan Chi Toan, about his Facebook’s activities under the username “Phan Rio.”

Police alleged that the Facebook account calls Phan Rio was conducting “subversion against the people’s government.”

How did he do it according to the authorities?

He did so by joining numerous groups, allegedly “politically hostile” towards the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the State, posting, sharing, and commenting on contents that incited demonstrations, as well as propagating to defame the policies, guidelines, and directions of the VCP and the government.

The police had not formally charged Toan with a crime but did declare that they would proceed with the case according to the regular procedures.

The same Vietnamnet’s article further mentioned that the People’s Committee of Mo Cay Bac District, also in Ben Tre Province, had fined a 55-year-old man – Dang Tri Thuc – under Government’s Decree 174/2013/ND-CP, Article 64, Section 4, for using his Facebook account to incite public demonstration in December 2018.

Accordingly, Thuc, a driver, was accused of using the live-stream feature on Facebook to make video clips, calling on others to protest on a few major road intersections on December 22 and 28. He allegedly admitted guilt, confessed and promised he would not repeat the offense, so the authorities fined him with 15M VND or approximately 650 USD.

Decree 174/2013/ND-CP, Article 64: Violations against regulations on websites/ news websites

Section 4. A fine ranging from VND 30,000,000 to VND 50,000,000 shall be imposed for any of the following violations:

a) Propagating information against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; sabotaging the bloc of great national unity at a degree of severity which is still not liable to criminal prosecutions;

b) Propagating information with the aims of inciting war of aggression, causing hatred between ethnic groups or people of countries, inciting violence or propagating reactionary thought at a degree of severity which is still not liable to criminal prosecutions;

c) Distorting history, denying the revolutionary achievements or offending the nation, people or national heroes at a degree of severity which is still not liable to criminal prosecutions.

While the right to demonstrate is constitutionally protected in Vietnam, the government had routinely violated this right by applying their Decree 38/2005/NĐ-CP – to regulate “public gatherings – during protests to arrest the participants.

Since the nationwide mass protests broke out in June 2018 against the draft bills on the cybersecurity law and the development of three special economic zones, the security police have continued to track down those who had participated and made arrests in different cities and provinces.

The family of a woman names Doan Thi Hong from Binh Thuan Province has recently made a public plea on social media, alleging that Hong was taken into police custody by a group of plainclothes police on September 2, 2018. She was a participant in the same June 2018 protest mentioned above.

Although she has a young child under 36-month-old at the time of the arrest, which under Vietnam’s laws is a factor to consider against pre-trial detention, her sister claimed that Hong had been arbitrarily kept incommunicado since September of last year.

According to her sister, Hong was not a dissident and only exercised her right to protest that one time.

It seems that the police’s recent investigations targetting Facebook’s activities and usage in Vietnam also focus primarily on the average users and not necessarily the more well-known bloggers and dissidents.

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Vietnamese Police Questioned University Student Over Facebook Postings

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Tran Ngoc Phuc at the police station. Photo courtesy: Dong Khoi online newspaper

On February 1, 2019, the Domestic Security Bureau of Ben Tre Province interviewed Tran Ngoc Phuc, a 21-year-old student of Ton Duc Thang University in Ho Chi Minh City at their station.

Dong Khoi online newspaper, a publication of the VCP’s Provincial Committee in Ben Tre, published the story on the same day.

According to the article, the police accused Phuc, a resident of Tan Phu Commune, Chau Thanh District, Ben Tre Province, of using his personal account to propagandizing against the Vietnamese Communist Party and the State.

Namely, Phuc was using Facebook under the name “Ngoc Phuc” to join several “politically hostile” groups. Among them, was “The South of Vietnam” (Miền Nam Việt Nam), Fanclub of Saigon Capital (Đô thành Sài Gòn Fanclub), and  “Liking BBC Vietnamese” (Thích BBC Vietnamese).

Phuc also allegedly admitted to the police that he was indeed the Facebooker Ngoc Phuc and that he had posted, shared, and commented on specific contents.

The police had deemed these contents as materials which “propagandized, sabotaged the thoughts, distorted the direction, objectives, and policy of the VCP, the laws of the State and distorted (the image of) the leader Ho Chi Minh.”

Formal charges against Phuc had not been filed, but the police indicated that they would continue to build the case and follow the regular legal procedures in this case.

During the first month since the new Cybersecurity Law took effect in Vietnam on January 1, 2019, there were several reports that the police had questioned and detained some Facebookers.

Rights groups, online campaigners, bloggers, activists, and dissidents continuously criticize the new law for further curtailing freedom of speech and shrinking the online civic space in Vietnam.

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Former Political Prisoner, Truong Duy Nhat, Disappeared In Thailand After Seeking Refugee Status With UN

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Truong Duy Nhat. Photo courtesy: Teu Blog

Last Friday, January 25, 2019, former political prisoner, Truong Duy Nhat, was last seen at the office of the UN HCR – The Refugee Agency in Bangkok, Thailand.

Nhat was there to register himself as an asylum seeker after leaving Vietnam earlier in the month.

According to his family and friends, no one had heard from him since last Saturday, and they could not contact him.

Nhat has left Vietnam for Thailand for about 21 days, said his family.

The family was able to confirm that Nhat was not held by Thailand’s IDC (Immigration Detention Center). They also obtained further information today that Thai authorities, up to this point, did not arrest Nhat either.

Nhat’s phone number in Thailand is not turned off, but no one answered the calls. His wife and daughter are worried about his safety and well-being as they are still unable to get in touch with him.

Truong Duy Nhat was sentenced to two-year-imprisonment in 2014 under Article 258 of the 1999 Penal Code. Nhat was arrested in May 2013 and held in detention until his trial.

The government alleged some of his blog entries on the Blog “Another Point of View” (Một Góc Nhìn Khác) was “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe the interest of the state”.

His blog was indeed critical of the government and the leaders of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

One of the entries published in April 2013 was calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and the VCP’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong for their perceived political and economic mismanagement.

After his release in 2015, Nhat continued with his blogging and resided in Da Nang, Vietnam.

Nhat’s wife is still in Vietnam, but his daughter is studying in Vancouver, Canada. They are asking members of the public to come forward with any useful information regarding his whereabouts.

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