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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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Imprisoned Dissident – Anh Ba Sam – Encountered Odd Events Before Release Date

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Portrait of Anh Ba Sam. Photo credits: Luat Khoa Magazine.

Journalist Nguyen Huu Vinh (whose pen name is Anh Ba Sam) faced quite a few peculiar encounters in Prison Center Number 5, Yen Dinh district, Thanh Hoa province in recent months.

According to Le Thi Minh Ha, his wife, on December 9, 2018, a man in a police uniform came to visit Vinh in his prison cell and spent an hour and a half talking to him. At the end of their conversation, the man left behind an envelope full of money and told Vinh that after his release from prison he should support To Lam, the current minister of public security – the national police force in Vietnam.

Mrs. Ha told Luat Khoa magazine: “My husband recounted the story to me when I visited him. Neither one of us could grasp what was happening. Who was this man and who had directed him to do such a thing? Was he someone who works for To Lam or someone who wanted to harm To Lam? Nevertheless, it could also be intimidation. We think we should publicize this information to protect Vinh.”

Both Ha and Vinh went to college with the current Minister To Lam in the 1970s, where all three were studying at the People’s Security Academy. This school is where the Vietnamese government trains its future secret police force officers.

Vinh was arrested on May 5, 2014, and at the time, To Lam was the vice minister of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS). He was held in pre-trial detention for almost two years before being convicted of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state, the rights and interests of other entities and citizens,” and sentenced to five-year-imprisonment on March 23, 2016. Before his arrest, he was the owner of the blog site Anh Ba Sam – one of the most famous online newspapers in Vietnam during the past few years.

Another event – which also caused Ha to have more concerns over her husband’s safety – happened on January 27, 2019, the day of her monthly visit to Prison Center Number 5.

She stated that one prison guard had requested to meet her in private and told her: “On the release day (which will be May 5, 2019), if there are only family members then the center will process the paperwork and release him at the gate of the prison. If there are other non-family members accompanying (you), carrying banners and posters with them, then the prison center will take Vinh to a remote area and leave him there by himself.”

“On March 4, 2019, my husband called me from the prison center in accordance with the monthly allowance of five-minute-phone calls, where he told me that the same prison guard met with him again in private and told him the same thing,” Ha informed Luat Khoa magazine.

Mrs. Ha had already sent a letter of complaint to Prison Center Number 5 on February 1, 2019, to report the previous incident. She received a response dated February 25, 2019, which insisted that no prison guard had communicated any such content to either her or Vinh at the center.

Luat Khoa indicated that its reporter contacted the prison center with the number Ha had provided in April 2019, but the person who answered the phone refused to acknowledge the name of the alleged prison guard. Instead, he stated that the name belongs to someone who lives near the prison center. When the Luat Khoa reporter pressed for the current condition of Nguyen Huu Vinh, the person then said he did not know.

Mrs. Ha had also lodged complaints regarding the threat to release Vinh in a desolate area with Minister To Lam, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the National Assembly Judicial Committee and its Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, as well as Ho Thanh Dinh – The head of the Prison Management Bureau. However, all of her complaints eventually were passed down to Prison Center Number 5 to resolve.

“The person who threatened me and my husband was an officer at Center Number 5, and if all of my complaints were making their way back to this same place, then it would be meaningless. Both of us are feeling anxious and scared now that they (the prison guards) might try to harm Vinh one way or another,” Ha said.

On March 4, 2019, she also sent a letter to an alumni group consisting of her and Vinh’s former classmates at the People’s Security Academy, to suggest that if any one of them is going to accompany her on his release day, then please don’t bring any banner or poster so that they would be “in compliance with” the prison center’s request.

*** This story was first written in Vietnamese by Tran Ha Linh for Luat Khoa magazine on April 12, 2019. The Vietnamese has reviewed all of the complaints and letters which Mrs. Ha submitted and the official reply from the prison center. But because we only received information from Mrs. Ha, we decided at this time not to reveal the names of the prison guard or of the man in police uniform mentioned in this story.

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Exploring Tam Dao National Park, Group Of Vietnamese Youths Robbed And Beaten By Unknown Men

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Pictures recently take by Vietnamese who responded to the call to save Tam Dao rainforest. Photo credits: Save Tam Dao Facebook.

“My body crumbled because of the pain, but this group of strangers continued to beat me while using words to taunt me: ‘Aren’t you scared now, Hung? Don’t you care about your friend, dear?’”

In a Facebook’s post, the victim, Ta Manh Hung, recounted the horrible experience that he and four of his friends encountered on the evening of April 6, 2019, on Tam Dao mountain.

The group was traveling together that weekend, hoping to explore one of Vietnam’s most praised national parks and its rainforest, located in Vinh Phuc province near Hanoi. Prepared to spend the night at a camping grounds inside the forest, yet halfway to the destination, their journey was abruptly cut short when about a dozen strangers, all males, surrounded the group. The men then proceeded to use force to tie each of the youngsters to a tree stump about 20 meters apart and then they assaulted them.

The ordeal lasted for a couple of hours until nightfall, and when the weather began to get cold in the forest, the assailants decided to take off. They left the victims still tied up and took all of their personal property, including their mobile phones, cameras, watches, Kindles, back-up chargers, and the wallets that contained their identification papers.

Cold, scared and beaten, these youngsters, however, were able to use their teeth to slowly untie each other. Afterward, they managed to go to the nearby Tay Thien Pagoda to seek refuge for the night. The next day, local people helped them report the incident to the police of Tam Dao district.

The group’s violent encounter was first reported on Facebook in Vietnam last week. As it went viral, the public started to demand answers from the local authorities, prompting the mainstream media also to cover the story. In an interview with Nation (Tổ Quốc) newspaper, the police of Vinh Phuc province stated that they took the incident seriously and that they would handle it according to the law and regulations.

The public’s anger, however, may also be explained by the fact that Tam Dao national park has attracted the concern of many in recent months. Vietnamese people were wary that an ongoing development project, being constructed in the center of the rainforest might destroy its natural landscape and ecosystem.

A little more than three months ago, there were reports that Tam Dao’s primary rainforest and its diverse fauna and flora were under threat of environmental destruction.

Sun Group – one of Vietnam’s largest real estate developers – together with the government of Vinh Phuc province had initiated the construction of a resort in the middle of the national park. While the developers insisted that they were building an “ecotourism” project, environmentalists in the country decried the idea, stating that it would cause irreversible damages to the hundred-million-year-old rainforest’s ecosystem.

A Facebook group called Save Tam Dao started to document the current stages of theSun Group development project. It also called on others to join in and save the rainforest. Save Tam Dao has received quite a lot of support from Facebook users in Vietnam, especially among the younger generation.

Last month, together with other environmental activists and organizations, this group also initiated an online petition with Avaaz.org, calling on the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to publicly reveal the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment.

Groups of youngsters have also started to travel more frequently to Tam Dao to take pictures of nature’s beauty. Some of those pictures, however, also showed the devastating damage that the resort’s development project had created thus far.

Hung’s group attempted to do the same thing during the previous weekend: travel to Tam Dao and explore the rainforest’s beauty. But its members tragically had a terrorizing encounter where they were robbed and assaulted.

It was, however, quite peculiar that the attackers also forced the group to give up the passwords of their phones. Once able to gain access, they then immediately began reviewing all of the stored messages and photos at once.

Hung was the only one that had refused to give up his passwords. As he later stated, he did not want unknown strangers to intrude on his privacy. The moment he did not comply, his suffering increased. These men tied him up, covered his head and beat him for hours, trying to get him to give up the password.

Irritated by his continuing refusal, the assailants threatened to plant drugs on his body and report him to the police. Then, they carried him up, still with his head covered, and told him that they would throw him down the abyss. Seeing Hung did not respond to the threats, they started to put various types of insects inside his clothes to let them bite him. To prevent others from hearing his screams, they stuffed Hung’s mouth with some handkerchief.

What was so important that the assailants were willing to use such tactics to gain access to Hung’s phone and would even use torture to get it? We may have to wait for the police investigation report to find out more.

This latest attack, however, raised many questions about public security and safety in the area. Tam Dao is a national park; it belongs to all of the people, and all of its people should be able to enjoy its beauty safely. But right now, it seems that not only the rainforest at Tam Dao is crying for help but so are the ones who love it.

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Vietnam Accused “Hostile Forces” Of “Abusing” Ba Vang Pagoda Story. What Is Ba Vang?

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Buddhist followers at Ba Vang Pagoda. Photo credits: Ba Vang Pagoda.

A number of Vietnam’s state newspapers simultaneously began reporting on an almost identical story in late March 2019. They all accused “hostile forces” of “abusing” the Ba Vang Pagoda Incident to “promote, incite, and entice the people, monks, and Buddhists to fight against the government, generating divisions of religious unity.”

Such strong words came from an article printed on April 1, 2019, by the VTC News (Vietnam Television Corporation), one of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s largest mouthpieces, which further announced:

“The hostile forces changed information as a plot to distort the freedom of religion situation in Vietnam.”

The Ba Vang Pagoda Incident was just the latest addition to the laundry list of accusations made by the Vietnamese government against “hostile forces” over the years. Often, it would accuse them of taking advantages of social problems in Vietnam to incite the public and created friction between the state and its people.

But what happened at Ba Vang Pagoda? What is this place?

Why do both the Vietnamese government and its people care so much about it recently?

Ba Vang is a Buddhist temple in Quang Ninh Province, and Abbot Thich Truc Thai Minh belongs to the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS). The VBS is the only Buddhist Sangha recognized by the Vietnamese government, and it is also a member of the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, an umbrella group of mass movements in Vietnam aligned with the Communist Party of Vietnam.

Earlier in March 2019, some video clips of a Buddhist follower named Pham Thi Yen preaching in front of thousands of people in Ba Vang Pagoda spread rapidly on Facebook and other social media platforms.

One clip shows Mrs. Yen discussing the case of a female student who was gang-raped and murdered while on her delivery route earlier this year. Yen explained that the killing was due to the deceased’s evil karma, which she said the deceased had sown in her past life, and for which she must suffer retribution this life. Her speech had angered the entire nation.

Then, on March 20, 2019, an investigative report in the Lao Dong newspaper entitled “Spreading the dead soul’s vengeance, Ba Vang Pagoda earns tens of millions of US dollars every year,” fueled even more public backlash against the pagoda. The article alleged that religious leaders at the pagoda were performing superstitious activities, such as offering to eliminate bad luck for a large sum of money from its followers.

Members of the Ba Vang Pagoda preached that all troubles in life sprang from the ghosts of many previous lives before who follow the people until this life to seek revenge for past misdeeds or grudges. If one “wants to be forgiven,” he or she then must “offer money to the ghosts” which they could do it by donating money to Ba Vang.

On social media, people began to investigate Abbot Thich Truc Thai Minh and his past. In Vietnam, there has always been strong speculation among the public about the entangled, secretive relationship between the Party and the VSB, where high ranking monks and abbots have been elected to the National Assembly, held governmental posts, and have always spoken in support of the VCP.

The social backlash and public anger towards the Ba Vang Incident prompted a quick reaction from both the government and the VSB. Multiple ministries issued urgent orders to investigate the matter, and the VSB announced that it had disciplined Ba Vang’s abbot.

But the people refused to let the story de-escalate. Indeed, more and more netizens dug up past videos and pictures Ba Vang had previously used as infomercials. Photos of past and present leaders, such as Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who was shown walking hand in hand with Abbot Thich Truc Thai Minh spread like wildfire on Facebook.

Facebook users went further and started to suspect openly that the Ba Vang Pagoda Incident was indeed an internal fight between high ranking officials in Vietnam whose business interests had collided. It has been an old rumor among Vietnamese people that some of the large and well-constructed pagodas in the country were places where illegal money laundering activities took place, involving many of the VCP’s officials.

Some well-known Facebook commentators continued to question the incidents at Ba Vang Pagoda, asking: who had approved the construction and operation of the pagoda, whether it was legal to ‘collect money for superstitious activities,’ who was behind all these activities.

And as the people continued to probe, the government turned to an old trick, blaming “hostile forces” for the ongoing controversy.

In the past, the government had accused “hostile forces” of being behind the fight against the operation of illegal BOT toll booths. The protests in June 2018, where thousands of people rallied against the Special Economic Zones and the Cybersecurity law, were also supposedly incited by such forces, according to the state.

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