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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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New Visa Rules Make It Easier for Foreigners to Work, Invest in Vietnam’s Coastal Economic Zones

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On November 25, the National Assembly (NA) of Vietnam passed amendments to its Law on Entry, Exit, Transit, and Residence of Foreigners that would allow visa-free entry into coastal economic zones, as well as enable visa status changes from inside the country. The amendments were approved with 83.6% of the vote and go into effect July 1, 2020.

The amendments stipulate that in order for a coastal economic zone to quality for the visa-free exemption, it must be separate from the mainland, possess clearly defined territory and boundaries, have an international airport, and must not compromise national security or national defense.

Of note in the amendments is the alternate phrasing “special administrative-economic unit” used to refer to areas affected by the new law. The phrase “special economic zone” (SEZ) is considered sensitive after nationwide protests broke out in June of 2018, in opposition to a Special Economic Zones (SEZ) law that was being considered before the NA. The law would have established SEZs in Van Don, Bac Van Phong, and Phu Quoc, but widespread concern that the SEZs would be overrun by Chinese investors prompted the NA to shelve the law.  

Some Vietnamese have noted that Van Don and Phu Quoc of the previously-shelved SEZ law both qualify for visa-free entry under the new amendments, sparking concerns that the government is attempting to circumvent popular opposition. Representatives of the NA themselves have expressed concerns that opening up these areas to visa-free travel may pose a national security threat and have requested greater government regulation.

But Vo Trong Viet, chairman of the NA Committee on National Defense and Security, has argued that “the amendments would make it easier for foreigners to stay in Vietnam to learn about the market, and look for jobs and investment opportunities without wasting time and money on immigration procedures.”

Also included in the amendment is a stipulation allowing foreigners to change or renew their visa status while inside Vietnam, instead of having to leave the country entirely, as was previous practice. The amendment allows for visa changes by individuals in specific circumstances: “visitors who can prove they are investors or representatives of foreign organizations that make legal investments in Vietnam” and their family members, as well as foreign workers who receive job offers or enter with e-visas (provided they have the requisite work permit or work permit exemption).

Vietnam’s National Assembly, elected in 2016 and currently in its 14th session, consists of 496 members, 475 of which belong to the Communist Party (the remaining 21 are independents). Though largely considered a “rubber stamp” parliament due to a lack of public consultation and debate, discussions over pieces of legislation have increased in recent years, and the NA has begun to assume a larger political role in the eyes of the public. The NA meets twice a year to formally ratify laws, with individual members serving five-year terms.

Elections for the 15th session of the NA are set to take place in 2021.

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Freedom of expression

In Prolific Day, Vietnam Sentences Six Dissidents to Prison for “Anti-state” Activities

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Nguyen Chi Vung (top), Pham Van Diep (middle), Vo Thuong Trung, Doan Viet Hoan, Ngo Xuan Thanh, and Nguyen Dinh Khue (bottom, left to right) . Photo sources: Kien Thuc, Binh An, and Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper, respectively. Composite photo created by Will Nguyen.


In a particularly damaging day for Vietnamese dissidents, six individuals were sentenced to a total of 26 years in prison for opposing the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). The convictions on November 26, 2019 bookend an active month for Vietnamese security forces, who have arrested and convicted numerous individuals for their on- and offline “anti-state” activities. 

Nguyen Chi Vung, 38, was sentenced to six years in prison by a court in the southern Mekong Delta province of Bac Lieu. Vung was convicted under Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code for “Making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and articles against the SRV”. According to Reuters, Vung had “held 33 livestream sessions on Facebook ‘to share distorted information’ and ‘encourage people to participate in protests during national holidays’”.

Pham Van Diep, 54, was convicted under the same article, with a north-central Vietnamese court in Thanh Hoa sentencing him to nine years in prison and five years probation. His indictment stated that he had a nine-year history of expressing online dissent and that he made frequent Facebook posts criticizing the VCP leadership and SRV policies. According to Tuoi Tre newspaper, he had previously printed and distributed anti-SRV flyers in the Lao capital city of Vientiane. On June 28, 2016, Diep was arrested by Laotian authorities, tried in February of 2018, and sentenced to 21 months in prison for “using the territory of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to oppose neighboring countries”. Lao authorities took him to the Vietnamese border one month after his trial, where he was allowed to re-enter Vietnam.

In Dong Nai, a province bordering the southern hub of Ho Chi Minh City, four individuals were convicted under Article 118 for “Disruption of security”. According to Vietnamese Human Rights Defenders, “[t]he four convicted were arrested on April 25, 2019, for their intention to participate in a peaceful demonstration scheduled on April 30 to mark the 34th anniversary of the fall of the US-backed Saigon regime”. Vo Thuong Trung, 42, and Doan Viet Hoan, 35, were each sentenced to three years in prison, while Ngo Xuan Thanh, 49, and Nguyen Dinh Khue, 41, each received 28 months.

The convictions of these six individuals in one day comes a little over a week after 43-year-old music teacher Nguyen Nang Tinh was sentenced to 11 years in prison and five years house arrest for violating Article 117. According to his lawyers, a Facebook account making anti-SRV posts used the same name as their client. However, they said the account did not, in fact, belong to him. Tinh was arrested May 29, 2019 and convicted on November 16 in the north-central province of Nghe An.

Last week also saw the high-profile arrest of Pham Chi Dung, a journalist with a doctorate in economics, and a founding chairman of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam. Dung, 53, is a former VCP member and is known for his incisive political and economic critiques of both the VCP and SRV. He has written for Voice of America, BBC, Radio Free Asia, NBC News, Nguoi Viet, and Asian Nikkei Review.

Dung’s arrest has been noted by the European Union and condemned by Reporters Without Borders, who hailed him as “an outspoken Vietnamese journalist and leading press freedom defender who for years has been trying to help create an open and informed civil society in Vietnam that is not controlled by its Communist Party.” He is currently being held at the Phan Dang Luu Detention Center in Ho Chi Minh City, one of two centers in the city where political dissidents are usually held while they are being investigated (the other being Chi Hoa Prison). He faces up to 12 years behind bars.

Although freedom of speech, press, and assembly are all guaranteed by Article 25 of the 2013 Vietnamese Constitution, the SRV is a one-party, authoritarian state that does not tolerate challenges to its power. It routinely arrests and convicts activists under Articles 117 and 118 of the penal code, as well as Article 331, which cites  “Abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State”. Such broadly defined articles are regularly used as a catch-all to target citizens who criticize the VCP or demand political reform. The SRV has long claimed that it does not jail prisoners of conscience, only individuals who violate the law. Human rights groups say the two are not mutually exclusive.

Addendum: On November 28, 2019, two more individuals in Dong Nai were convicted under Article 117. Huynh Minh Tam, 41, and his sister Huynh Thi To Nga, 36, were sentenced to nine and five years of prison, respectively, for making Facebook posts critical of the SRV.


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Press Release

The Vietnamese: On Our Second Anniversary

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On November 8, 2017, the editorial board of The Vietnamese launched our website with only one purpose: to bring more information on human rights and the political situation in Vietnam to the international audience.

Two years ago, we realized that foreigners don’t really understand Vietnam and that that they don’t know what Vietnam’s politics are really like. They may not know that the sunny and relaxed place of tourism in the tropics has been controlled by a single political party for more than seven decades in the North and for more than 40 years in the whole of the country. The Vietnamese people live under an authoritarian state and so have no free and fair elections. They do not elect any of the leaders of their country because those leaders are selected behind closed doors by the Vietnamese Communist Party. Vietnam’s government is the type of regime that the Umbrella Movement was trying to avoid for Hong Kong people in 2014 when protests broke out.

As democracy activists, it has been a bit mind-boggling for us to see the world wholeheartedly support the rights of the people of  Hong Kong but while just giving a pass to us Vietnamese – a people who also believe in democracy – who continue to suffer under an authoritarian regime.

It was then that we decided that we needed to write in English about Vietnam. We felt a need to bring the stories and the lives of those who suffer when their human rights are being violated by the state and to make these stories more widely seen within international communities.

For two years, we have been working mostly voluntarily to bring forward our magazine’s objectives. More importantly, we have brought out the stories of our people and our human rights activists to the world. It has been two years with not a lot of financial support, but it was also two years in which we received tremendous human resources for free. We know that we are heading in the right direction when more people reach out and try to work with us when we have no means to pay them. We believe that they are happy to contribute because they understand that the world needs to hear our voices. The good news is that in 2019, we were successful in raising enough funds to pay for our freelancers and we hope that more writers will join us since we issued our call for more pitches one month ago.

We thank you, our readers, for your support and belief in us. We thank you and call on writers to walk with us and realize our goal to be a platform to advocate for each and every Vietnamese individual’s human rights and democracy. We call on all of you to share and raise your voices for our dreams, our visions, and to support our daily struggle for Vietnam to become a democratic country where the rule of law and human rights are respected.

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