Police assault Formosa protest marchers

Several hundred protesters set out on the March on Tuesday morning

Police officers used violence and arrests to halt a march by hundreds of protesters demanding compensation for last year’s environmental disaster, which destroyed fish stocks off the central coast.

A Catholic priest, Nguyen Dinh Thuc, led some five hundred parishioners from his church in Nghe An province, intending to march 173 kilometres to Ha Tinh, where a toxic leak from the Formosa steel plant took place last April.

He was one of a number of protesters attacked by police, according to fellow marchers.

They intend to hand in a petition to the authorities in Ky Anh district, demanding adequate compensation for the losses suffered when more than a hundred tonnes of fish were killed by the toxic chemical spill.

Protesters arrested

The authorities have taken an increasingly hard line with environmental campaigners and other activists who have taken up the cause of the communities worst affected by the disaster.

Some prominent bloggers who have criticised the government’s response have been arrested and charged with security offences, including Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known as Me Nam or Mother Mushroom, who was arrested late last year and is still awaiting trial. The communist authorities appear to fear that a large scale and organised environmental campaign could erode their authority and credibility following a fumbled official response to the Formosa disaster.

The Taiwanese company admitted responsibility and agreed to pay US$500 million in compensation last June. Campaigners say that fishing boat owners did receive some compensation last year, but the majority of those affected have been offered little or nothing.

The marchers say they were inspired by a mass march in 1930 led by Mahatma Gandhi to protest against salt laws imposed by the British colonial authorities. That protest is seen as a defining moment in the history of passive resistance to authority.

Organisers said that police had arrested a number of protesters.

They said uniformed officers had lined sections of Highway 1A, where the march was passing, and had accused the protesters of blocking traffic and other violations.

200,000 affected by chemical spill

Sporadic protests have continued in central provinces since the leak last year, which had a devastating impact on the local fishing and tourism industries.

About a thousand people gathered in Quang Loc village, Quang Binh province, on February 4, to protest against the uneven distribution of compensation.

The commune chief is reported to have fled the area after failing to give answers to the protesters.

The government has acknowledged that the livelihoods of more than 200,000 people were affected by the chemical spill. The Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, had ordered compensation pay outs to be settled by the end of last year.

Local Catholic priests have played a leading role in organising the demands for justice from local people.