One year after Formosa – protests unsettle government

Tonnes of fish were killed by a chemical leak from the Formosa steel plant. Photo courtesy VNA/VNS

A year after tonnes of dead fish began washing up on the beaches of central Vietnam, the government is still reeling from the impact of one of the country’s worst national disasters.

Almost weekly protests by affected communities in four central provinces have presented a direct challenge to government authority.

The surge of discontent at the handling of the disaster, caused by a chemical leak from a Taiwanese owned steel plant, continues to undercut confidence in the Communist party in the region.

Some 40,000 fishermen and their families had their livelihoods damaged by the disaster, with fish stocks still severely depleted. The knock on effect, including the impact on tourism, has been devastating for the regional economy.

Public fury

The government has responded with repression, breaking up some of the protests and jailing a number of environmental activists.

But it has also attempted to meet some of the concerns of the affected communities, after initially being caught flat-footed by the scale of the disaster and the public fury that followed.

The Taiwanese company, Formosa, was belatedly obliged to admit its responsibility two months after the chemical leak, and agreed to pay $500 million in compensation.

Eleven government officials were later publicly identified for failures of oversight.

Analysts saw the moves as significant concessions from a highly secretive government structure whose instinct is to cover up mistakes, and which normally recoils at any suggestion of transparency and accountability.

They reflect an understanding that, in the age of social media and unprecedented access to information, officials need to be more responsive to public discontent.

Too indulgent

The gestures, however, have been too little too late for many of those that suffered from the disaster and their supporters.

The demonstrations have focused on the lack of transparency in the handing out of compensation – many families say they have still received nothing twelve months after there livelihoods were hit.

There is also a deeply held suspicion that the government is still being too indulgent towards Formosa, a massive foreign investor.

The government’s decision this week to allow the steel plant to begin tests, that could lead to a full opening of the facility, has fuelled the conviction that the interests of residents are still being ignored.

Meanwhile, the police have launched a campaign of intimidation and persecution against bloggers and activists who have taken up the cause of the fishermen.

One of Vietnam’s best known independent bloggers, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, better known as Me Nam or Mother Mushroom, remains in jail awaiting trial after being arrested last October.

“provoke, disturb and destroy”

State controlled media is now broadcasting threats that Catholic priests, who have played a key role in organising protests by their parishioners, could be next in line.

The People’s Army newspaper recently called for vigilance against those using religion “to provoke, disturb and destroy” social peace.

The authorities have consistently attempted to link the protests to agitators based overseas, a common theme when they are trying to justify a crackdown on government critics.

For all the efforts to intimidate activists, however, the protests have continued.

Environmental degradation, whether of the water, air or land, remains an area of acute vulnerability for the Vietnamese authorities.

Like the communists of eastern Europe, they’re discovering that environmental movements can undermine authoritarian governments that scorn public accountability and treat all criticism as subversion.