Last week, Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNCHR), called on the Vietnamese leadership to respect the right of freedom of assembly, after security officials stifled city-wide protests over an environmental disaster engulfing the country.
In a press briefing note released by UNCHR on May 13, the agency said it is “concerned about the increasing levels of violence perpetrated against Vietnamese protesters expressing their anger over the mysterious mass deaths of fish along the country’s central coast.”
In recent weeks, Vietnamese citizens have rallied in the cities of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Vung Tau and Da Nang over reports that at least 100 tons of fish have died along a 200-kilometer stretch of coastland in central Vietnam since April. Many of the protesters are angry over the slow response of the new leadership to pin the blame on a unit of Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics, which operates a $10.6 billion coastal steel plant in Ha Tinh province.
Vietnamese fishermen, whose income has been severely depleted by the pollution, led authorities to an illegal pipeline thought to be responsible for the poisoning of the fish, which was traced to the steel plant. Formosa management claims to have safely treated the discharge, and initial government findings sought to deflect the blame from Formosa to a red tide caused by an algae bloom. Newly-elected Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has promised a thorough investigation, vowing “We will not shield anyone found causing the pollution.”
Yet Vietnamese citizens are losing their patience, and the urge to demonstrate has been building momentum, alarming authorities. Vietnamese security apparatus allowed the first two protests on consecutive Sundays to attract hundreds of demonstrators.
Security officials cracked down on demonstrators the second week, however, using tear gas was used to disperse the crowd, and reportedly beating around 300 people and arresting others, according to the UNCHR report. Videos and pictures circulating on Facebook also showed punches thrown and protesters being dragged off into buses.
In response to reports of demonstrators being beaten and arrested, the UNCHR issued the following statement: “We call on the Government of Viet Nam to respect the right to freedom of assembly in line with its international human rights obligations.” This statement drew a harsh response from the permanent Vietnamese representative to the UNCHR, Ambassador Nguyen Trung Thanh, who called the statement “inaccurate, unobjective and unverified.”
While Article 25 of the 2013 Vietnamese Constitution ensures freedom of assembly and speech for its citizens, stating “The citizen shall enjoy the right to freedom of opinion and speech, freedom of the press, to access to information, to assemble, form associations and hold demonstrations,” Ambassador Thanh noted that freedom of assembly must be exercised without detriment to public order “to ensure traffic order, security and safety for the people, especially the elderly, women and children.”
This past Sunday, Vietnam’s state television, and several other major state-run channels, warned potential demonstrators to ignore calls by “reactionary forces” who intend to disrupt public order, saying “their intention to abuse and disturb was revealed when many subjects called for using knives and petrol bombs to attack the functional forces and to overthrow the authorities.”
Authorities were also quick to blame the demonstrations on an anti-government plot by a terrorist organization named ‘Viet Tan’ (Vietnam Reform). Viet Tan’s website claims it “engages in actions that empower the Vietnamese people”, with its mission to “overcome dictatorship, build the foundation for a sustainable democracy, and demand justice and human rights for the Vietnamese.”
While it is arguable whether the safety and security of the people were endangered by the demonstrations (or by Viet Tan), the state television broadcast, a shutdown of Facebook, and a heavy security presence in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City were enough to quell any significant gathering of protesters on the third Sunday of protest. No more than 100 protesters gathered in Ho Chi Minh City, most of whom were quickly dispersed or detained.
U.S. President Barack Obama was originally scheduled to arrive in Vietnam on May 22, a Sunday in which protests could flare again, and also the day in which Vietnam holds its election of the nation’s lawmaking National Assembly. His trip has now been moved to the 23rd, and although his itinerary is still under discussion, events on the ground in recent weeks may give the issue of human rights more prominence.