Vietnam took another small step toward inclusive political institutions this month, announcing the creation of a website where Vietnamese can air their grievances. At a regular press conference, Minister and Chairman of the Government Office, Mai Tien Dung, formally declared the website nguoidan.chinhphu.vn, which would allow authorities at all levels to receive, answer, and respond to citizens’ questions and complaints, and collect proposals on how to improve the country’s administrative system.
The initiative is timely, coming just days before the one-year anniversary of the start of the Formosa protests, sparked by mass fish deaths along a 200-kilometer coastline of central Vietnam, which some called Vietnam’s largest environmental disaster. The deaths of some 100 metric tons of fish in four central provinces were first recorded on April 6, 2016, and protesters soon gathered to accuse a steel mill in Ha Tinh. The steel mill, being developed by Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Group, was widely suspected of discharging untreated waste into nearby waters.
The accusations led to organized protests breaking out in several major cities, and resulted in the arrests and detainment of dozens of Vietnamese protesters. Those actions drew the attention of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), who called on the Vietnamese leadership to respect the right of freedom of assembly. Formosa finally admitted responsibility in June, pledging $500 million in compensation to some 186,000 fishermen and fish farmers.
To date, there is some confusion over exactly how much compensation has been paid out. Minister Dung, at last week’s press conference, announced local authorities disbursed 76.8% of the total as of March 6. Afterwards, one newspaper reported just 32%, or VND3.7 trillion ($162 million) of VNĐ11.5 trillion ($500 million) had been paid to support local fishermen and help clean up the polluted marine environment as of April 1.
Minister Dung also sought to reassure the Vietnamese public, announcing an inspection team from the environment ministry would begin a three-day examination of the plant, checking whether a blast furnace could be put into use, “If they cannot ensure the safety for the facility’s operation, the mill will never be allowed to go into production.”
Here in Vietnam, findings from the 2016 Viet Nam Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index (PAPI) were also published last week, revealing a dramatic increase in concern by citizens for the environment. More than 12% of those surveyed expressed the environment as their most important concern, increasing 10% from last year. And the party secretary of Ha Tinh province, Vo Kim Cu, was reportedly fired last week for his role in the Formosa fish kill.
Through these timely actions, Hanoi appears to taking positive steps toward acknowledging their citizens’ newfound environmental activism, hoping to avoid any widespread social unrest given the extent of pollution. But they are also taking punitive measures to quell protests. This past week, Nguyễn Văn Hóa, a 22-year-old resident of Kỳ Anh District, was arrested by Hà Tĩnh police for “abusing his civil rights, freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the State.” He stands accused of using a Flycam device to shoot videos of the protests at the Formosa steel plant that posted on social networks.
The anniversary of Vietnam’s largest environmental disaster has seemingly motivated government officials to pay heed to citizens’ concerns and take actions to address the pollution and potential unrest. Yet there are some fears the new website will be used against the agitated populace much like Mao Zedong used the “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom” campaign in China.
Hopefully restraints on waste discharge will displace restraints on peaceful assembly – lest another environmental disaster crashes the new website after a flood of complaints, and the increasingly environmentally-paranoid Vietnamese return to the streets. On Sunday, the favorite day for Vietnamese to protest last year, the streets of Saigon were quiet, and locals were back to eating fish again.
Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. [email protected]