Vietnam: protests over massive fish deaths

Hanoi saw a rare public protest on May 1, as hundreds demonstrated against a Taiwanese firm they accuse of causing mass fish deaths along 120 miles of Vietnam's central coast. A steel plant run by a subsidiary of Taiwan's Formosa Plastics is believed to be the source of a massive toxic release into the ocean that has killed tons of fish and affected thousands of families in fishing villages along the coast. The company released a statement saying it was "deeply shocked and sorry" for the fish deaths, without accepting culpability. Suspicions were heightened in late April when two divers contracted for construction at the plant on Vung Ang Bay were mysteriously hospitalized, and a third died. The Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Steel plant, still under construction, is slated to be the biggest steel mill in Asia.

Activists, bloggers and lawyers have mobilized in response to the disaster. A public statement signed by over 100 rights advocates said the "poisoning of the sea" would have serious economic impacts beyond fishing, and charged that the "culprit" behind the apparent spill had received political protection from "powerful quarters" to "buy time and stall the investigation so they can destroy the evidence."

An initial government investigation found no links between the fish deaths and the steel plant, with official suggesting "red tide" algal blooms were likely responsible. But public skepticism was fueled when a Formosa Plastics representative said April 25 that Vietnam must choose between "catching fish and shrimp and building a modern steel industry." Chu was removed from his position the next day, and the company apologized for the statement. In response to the protests, Vietnam's environment ministry has invited some 100 international experts to investigate the disaster. (Thanh Nien News, May 5; The Diplomat, Eco-Business, May 4; Maritime Executive, May 3; The Diplomat, April 30)

Vietnamese activist gets 14 years for documenting chemical spill

A Vietnamese court sentenced Hoang Duc Binh to 14 years in prison for activism related to a chemical spill that resulted in a massive fish kill in 2016. The sentence appears to be the harshest so far in a series of punitive measures the Vietnamese government has taken against citizens protesting or blogging about the spill. (Mongabay, Feb. 8)

This follows the 2016 arrest of blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known as "Mother Mushroom," who faces 12 years in prison for "propaganda against the state." Her actual crime appears to be criticizing the government's handling of the chemical dump at a Taiwanese-owned steel plant hat caused mass fish deaths. (NYT, Oct. 11, 2016)