One of the biggest threats to Vietnam’s government at the moment is fish. More specifically, masses of dead fish.
The fishing industry in Vietnam is a backbone of the country. Last year Vietnam earned $6.6 billion from seafood exports. In 2012, eight million people, or approximately 10% of the population, made their living from the fishing industry and the average Vietnamese citizen consumes 27 kilograms of fish per year.
In early April, tonnes of fish began washing up dead on the shores of the Vietnamese provinces of Ha Tinh, Quang Tri, Quang Binh and Hue. 30 tonnes of fish died in just one week. The amount of dead fish is unprecedented and includes an alarming range of deep and shallow water varieties.
The government was slow to respond to the crisis, reluctant to investigate and presumably confident that the fuss would die down. However, local concerns over public health and environmental pollution quickly grew. It was not long before residents turned their attention to the Formosa Steel Plant in Ha Tinh. Formosa is a Taiwan-based industrial site with a dubious history that locals say has been dumping waste into the ocean from their steel mill.
In response to public criticism of the fish deaths, the director of Formosa’s external relations department, Chu Xuan Pham, only incited public anger when he said: “People have to make a choice: either to catch and sell fish, or to develop the steel industry. We cannot have both.”
On 27 April, after reluctantly conducting an investigation, the Vietnamese government announced that no link had been found between the steel factory and the fish deaths, offering no alternative explanation for the phenomenon. The lack of accountability coupled with the dismissive nature of the government’s response led to mass public outrage, and over the next two weeks, hundreds of people participated in peaceful protests in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Rarely are protests seen in this tightly-controlled communist nation, and when they happen it is usually the same few politically-active faces that are seen in the streets. However, these protests were different from the start. Corporate greed and environmental degradation ignited a sense of injustice among the public. These were not the usual activists taking to the streets; these were ordinary people carrying signs that gave a loud and clear response to the Formosa plant in both Vietnamese and English: “I choose fish.”
Predictably, it did not take long for Vietnamese authorities to resort to violence and intimidation to end the public demonstrations. The United Nations Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia released a statement condemning the actions and claiming that at least a dozen protesters were beaten and temporarily detained on 1 May.
Although the event was covered widely on international media, local media remained silent. It was left to social media users to share news about the events. Vietnam has one of the highest rates of internet use in the region, and the capacity of the internet to connect people and spread ideas has not gone unnoticed.
It is no secret that authoritarian governments have a lot to fear from social media. In the last year the Thai and Cambodian regimes have increasingly targeted those who post negative comments online. Last year in Cambodia a student was charged with incitement and given eighteen months in prison for a Facebook post he made calling for a “colour revolution.” Only last month, Thai authorities charged the mother of an activist with lèse majesté after she sent the one word response “yeah” to her son in a private message on Facebook.
The tightening of political control across the region has not gone unnoticed in the international community. However, this has not translated to much action. President Obama visited Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in a much-hyped three-day tour from 23 to 25 May. During the high-profile visit, the Vietnamese government restricted access to some websites and detained a number of outspoken activists, some of whom had been scheduled to meet with the President.
Although President Obama spoke of the need for greater respect for human rights in Vietnam, he did not explicitly call out the government for their actions and the activists remained detained or under house-arrest until he left the country.
The success of the Vietnamese government in silencing dissent comes from years of practice. The country is rated ‘not free’ by Freedom House’s ‘Freedom on the Net’ measurement. Recently two bloggers were sentenced to three and five years’ jail respectively (after already having spent two years in pre-trial detention) for running a news blog.
If the Vietnamese government can so brazenly restrict the rights of its citizens during a visit from an American president, it will certainly continue to do so when the world has turned its attention elsewhere. However, if the Vietnamese government can learn one thing from its neighbours, it is that shutting down one dissenting voice will only lead to the proliferation of others.
Caitlin McCaffrie lives and works in Phnom Penh and has a major interest in Southeast Asian politics.
Image credit: jessielein (Flickr: Creative Commons)