VIETNAM: ‘The government hates losing face and has zero tolerance for criticism’
CIVICUS speaks about recent arrests of leading environmental activists in Vietnam with Penelope Faulkner, President of Quê Me: Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR). The crackdown came just months after the Vietnamese government signed a deal to receive billions of dollars of international aid to tackle climate change, partly on the condition that it would involve grassroots activists in the effort.
VCHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) founded in Paris in 1975 to promote and defend civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights in Vietnam. Working closely with other CSOs, it monitors human rights abuses, informs international opinion through reports and press alerts and mobilises international support for human rights and the release of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam.
Has the situation of Vietnamese climate activists improved following the deal signed by the government to receive international aid to tackle climate change?
The jailing of prominent climate activist Hòang Thị Minh Hồng on bogus charges of tax evasion answers your question. Hòang Thị Minh Hồng is founder and former CEO of CHANGE, a CSO that advocates for action on climate change, the environment and wildlife protection. She is a high-profile environmental activist and former Obama Foundation scholar, and was listed by Forbes magazine in 2019 as one of the 50 most influential women in Vietnam. She was forced to close CHANGE in 2022 in the wake of the arrests of other environmental rights activists, after being harassed by the government.
Her arrest therefore came as a shock, but not a surprise. Her arrest is eminently political, because she has access to a high-level audience in the global environmental community, and her actions and international appeals have a strong influence on the movement for climate change worldwide.
Hòang Thị Minh Hồng was arrested in June 2023. The Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) was signed in late 2022. To secure this US$15.5 billion deal, Vietnam pledged to involve civil society in accelerating the country’s shift from coal to renewable energy. Yet six months later, they broke this pledge, and the crackdown continues.
Just this month, Vietnam arrested another prominent environmental rights defender, Ngô Thị Tố Liên, executive director of the Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition. It is still unclear what charges she faces, but the trumped-up charge of tax evasion is a predictable option. At the time of her arrest, her organisation was working with the United Nations (UN) Development Programme to help implement the JETP.
Ms Tố Liên is the seventh high-profile environmental rights defender arrested since the government launched this crackdown in June 2021. Vietnam clearly has no political will to respect its international commitments, and the repression of grassroots activists is bound to continue.
Why is the Vietnamese government cracking down on the grassroots climate movement?
Up until now, government repression had largely been targeted at political and religious dissidents, human rights defenders and activists calling for freedom and political reforms. Vietnam uses political repression, threats, harassment, arrests and detention under vaguely worded ‘national security’ provisions in the Criminal Code to crack down ruthlessly on bloggers, journalists, followers of non-recognised religious groups, people who participate in demonstrations and civil society activists from all walks of life. At least 200 prisoners of conscience are languishing in Vietnam’s prisons today, some serving sentences of up to 20 years in extremely harsh conditions.
Until recently, the Vietnamese government did not perceive environmental rights defenders as a threat. On the contrary, the authorities have benefited massively from the diverse activities of Vietnamese associations in the fields of development and environmental protection, as well as from the substantial contributions of international CSOs working in Vietnam. In a recent report published in official media, Vietnam said it had received over US$677 million from international environmental CSOs between 2020 and 2022.
Two elements drastically changed this: the ratification of the European Union (EU)-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA), which came into force in August 2020, and the impact of the rising global movement to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
As in all EU free trade agreements, EVFTA provides for a civil society pillar to monitor implementation of the chapter on trade and sustainable development, which includes environmental issues and labour rights. The pillar consists of two domestic advisory groups (DAGs), one in the EU and one in Vietnam.
Mai Phan Lợi and Bạch Hùng Dương, leaders of the Centre for Media Educating Community, and lawyer Đặng Đình Bách, chair of the Law and Policy of Sustainable Development Research Centre, were Steering Committee members of VNGO-EVFTA, a civil society network created in Vietnam to raise awareness about EVFTA and encourage participation in the Vietnamese DAG. As such, they actively promoted the independent role of civil society in the monitoring process.
These actions put them at odds with the government, whose intent was to maintain the Vietnamese DAG under tight state control. In June 2022, the three men were arrested and sentenced to terms of 30 months to five years in prison for alleged tax evasion. On 10 September 2023, just one day before US President Joe Biden’s visit to Vietnam, Mai Phan Lợi was given early release. But Đặng Đình Bách, who has refused to plead guilty or repay any alleged tax demands, is serving a five-year sentence in Prison No. 6 in Nghe An, where conditions are extremely harsh.
How did the global movement against fossil fuels become a factor in the crackdown?
The Vietnamese government hates losing face. It tolerates activists when they support government development programmes but has zero tolerance for criticism, especially in the international arena. And the ‘crime’ of this new generation of climate change activists in the eyes of the Vietnamese government is to speak out openly to advocate for cleaner energy policies in Vietnam.
Đặng Đình Bách joined 353 CSOs from 58 countries in signing a letter to the G7 Summit calling on world leaders to ‘stop all fuel finance from bilateral and multilateral funding sources, and encourage other governments to do the same’. Award-winning environmentalist Ngụy Thị Khanh, who was also sentenced to two years in prison for tax evasion in June 2022, had written to the government to denounce the disconnect between Vietnam’s international pledges to reduce carbon emissions and the Communist Party’s Power Development Plan aimed at building 27 new coal-fired power plants between 2021 and 2030. She also signed the Hanoi Declaration alongside other CSOs calling on the government to ‘guarantee implementation of provisions in the 2013 Constitution and related texts concerning grassroots democracy, which require consultations with the people and people’s representatives on energy projects from the very moment of their conception’.
For Vietnam, these high-level public declarations are tantamount to threats against national security, and the authorities decided to silence their voices by any means. To avoid international condemnation, instead of charging them under national security laws, it has resorted to the old pretext of tax evasion charges, using loopholes and vague wording in tax laws to silence environmental rights defenders.
Our organisation, VCHR, was among the first to denounce this crackdown on environmental rights defenders, which we see as the tip of the iceberg in a new and far-reaching assault on civil society, and we continue to denounce this at every opportunity. This month we presented the human rights situation in Vietnam at a meeting of the EU DAG in Brussels.
How much space for civil society is there in Vietnam?
In Vietnam’s one-party state, the space for civil society has always been restricted. However, in recent years the authorities have developed a whole range of tools, including new laws, technologies and repressive methods to stifle civil society voices.
Despite government censorship, the internet used to provide a vital space for civil society, but the Cybersecurity Law and other regulations have seriously affected freedom of expression online. One prominent blogger, Nguyễn Anh Tuấn, recently left Vietnam to live in Canada because since the Cybersecurity Law came into force in 2019 he had found it impossible to continue any meaningful activism.
To suppress protests, the government has set up squads of anti-riot police all over the country who are ready to intervene at a local level to nip protests in the bud and prevent them gaining momentum.
New regulations have been enacted to limit CSO access to international funding and ban them organising conferences on topics such as human rights. We have documented these, and many other developments, in a recent report we published jointly with the International Federation for Human Rights. Despite these difficulties, civil society activists keep on. They are extremely brave and resilient. I admire them immensely.
These restrictions also make it extremely difficult for CSOs such as VCHR, based in Paris, to support activists in Vietnam. We stay in contact with movements in Vietnam and circulate information in Vietnamese. VCHR has also conducted in-country human rights training, notably on freedom of religion or belief for the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam’s youth movement. However, the responsibility of supporting activists without putting them in danger is extremely heavy, and this work is getting increasingly difficult. I can happily say that no one was ever arrested because of VCHR’s training or other programmes, and this was thanks to the trust and confidence built over many years working in Vietnam.
What international support does Vietnamese civil society need?
The international community should do far more to denounce Vietnam’s repressive policies and practices. As a human rights defender for many decades, I am always surprised how Vietnam manages to escape condemnation for human rights abuses that would cause outcry if they happened in China, Myanmar or elsewhere. Political prisoners are dying in Vietnam due to ill-treatment and lack of medical care. Journalists and bloggers are serving 10 or 15-year sentences simply for exchanging emails. Now environmental activists are being imprisoned for trying to create a cleaner environment for their people. Yet at the same time, the UN Secretary-General applauds Vietnam at the UN General Assembly as a shining example of a country committed to climate change. How can this be?
Economic pressure should be applied when Vietnam fails to uphold its commitments. The JETP should be blocked until Vietnam releases all environmental rights defenders, ceases the current crackdown and guarantees the involvement of civil society in this process. Countries with bilateral trade agreements should use them to press for human rights progress in Vietnam. So much can be done. VCHR is doing its best to amplify the voices of activists in Vietnam and engage in international advocacy to call for greater pressure from the international community. It is a long and hard path, but I believe that in the long run, as the song goes, we shall overcome.
Civic space in Vietnam is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.