Picture 8: Protest in front of Formosa factory in Ha Tinh province (Source: Radio Free Asia).
The Formosa crisis (2016), together with several other movements such as the Tree Movement (2015), the subsequent Vinh Tan toxic dump (2017) and ongoing SaveSonDoong, SaveSonTra, anti-thermal power, anti-hydropower campaigns, have formed an unparalleled civic movement in Vietnam. Not only has it won unprecedented public participation, but it has also unified historically fragmented civil society segments and actors. For decades, pro-democracy activists were branded as ‘reactionary’ [phản động] by the Hanoi administration and therefore completely detached from the formal civil society landscape.
Because of the government’s propaganda, the majority of the population deliberately distanced itself from these pro-democracy groups as punishments for such activities could be severe. One of the successes of the environmental movement was to build a bridge between three types of actors, namely: pro-democracy activists, members of registered NGOs (the majority of which, however, did not participate in protests under the name of their organisation) and the rest of society.
Despite the lack of leadership, administrative structures and notably funding, these actors jointly managed to create a social movement that had to be taken seriously by an oppressive regime, its neighbouring country Taiwan, and a corporation consisting of influential business men. It also shifted public opinion on pro-democracy activist groups that used to be unrecognised and isolated, if not obscured, by the government. In this process, Mother Mushroom became the face of inspiration to many who wanted to follow and pursue her cause.
There are three main dynamics that may explain why the environmental movement potentially represents a new frontier of civic activism in Vietnam. First, environmentalism proved an effective frame to engage and mobilise the public to resist authoritarian practices, create a cohesive public voice and consequently collective power. It showcased how democratic values can be advocated through an issue or cause that resonates with the majority of the population.
In the case of Vietnam, that cause centred on fish, sea, and development – issues that are pertinent to everyday life and close to the heart of Vietnamese people. In so doing, local activists were able to induce social and political transformation through a seemingly apolitical rhetoric capable of transforming hearts and minds. Environmentalism thus created a ‘safe space’ to advocate for political change and induce what Cavatorta35 calls ‘activated citizenship’.
Second, even though the environmental movement was initiated by civilians from the informal public sphere, it was in part also indirectly driven by a highly professionalized and formalised NGO landscape. Increased political awareness and civic agency has been nurtured through three decades of international aid in accordance with the country’s Open Door policy. Since 1989 the number of foreign NGOs in Vietnam has risen considerably, from 183 in 1992 to 514 and an estimated 800 in 2003 and 2010 respectively.36 This development further led to a rapid increase of Vietnamese NGOs funded by external donors and foreign NGOs operating in the country. Implicitly, these externally-funded NGOs played a role in raising awareness among the wider public. For instance, a few externally-funded Vietnamese NGOs (or individuals associated with them) started to provide informal human rights education.
However, these trainings were frequently not arranged under their organisation’s name if the cause could be perceived by state authorities as having a confrontational agenda towards the government. This further explains, why the environmental movement in Vietnam is not formally supported by NGOs but rather by individuals from those organisations who helped in their personal capacity, participated in events and advocated in secret. Some of them played a role as key opinion leaders, wrote extensively on their Facebook pages to provide information and facilitated public discussion. With a strong background in human rights education and civic skills obtained through their NGO experience and training, they provided articulate perspectives on human rights, development, and governance in the context of the Formosa crisis. Yet their engagement waned as the Formosa situation was gradually resolved. Therefore, the extent to which foreign and formalised Vietnamese NGOs initiated, nurtured and sustained the movement beyond their public-educational role remains unclear.
The absence of a formalised and officially recognised civil society network behind Vietnam’s environmental campaigns can be further explained by the fact that, to a large extent, foreign and local NGOs operating in Vietnam have become instrumentalised to complement services the government “permits” them to provide. In order to operate as an NGO, several legal steps are required. This includes a Permit for Operation, a Permit for the Establishment of Project Office and Permit for the Establishment of Representative Office.
A number of people who were interviewed in Vietnam further noted that during the application process they needed an ‘informal agreement’ with the Vietnam Union of Science and Technology Association (which is also in charge of NGOs and semi-autonomous organisations). That is, their permission to open an NGO depended on not causing any trouble for the government. In addition, international NGOs are administered by a committee for Foreign NGO Affairs.37
Under this legal framework and state control, NGOs are therefore not an independent voice and normally refrain from openly and publicly undertaking political advocacy and public mobilisation work. This task still remains with the so-called local ‘reactionaries’ and unregistered, grassroots groups. In the context of the Vietnamese government’s rising repression, it is highly unlikely that activism will come from a formalised civil society landscape consisting of registered local and foreign actors backed by donor support and bound to a legal framework.
Although diplomatic missions, international donors and organisations (e.g.: European Union or United Nations) openly condemned Mother Mushroom’s arrest and demanded her release, they still made a conscious choice to refrain from actively supporting environmental campaigns in Vietnam. Protests, Facebook information-sharing and other initiatives such as fundraising campaigns were and still are launched and sustained by Vietnamese individuals. This begs the question to what extent donor-funded and formalised versions of civil society can truly bring about long-lasting social transformation and change, and push back against a closing civic space?38
Lastly, generational differences should not be underestimated when it comes to understanding Vietnamese social movements and civic activism. The older population on both sides of the Vietnam War still have to come to terms with the violent era they went through. It is much easier for post-war generations to address and advocate for issues affecting the country and to confront the government.
French colonialism and the Vietnam War created a lack of national unity and significant divisions that continue to persist to the present day between the North and the South. The environmental movement was, strikingly, one of the first events since the end of the war where people from all parts of Vietnam came together and formed a united force. The movement helped to overcome some of the legacies of the past in reuniting the whole country –an unintended consequence.
At the same time, the environmental movement nurtured the emergence of an organic Vietnamese civil society due to the way it formed and consolidated collective consciousness and civic skills and aided by modern technologies. Better access to the Internet, higher incomes and consequently affordability of smartphones led to more coordinated and sustained collective actions. The environmental movement thus provides a unique opportunity of how fundamental freedoms can take root and be exercised even in the context of political oppression. As such, it clearly differs from previous forms of civic activism in Vietnam and invites a re-imagination of new frontiers for social and political change in the future.
1. BBC (2017) ‘“Mother Mushroom”: top Vietnamese blogger jailed for 10 years’, BBC. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-40439837?S [Accessed 21 August 2017].
2. Paddock, R. (2016) ‘Taiwan-owned steel factory caused toxic spill, Vietnam says’, The New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/01/world/asia/vietnam-formosa-ha-tinh-steel.html [Accessed 21 August 2017].
3. Landau, I. (2008) ‘Law and civil society in Cambodia and Vietnam: a Gramscian perspective’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 38(2): 244–258. https://doi.org/10.1080/00472330701822322
4. The exact number of how many Vietnamese fled in the last days of Saigon and after that varies. According to (1995) ‘The last Vietnamese boat people’, The New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes. com/1995/12/25/opinion/the-last-vietnamese-boat-people.html [Accessed 13 October 2017] the number is estimated to be about some million and a half Vietnamese leaving the country in both the 1970s and 1980s.
5. Rosen, E. (2015) ‘The Vietnam War, as seen by the victors’, The Atlantic [online]. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/04/the-vietnam-war-as-seen-by-the-north- vietnamese/390627/ [Accessed 13 October 2017].
6. The World Bank Data: Vietnam. Available at: https://data.worldbank.org/country/vietnam?view=chart [Accessed 16 October 2017].
7. Pond, E. (2013) ‘Vietnam’s second revolution’, World Policy. Available at: http://www.worldpolicy.org/vietnam’s-second-revolution [Accessed 16 Oct. 2017].
8. In this arrangement, the market is officially allowed the role to distribute goods and services, while trade rules became increasingly more simplified to attract investment. See: The Economist (2016) ‘The Other Asian Tiger’, The Economist. Available at: https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21703368-vietnams-success-merits- closer-look-other-asian-tiger [Accessed 16 October 2017].
9. The World Bank Data: Vietnam. Available at: https://data.worldbank.org/country/vietnam?view=chart [Accessed 16 October 2017].
10. See: http://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/in_depth/nga-quynh-friends-03072017082426.html; http://www.rfa. org/vietnamese/in_depth/The-concerns-of-minorities-issue-about-the-Bauxite-project-04032009173326.html; http://www.bbc.com/vietnamese/vietnam/2015/03/150330_ha_huy_thanh_bauxite_update; http://www.rfa. org/vietnamese/in_depth/Vietnamese-lawmakers-want-the-National-assembly-to-issue-new-regulations-for- exploiting-bauxite-in-the-Central-Highlands-DHieu-10252010145905.html; and Morris-Jung, J. (2017) ‘Reflections on governable spaces of activism and expertise in Vietnam’, Critical Asian Studies, 49(3): 441–443. https://doi.org /10.1080/14672715.2017.1339448
11. See OECD (2017) ‘Aid at a Glance’, https://public.tableau.com/views/OECDDACAidataglancebyrecipient_new/ Recipients?:embed=y&:display_count=yes&:showTabs=y&:toolbar=no?&:showVizHome=no, [Accessed 22 October 2017]
12. See for instance (2017) ‘Vietnam’s Harsh Summer: State Launches Largest Crackdown on Dissidents in Years’, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/26/vietnams-state-largest- crackdown-on-dissidents-years [Accessed 12 October 2017].
13. See: Landau, I. (2008) ‘Law and civil society in Cambodia and Vietnam: a Gramscian perspective’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 38(2): 251. https://doi.org/10.1080/00472330701822322
14. Human Rights Watch (2017) ‘No Country for Human Rights Activists: Assaults on Bloggers and Democracy Campaigners in Vietnam’, available at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/06/18/no-country-human-rights- activists/assaults-bloggers-and-democracy-campaigners [Accessed 13 August 2017]
15. OHCHR (2016) ‘UN Human Rights Chief Urges Viet Nam to Halt Crackdown on Bloggers and Rights Defenders’. Available at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=20679&LangID=E [Accessed 13 August 2017].
16. Amnesty International (2016) ‘Viet Nam: Crackdown on human rights admist Formosa related activism’. Available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa41/5104/2016/en/ [Accessed 13 August 2017].
17. See: https://the88project.com/tag/brotherhood-for-democracy/ [Accessed 12 October 2017].
18. On 30 July 2017, after over 19 months since his arrest, Vietnamese authorities charged human rights defender Nguyen Van Dai with ‘carrying out activities with the purpose of overthrowing the Peoples’ administration’. If convicted, he faces a prison sentence of between 12 and 20 years, life imprisonment or capital punishment. See: https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/case-history-nguyen-van-dai [Accessed 12 October 2017]. The environmental movement in Vietnam: A new frontier of civil society activism? | 14
19. Human Rights Watch (2017) ‘Vietnam: new law threatens right to a defense’. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/06/21/vietnam-new-law-threatens-right-defense [Accessed 7 September 2017]
20. reedom in the World: Vietnam. Available at: https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2017/vietnam [Accessed 12 October 2017].
21. CIVICUS Monitor Tracking Civic Space: Vietnam. Available at: https://monitor.civicus.org/country/vietnam/ [Accessed 16 October 2017].
22. (2016), ‘Đại diện Formosa: “Muốn bắt cá, bắt tôm, hay nhà máy, chọn đi!”’, Tuoi Tre Online. Available at: http://tuoitre.vn/dai-dien-formosa-muon-bat-ca-bat-tom-hay-nha-may-chon-di-1090468.htm [Accessed 6 September 2017] and (2016). ‘Chọn sắt thép hay cá tôm?’, Thanh Nien. Available at: http://thanhnien.vn/toi-viet/chon-sat-thep-hay-ca-tom-696089.html [Accessed 6 September 2017]
23. Many South Vietnamese, including the author, continue to deliberately use the name Saigon to take a stand against the way the city was renamed after the takeover from North Vietnam in 1976.
24. Paddock, R. (2016) ‘Toxic fish in Vietnam idle a local industry and challenge the state’, The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/09/world/asia/vietnam-fish-kill.html [Accessed 10 May 2016].
25. Ives, M. (2016) ‘Outrage over fish kill in Vietnam simmers 6 months later’, The New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/04/world/asia/formosa-vietnam-fish.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0 [Accessed 16 October 2017].
26. This information is part of a set of 40 interviews with Vietnamese civil society actors in 2017 conducted within the scope of an M.Sc. thesis by Thieu-Dang Nguyen.
27. Paddock, R. (2016) ‘Toxic fish in Vietnam idle a local industry and challenge the state’, The New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/09/world/asia/vietnam-fish-kill.htm [Accessed 10 May 2016].
28. (2016) ‘The World’s most stunning environment photos – in pictures’, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2016/apr/05/environmental-photographer-of-the-year-competition-nature-photography [Accessed 12 October 2017].
29. Paddock, R. (2016) ‘Toxic fish in Vietnam idle a local industry and challenge the state’, The New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/09/world/asia/vietnam-fish-kill.htm [Accessed 10 May 2016].
30. See: Tuoi Tre News (27 April 2016) https://tuoitrenews.vn/society/34514/taiwanese-firm-apologizes-for- statement-ends-press-conference-abruptly, [Accessed 6 November 2017]
31. All names of protestors have been replaced with pseudonyms
32. Doan, X. L. (2016) ‘Vietnam’s mass fish kill isn’t simply an environmental disaster’, The Asia Times. Available at: http://atimes.com/2016/05/vietnams-mass-fish-kill-isnt-simply-an-environmental-disaster [Accessed 15 May 2016]
33. This information is part of a set of 40 interviews with Vietnamese civil society actors in 2017 conducted within the scope of an M.Sc. thesis by Thieu-Dang Nguyen.
35. Cavatorta, F. (eds.) (2012) Civil Society Activism under Authoritarian Rule: A comparative perspective. London: Routledge.
36. See: https://www.vietnamonline.com/az/ngos-in-vietnam.html, [Accessed 25 October 2017]
37. See: https://www.vietnamonline.com/az/ngos-in-vietnam.html, [Accessed 25 October 2017]
38. See also: Dhananjayan S. (13 October 2017) ‘Can INGOs push back against closing civic space? Only if they change their approach’, From Poverty to Power Oxfam Blog. Available at: http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/can-ingos- push-back-against-closing-civic-space-only-if-they-change-their-approach/, [Accessed 25 October 2017]