What to Know About Vietnam’s Persistent Crackdown on Environmentalists

A demonstration during global climate strike week, in Hanoi on Sept. 27, 2019. Credit - Nhac Nguyen—AFP/Getty Images

The head of an energy research think tank was detained by Vietnamese authorities last week, the latest in a string of arrests of prominent environmentalists that highlights the government’s growing irascibility to environmental activism in Vietnam.

According to human rights advocacy group The 88 Project, Ngo Thi To Nhien, the executive director of independent Hanoi-based think tank Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition, was arrested on Sep. 15 for “unknown reasons.”

Nhien, whose think tank aims to accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels toward renewables in Vietnam, had previously worked with international organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations. She is believed to be the sixth environmental figure detained in two years, amid a nationwide crackdown on some of the most recognizable faces of the country’s environmental advocacy scene, including those leading registered non-profits.

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“Over the past two years, Vietnam’s one-party state has imprisoned the entire leadership of [the] country’s climate change movement on false charges of tax evasion,” Ben Swanton, co-director of The 88 Project, tells TIME, adding that the spate of arrests reveals a Vietnamese government that thinks it “can do whatever [it] wants.”

Next week, Hoang Thi Ming Hong, former director of the Center of Hands-on Actions and Networking for Growth and Environment, is set to be tried for tax evasion—a charge that critics say is commonly used as a political tool to penalize dissenters. Hong’s detention in May sparked concern from the international community about shrinking civil liberties in the country. Her NGO, founded in 2013 and shut down last year, focused on encouraging young Vietnamese to tackle environmental issues ranging from pollution to illegal wildlife trade.

“What’s become shockingly clear is the government has decided anyone leading efforts to combat climate change and promote environmental action is somehow politically opposed to the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party and government,” says Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

“This absurd conclusion is a telling indication of both the authoritarianism and the paranoia of the country’s leaders.”

Why environmental issues?

Environmental issues have in recent decades become politicized in Vietnam, where grievances over the environment have often extended into criticisms of the government. Between the late 2000s and early 2010s, an ambitious bauxite mining project launched by the government sparked heated opposition from local residents who were concerned about its environmental impact and Chinese involvement in the project; in 2016, a chemical spill along Vietnam’s central coastline, now known as one of Vietnam’s worst environmental disasters, followed by an evasive government response to the fallout, triggered rare large-scale protests that was ultimately quashed with arrests by authorities.

“While the enormous strain being placed on Vietnam’s ecosystem is a matter of urgent public concern, the activism that brings attention to environmental issues sometimes also highlights ineffective environmental governance and illegal business practices,” says Jonathan D. London, a professor and Vietnam scholar at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “This, in turn, is often viewed by authorities as a broad critique of and open challenge to one-party rule.”

In addition to activists, environmental lawyers, academics, and journalists have all found themselves targeted for their work. “Authorities have become increasingly intolerant in recent years, and researchers are very cautious,” says Ole Bruun, a social science professor at Roskilde University in Denmark who has researched environmental activism in Vietnam.“When someone transcends the fine line between activism and NGO work and at the same time criticize[s] government, the authorities will crack down.”

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Diplomatic repercussions

As environmental advocacy at home continues to be met with crackdown, experts say that the Vietnamese government’s heavyhanded approach to silencing critics is set to remain a sore spot in the country’s growing diplomatic engagements.

In June, the German government voiced concerns about the detention of Hong, the environmental expert, criticizing her arrest as contradicting the agreement to involve civil society in the Just Energy Transition Partnership between Vietnam, the G7 member states (including Germany), Denmark, and Norway—a deal struck last December that would see Vietnam receiving $15.5 billion in financial support to wean off coal and reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Faced with international pressure and an ambitious energy transition goal, the Vietnamese government has relented to an extent. Nguy Thi Khanh, a renowned climate activist and founder of the non-profit Green Innovation and Development Centre, whose arrest last year was met with outcry both at home and abroad, was quietly released in May—five months ahead of her scheduled release date. No official reason was given for her early release, but observers speculated at the time that it was to reassure other environmental advocates in the country whose expertise were needed for Vietnam’s energy transition plan.

Former journalist Mai Phan Loi, who founded the environmental non-profit Center for Media in Educating Community, was also released from prison this month after being sentenced to four years for tax evasion in January 2022. His early release came shortly before President Joe Biden visited Hanoi as the U.S. and Vietnam upgraded bilateral ties. Loi’s release was reportedly a result of behind-the-scenes campaigning by officials from the U.S. embassy in Vietnam. A bipartisan letter, written by several members of Congress to Biden before his Hanoi trip, also urged the President to challenge human rights violations in Vietnam.

But in the joint statement made by Biden and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Phu Trong, human rights were “barely mentioned,” noted Swanton from The 88 Project. And Bach Huong Duong, Loi’s colleague and the director of the Center for Media in Educating Community, who was sentenced to 27 months in prison for tax evasion, remains behind bars.

Despite widespread condemnation, Vietnam’s concerning human-rights record is unlikely to significantly hinder the country’s warming ties with the West, says Bruun, the academic—especially with Vietnam being seen as an increasingly attractive diplomatic partner amid rising concerns about China.

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“The Western world has chosen to turn a blind eye to many unpleasant developments in the country, including the incredibly poor environmental performance,” he says. “I fear that great power conflict will make it easier for Vietnam to get away with rising repression and human rights violations.”

Contact us at letters@time.com.