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Vietnam’s environmental NGOs face uncertain status, shrinking civic space

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Thuý, who helped run environmental programs at a nonprofit based in Ho Chi Minh City, had for weeks pondered quitting her job to pursue an advanced degree. 

The 24-year-old, who like all NGO workers interviewed for this story used a pseudonym due to fear of reprisals, was at a loss as to how to communicate her hard decision to her supervisors. While she felt it was time to move on, Thuý was grateful for the open-minded and dynamic working environment that had allowed her to grow tremendously.

Much to Thuý’s surprise, it was her supervisors who initiated a conversation about her career, advising her to be prepared to leave soon, because their organization was being told “from above” to shut down.

Two weeks after this conversation, the organization officially ceased to operate, even though it had funding secured for multiple large projects. Leaders of the organization published a poignant letter on their social media page, explaining that the closure wasn’t something they wanted, but that the reasons behind the decision couldn’t be revealed.

The organization’s closure in 2022 wasn’t entirely unexpected. Though the end came quicker than they’d anticipated, everyone involved with the organization foresaw having to close down at some point due to political pressure. During the same period, several other nonprofits met a similar end. Some shut down in complete silence, while others, like Thuý’s organization, disclosed very little about the reasons for their closure.

For the staff of these organizations, faith in their causes was often overshadowed by the fear of the government, which has recently moved to dampen the voices of NGOs. Prominent activists and NGO leaders have been arrested, even as they reaped significant achievements. In addition, many NGO workers have found themselves exhausted by treading the line between following their hearts to act for their causes and adhering to ambiguous top-down rules.

An ambiguous existence

Trịnh Hữu Long, co-founder of the nonprofit Legal Initiatives for Vietnam, based in Taiwan, says the low-profile closures of NGOs reflects a top-down move to make coercive closure “an open secret as a way to spread fear.”

“Only the insiders know exactly why they closed,” Trịnh says. “From an observer’s perspective, the way they ceased to exist suggests that it causes more harm than good for them to announce it, to make public the reasons why they closed.”

NGOs have a precarious existence in Vietnam. While the Vietnamese term for “NGO,” to chuc phi chinh phu, has entered common parlance, it’s never been clearly defined by Vietnamese lawmakers. In fact, only the term “nonprofit organization” (to chuc phi loi nhuan) has been brought up in official decrees, in 2013 and in 2019, in which it’s defined as “corporate bodies or organizations mainly operating to raise funds or finances for charitable, religious, cultural, educational, social, or similar purposes.” However, legally registered nonprofit entities, including the one that Thuý worked for, are subject to taxation, albeit with some incentives and preferences. And the tax regulations for nonprofits are far from transparent.

Diệu, a junior worker for an environmental advocacy NGO whose leader is now in jail, says that from early 2021 until its closure later that year, her organization was constantly harassed by state agencies. Tax officials reviewed 10 years of back taxes, even though they had already gone through annual inspections, Diệu says.

Thuý’s NGO also shared a similar experience, as did other nonprofits, with tax authorities checking the books and somehow finding violations that previous inspections had failed to flag.

“We all know that they were trying to find fault with us,” Diệu says, adding that the atmosphere among NGOs was “full of fear.”

According to Thuý and Diệu, nonprofits in Vietnam are all too familiar with different forms of control: delaying or denying projects without providing any concrete reasons; cyberbullying of NGO leaders; and blocking either individual posts on the web and social media, or fully blocking organizations’ social media accounts.

Tax evasion fear

The most notable case of tax charges being brought against a civil society activist is that of Nguỵ Thị Khanh, chief executive of Green Innovation and Development Centre (GreenID). Khanh was known for her constructive feedback and close collaboration with state agencies, and in 2018 became the first Vietnamese national to win the Goldman Environmental Award. Her arrest in 2022 and subsequent conviction on charges of failing to pay 10% tax on the $200,000 award came as a shock to the NGO sector at home and abroad.

According to 2013 circular from the Ministry of Finance, prize money from domestic and international awards recognized by the state are exempt from income tax. However, the list of officially recognized awards has never been officially announced.

According to an activist friend of Khanh’s, who asked not to be identified in this article, Khanh contacted different state agencies to inquire about the tax payment, but to little avail.

“Even state agencies and private lawyers have little clue which prizes are subject to tax,” the friend says.

According to this person, on the day Khanh was arrested, Feb. 9, 2022, other GreenID staff were also detained to stop them from communicating with outsiders. The tax agency didn’t give her the opportunity to pay the tax. She faced a hastily arranged trial, with her case file not accessible on the website of the People’s Court.

“No state leader has ever publicly defended her, including those who have worked closely with her,” the friend says.

The government has denied the arrest is political. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang was quoted by various outlets as saying that Khanh “was investigated and prosecuted for economic crimes, specifically violating the provisions of the law on tax administration, and she admitted this misconduct.” Any speculation that she was “criminally handled for her activities and opinions related to climate change are ungrounded and untrue to the nature of the case,” the spokesperson added.

But many in Vietnam aren’t convinced by this explanation. “The authorities must have searched high and low for an excuse to charge Khanh. it is hard to accuse Khanh as an anti-state propagandist,” says an anonymous activist. “She has been known for her constructive approach, unlike many activists who have chosen to confront and criticize the government.”

In Vietnam, decision-making on environment issues is the exclusive domain of the Communist Party. Nevertheless, the party-state has at times recognized the participation of NGOs in the formulation of policies, programs and plans. For example, the National Target Program on Response to Climate Change in 2008 describes NGOs as playing a role in critiquing policies and programs and assisting with awareness raising and the implementation of disaster-mitigation measures.

A lawyer affiliated with an international NGO based in Thailand, who asked not to be identified for privacy reasons, says there’s a mismatch between governments’ environment-friendly rhetoric and realities across the Mekong region, including Vietnam.

“Many of the governments of the region talk a good game with regards to promoting sustainable development, green economy, action on climate change, etc., but on the other hand they actively restrict the space for citizens to promote the same issues,” the lawyer says. “If they were really serious about promoting environmental protection to support a healthy and thriving economy, they would open up the space for citizens to support those efforts as well.”

Not only the party-state’s power

In addition to the Communist Party, powerful interest groups heavily influence the making and implementation of environmental policy in Vietnam. Liên, a 26-year-old activist, says she decided to leave the NGO she worked for and join the private sector, citing numerous challenges. Her community-based organization was generally on good terms with local authorities, but big corporations repeatedly made life difficult for Liên and her colleagues.

Liên recalls taking charge of media outreach for a project in 2020 that sought to raise awareness of exploitation of natural resources in northern Vietnam. Her organization shared an article by a reporter that imputed the erosion of forests in Tam Đảo, Vĩnh Phúc province, to a Vietnamese conglomerate. The outlet that originally ran the article had to pay a huge fine for publishing “unverified information” and suspended its operations for a month.

Meanwhile, the shared article on the website of Liên’s NGO remained intact. Then one day, Liên received a phone call from someone representing the concerned corporation. They wanted the article removed, and initially offered to pay. Liên refused, and over the next few days, her NGO’s leaders received threatening calls, which led to their decision to modify the article so that it didn’t directly mention the corporation.

The lesson, Liên says, is clear: “Doing great deeds is too hard.”

By Hướng Thiện – – February 13, 2023

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