Vietnam News

‘They challenged the Communist monopoly’: Vietnam regime turns on its climate champions

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NGO leaders and technical experts who helped secure western aid for official shift to clean energy are being locked up now that they are no longer needed.


ess than 12 months ago G7 countries agreed to provide billions of dollars to help Vietnam ditch coal. The funding was described as a “gamechanger in the fight against climate change” by Rishi Sunak, the British prime minister. It was designed to help Vietnam achieve a “just and equitable” energy transition, with input from civil society.

But in the months that have followed, Vietnam has continued a crackdown on environmentalists, jailing NGO leaders and technical experts who specialise in clean energy.

Last month, Ngo Thi To Nhien, the director of an independent energy policy thinktank, who has worked with the World Bank, EU, and UN, and who was due to attend COP28 in November, was detained. She is the sixth expert working on environmental issues to be arrested over the past two years. Two consultants she worked with, Duong Duc Viet and Le Quoc Anh were also arrested.

Days later, prominent environmentalist Hoang Thi Minh Hong, who was the first Vietnamese national to visit Antarctica, and a scholar of the Obama Foundation, was sentenced to three years in prison over tax evasion. Rights groups say the charges are politically motivated.

Vietnam has long persecuted and imprisoned pro-democracy activists, but it had, in the past, tolerated environmentalists who work in the state-sanctioned NGO space, said Ben Swanton, co-director of The 88 Project, a human rights advocacy group. “They were allowed a certain degree of leeway that human rights and democracy activists were not,” he said.

Such figures had managed to carve out a space where they could advocate for clean energy, and even advise government agencies and appear on state media, say analysts. This accommodation appears to have ended.

In comments reported in state-run media, the government has denied that it is targeting environmentalists, and has said those recently arrested have been treated in accordance with the law.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Pham Thu Hang told media earlier this month: “We completely reject false information with bad intentions about Vietnam’s crimefighting and prevention activities as well as Vietnam’s external relations.”

Over the past two years, the leadership of Vietnam’s environmental movement have all been targeted, said Swanton.

“These folks got too powerful, they challenged the Communist party’s monopoly on policymaking,” said Swanton.

Vietnam, a country of 100 million people and major manufacturing hub, has a soaring demand for energy and is highly dependent on coal. The government has committed to move to cleaner energy, and announced in 2021 that it would achieve net zero emissions by 2050, with emissions peaking by 2030. Achieving this will be a major challenge and require huge investment.

In December 2022, G7 nations, as well as Denmark, and Norway, agreed a “just energy transition partnership” with Vietnam, called JETP, to help it attract more low-carbon foreign investment. The deal promises to mobilise $15.5bn of public and private finance to speed up the transition. It also aspires to create jobs and involve civil society in the process.

NGO leaders exists in a very delicate and grey space in Vietnam, however, and human rights experts say vague laws, including in relation to tax rules, are being weaponised to silence them.

Nguyen Khac Giang, visiting fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, who specialises in Vietnamese politics, said that it appeared the Vietnamese government, having made its net zero target in 2021, did not want “any kind of policy interference” – even from figures who had collaborated with government agencies in the past and were not particularly critical of the state.

Susann Pham Thi, visiting assistant professor at Bilkent University and author of Vietnam’s Dissidents, said having visible civil society figures was likely considered helpful in securing funding partnerships such as JETP – but the party’s interests had probably shifted. “The Communist party state is not a monolithic ideological bloc,” she said. “They have shifting interests. They’re in a way also quite pragmatic when it comes to capitalist interests, money interests.”

The message being sent was “we, the state, and the party, made that JETP deal. It’s our job and you other groups should stay away for now”, she said.

Now is an ideal time for Vietnam to tighten control on environmental activities, according to Giang, who added that Vietnam had become “a western darling in terms of geopolitical position” – recently upgrading relations with the US, which is looking to counter China’s influence in the region. Relations with the EU and Australia are also warm – and the west is distracted by other geopolitical challenges, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Project 88, which analysed the criminal cases filed against four individuals accused of tax evasion prior to 2023, found they were denied a fair trial, including prompt access to a lawyer, were kept in pre-trial detention, and given prison sentences even though this is not the norm in such cases.

Dang Dinh Bach remains in prison, and it is believed that Bach Hung Duong is also still in detention. Two others – Nguy Thi Khanh and Mai Phan Loi – have been released.

Ole Bruun, professor in society and globalisation at Roskilde University, said that after the latest arrests there was “great anxiety” among academics and NGO workers. “I know that some prominent NGO leaders are also considering leaving,” he added.

The G7 should call for the release of any activists who remained in detention, said Swanton, who added that funding attached to JETP should be used as leverage. “It seems to me that there is much more concerned with preserving diplomatic accomplishments like JETP than actually protecting the activists who made it possible in the first place,” he said.

It was unrealistic to expect change without environmentalists, he added. “When there’s no civil society that’s engaged in the country’s energy transition, then there’s no one to hold the government accountable.”

By Rebecca Ratcliffe – The Guardian – October 17, 2023

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