By Jason Morris-Jung
Ho Chi Minh City, May 23, 2016
The cross-country demonstrations currently taking place in Vietnam to protest massive fish die-offs along the central Vietnamese coast are truly remarkable. Not only were demonstrations at this scale unheard of even five years ago, but they beg the question of why thousands of demonstrators as far off as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are subjecting themselves to the threat of beating and arrest over dead fish in Central Vietnam.
Has a new environmental sensibility suddenly taken hold of the nation? Is it a rude awakening to the costs of decades of rapid industrialization and economic growth? Or is it simply a convenient expression of developmental malaise projected onto a foreign scapegoat, namely the Taiwanese Formosa Ha Tinh steel factory ,whose 1.8 km underground waste pipe is widely suspected as the principal cause of the die-off? Even as such sensibilities may be taking shape, they hardly explain the scale or intensity of the current confrontation.
First, these demonstrations must be put in the context of a growing series of confrontations with state authorities that have been rocking Vietnam every year for the past several years. Last year, throngs of Hanoi residents took to the streets to protest municipal plans to cut down 6,700 city trees, including many of the towering colonial era trees that have become emblematic of the Vietnamese capital. In 2014, mass demonstrations took place all across the country to protest the wavering of state leaders when China began drilling unilaterally for hydrocarbons on Vietnam’s continental shelf in the South China Sea. In 2013, a petition signed by 72 prominent Vietnamese intellectuals collected an unprecedented 15,000 online Vietnamese signatures and sparked an expansive public debate on constitutional reforms. In 2012, thousands of farmers and local residents in a northern province demonstrated against land expropriation by the government, which elicited widespread cross-national support online and in the domestic media.