[Marxism] Toxic Fish in Vietnam Idle a Local Industry and Challenge the State

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jun 9 07:25:20 MDT 2016

NY Times, June 9 2016
Toxic Fish in Vietnam Idle a Local Industry and Challenge the State

NHAN TRACH, Vietnam — Since a devastating fish kill blighted the waters 
along 120 miles of coastline in central Vietnam, hundreds of people are 
believed to have fallen ill from eating poisoned fish.

Here in the fishing village of Nhan Trach, the squid that sustain the 
local economy have virtually disappeared. And a fishing ban has left 
hundreds of traps sitting unused on the beach and dozens of small 
fishing boats idle.

“We are so angry,” said Pham Thi Phi, 65, who operates a fishing boat in 
Nhan Trach with her husband and three grown sons. “If we knew who put 
the poison in the ocean, we would like to kill them. We really need to 
have an answer from the government on whether the ocean is totally clean 
and the fish are safe to eat.”

While the immediate cause appears to have been toxic waste from a nearby 
steel mill, fury over the episode has exploded into a national issue, 
posing the biggest challenge to the authoritarian government since a 
spate of anti-Chinese riots in 2014. Protesters demanding government 
action have marched in major cities and coastal communities over the 
past six weeks, escalating what had been a regional environmental 
dispute into a test of government accountability.

But two months after the fish started washing up on beaches here, the 
government has yet to announce the cause of the disaster or identify the 
toxin that killed marine life and poisoned coastal residents.

The government’s failure to respond and its previous support for the 
Taiwan-owned steel plant at the heart of the crisis have fueled 
widespread suspicion of corruption and the hidden influence of foreign 
interests at the expense of Vietnamese livelihoods, a potent mix that 
challenges the legitimacy of Communist Party rule.

“Quite simply, in Vietnam, human life is less important than the 
political life of the government and government institutions,” said 
Nguyen Thi Bich Nga, an activist in Ho Chi Minh City. “In this way, we 
can explain all that is unusual in this country.”

The government has said little about the marine die-off while cracking 
down on the protests, which have been called every Sunday since May 1, 
when thousands of people took to the streets of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City 
and other cities. More than 500 people have been arrested, and 
demonstrators have been beaten by the police.

“The response by the government has been one of ineptitude,” said 
Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam analyst at the Australian Defense Force 
Academy. He said the fish kill was the most serious environmental issue 
to confront the government in several years and reflected poorly on the 
government of Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who took office in April.

Last month, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human 
Rights urged the government to avoid excessive use of force, citing 
“increasing levels of violence” against the protesters.

But the protests have continued.

On Sunday, more than 1,000 people turned out in a coastal district of 
Nghe An Province, north of the steel plant, to demonstrate. Many wore 
T-shirts bearing a fish skeleton. Some carried signs reading, “Fish need 
clean water, citizens need transparency.”

“It seems the government tries to cover up for the culprit,” the Rev. 
Anthony Nam, a Catholic priest and protest leader in Nghe An, said by 
telephone. “We will protest until the government says what caused the 

In Nhan Trach, about 40 miles south of the steel factory, the dead and 
dying fish first appeared in early April, floating in the surf and 
washing up on the beach. Initially, it seemed like a windfall, and many 
people here ate and sold them. The fish kept coming, tons of them, day 
after day for more than a month, residents said.

“Some of the fish were dead; some were dying,” said Ho Huu Sia, 67, who 
buys and dries fish for a living. “We ate the fish that were still 
alive. We ate the fish for two weeks.”

His daughter, Ho Thi Dao, 32, said she became ill, experiencing 
vomiting, diarrhea and dizziness. She went to the local clinic and 
received intravenous fluids. She said she met others there who also 
suffered poisoning.

Belatedly, the government announced that aquatic life had been poisoned 
along the coastline of four provinces. The authorities warned people not 
to eat fish and ordered a halt to fishing.

As compensation, officials distributed bags of rice and gave fishermen 
50,000 dong, or about $2.20.

“We are just sitting with tears running down our cheeks looking out at 
the ocean,” said Ms. Phi, who has been fishing from Nhan Trach all her 
life. “What can we do with 50,000 dong?”

Coastal residents and journalists quickly accused the Formosa Ha Tinh 
Steel plant, which opened in December, of being the culprit.

According to news reports, the fish kill happened after the factory 
washed unspecified cleaning chemicals through its wastewater pipeline. A 
company representative seemed to confirm the suspicions in April when he 
said it would not be surprising if the factory’s wastewater harmed 
marine life.

“You have to decide whether to catch fish and shrimp or to build a 
modern steel industry,” he told reporters. “Even if you are the prime 
minister, you cannot choose both.”

The company later argued that it met Vietnam’s environmental standards 
and said that the spokesman had been fired.

Company officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The government has been just as reticent.

At first, it suggested a toxic algae bloom was responsible. In mid-May, 
Pham Cong Tac, deputy science and technology minister, told Vietnamese 
news outlets that the ministry had a “convincing scientific basis” to 
explain the fish deaths, but he did not disclose what it was.

Last week, Mai Tien Dung, minister and head of the government office, 
said that the authorities had identified the cause but indicated that 
they could not tell the public because an investigation was continuing.

The lack of information has only fueled the protesters’ anger.

Villagers say the authorities collected water samples immediately after 
the episode, and foreign experts say test results should have been known 
within days.

Nguyen Hoang Anh, a university professor in Hanoi, said the government 
should have immediately revealed the toxin, especially to the poisoning 
victims and their doctors.

“It’s not fair,” she said. “It’s not ethical. It’s a crime.”

She said the cover-up had the potential to make the fish kill Vietnam’s 
Chernobyl, the 1986 nuclear disaster that contributed to the unraveling 
of the Soviet Union.

That is what the government most fears, analysts say, and it is why it 
acts quickly and at times brutally to suppress protests before they 
ignite a popular uprising.

But critics say the government has another motive. The government has 
supported the steel plant, giving the company a sweetheart deal, 
including tax incentives and a bargain price for the property, to build 
on the coast.

Two years ago, while the factory was under construction, it became a 
prime target of the riots over China’s placement of an oil rig in waters 
off Vietnam in the South China Sea. More than 200 factories owned by 
Chinese and other foreign companies were looted and set ablaze around 
the country.

But the worst rioting occurred at Formosa, where four people were 
killed. The company is based in Taiwan, but thousands of laborers from 
mainland China were building the factory. Protesters stopped buses, 
pulled off Chinese passengers and beat them.

The authorities have been more careful not to let the current protests 
get out of hand. But even if they can be quelled, the economic costs 
have continued to mount.

On a recent morning, more than a dozen fish traders gathered at a drink 
shop across from the beach here. A few played board games. There was 
nothing to do but kill time, one said.

Around the corner, Phan Dinh Son, 49, sat in his all-too-quiet open-air 
shop. He used to sell hundreds of blocks of ice a day. Now he sells 
about 20, he said. A separate business buying and trading shellfish has 
been suspended because no one wants to eat local fish.

“The fish market is empty,” he said. “I would hope the government and 
the party would come up with a solution and give a clear answer so we 
can do our business.”

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