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Vietnam: Why climate activism can be a risky business

October 12, 2023

The politics of climate change in Vietnam's authoritarian system has led to climate activists being arrested and imprisoned.

This photo from the Vietnam News Agency shows Vietnam activist Hoang Duc Binh standing inside the courtroom, with several officers sitting behind him
Climate activist Hoang Duc Binh was imprisoned in 2018 over protests against a toxic waste dump Image: VIETNAM NEWS AGENCY/AFP via Getty Images

Vietnam has committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but climate activists still want the Vietnamese government to change its environmental policies and significantly reduce the country's reliance on coal.

Environmentalists have said they have faced intimidation and harassment from Vietnamese authorities, and many who have challenged the government's energy policies have ended up being sentenced to prison for "tax evasion" or "fraud" — a common tactic of repression by Vietnam's communist government. 

'Weaponizing the law' against green activists

Ngo Thi To Nhien, the executive director of the Hanoi-based think tank Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition, was arrested last month for "appropriating documents," according to a Vietnam government spokesman.

Ngo's arrest came shortly after climate activist Hoang Thi Minh Hong was sentenced to three years in prison by a court in Ho Chi Minh City for dodging $275,000 (€259,000) in taxes related to her environmental campaign group, CHANGE.

The Vinh Tan coal power plant in southern Vietnam's Binh Thuan province
Vietnam is wary of criticism about its coal policy since public momentum against coal could impact its overall economic policyImage: MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP via Getty Images

Human Rights Watch has accused Vietnamese authorities of using a "vaguely worded tax code" as a weapon to punish environmental leaders whom the ruling party deems "a threat to their power."

The rights organization has called on the Vietnamese government to drop all charges against Hong and to arrange for her unconditional release.

Climate activists 'tread on important toes'

Last year, green activists Dang Dinh Bach, Nguy Thi Khanh, Mai Phan Loi and Bach Hung Duong were imprisoned on tax charges.

The 88 Project, a US-based organization that campaigns for freedom of expression in Vietnam, has said there is evidence that they were imprisoned to silence their voices and remove them from society.

Amnesty International's Ming Yu Hah called for international pressure on Vietnam to stop hounding people who are campaigning for "one of the most seismic issues of our time."

Hanoi takes steps to improve air quality

Nguy Thi Khanh, the recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, and Mai Phan Loi have both since been released. Bach Hung Duong's sentence was expected to be completed at the end of September, according to Human Rights Watch, but there has been no word on his release. Dang Dinh Bach is still incararated.

Bill Hayton, associate fellow at Chatham House Asia-Pacific in London, said activists tend to "tread on important toes."

Hayton told DW that "by criticizing the state-owned coal industry, they are upsetting powerful domestic interests in Vietnam. And that's brought them some enemies."

"The other thing is, which is absolutely forbidden in Vietnam, is that they have created an independent organization with links to foreign funding," Hayton said, adding that the government doesn't want people practising any form of politics.

Reducing dependence on fossil fuels

Vietnam is part of the so-called Just Energy Transition Partnerships (JETP), a funding scheme in which wealthier nations financially support fossil fuel-dependent developing countries on their path toward clean energy while addressing the transition's social consequences.

But questions remain over the growing coal industry in Vietnam, home to the world's 19th-biggest known coal reserves.

Funding the fight against climate change

Lucy Hummer at the US-based Global Energy Monitor said despite research indicating a reduction in Vietnam's proposed coal operations in recent years, the country's coal-fired capacity will continue to increase and peak around 30 gigawatts by 2030.

"If Vietnam is to meet the conditions set by the initial JETP agreement, all coal-fired power stations not yet under construction must be canceled," Hummer said.

"As the world begins to shift towards clean energy, Vietnam is at risk of being burdened by expensive, outdated and dirty technology," they told DW.

Hummer also stressed the importance of having ordinary people contributing to Vietnam's energy shift.

"Vietnam signed the JETP deal to receive billions of dollars of international aid to address climate change partly on the condition that it would involve civil society in the effort," said Hummer.

"It is absolutely essential that citizens and organizations are able to participate freely in the just energy transition process. The ongoing arrests and detentions of notable climate leaders in Vietnam are deeply alarming," they added. 

Edited by: Keith Walker

Tommy Walker
Tommy Walker Reporter focusing on Southeast Asian politics, conflicts, economy and society.@tommywalkerco