A Vietnamese activist was arrested on May 15 for protesting an environmental disaster in central Vietnam caused by a Taiwanese company in 2016.

Hoang Duc Binh, 34, organized protests in April 2016 following the release of toxic waste by Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation in the Vung Ang Economic Zone, which lead to massive numbers of dead fish found along the coast of central Vietnam, including the provinces of Ha Tinh, Quang Tri, Quang Binh and Hue.

He was arrested in the central province of Nghe An, accused of having abused democracy rights to infringe state interests, reports Reuters.

Protests are a rare occurrence in Vietnam but the incident drew hundreds to the streets of Hanoi and about 1,000 people in Ho Chi Minh City. People called for action after the illegal release of chemicals devastated the livelihoods of coastal fishing communities in central Vietnam.

Police said Binh was linked to reactionary groups, frequently posted information against the communist regime on Facebook, and led the protests against Taiwan's Formosa Plastics Corporation — Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation’s parent company — complicating regional safety and security.

The arrest appears to be part of a broader government crackdown on protest leaders in Vietnam.

An arrest warrant was issued to environmental activist Bach Hong Quyen on May 12, and three days later, a separate arrest warrant was issued for Catholic activist Thai Van Dung — both men were involved in the protests last April.

Le My Hanh, a female environmental activist involved in the protest last year, was attacked by a group of “thugs” on May 2, according to Radio Free Asia. The group barged into her friend’s house in Ho Chi Minh, attacked them with pepper spray and beat them to the ground. The group of “thugs” were believed to have been hired by the police

A video of the violent attack was shared on social media, prompting dozens of activists and civil society groups in Vietnam to sign a declaration calling on authorities to implement rule of law. Amid a series of violent incidents in recent months, the group is asking authorities to investigate Hanh’s case, and said if nothing was done, they would issues calls for nationwide demonstrations.

“It’s quite clear that Vietnam is getting much more of a free pass on human rights than their poor record deserves, partly because of the government’s resilience and willingness to push back on international criticism,” The Diplomat quoted Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, as saying last month. “Vietnam makes it hard to follow cases of dissidents facing repression, keeps its proceedings in courts and treatment in prisons as secret as possible, and restricts its media.”

The protest last year “offered the international community a rare glimpse into the fringe, but steadily growing, culture of protest and activism in the authoritarian state,” wrote Arthur Beaufort in The Diplomat in 2016.

“These minor acts of civil disobedience bear testimony to the burgeoning spirit of defiance toward the Vietnamese elite and the way it rules the country. Vietnam’s population — young, web-connected, and increasingly educated — is paying close attention to developments in the region,” said Beaufort.

Vietnamese lawmaker held responsible for Formosa incident, resigns

A former leader of Ha Tinh Province in central Vietnam, Vo Kim Cu, was removed from Vietnam’s top legislative body on May 15 after being held accountable for the environmental disaster. He is one of four former officials punished by the government for their roles in the Formosa environmental disaster last year, to step down as a legislator.

Formosa has offered to pay US$500 million to clean up and compensate residents affected by the spill. Its plant has been closely monitored since the event. However, recent protests by local fishermen suggest that many have not yet received the promised compensation.

On May 11, the organization monitoring progress at the steel plant gave the green light for Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation to test a new furnace on a six-month trial period.

The approval coincides with Formosa Plastics Group’s pledge to pour another US$1 billion into the Ha Tinh plant, raising its investment to US$5.5 billion, reports VnExpress, a local Vietnamese publication. Officials in the region have been asked to test waste samples from the plant regularly to avoid another environmental disaster.

The country’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment said it could take the affected region a decade to completely recover from the incident last year, while experts predict the disaster may set Vietnam’s economy back for years.

At a forum held in November 2016 by Vietnam’s Ministry of Planning and Investment, the government warned that natural disasters and environmental pollution could cause the country’s GDP to shrink by about 0.6 percent during 2016 to 2020, making this a threat to Vietnam’s medium-term development.

Only about 63 percent of industrial zones disposed of waste and wastewater in accordance government criteria, according to statistics released by the General Statistics Office of Vietnam.

Editor: Edward White