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"Vietnamese Catholics Protests over Environmental Issue: A Test for the State-Church Relationship" by Chung Van Hoang and Terence Chong

2017/28, 24 May 2017

Catholics have been protesting in the Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces of Central Vietnam since February 2017. The most recent incident in Nghe An saw several hundred Catholic protesters block the North-South national highway. The protest resulted in the damage of public property and up to 16 policemen injured. Tensions only increased when provincial authorities tried to quell the demonstrations.

These protests began in April 2016 when over a hundred tonnes of dead fish were found along the coast of Vietnam. Government investigations revealed that Taiwan’s Formosa Plastic Corp’s steel plant had dumped toxic chemicals into the sea resulting in environmental damage over approximately 200km of coastline and the end of the livelihood of around 200,000 people, 41,000 of whom worked in the fish industry. Tourism also came to a standstill.

Formosa has since paid $500 million in compensation and fixed its drainage and wastewater treatment system. Disciplinary action has been taken against four high-ranking officials of the Ministry of Natural Sources and Environment and of the Ha Tinh province for mismanagement.

However, local Catholics in neighboring Nghe An province, led by two parish priests, have continued to express their strong disagreement over the compensation rate and the eligibility criteria for compensation. Beyond these issues, Catholic protesters also insist on the permanent shutdown of the Taiwanese steel plant and the deportation of all Chinese workers. An estimated 90% of Formosa’s workers are from China, not Taiwan.

This is a dilemma for the government because the Ha Tinh authorities have signed a 70-year contract with Formosa. The company’s $11 billion plant has also been a much needed boost for the local economy. Not surprisingly many locals have criticized the Catholic protesters for sparking social disorder.

There are a couple of reasons for the prominence of Catholics in these demonstrations. Firstly, Catholic communities were impacted by the environmental disaster and are generally poorer than other communities. Secondly, they are keenly responsive to mobilization by the clergy who may be organizing these protests for various agendas. This is not the first time the Catholics have engaged in public demonstrations. In 2008 thousands of Catholics in Hanoi called for the restitution of church land which was nationalized in 1945. For now, the Catholic protests in Nghe An find resonance with the general public because of the increasing public awareness of clean environment and rising anti-Chinese sentiments. Nevertheless, just below the surface of these protests is the entrenched struggle for more freedom from the state’s interference into the Catholic Church’s internal affairs.

Dr Chung Van Hoang is Visiting Fellow and Dr Terence Chong is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.