A look at “Hit the Streets for the Environment” Round II

This morning, May 8th at 9:00 am. The second week of the “Hit the Streets for the Environment” [xuống đường vì môi trường] protests took place in April 30th Park, Paris Commune Square, Saigon. Judging from uploaded videos, last week’s march was able to travel at least as far as Ben Thanh Market, about a kilometer. This week’s demonstration wasn’t able to make it as far.

Also today, Hue Minh, a writer for the Communist Youth Mass Organization Newspaper “Thanh Niên”, published an English language article following up on previous investigations of the mass fish die off on Vietnam’s central coast.  In his article, Hue Minh traveled with divers to inspect the once thriving sea bed off Quang Binh province. There was absolutely nothing left.

Over the last month, more than one hundred tons of dead fish have washed up over 200 km of shoreline, and if Hue Minh’s report is any sign, then the seabed is also covered in dead fish. People have stopped eating fish for fear of poisoning, crushing the narrow central region’s economy, which heavily depends on sea products.

Attention immediately turned to Vung Anh industrial zone, and especially to Formosa Steel plant, a Taiwanese project with a checkered history. Though far from the epicenter of the 2014 anti-China riots, which focused on the industrial areas around Saigon, Formosa was the site of its bloodiest confrontation. Though disputed, Reuters claims up to 21 killed. Further, in 2015, 14 workers were killed in a scaffolding collapse. Compounding the egregiousness of the incident, the workers knew the scaffolding was unsafe and fled, only to be forced to return to work, when it collapsed on top of them.

When a number of local fishermen reported that there was an undersea waste pipe leading to Formosa, a Formosa representative replied, “You have to decide whether to catch fish and shrimp, or to build a modern steel industry,”. It should be noted that Formosa has continuously pushed for outrageous government concessions. Furthermore, Vietnam does not officially recognize Taiwan as an independent state. Considering the scope of the mass die off, it seems beyond belief that a single factory could be capable of such damage. However, Formosa has now become the flashpoint of a more general public outcry linking consecutive scandals over food safety, environmental degradation, a perceived state weakness– or even collusion– with Chinese expansionism, and a thirst for democracy in the face of the upcoming government elections, which has seen a number of high profile independent candidates and chronicled the underhanded tactics used to disqualify them.

Unlike last week, this morning’s police were determined not to be caught off guard. All entrances were closed to through traffic and the march was implicitly to be directed toward the only unblocked street, Nguyen Du (see 5 on map below).

red-blockade, pink- police gathered, yellow-path of demonstration, X- end point. Blue arrows-camera positions, 1-gathering point, 2-Duc Ba church, 3-independence palace, 4- Carls jr, 5-only open path.



However,  the police immediately moved in to contain the protesters at the gathering point in 30/4 park. The people jubilantly pushed through the police lines, as can be seen in this video. They trickled onto Paris Commune street (yellow path) and began heading southeast past the cathedral (2). At this point something held up the rear of the march, and the front accumulated haphazardly around the park in front of the cathedral. The intensity of the sun forced those standing around to gather in the small pockets of shade lining the street. The police gathered for a second kettle, and succeeded in blocking the most energetic mass of demonstrators just outside of the Carls Jr.

In the following two videos one can see the coordination of the various police forces. In green, the ward level “militia” [dân phòng] are doing the hard work of physically pinning the demonstrators. In brown, the traffic police [cảnh sát giao thông] are more senior officers and are tasked with manning the mobile blockades. Finally, plain clothes agents seem to do most of the actual arresting. As visible at the end of this video, they feel comfortable punching restrained demonstrators in the face in broad daylight. I was told that these are city level officers, making them the most senior.

While this reliance on plain clothes ‘snatch-and-grab’ teams gives the police a veneer of deniability when confronted with evidence of brutality (“that wasn’t an officer!”), it also makes certain forms of resistance more feasible. On more than one occasion, people were grabbed but able to attract the attention of the crowd, who either physically separated them from the officer’s grip, or intimidated the officer into aborting. In this video, we can see that in the hand off between plainclothes officers and militia members, a protester is freed by his comrade with relatively little effort. I speculate that this was because of a breakdown in the jurisdiction of violence, where the militia (green) is not as free to use force in the open. By the time the two agencies were able to calculate their roles, the person was already taken back.

A few thoughts:

The heat is a serious factor. At least one police officer seems to have fainted, I wager from the heat at the center of the crowd. This heat also works to sort protesters onto the sides of the street, where there is shade. Many protesters brought umbrellas, but overcoming the heat of the crowd seems to be a serious obstacle. With the rainy season coming, this dynamic may change.

The common propagandist representation of the protesters portrays them as hired by oversea Vietnamese who are interested in overthrowing the party with terrorist violence. To what degree the overseas Vietnamese community does support and engage in protesting remains to be seen, but it’s doubtful that they could possibly make up a significant portion, and the environmental crises facing Vietnam are undeniably dire. Engaging in a form of political activity that someone would be unlikely to undertake for a few dollars may persuade people of the commitment of the demonstrators, but also could shade into the sorts of “terrorism” that the propagandists publicize. Some mixed tactics of march/occupation may need to be combined with active defense against the plain clothes police. As far as I can tell, forcing the police to need their uniforms would be a victory. The knowledge that plainclothes officers are snatching people all around you is terrible for crowd and onlooker morale. This video shows the scale of the undercover police participation, and how confusing the situation quickly becomes.

The lack of media exposure is another obstacle. While the taking of Paris Commune Square ensures that countless tourists and locals were rerouted and inconvenienced enough to spread word that there was a demonstration, at least 30 people were arrested, likely much more than 50. Maybe less risky activities, such as banner drops in high traffic areas, can spread word while minimizing exposure to activists. While social media seems to be doing quite well at opening communication lines, banner drops also build camaraderie and are a physical sign of strength to the wider population.

Video Links

“Everyone breaks out onto the street”- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ixgUqKQ4Jug

“A person is saved by the other people around”- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOmAwzY-D6Y

“Plainclothes police strike an innocent person”- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vp6A5nxfz-0

Undercover brawl  https://www.facebook.com/danlambaovn/videos/1051630108225640/


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