November 1, 2010
A revolt of sorts in Vietnam
By The Hanoist
Vietnam’s environmental movement, which rose up last year in opposition to bauxite mining in the Central Highlands, is back. Spurred into action by a toxic spill in Hungary on October 4, more than 2,000 people including many leading citizens have signed a new petition calling on the state to halt its US$15.6 billion plans and so avoid the risk of a similar catastrophe in Vietnam.
In early 2008, the Vietnamese government announced a plan to extract bauxite and process the ore into alumina, an intermediary step in producing aluminum. Critics pointed out the potential devastation to the ecologically sensitive Central Highlands – home to many of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities and cash crops – and the risks of storing vast quantities of toxic sludge, a byproduct of processing alumina, upriver from the densely populated Mekong delta.
Vietnamese academics also questioned the economic cost-benefit due to the project’s large need for electricity, in short supply in the country, and the required construction of a 250 kilometer railway and dedicated port. The plan calls for the alumina, a relatively low-profit commodity, to be exported to a single market, China, leaving Vietnamese industry captive to a powerful buyer.
The China angle has generated some of the strongest opposition. The joint venture partner for the bauxite project is state-owned Aluminum Corporation of China (Chinalco). Despite official denials from the Vietnamese government, hundreds if not thousands of Chinese workers are now based at the mining sites. The perceived security threat of this foreign presence was pointed out in a series of letters by famed general Vo Nguyen Giap and other retired military leaders.
The unprecedented vocal opposition caught the Vietnamese government off guard. After several months of critical articles in progressive newspapers and even stronger critiques on local blogs, the government organized a “scientific” conference in April 2009 to discuss concerns. Government leaders showed a willingness to hear out critics but not a noticeable desire to heed their suggestions. The Communist Party’s Politburo promised an environmental impact study, the results of which have not been released. In the end, the Hanoi leadership, symbolized by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, allowed the project to proceed with construction having commenced at two locations.
This prompted a group of prominent academics to launch an online petition campaign on April 12, 2009, a few days after the conference. Calling on Vietnamese government leaders to halt the bauxite plans, the appeal ultimately attracted 2,746 signatures from an eclectic coalition of intellectuals connected to state institutions, retired party and military officials, political dissidents and overseas Vietnamese professionals. Notably, the organizers founded an unsanctioned website called Bauxite Vietnam which promoted unfettered critical discussion of the project.
By November 2009, the Bauxite Vietnam website had attracted nearly 20 million views and the ire of authorities. According to a knowledgeable source within the Vietnamese government, security police detained the webmaster and forced him to give up the password to the site.
Police then attempted to transfer the web domain for Bauxite Vietnam to a hosting company in Hong Kong, from its original location in France, with the intention of erasing all the content and exploiting the user information. In an IT cat and mouse game, supporters of the Bauxite Vietnam site were able to retrieve much of the content and relaunch the site.
Vietnamese authorities then tried to crash the Bauxite Vietnam site through distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks. (The government has denied it was behind the cyber-attacks.) This effort, uncovered by investigations conducted by Internet giant Google and security company McAfee, involved Vietnam-based hackers spreading malicious code to users around the world and controlling the unbeknownst computers in a massive “botnet” (network of zombie computers) that attacked the Bauxite Vietnam website.
Although the website went offline at the end of 2009 and during the beginning of this year, it has remained active most of this year despite periodic hacker attacks. At the same time that authorities targeted the technology infrastructure of the environmental movement, police moved against some of the participants. Throughout this year, security police have routinely interrogated the founders of the campaign and detained some of the petition’s signers.
Chorus of opposition
Until the environmental catastrophe in Hungary, it seemed bauxite mining in Vietnam would go ahead in spite of the public opposition. But the red sludge that engulfed towns in Hungary after containment systems broke is not only impacting communities along the Danube river, but also Vietnamese politics.
The Vietnamese Communist Party is facing its largest and most organized opposition in recent memory, and much of the opposition is coming from within. More than last year’s petition, the sequel to stop bauxite mining is now attracting public support of National Assembly members, officials in government and Communist Party luminaries. Around 10 retired generals have signed the latest call. Even President Nguyen Minh Triet’s younger brother, who was party boss of An Giang province, has come out in support of the petition.
The feelings of the military establishment in regards to the bauxite plans cannot be underestimated. There is deep concern among the People’s Army of Vietnam about Chinese encroachment. Beijing is perceived to be extending its reach virtually toward the coast of Vietnam by routinely detaining Vietnamese fishing vessels and declaring almost the entire South China Sea as its territorial waters. A senior general who chairs the National Assembly’s Committee of National Defense and Security has reportedly criticized the politburo’s decision to give China access to the strategic Central Highlands. More opposition from high-level officers may be brewing.
To limit discord in the military, the Hanoi leadership gives special reverence to a powerful symbol – General Vo Nguyen Giap – whose face adorns the Bauxite Vietnam website. Recently for the general’s 100th birthday, top party figures showed up at his hospital bed to pay respects and pin a new medal on General Giap’s crisp military uniform.
Many observers continue to question why Communist Party leaders are so keen to push through the bauxite plan despite the environmental, economic and security issues. One widely held belief is that senior Vietnamese leaders, not unlike those in Africa who are also hosting big Chinese projects, have been bought off. A report circulating on blogs last year claimed that Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung personally received $150 million to support the bauxite project. (Dung has not responded publicly to the widely disseminated allegations.)
Recognizing the costs already sunk into the project, the environmental movement says cancelling the project would constitute a “painful decision the likes of which has never been taken in our economic history” but that it is better to “suffer now than to leave the consequences to the future”. It remains to be seen what price Vietnam’s communist leaders will pay if they ignore this brewing storm.
The Hanoist writes on Vietnam’s politics and people.
(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)