After lifting of the US embargo in 1993, trade between the US and Vietnam has increased from the humble figure of $220 million in 1994 to $15.3 billion in 2009, and recently, according to US trade statistics, to $45.1 billion in 2015. This has transformed Vietnam into the 13th-largest source of US imports and the 37th-largest destination for US exports. During the recent visit of the Vietnamese Prime Minister with President Trump in late June 2017, Vietnam received an $8 billion trade deal.
You would think that with all the support from the US, the Vietnamese government would be more open and show more empathy towards its citizens. The reality is the opposite. The more economic development Vietnam experiences, the more violations of human rights are committed by the government. It only stops temporarily when the government is in negotiations with a foreign counterpart. Right after the signing of the $8 billion trade deal with President Trump, the Vietnamese government arrested and imprisoned many dissidents.
Among them is Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh, a mother of two children, who is commonly called Mẹ Nấm, or Mother Mushroom. Mother Mushroom was chosen to receive the International Woman of Courage Award given by First Lady Melania Trump in Washington D.C. in April 2017, but was not allowed to leave Vietnam. Grace Choi, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s East Asia-Pacific Office, said the United States recognized Mother Mushroom for her bravery in raising civil and social issues, inspiring peaceful change, calling for greater government transparency and access to fundamental human rights, and being a voice of freedom of expression. For raising her concerns over environmental issues, Mother Mushroom has been sentenced to 10 years in jail.
The environmental issue in Vietnam began with the Formosa Steel Plant, a factory run by a Taiwanese-owned company, which discharged toxic industrial waste illegally into the sea through drainage pipes, resulting in huge piles of fish carcasses on the coast of Hà Tĩnh and three other provinces, Quảng Bình, Quảng Trị, and Thừa Thiên-Huế, in April 2016. Fish, shrimp, coral, and other sea life died due to the destruction of the marine ecosystem off central Vietnam, which many have said will take decades to rectify. Toxic industrial waste has also accumulated on the seabed, which will lead to harmful diseases over the long term. For months, Formosa kept denying the action, but on June 30th, 2016 finally accepted responsibility for the fish death. This massive destruction of marine life is the most serious environmental disaster that Vietnam has ever faced. It has also caused a chain of losses to other employment fields. Vietnam exports around $7.1 billion a year in seafood. The disaster has led to major job losses in the fishing industry, including aquaculture, food processing, and logistics. Other related industries include tourism, hospitality, restaurants, and supply. Thousands of families have faced hardship due to unemployment and have moved away from their homes. Thousands of children are unable to attend school due to their families’ loss of income. Most of the victims are now worried about their health, due to the lack of transparency in the government’s handling of the disaster. People fear serious illnesses including cancer, deformities, birth defects, and mental illness. Even more shocking, the media discovered that Formosa not only dumped toxic waste into the sea, but it also illegally buried toxic waste in surrounding areas.
What shocked me the most about the Formosa disaster was the government’s response. Instead of helping the victims, Vietnam’s communist government keeps on sending police to beat up people when they peacefully protest to demand transparency and fair compensation. If you look at pictures of the protestors you see signs saying things like “Who brought Formosa into Vietnam?” and “It’s been one year and nothing has really changed.”
I can definitely relate to this because living in New Orleans, years ago, we had the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Thousands of families lost their jobs and had their entire lives changed. I saw it firsthand in my community in New Orleans. Now, people who were affected by the BP oil spill got lots of damages but they still have not fully recovered. And they live in a country that has a legal system. Just imagine a communist country that has no representation at all.
I present this great concern to you so that you can understand the broader meaning of human rights. A citizen is not only entitled to basic human rights, but also to a clean environment and safe food. I hope that besides the normal demands for government to respect human rights, you will help us guard environmental access and to demand that the sea be restored, the life of future generations be safely protected, and the victims be properly compensated.
These remarks were delivered at events held by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation to commemorate Captive Nations Week in Washington, D.C. on July 19, 2017.