Vinh: Masses and torchlight processions for justice in sea pollution case

Catholics took to the streets last Saturday to defend their bishop, vilified by state media. Mgr Hop had accused government authorities of ineptitude in tackling the environmental disaster. The diocese’s presbytery council signed a petition addressed to the authorities. Fishermen are caught between dead fish and Beijing’s fishing ban.

Hanoi (AsiaNews/EDA) – Tens of thousands of Catholics continue to hold prayer vigils and torchlight processions to express their disappointment with the government’s attitude towards the environmental disaster that killed hundreds of thousands of fish and devastated the livelihood of fishermen in the country’s central provinces.

In the diocese of Vinh, one of the hardest hit, the faithful have rallied around their bishop, Mgr Paul Nguyen Thai Hop who, along with local pastors and laity, has been outspoken in his criticism of the authorities.

Everything started on 6 April when thousands of dead fish washed up on beaches in the central provinces of Tĩnh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, and Thua Thien-Hue.

In early May, reports indicated that the fish had died as a result of pollution caused by a 17-metre sewage pipe that discharges wastewater directly into the sea near the Hung Nghiep steel plant, owned by Formosa Plastics.

The company admitted that it was dumping 12,000 cubic metres of wastewater every day. The last time it did it (perhaps in April), they used 300 tonnes of extremely toxic chemicals to cleanse the sewer.

On 13 May, Mgr Hop wrote a pastoral letter in which he slammed Hanoi’s indifference to the "panic, impoverishment and indignation people have had to go through”. This was followed by a campaign of vilification against the prelate on local TV.

On Saturday evening last week (21 May), local Catholics took to the streets in various places to defend their bishop. In Hoa Yen Parish, more than a thousand people took part in an 8 pm Mass. Some 238 of them, including the auxiliary bishop and the bishop emeritus, signed a petition put forward by the presbytery council to the central and provincial governments (pictured).

The letter calls on the authorities to give an update about the case against Formosa Plastics, and notify the citizenry as to whether it was continuing its operations. It also pleads with them to heed what people are asking in their peaceful demonstrations. So far, the government has used an iron fist against protest in various cities.

For Vietnamese fishermen, the situation is hard. In addition to the pollution, they face a Chinese ban on fishing in much of the South China Sea, from 16 May to 1 August, including waters close to northern Vietnam, and around the Paracel and Spratly islands.

China had adopted the same measures in 2015 to penalise foreign fishing fleets and ensure its control over sea lanes where some US$ 5 trillion transit.

The Chinese are also training some 350,000 paramilitary forces to deploy on armed fishing shops, ready to attack and sink the competition.

For Trần Văn Lĩnh, head of the Managing Board of the Fisheries Joint Stock Company, Beijing’s ban "is only an excuse to intimidate, arrest and attack our fishermen".

(Paul Nguyen Binh contributed to this article)