As blast hits newly reopened Formosa Plastics plan, Catholics continue to be threatened and attacked

The plant is responsible for a huge environmental disaster that destroyed marine life and the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of fishermen. The latest incident, caused by congestion in the dust filter system of a lime kiln, comes less than two days after the plant was re-opened. Catholics in Vietnam’s central provinces are targeted by Vietnamese authorities. Phú Yên and Van Thai parishioners are attacked, 25 injured. Insults and projectiles are thrown at a prayer vigil in Van Thai church. A military drill is used to intimidate.

Hanoi (AsiaNews/RFA) – A major explosion stopped production at a steel mill owned by Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group in Ha Tinh province, central Vietnam, the same that saw the worst environmental disaster in the country's history in April 2016. No casualties have been reported.

The deputy chairman of the Provincial People’s Committee, Duong Tat Thang, said that the incident was caused by congestion in the dust filter system of a lime kiln at the steel mill, which led to an increase in pressure, causing the blast. The incident occurred at around 9 pm on Tuesday, less than two days after the plant re-opened.

Last month, Vietnamese authorities cleared Formosa to start testing its steel mill after conducting a three-day inspection of the plant and concluding that the company had addressed 52 out of 53 operating violations that led to the spill.

The incident polluted more than 200 kilometres of Vietnam’s coastline, and killed about 115 tonnes of fish. Hundreds of thousands of fishermen in four Vietnamese provinces were left jobless and without a source of income.

Formosa Plastics has voluntarily paid US$ 500 million to clean up and compensate coastal residents affected by the spill, but slow and uneven pay-out of the funds by the Vietnamese government has prompted protests that continue to be held more than a year later.

The Church has stood by the affected communities and has engaged in a number of actions to defend their rights. As a result, Catholics in the most affected areas have been targeted by Vietnamese authorities because of their protests against the government for failing to help the victims.

Various members of the Catholic clergy and other activists have been harassed and arrested by the government. On 28 May, hundreds of thugs hired by Nghệ An authorities, central Vietnam, attacked and beat up a group of Catholic parishioners, including women and children. Local sources report that about 25 people were hospitalised.

Members of Phu Yen and Van Thai sub-parishes, under Song Ngoc parish in Nghệ An province, said that they were attacked after gathering at the Son Hai commune People’s Committee on Wednesday to retrieve fellow parishioner Nguyễn Thi Tra who had been detained earlier by police.

After arriving at the building, some parishioners began using their smartphones to videotape the authorities, who responded by sending “thugs” into the crowd to beat them.

“There were almost 500 people, such as thugs, working for the police to beat people – including women and children – as a way to prevent them from using their phones to record,” said one Catholic. Afterwards, several people required treatment for injuries at a nearby hospital.

Tra had been arrested earlier on Sunday after stopping to record a crowd that had gathered as she made her way through Son Hai’s Village No. 9.

Parishioners said that a group of women attacked her as she filmed the gathering, and continued to do so, even as police intervened and brought her to the People’s Committee in Son Hai, where Van Thai sub-parish is located.

A local police officer had requested that parishioners come and get Tra from the People’s Committee before the larger confrontation occurred on Sunday.

In the aftermath of the attack at the People’s Committee, Tra was taken to an undisclosed location where she was “beaten further and left in the middle of the road,” the parishioners said. She was later discovered by a passer-by and brought home “covered in bruises and in a panic.”

Fr Nguyễn Đình Thục, vicar of Song Ngọc parish (Nghệ An province) is one of the priests at the centre of a slander campaign orchestrated by Vietnamese authorities.

On Tuesday evening, Fr Nguyễn was holding a prayer gathering at Van Thai church when “hundreds of people” arrived carrying stones, bricks, knives and metal pipes, and began threatening him and the congregation.

When the clergyman and the congregation fled the church to area homes, the mob followed them, hurling projectiles through windows and injuring several of the Catholics inside.

These last episodes of violence follow a recent "security drill" conducted by authorities in front of the Van Thai church, involving explosives and the firing of weapons that the government claimed was part of a bid to “protect the road close to the river.”

For parishioners, the drill was a form of intimidation by local authorities, angered by members of the church speaking out about last year’s waste spill.