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
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
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
The Hanoist writes on Vietnam's politics and people.