Activist community

Concerns and whispers in the Vietnamese NGO community after the conviction of an activist

  • On June 17, a court in Hanoi sentenced Nguy Thi Khanh, arguably Vietnam’s best-known environmental activist, to two years in prison for tax evasion.
  • Vietnam’s foreign ministry has refuted claims that Khanh’s arrest and conviction were linked to her anti-coal advocacy, but the ruling against her has chilled NGOs in the country.
  • Activists say Khanh’s imprisonment is a setback for climate change action in Vietnam and casts doubt on the government’s commitment to reducing emissions and moving towards a green development strategy.

The imprisonment of a prominent Vietnamese environmental activist on tax-related charges has had a chilling effect on the country’s NGO community.

An NGO leader, identified by the pseudonymous initials HC because he said he feared being targeted, said he was considering closing his organization: “I think the leaders of many NGOs, and of course particularly environmental, think the same, and are very unstable and scared.

Other civil society actors declined to comment on this story, even anonymously.

On June 17, a court in Hanoi sentenced Nguy Thi Khanh, arguably Vietnam’s best-known environmental activist, to two years in prison for tax evasion.

In 2018, Khanh, founder of the Hanoi-based Green Innovation and Development Center (GreenID), became the first Vietnamese national to to win a Goldman environmental award. She was recognized for her work in collaboration with the Vietnamese government on its seventh energy development plan aimed at reducing the country’s dependence on coal power while increasing the planned share of renewable energy.

This change reduced Vietnam’s carbon emissions by about 115 million metric tons per year. Meanwhile, Vietnam has developed the largest solar power capacity in Southeast Asia.

Khanh Nguy Thi was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2018. Image courtesy Goldman Environmental Prize.

Khanh is also a co-founder of the Vietnam Sustainable Energy Alliance and a board member of the Vietnam Non-Governmental Organizations Network on Europe-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (VNGO-EVFTA).

Khanh was lionized by Vietnamese media after winning the Goldman Prize. In 2019, GreenID was appointed winner of a climate breakthrough project.

His sentencing, which was not announced by national media for nearly a week, followed his arrest months earlier, which was also not reported on state media until well after the fact. The arrest sent shock waves through Vietnamese civil society.

“I was very surprised,” said MY (no real initials), the head of a conservation NGO who also asked to remain anonymous to speak freely on the subject. “I have met Khanh several times[s] before… she was always very polite, very generous and frank. Personally, I didn’t believe she could be arrested for tax evasion. She was arrested in late December or early January, but it wasn’t reported in the newspapers until February, with very limited information about her “crime”.

Although the case received little coverage from Vietnamese state media, which only reported the conviction after the Foreign Ministry refuted claims that Khanh had been jailed for her anti-coal advocacy during a press conference, it drew international attention.

The governments of the United States and Canada demanded Khanh’s release, as did the European Union and prominent international climate organizations.

This is in the context of Vietnam commit achieve net zero emissions by 2050 at last year’s COP26 climate summit. Vietnam’s government is also struggling with its next ten-year energy development plan, which was due to be released in 2021 but has not been finalized in part due to disagreements over how to further reduce fossil fuel use and the amount of energy. renewable energy to be planned. .

Khanh Nguy Thi.  Photo courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.
Khanh Nguy Thi. Image courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

MY said Khanh’s imprisonment calls that commitment into question.

“It certainly won’t help the country move towards a sustainable future; it actually raises doubts about the government’s commitment to a green and renewable energy development plan,” said MY. “But I believe people were inspired by Khanh’s work, and so they will continue his work. It won’t stop there. »

Such work will not be easy, with the head of the NGO describing the mood within the NGO space as “gloomy”.

“It’s a step backwards for climate change activities in Vietnam,” MY said. “Khanh is highly respected in the industry; she is very direct, but also very cautious in her words and actions. If someone like that can be stopped, we don’t know what might happen to any of us, hence the whisper of “be careful, don’t do or say anything to get attention”.

Khanh’s tax evasion conviction followed the imprisonment of several other climate activists earlier this year on tax evasion charges, although no details of their alleged tax crimes have been released.

HC, the head of the NGO, said he was also concerned that international donors might be reluctant to fund organizations in Vietnam to avoid possible legal problems both for them and their local partners, although ultimately, the people of the country are the most affected.

“I put a lot of effort into building my NGO with a dedicated team and we are proud to have achieved many positive results,” HC said. “Quitting has never been my thing, but all the paranoia and hassle we’ve had over the past few months makes me think it’s not worth it. It’s a sad ending, because I think Vietnam still needs a lot of support to solve environmental and social problems.

Banner image: Khanh Nguy Thi, courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize.

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