SINGAPORE — Vietnam has arrested a leading environmental activist just months after it signed a deal to receive billions of dollars of international aid to tackle climate change, partly on the condition that the government would involve grass-roots activists in the effort.
Widely seen as a pillar of Vietnam’s nonprofit sector and a leading critic of fossil fuels, Hong has led petition drives and protests against coal plants. She is the fifth prominent environmentalist in Vietnam to be accused of tax evasion in two years, but the first to be targeted since an international coalition, including the United States and the European Union, agreed in December to help Vietnam cut fossil fuel use by providing $15.5 billion in funding. Finance experts say this was one of the largest deals of its type.
The agreement signed with Vietnam states explicitly that “regular consultation” is required with “with media, NGOs and other stakeholders so as to ensure a broad social consensus.”
Weeks before her detention, Hong said in an interview with The Washington Post in Ho Chi Minh City that the grass-roots climate movement in Vietnam was on the verge of being entirely disabled. Four of the country’s leading environmentalists, all critics of the government’s energy policies, were behind bars, their organizations in limbo. She’d taken a step back from her activism in recent months, including by stepping down as chief executive of her environmental nonprofit CHANGE, she said. But she worried it was too late.
“If they come for me,” Hong said, “the movement will be gone.”
Often touted by green energy experts as one of the most ambitious ways to address climate change, Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) agreements are based on the notion that rich, heavily polluting countries have a responsibility to help poorer nations move away from fossil fuels and build renewable energy infrastructure without sacrificing economic growth. Such agreements have been sealed with South Africa, Indonesia and Senegal, and deal negotiations are underway with India.
In both South Africa and Indonesia, members of civil society have been closely involved in discussions of how to implement JETP agreements, said Alice Carr, executive director for public policy at the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, which represents the financial institutions that have committed funding.
Hong’s arrest highlights tensions between the goals of donor countries and some recipients. To meaningfully cut carbon emissions, the world needs countries with poor human rights records, including Vietnam — the ninth largest consumer of coal — to be involved in the effort. But environmental activists, who are unpopular in some countries, are needed to hold governments and companies accountable for meeting their goals, and to ensure the energy transition doesn’t come at the expense of marginalized populations, said Rachel Cox, a senior researcher at Global Witness, a watchdog group.
The United States,, Germany and Britain have released statements expressing “concern” over Hong’s arrest. European Union officials raised Hong’s case in meetings held with Vietnamese authorities earlier this month and intend to do so in subsequent meetings on JETP, said Tim McPhie, a climate action and energy spokesperson for the European Commission. Hong was a former Obama Foundation scholar, and on Tuesday, 65 rights groups wrote an open letter to former president Barack Obama urging him to call for Hong’s release.
Ben Swanton, co-director of The 88 Project, a nonprofit that tracks the arrests of activists in Vietnam, said backers of the JETP agreement should condition their financial contributions on the release of activists like Hong, who could face a prison sentence of between two and seven years. The signatories of the agreement have “a huge amount of leverage over Vietnam,” Swanton said.
Hong rose to prominence in 1997, when, at the age of 24, she became the first Vietnamese to visit Antarctica. She worked in wildlife conservation before starting CHANGE, her environmental nonprofit, in Ho Chi Minh City. In 2017, her group led a petition drive to stop the construction of a coal-fired power plant in the southern Long An province that drew thousands of signatures. The group dropped the campaign, Hong said, when she received a warning from the police.
In Vietnam, criticism of the government has long been tightly restricted. For nearly a decade, nonprofit groups like Hong’s, which were not explicitly political and focused on specific issues, were allowed some space to operate. Now, amid a broader crackdown on civil society, that space has diminished, Hong said.
“Being able to communicate and mobilize people — that’s now very sensitive,” she said in the interview. “To the government, you’re seen as a threat.”
In 2021, Dang Dinh Bach, a lawyer who had been scrutinizing the environmental impacts of a free-trade agreement between Vietnam and the E.U., was sentenced to five years in prison for tax evasion, a charge that rights groups say was fabricated. Two other environmental advocates were charged, also for tax evasion, by the end of the year. And in 2022, while negotiating the its JETP agreement, the government arrested Nguy Thi Khanh, who had received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize and is arguably the country’s most famous environmentalist.
For Hong, known for her brightly dyed hair and sometimes biting remarks about the coal industry, Khanh’s arrest made no sense. Khanh was soft-spoken and measured — a “globally recognized” hero, Hong said. If she could be targeted, Hong added, nobody was safe.
Khanh was released in May following a chorus of international appeals, including from U.S. special climate envoy John F. Kerry. Less than two weeks later, police accosted Hong in Ho Chi Minh City, bringing her to the CHANGE office along with a dozen other former employees of the organization, witnesses said. The other workers were eventually allowed to leave. But not Hong.
Since the start of June, she’s been held in detention pending trial without access to a lawyer or her family, said Swanton of The 88 Project. Late on Tuesday, police in Ho Chi Minh City announced that they had formally charged Hong with tax evasion.