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Protests, Suspicion In Vietnam Over Government's Response To Fish Kill


On his visit to Vietnam last week, President Obama urged the government there to ease up on dissent. But it's a tough habit for the leadership of the one-party state to break. Their latest challenge - not political, but environmental - a recent fish kill that's affected millions of people. From Hanoi, Michael Sullivan has more.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: At a small market near Hanoi's Truc Bach Lake, the one Arizona Senator John McCain landed in when he was shot down here almost 50 years ago, the meat and vegetable vendors are busy. The fish sellers - not so much.

HOANG BICH LIEN: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: "My business is down about 50 percent," Hoang Bich Lien says as a compressor pumps oxygen into her tanks. "People are worried. They don't want to buy fish," she says, "because they've heard on the news about the fish deaths."

She's talking about the massive fish kill last month in Ha Tinh province, 200 miles to the south, tons of fish washing up on shore. And suspicion quickly focused on a massive discharge of waste from a new Taiwanese steel mill, where the management seemed oddly indifferent.


CHOU CHOU FAN: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: "Look," company spokesman Chou Chun Fan told reporters, "Vietnam needs to choose whether to catch fish and shrimp or to build a state of the art steel mill. You can't have both."

Those remarks infuriated many Vietnamese, confirming what some had long suspected, that their country puts economic development ahead of the health of its citizens.

NGUYEN QUANG KIEN: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: Nguyen Quang Kien is 36, an amateur environmentalist who says he's not against his government. He's just for the environment, and he's got a lot of company.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

SULLIVAN: Angry but peaceful demonstrators took to the streets here in the capital after the fish kill and the subsequent comments from the steel company, carrying signs in Vietnamese and English that read - we choose fish. Demonstrations, not just here in Hanoi, but in the country's commercial capital Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, too.


SULLIVAN: Police waded in to the Ho Chi Minh protests, beating some and detaining others, the time-tested method for dealing with dissent here while remaining tone deaf to public sentiment. Take this press conference. When a reporter asked the deputy environment minister about reports of high levels of heavy metals in the water farther down the coast near the tourist destination of Hue.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: "Don't ask me that question," he said. "Asking that question hurts the nation's interests. Turn off your camera. We'll discuss it in private."

And then he got up and left.

Nguyen Quang A is a frequent critic and sometimes involuntary guest of his government. He was one of those prevented from meeting President Obama in Hanoi last week. He thinks the government is hoping this whole thing just goes away. But he doesn't think it will.

NGUYRN QUANG A: No, no, no because it's related to their daily life of millions - millions of people. People are going to react, one way or another.

SULLIVAN: Not just in Hanoi and Saigon, he says, but people in the seaside provinces where the fish kills occurred. It's not about politics, he says. It's an emotional issue and an economic one.

QUANG A: The people directly affected in those four provinces - they get frustrated. Millions of people - they have relatives everywhere. And that can start a process which is very, very dangerous for authority and is not good for the society.

SULLIVAN: To this day, there's been no credible explanation for the fish kill. The government says it was caused by red tide. But nobody is buying it. And the Taiwanese steel company - they've apologized for the manager's remarks. They won't comment on the rest. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Hanoi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.