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Worries and whispers in Vietnam’s NGO community after activist’s sentencing

Khanh Nguy Thi, Vietnam. Image by Goldman Environment Prize.

  • On June 17, a Hanoi court sentenced Nguy Thi Khanh, arguably Vietnam’s best-known environmental advocate, to two years in jail for tax evasion.
  • Vietnam’s foreign ministry has refuted claims that Khanh’s arrest and sentencing were linked to her anti-coal advocacy, but the move against her has sent a chill through NGOs in the country.
  • Activists say Khanh’s imprisonment is a step back for climate change action in Vietnam, and casts doubts on the government’s commitment to reduce emissions and move toward a green development strategy.

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

One NGO leader, identified by the pseudonymous initials H.C. because they said they feared being targeted, said they were considering closing down their organization: “I think the leaders of many NGOs, and of course particularly environmental ones, are thinking the same thing, and are very unsettled and scared.”

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

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

In 2018, Khanh, founder of the Hanoi-based Green Innovation and Development Center (GreenID), became the first Vietnamese national to win a Goldman Environmental Prize. She was awarded for her work in collaboration with the Vietnamese government on its seventh Power Development Plan to reduce the country’s dependence on coal-fired power while increasing the planned share of renewable energy.

This shift reduced Vietnam’s carbon emissions by an estimated 115 million metric tons annually. In the meantime, Vietnam has developed the most extensive solar energy capacity in Southeast Asia.

Khanh Nguy Thi received 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 Network of Vietnamese non-government organizations on Europe-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (VNGO-EVFTA).

Khanh was lionized by Vietnamese media following her Goldman Prize win. In 2019, GreenID was named a Climate Breakthrough Project awardee.

Her sentencing, which wasn’t announced by domestic media for nearly a week, followed her arrest months earlier, which also wasn’t reported in state media until well after the fact. The arrest sent shockwaves through Vietnam’s civil society.

“I was very surprised,” said M.Y. (not real initials), the head of a conservation NGO who also asked to remain anonymous to speak freely on this topic. “I’ve met Khanh several time[s] before … she was always very polite, very generous and straightforward. Personally, I did not believe that she could be arrested for tax evasion. She was arrested in late December or early January, but it was only reported in the news in February, with very limited information on her ‘crime.’”

While the case has received little coverage from Vietnam’s state media, which only reported the sentencing after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs refuted claims that Khanh had been jailed for her anti-coal advocacy during a press conference, it has garnered prominent international attention.

The governments of the United States and Canada have called for Khanh to be released, as has the European Union and prominent international climate organizations.

This comes within the context of Vietnam committing to reach net zero emissions by 2050 at last year’s COP26 climate summit. The Vietnamese government is also wrestling with its next 10-year Power Development Plan, which was scheduled to be released in 2021 but has not been finalized due in part to disagreements over how to further reduce fossil fuel use and how much renewable energy to plan for.

Khanh Nguy Thi. Image courtesy Goldman Environmental Prize.

M.Y. said Khanh’s jailing brings this commitment into question.

“This definitely will not help the country to move toward a sustainable future; it in fact raises doubts about the government’s commitment toward a green and renewable energy development plan,” M.Y. said. “But I believe that people have been inspired by Khanh’s work, and thus they will continue her work. It will not stop there.”

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

“It’s a step back for climate change activities in Vietnam,” M.Y. said. “Khanh is very well-respected in the sector; she is very direct, but also very careful with her words and actions. If someone like that can be arrested, we don’t know what could happen to any of us, hence the whispering of ‘be careful, don’t do or say anything to create attention.’”

Khanh’s tax evasion sentencing followed the jailing of several other climate activists earlier this year on tax fraud charges, though no details on their alleged tax crimes have been released.

H.C, the NGO leader, said they also fear that international donors may hesitate to fund organizations in Vietnam to avoid potential legal trouble both for them and their local partners, though ultimately the people of the country will be most impacted.

“I have put a lot of effort into building my NGO with a dedicated team and we are proud to have achieved many positive results,” H.C. said. “Quitting was never my thing, but all the paranoia and hassle that we have had in the last few months makes me think it’s not worth it. That is a sad ending, because I believe 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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