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Vietnamese Police Break Up Mass Fish Deaths Protest

FILE - Protesters hold signs about the mass fish deaths in Nghe An Province, central Vietnam. Protests Sunday led to dozens of people being detained by police in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Police in Vietnam broke up peaceful environmental protests Sunday in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City over recent mass fish deaths.

Dozens of protesters were detained, including 30 in Hanoi, where demonstrators grouped in front of St. Joseph's Cathedral to call for greater government transparency, according to civil society activists based in the Southeast Asian country.

Activists documented detentions on social media accounts, saying police in both cities took people into custody before and during the protests. Access to Facebook was reportedly blocked at the time, preventing demonstrators from communicating with each other and spreading news about the public marches.

The catalyst for the marches — which have repeatedly been broken up by police — is an estimated 100 tons of dead fish along the central coast.

Demonstrators blame the mass fish kill on the release of toxic chemicals from a new Taiwanese-owned steel mill. Although an official investigation has found no links between the fish deaths and a $10.6 billion coastal steel plant run by a unit of Taiwan's Formosa Plastics, public anger against the company has not abated.

Public frustration ‘huge’

Last week, the government said it had identified the cause of fish deaths but needed more hard scientific evidence before making public allegations.

Critics have repeatedly condemned the government's delayed response to the massive die-off of marine life.

"The crackdown is for fear that more and more people will come to know how this government is malfunctioning," Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, a protester in Nha Trang, told VOA Vietnamese. "This environmental disaster is a good opportunity for many who have long been ignorant and fearful to come out and speak up for transparency and against corruption."

"They've been successful in their repressive crackdowns, but public frustration is getting huge," added Tran Quang Nam, a protester in Hanoi. "The more repressed people feel, the stronger the backfire would be once the spring bounces back with even greater force."

Mass detentions ‘appalling’

Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch in Asia, condemned Sunday's mass detentions, describing them as part of an ongoing pattern.

"It's appalling that the authorities cracked down and detained peaceful protesters in Hanoi and elsewhere instead of providing even the most basic answers about the massive fish kills," he said. "The Vietnam government should let the people express their views and hold their public assemblies rather than continuing this campaign of harassment, intimidation and detention.

"For every protester that showed up today in Hanoi and other cities, there were many more that local police and officers prevented from leaving their houses to join," he added.

In late April, Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who took office earlier that month, ordered a thorough inspection of the fish deaths. On April 26, government officials said findings of the probe would be released within a week.

Some information for this report, produced in collaboration with VOA's Vietnamese Service, was provided by Reuters.