A spate of arrests of leading Vietnamese environmentalists is drawing criticism of Hanoi during an infusion of international aid to support the country's shift away from coal.
Police arrested Ngo Thi To Nhien, the executive director of the Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition Social Enterprise, a Hanoi-based think tank focused on energy transition, in Hanoi on Sept. 20.
She was the sixth environmentalist detained in the past two years and had been involved – with the U.N. Development Program Vietnam office – in implementing a 2022 deal between Vietnam and the G7 countries, EU, Norway and Denmark aimed at shifting Vietnam to cleaner energy sources.
The Just Energy Transition Partnership, or JETP, agreement came after Vietnam committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference.
According to the JETP deal, $15.5 billion in the form of grants, loans, and investment from the public and private sector will go to support Vietnam's transition to green energy sources.
In April, the 88 Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit focused on human rights in Vietnam, released a report on four leading anti-coal campaigners – Dang Dinh Bach, Nguy Thi Khanh, Mai Phan Loi, and Bach Hung Duong – imprisoned for tax evasion since 2021. The report outlines the results of an investigation into the arrests and details closed-door hearings, shows purported flaws in the prosecution, and argues that the tax evasion charge appears to be politically motivated.
Since the report's release, Hoang Thi Minh Hong, former director of environmental advocacy nonprofit CHANGE, has also been jailed for tax evasion.
Public Security Ministry spokesperson To An Xo told reporters Sept. 30 that Nhien had been arrested for appropriating internal documents from state-owned Vietnam Electricity, or EVN. Two EVN energy experts were also arrested, Xo said at the news conference, according to daily newspaper Dan Tri.
The spokesperson also criticized foreign media agencies for "falsely accusing Vietnam of arresting environmental activists."
"The Ministry of Public Security rejects the above distorted allegations, considering it an act of interference in Vietnam's internal affairs," Xo stated. "There is absolutely no arrest of an environmental activist, but purely an arrest for appropriating documents."
Analysts and rights groups, however, point to a broader trend of suppression.
Nguyen Khac Giang, visiting fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute told VOA that while Vietnam commits to climate-friendly initiatives, the arrests of environmentalists show Hanoi's desire to maintain control over energy policy.
"The government is making a statement that the state monopolizes climate change policy and does not want any potential policy interference," Giang wrote over WhatsApp.
The crackdown on climate leaders could harm the transition to cleaner energy sources, a spokesperson from Amnesty International's regional office said.
"Authorities are jailing the very people it should be working with," the spokesperson wrote by email. "The European Union, the United States and Australia must be blunt with Vietnam to ensure that the protection of human rights is incorporated into any agreements and participation to tackle climate change."
Maureen Harris, senior adviser for the California-based environmental and human rights nonprofit International Rivers, said in a statement that Nhien's arrest shows that Hanoi is violating the "just" aspect of the Just Energy Transition Partnership.
"This latest arrest creates a chilling effect for anyone involved in the development of the JETP, as it signals that no independent voices in energy policy are safe," Harris said in a Sept. 27 statement on the group's website. "It also raises questions over how Vietnam’s JETP can be credibly developed and implemented when this kind of expertise is excluded."
A Ho Chi Minh City-based energy expert working in the industry told VOA that sharing documents among colleagues is common. Because of this, he suspects the reason for Nhien's arrest is more complex.
"I don't think it's genuine," he said of the grounds for her arrest, asking for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.
"We share confidential documents on Zalo [the Vietnamese messaging app] and in private groups quite extensively. Actually everyone does that," he said.
"She was an expert we could rely on," he added.
Like the five other environmentalists arrested in the past two years, Nhien was a critic of coal power, a position that could be seen as a threat to authorities with interest in coal-burning power plants.
"She was very vocal about the energy transition and she criticized coal power. This angers the authorities, especially the coal interest group. What she was doing affected their business," the source said. "I think this was a big reason why they ordered her arrest."
Susann Pham, lecturer at Bilkent University in Turkey and author of a book on Vietnam's dissidents, said environmentalism is often at odds with stockpiling wealth.
"In general environmentalism became a threat to capital accumulation," Pham wrote over WhatsApp. "It hinders various stakeholders to tighten their grip over the market, further exploiting resources and pursuing their interests in infinite wealth and power."
The energy sector source said many in the industry are fearful.
"There is a negative atmosphere for the energy experts. … We cannot be vocal about energy and environmental issues, we have to keep a low profile," he said.
Nhien's case is not the only one drawing criticism. On Sept. 28, Hoang Thi Minh Hong, former director of environmental advocacy nonprofit CHANGE, was sentenced to three years in prison for tax evasion, a charge that has been levied against four other environmentalists.
Speaking to regional publication Southeast Asia Globe in 2021, Hong acknowledged the dangers of her work, citing blackmail attempts, threats to her safety, and the prospect of jail.
"Doing this job, I am absolutely aware of what I might have to face, and I just want people to support me and know that I am not a threat," she told the publication.
"The three-year prison sentence of environmental hero Hong Hoang is too harsh and unreasonable," Do Nguyen Mai Khoi, a Vietnamese activist and singer living in Philadelphia, told VOA in a written comment. "Maybe Hanoi wants to assert that… they do not allow civil society to influence any state policies."
Mark Sidel, professor of law and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the recent arrests of climate leaders are part of a broader trend.
"These recent detentions and arrests are a continuation of a larger and deeply unfortunate pattern of suppression of patriotic Vietnamese civil society leaders," Sidel wrote in an email. "Vietnam is jailing some of its best and brightest thinkers."