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Notes from GNA's event, Free Hong: A call to free all Vietnamese climate defenders

Notes from GNA's event, Free Hong: A call to free all Vietnamese climate defenders

Generation Now Asia invited an anonymous Vietnamese activist and 350.org’s Asia Managing Director, Liangyi Chang to speak about their campaign, Free Hong - Free Them All, and raise awareness of how Vietnam’s ruling communist party is targeting activists in the climate movement, not respecting their human rights and suppressing civil society’s participation in the country's energy transition.

Hoang Thi Minh Hong, a prominent Vietnamese climate activist and a role model among the younger generation in Vietnam, founded CHANGE in 2013 to encourage and promote environmental conservation through education, creative communications that encourage behavioural change and inspire the Vietnamese community to take actions. The organization focused on protecting endangered wildlife, raising awareness on climate change, and campaigning to reduce pollution. 

On September 28, 2023, Hong was sentenced to three years in prison for tax evasion and fined. Hong's conviction is part of a troubling trend of legal action against environmental campaigners in Vietnam, who have been bringing attention to the lack of progress being made by the government to meet its climate targets.

About the speakers:
Anonymous Vietnamese human rights activist.

Liangyi Chang is 350.org Asia Managing Director. His concerns about climate change are for future generations and believes that youth can change the world. Starting in 2009, he joined various international NGOs, including participating in UNFCCC's 15th Conference of the Parties. He has visited various countries to learn different perspectives - in 2010 he joined the Across The Ocean project in South pacific islands as a sea level raising witness and in 2013 he joined the 2041 project to Antarctica for an ice melting investigation tour.

About 350.org
350.org is dedicated to end the age of fossil fuels and build a world of community-centred renewable energy for all. They work to dismantle the influence and infrastructure of the fossil fuel industry and call for a deeper transition, one which places energy justice at the beating heart of its values.

Notes from the talk:
The Free Hong campaign took to social media with the hashtag #FreeHong #FreeThemAll, gathering a global response from climate activists posting photos in support and solidarity including posts from Mitzi Jonelle Tan, a prominent Filipino,  anti-imperialist climate justice youth activist, that is committed to changing the system and building a world that prioritizes people and planet, not profit, through collective action. As well as, renowned, Greta Thunberg a Swedish environmental activist who is known for challenging world leaders to take immediate action for climate change mitigation and began the youth-led movement Fridays For Future.

Left, Mitzi Jonelle Tan. Right, Greta Thunberg

Participants taking action:
Liangyi asked the participants of our event if they’d like to show their support to Hong and write her and her family postcards, letting them know they are not alone in this fight and that there are people in Taiwan calling for her release and standing in solidarity with her and all climate defenders.

What is the current trend In Vietnam:
Since 2022, the Vietnamese government has stepped up its crackdown against civil society activists, using tax evasion as a means to charge and arrest them. At least five individuals have been imprisoned for tax evasion since 2022.

Why tax evasion:
The government uses this tactic of convicting activists and NGOs of tax evasion to shame them, it’s a method to create public distrust in the activist or organisation. As the general public will think, ‘how can someone be a good person if they are not paying their taxes’. It’s a way for the government to show that NGOs do not belong in Vietnam.

Another reason is the government needs money. Typically, for a tax evasion charge, the court will sentence you to some years in prison, and fine you - if you pay back the tax and fines, it is possible that the government will release you earlier. Some previous cases have shown that this is possible. But the goal of 350’s campaign, #FreeHongFreeThemAll, is not only for Hong; it's also for all activists who might be targeted by the government using charges of "tax evasion." 

How did they charge Hong:
There is a legal ambiguity of the non-profit nature of CHANGE because in the Vietnamese legal system the concept of non-profit organizations does not exist, causing NGOs in Vietnam to have long existed in a legal "grey zone". Although Hong ran CHANGE as a non-profit, Vietnam’s government can treat CHANGE as either a for-profit or non-profit entity, this decision decides whether its operations are liable for taxation. Disappointingly, the state interpreted their ambiguous laws in the most punitive way for the case of Hong and concluded that they should be paying taxes.

It poses a considerable challenge for non-governmental organizations to sustain their operations while being subject to taxation, particularly in the context of Vietnam where NGOs frequently rely on funding from foreign entities. Foreign funders and donors would typically refrain from allocating resources for tax obligations, meaning that organisations do not have a method of coming up with the money to go towards possibly having to pay them.

Do activists have access to a lawyer in Vietnam:
Hong had a lawyer for her trial, however the legal system in Vietnam does not work like in the other democratic countries. Vietnamese human rights lawyers do not have the power to help their client. Instead, they more facilitate a role as a messenger who can help bring messages from prison to the family and the supporters, keeping them updated on the person's condition and situation. There's no fair trial, and there's no working legal system that can save you in Vietnam. For this kind of case, their sentence is already pre-selected, usually it’s up to 5 years. The government usually just chooses a number, and decides how much they need to pay. 

The importance of international pressure:
Only international pressure and campaign advocacy can help these Vietnamese activists. We can see that releasing the activists has become a bargaining leverage, as was evident when independent journalist Mai Phan Loi was freed just ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit to Vietnam this year, because the U.S. embassy had campaigned on his behalf. We should all come together internationally to call for Hoang Thi Minh Hong’s release and stand in solidarity with all other climate defenders that have been detained. 

Join the action to free hong:
You can read more about 350.org’s campaign and send the minister in your region a letter asking them to urge the Vietnamese government to release Hoang Thi Minh Hong and all climate defenders: https://350asia.org/free-hong/ 

For further information in English regarding Hong’s tax evasion charges, we recommend  reading LIV’s website series: Exploring CHANGE’s Tax Evasion Charges