Obama’s Visit to Vietnam Comes as Mass Demonstrations Protest Pollution and Massive Fish Kills


By Michael Benge

On May 1, after marking the 41st anniversary of the reunification of Vietnam, residents in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) and major port cities in other parts of the country woke up to find thousands of energized young people taking to the streets in protest of a massive fish kill. They carried banners such as “Fish need clean water, people need the truth” and “Stop poisoning fish our food source.”

Hundreds of tons of fish have been washing up on and blanketing the central coastline and beaches of at least four provinces in Vietnam including Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien-Hue. This massive kill affected farm-raised, rare, and wild ocean fish, as well as crabs, shrimp and other aquatic life on which tens of thousands of people depend on for their livelihoods. These poisoned fish were being sold in local markets.

Some are blaming this environmental disaster on toxic wastes piped into the South China Sea from Chinese-owned plastic and steel plants in Vietnam. However, communist officials claimed that there is no proof these plants are linked to the fish deaths; instead, the fish could have been killed by toxic discharges produced by humans (sewage). Since officials had advanced warning of the pending disaster and what its ecological consequences would be, the real blame lies with the communist regime’s corrupt and incompetent officials who are responsible for enforcing the nation’s environmental laws. This isn’t an isolated case, for these same officials enable huge amounts of toxic environmental pollution throughout Vietnam.

However, what started out as peaceful protests soon turned violent when plainclothes police leading thugs from the state-funded Vietnamese Fatherland Front (VFF: Mặt Trận Tổ Quốc Việt Nam) infiltrated the crowds and created incidents to give uniformed police cause to react with violence, beating and arresting the protesters. When friends and family members of those arrested went to the police stations to post bail, they were also beaten. The detainments came the day before Tom Malinowski, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, arrived in Vietnam to scope out the situation in preparation for President Obama’s visit on Monday.  While there, Obama will be promoting the stalled lop-sided Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is advantageous to Vietnam, and the lifting restrictions on arms sales to Hanoi as part of his pivot to Vietnam.  Many believe that he will circumvent issues of gross human rights abuses and political prisoners, and blame the fish kill on global warming.

Ongoing Save our Seas, Save our Souls peaceful protests by Vietnamese-Americans are being held in Washington, DC on the steps of the Capitol, at the White House, and at the Vietnamese Embassy in support of their brothers and sisters in Vietnam who are being beaten and jailed for speaking out against the corrupt regime that enables these environmental disasters.  Similar rallies have been held in California, Canada, Europe, and Australia, and more events are planned.

According to Gary Sands, Director at Highway West Capital Advisors (HCMC; Twitter@ForeignDevil666), “While many Vietnamese have taken to the streets in peaceful protest, others have organized a White House petition asking the U.S. government to investigate the cause of the fish deaths, which has 138,000 signatures so far, and comes ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit…. Others have led a petition on Change.org for international media to cover the crisis, which has seen scant coverage so far.”

Mekong and Saigon rivers are considered by environmentalists as among the most polluted on the planet. Vietnamese authorities have admitted that over 80 percent of the household sewage of Ho Chi Minh City’s Metropolitan Area, which has a population of 20-22 million inhabitants, is being discharged untreated directly into the Saigon and other rivers, as well as their tributaries and canals in the area.

These rivers are where much of the fish are pen-raised for export to the U.S. and other countries as well as for local consumption. The rivers are polluted with industrial effluents/waste, arsenic, and toxic and hazardous by-products of the growing industrial sector such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), DDT and its metabolites (DDTs), metal contaminants, chlordane-related compounds (CHLs), hexachlorocyclohexane isomers (HCHs), and hexachlorobenzene (HCB).

Pen-raised fish for export are fed antibiotics and treated with hormones and fungicides that are banned for use in the US commercial fish industry. In Vietnam, fish are injected with hormones that are made in China from the dehydrated urine of pregnant women. Reportedly, fish prepared and packaged for market are often cleaned with ethylene glycol, a toxic chemical used in antifreezes. Fish exported from Vietnam to the U.S. are marketed under the names of tra, swai, basa, pangas, River Cobbler, White Catfish, Whitefish, and Gray Sole. These fish are typically priced as much as 64% below similar uncontaminated fish that are pond-grown in the US or other similar fish found in U.S. markets.

The responsibility for inspecting imported seafood and pen-raised fish used to be that of the Food and Drug Administration; however, the 2008 farm bill transferred that responsibility to the Department of Agriculture (USDA). Before, only 2 percent of imported seafood was inspected annually. However after the transfer, U.S. trade representatives have prevented such inspections from taking place for fear of igniting a trade dispute. Due to extreme political pressure regarding imports from Vietnam resulting from the pending the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade proposal, it is unlikely that any serious testing is taking place.

Fish from these polluted rivers in Vietnam are teeming with high levels of poisons and bacteria. Untreated sewage discharge and other pollutants settle on the bottoms of rivers and ponds and provide most of the nutrients for the basa and tra fish, which are bottom-feeders (hence the nickname “sewer catfish”).

And if you look for the “A Product of Vietnam” label when buying fish, you soon won’t find it. The USDA recently announced that labeling for place of origin on packaging will soon no longer be required.


Michael Benge spent 11 years in Vietnam as a Foreign Service officer and is a student of Southeast Asian politics. He is very active in advocating for human rights, religious freedom, and democracy for the peoples of the region and has written extensively on these subjects.

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