When the Vietnamese government decided in 2016 to reduce the use of coal in its next energy plan, it followed the advice of an unusual source: one of the country’s best-known environmentalists.
Ngui Thi Khan was loud about what the government should do: she said it should cut coal-fired electricity by 30,000 megawatts, the equivalent of all the coal-fired power plants in Texas and Pennsylvania. The government went along with it, agreeing to a reduction of 20,000 megawatts.
It was a big victory for the country’s ecologists. But on Friday, Ms Ngui, 46, was found guilty of tax evasion and sentenced to two years in prison, according to three people with knowledge of the verdict. Her case sent shivers of fear into the environmental movement.
Mild and humble, Ms Ngui produced reports documenting the risks for Vietnam, which has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, to continue relying on coal. She traveled the country using science and statistics to convince the public and influence local officials.
She has also organized campaigns and mobilized communities, especially among young people, to protect the environment—actions that can be seen as a threat to a one-party state that has long been intolerant of dissent in general.
Many environmentalists say the prosecution of Ms. Ngui, aka Khanh, and other activists calls into question Vietnam’s promises at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow last year, when Prime Minister Pham Minh Chin promised to phase out coal consumption by 2040. It was an important event – Vietnam, a country of 99 million people, was the ninth largest consumer of coal in the world.
“It doesn’t make sense to us,” said Michael Sutton, executive director of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, who wrote to the Vietnamese ambassador in Washington and urged Release of Ms. Ngui.
“She did everything to help Vietnam achieve its own goals and make the country look good on the international stage,” he added. “We are concerned about what this says about the future and success of Vietnam’s stated energy ambitions.”
Others saw the incident as reflecting a worrying trend.
“This is a very strong signal from the Communist Party that they are now ready to go much further to control civil society,” said Trinh Huu Long, co-director of the organization. Legal Initiatives for Vietnambased in Taiwan. “And they won’t tolerate even mild criticism.”
Prior to Ms. Ngui’s speech, there were few renewable energy sources in Vietnam. But a growing awareness of the health costs of burning fossil fuels has prompted the government to use solar power. Many local governments offered tax incentives and attractive rates to encourage investment. It worked – Vietnam became the country with the largest installed capacity of solar and wind energy in Southeast Asia.
But many officials opposed renewable energy sources. In several draft plans, the government changed its policy, initially indicating that it wanted to continue to rely on coal. There were fears that the country’s move away from coal could harm the economy and that renewable energy could prove to be an expensive and unreliable way to provide the country with energy.
In many ways, Ms. Ngui’s treatment highlights the Vietnamese government’s controversial approach to environmental protection and infighting between various ministries. Faced with growing public anger over air pollution and chemical spills, the government allowed the formation of environmental advocacy groups and allowed limited protests.
But he has also faced criticism from officials who have called it unfair that developed countries have long been allowed to pump out massive amounts of greenhouse gases while Vietnam is under pressure to find cleaner ways to develop its manufacturing sector.
“They may be concerned that Vietnam’s move away from coal could be detrimental to their interests, so they want to silence it,” said Le Hong Hiep, senior fellow at the Vietnam Studies Program at Singapore’s Yousof Ishak Institute. “I think this could be a key reason for her arrest.”
These tensions played out in Vietnam just two weeks before last year’s UN summit.
According to the draft plan, the Ministry of Industry and Trade has just proposed doubling the capacity of coal-fired power plants. Ms Ngui urged the public to circulate a letter addressed to the prime minister, signed by several environmental groups, warning that the policy could “risk Vietnam’s isolation in the international community.”
“Dark times come not from a lack of sunshine, but from a lack of leadership,” Ms Ngui wrote in a Facebook post. “We continue to believe and hope in the determination of the Prime Minister and senior leaders to achieve a climate breakthrough.”
They did. Almost immediately after the summit, The US, UK, European Union and Japan have begun discussing possible energy deals with Vietnam. In March, US Climate Special Envoy John Kerry visits Vietnam, promising to step up engagement on climate and clean energy issues. In May, the Group of Seven Largest Economies announced that provide financial and technical support to Vietnam help the country move from coal-fired energy to renewable energy.
Jake Schmidt, senior strategic director for international climate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he now has “zero confidence” that Vietnam can make an energy transition with austerity.
Ms. Ngui knew that her activism made her a target. Julien Vincent, chief executive of Market Forces, an Australian group dedicated to funding institutions that fund environmentally destructive projects, said Ms Ngui told him that the police had broken into her office and said that “the police or government agencies are never too far “. away.”
“They always follow them,” Mr. Vincent said. “She said it was part of everyday life.”
The arrest of Ms. Ngui confused her friends because of her non-confrontational approach. She said she admires Greta Thunberg, but acknowledged that the Swedish teenager’s style of climate activism would not be accepted in Vietnam. She said that one of her main motivations is that she is the mother of three children aged 20, 15 and 10.
Coal was a matter close to Ms. Ngui’s heart. Ms. Ngui’s family was born and raised in a rural area in northern Vietnam near a coal fired power plant. She remembered the dust and gray coating caused by the plant.
At that time, Vietnam was betrothed to coal. In 2011, the government said it planned to add about 75 gigawatts of new coal by 2030. At the time, Vietnam had only 4 gigawatts of coal, and the new goal was to have a total coal capacity slightly larger than Germany and Poland combined. bring the country to fourth place in the world in terms of the number of coal-fired power plants, second only to China, the United States and India.
That same year, Ms. Ngui helped establish the Center for Green Innovation and Development, or GreenID, a group committed to creating a renewable energy path for Vietnam. A year later, she established the Vietnam Sustainable Energy Alliance, which now has 12 members.
After Ms. Ngui received the Goldman Award in 2018, the People’s Army NewspaperShe was named “Asian Environmental Hero” by the Vietnamese Ministry of Defense for helping “the state develop sustainable development policies.”
The excitement didn’t last long. In February, Hanoi police arrested her.
Ms. Ngui is now in good health at the Hanoi Detention Center and continues her meditation practice, according to a person familiar with her situation.
Before sentencing, she said she hoped for the shortest prison term possible, the source said. Her goal is to get back to work as soon as possible.
Richard S. Paddock made a report.