HANOI (Reuters) - Police in Vietnam on Sunday forcibly removed people protesting in the capital Hanoi against a perceived delay in government response to a mass fish death, just days after U.S. President Barack Obama chided the country on its human rights record.
Police bussed dozens of protesters away from at least one of several marches, a Reuters witness said. They had been marching against a government decision to seek further proof before disclosing the reason why fish have been washing up on the beaches of central provinces since April.
The government and police have not made any comment on the incident, and local media have not reported on the protest.
The incident follows a visit to the communist country last month by President Obama, who fully lifted a decades-long arms embargo but also expressed concern regarding freedom of speech and assembly after activists were stopped from meeting him.
There have been several demonstrations nationwide regarding the dead fish in past months, with those involved and local media questioning the role of a steel factory operated by a subsidiary of Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Corp.
Formosa Plastics was not available to comment on Sunday but in April said any link between the factory and the deaths should be determined by the government. It also apologized for a comment by local subsidiary representative Chu Xuan Pham.
Chu said in an interview with local television in April that Vietnam had to choose between “catching fish and shrimp and building a modern steel industry.” The Vietnamese public responded with the hashtag “toichonc” meaning “I choose fish.”
Last week, the government said it had identified the cause of death but said it needed to gather more proof before making any allegation public.
On Sunday, dozens of people held peaceful marches to convey frustration at the decision but were met with police who forced them onto buses and took them away, the Reuters witness said. Police also moved away tourists and bystanders, blocked some roads and stopped people photographing and filming.
Access to Facebook, used by a third of the nation with a population of 90 million, was also blocked at the time of the protest, hampering demonstrators’ efforts to communicate and spread news on public marches.
“The Vietnam government should be leading the investigation into what caused these fish kills, not suppressing people’s efforts to demand answers and accountability,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch in Asia.
Reporting by Hanoi Newsroom; Editing by Christopher Cushing