A group of protestors in Myitkyina, Myanmar (Burma) holding up the three-finger salute, a Southeast Asian symbol of pro-democracy and defiance against tyranny.
Image credit: Pyae Sone Htun on Unsplash

This article was updated on April 4, 2024.

For several years, Hoàng, an IT professional from Đà Nẵng, a central city in Vietnam, worked on youth-oriented projects to promote environmental protection in his community. He received both financial and technical support from a well-known nonprofit organization based in Ho Chi Minh City to implement the projects. Yet the support ended in 2023, as the organization suddenly closed. The cause of closure remains unknown.

Across Vietnam—and the larger region—stories such as this are becoming more common. Climate justice activists and nonprofit organizations have become targets of their increasingly authoritarian governments, commonly facing challenges including top-down surveillance of and violations against environmental defenders, closure of nongovernmental organizations, weaponization of domestic laws, and transnational repression of exiled activists.

This kind of repression of environmental activism is pervasive throughout the Lower Mekong River Basin (LMB). Encompassing Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), Thailand, and Vietnam, the LMB is acknowledged as one of the regions worldwide most susceptible to climate change.

“I feel lost,” said Hoàng, who is using a pseudonym for safety reasons. Hoàng admitted that he was no longer organizing environmental projects in his community. The consecutive closure of several other environmental organizations has instilled fear in him.

In June 2022, Ngụy Thị Khanh, founder and executive director of Green Innovation and Development Centre (GreenID) and the first Vietnamese person to win the Goldman Environmental Prize, was detained because of a dubious tax evasion charge related to 10 percent of her award back in 2018.

“They have been doing so much good work,” said Hoàng. “Their sudden shutdown is so strange.”

Ngụy Thị Khanh is only the latest environmental activist in Vietnam to be detained. Legal gray zones make it easy for the government in Vietnam to charge nonprofit organizations with questionable offenses, such as tax evasion.

The Increasing Repression of Nonprofits

Since 2022, several local nonprofit organizations…have been closed for unknown reasons.

In both socialist Laos and Vietnam, which constitutionally grants the Communist Party a monopoly over state power, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have always existed in the twilight zone.

There is no authentic equivalent of NGOs in Vietnam and Laos. In both single-party countries, which have not approved Laws on Associations despite international pressure, self-identified NGOs are never truly autonomous, neither operationally nor financially. By law, an entity must be registered under a state agency in order to operate—and not all entities receive a favorable registration decision.

For a project with foreign funding to be implemented on Vietnamese and Lao territory, it is essential to obtain preapproval by local authorities not only for the project, but also for each individual activity within the project. Since 2022, several local nonprofit organizations that have a history of collaboration and compliance with state agencies have been closed for unknown reasons.

Tuệ, the pseudonym for a staff member of a Hanoi-based nonprofit, said that nobody really knows whether they are right or wrong in the eyes of the government. “The fact that our organization has not been harassed does not mean that we are totally [in the] right,” said Tuệ.

In Myanmar, the military coup of 2021 continues to exert a profound influence on environmental movements. The welfare of activists has significantly worsened due to the implementation of the Registration of Associations law in October 2022, which requires the government registration of local, nongovernmental organizations. Since the law’s passing, the Myanmar office of EarthRights International was shut down—many other Burma-based nonprofit organizations have been forced to operate underground or in exile.

According to Ka Hsaw Wa, cofounder and former director of EarthRights International, a nonprofit centered on climate justice in local communities, Myanmar’s nonprofits face challenges from their host country. But Burmese nonprofit workers overseas—many in exile due to Myanmar’s political upheaval—have to deal with struggles as well, including isolation. “They have even faced discrimination by Westerners, Thais, even by Burmese legal residents,” Ka Hsaw Wa said.

Burmese environmentalists and other human rights defenders also face numerous security concerns, particularly since the pro-China junta assumed power in early 2021. Meanwhile, in Thailand, the coup in 2014 and the ascent to power of a military-backed government made it even harder for environmental defenders to have their voices heard.

A study conducted by FORUM-ASIA, including all four LMB countries and Myanmar, recorded 1,636 violations against human rights defenders in 22 monitored Asian countries between 2021 and 2022. Myanmar accounted for the highest documented number of violations (with 156 cases), closely followed by Thailand (with 141 cases).

Land rights and misuse of natural resources are some of the most challenging issues, including land seized and people displaced for large projects such as dams. There are many cases of land confiscation directly related to corruption by governments, according to an employee in an international nonprofit organization, who wished to remain anonymous. “Most of the megaprojects were approved by the central government, without consent or consultation from local authorities or communities,” he said.

Harassment on the Rise

Across the region, judicial harassment is a growing tactic to silence and intimidate environmental critics. While the official Vietnamese government rhetoric promises better actions to fight climate change, climate activists in the country have faced harassment and imprisonment. Under the single party, Laos and Vietnam do not have independent courts.

In 2020, GreenID had to pay a fine of around $2,500 for publishing material on renewable energy with a map of Vietnam that did not include Spratly and Paracel Islands, contested archipelagos claimed by several countries including Vietnam. GreenID was shamed in both state-owned and private media for a detail that had little to do with their work.

Đặng Đình Bách was a prominent environmental lawyer from Vietnam who dedicated several years to assisting communities impacted by development initiatives and environmental deterioration. He was also part of a campaign by climate defenders to push the government to cut its planned expansion of coal power. He was arrested in 2021.

“The government does not like human rights defenders.”

The United Nations has urged the Vietnamese government to cease its targeting, conviction, and mistreatment of human rights defenders, following the initiation of Đặng Đình Bách’s third hunger strike in protest against the conditions of his detention.

“We are extremely concerned about the safety and well-being of environmental human rights defender and lawyer Mr. Bách. On top of discrimination and differentiated treatment in detention, there are reports that Mr. Bách was being attacked and beaten up in custody,” according to a press release from UN human rights experts in February 2024.

In Cambodia, acclaimed activists from the dissolved NGO Mother Nature Cambodia were barred from receiving prestigious environmental awards in Sweden. Four environmental activists affiliated with Mother Nature Cambodia were charged with plotting against the king, which Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for campaigns, called “outrageous charges,” describing them as “a blatant attempt to silence and intimidate not only Mother Nature Cambodia, but an entire generation of Cambodian youth who have dared to stand up for human rights and environmental justice.”

In Myanmar, legal specialists who are supporting vulnerable communities in climate justice have to do so informally and secretly. “The government does not like human rights defenders, so I cannot say publicly I am providing legal aid for political prisoners,” said Aung, a Myanmar-based lawyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

No Safe Space

All the countries across the region score poorly (below 100 out of 180 surveyed countries) in the Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders. Vietnam and Myanmar are among the worst jailers of journalists worldwide, and none of the countries in the region have “free” internet, according to a 2023 study by Freedom on the Net.

Turning to social media for citizen journalism to report on environmental injustices is not safe, either. Houayheuang Xayabouly, also known as “Muay,” a Lao environmental defender, documented on Facebook local communities’ struggles after the 2018 dam collapse in southern Laos as well as the government’s negligence during deadly flooding. She was jailed for criminal defamation and antistate propaganda.

Traditionally a safe haven for exiled human rights defenders in Southeast Asia, Thailand has recently deported exiled environmental activists from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar back to their countries despite the risks of persecution they face.

While all five countries approved the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, they have failed to integrate them into national laws. And ethnic minority communities experience multiple challenges when fighting for justice. In Myanmar, “the junta blocked many transportation and communication channels to areas where impacted ethnic minority groups are residing,” according to Aung.

The Thai government’s top-down approach to climate action and conservation has systematically excluded entire communities, including Indigenous peoples, forest-dependent communities, rural populations, and others from participating in decision-making processes at the legislative, policy, or grassroots levels. Moreover, numerous Indigenous individuals have been unjustly criminalized for alleged forest encroachment.

“We do not have the political favor….We cannot talk about what we do.”

The World Is Silent

Yet, as the area of more than 245 million people strategically and historically close to China, the West has so far been lenient on the region. With all incumbent state leaders in the region growing closer to China, it is harder for the West to take a tough stance.

In 2012, community development expert Sombath Somphone was kidnapped at a police checkpoint in downtown Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Despite an international outcry, his whereabouts remain unknown. There has been pressure, but no sanctions on the Lao government regarding his case. Likewise, the shooting of a citizen journalist in Vientiane in 2023 sent shockwaves across the nation. Nonetheless, Laos’ chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations 2024 remains unquestioned.

Despite Vietnam’s abysmal human rights records and the UN’s calls for respect for human rights, the UN Member States elected Vietnam with an overwhelming majority to join the UN Human Rights Council in 2022. President Biden’s speech in his landmark Vietnam trip of 2023 only made a cursory mention of human rights.

These countries and their defenders working to protect the environment need more. They need the rest of the world to pay attention. “We do not have the political favor,” said Ka Hsaw Wa. “We cannot talk about what we do.”