When the Vietnamese government decided in 2016 to cut the use of coal in its next energy plan, it followed the advice of an unusual source: one of the country’s most prominent environmentalists.
Nguy Thi Khanh was outspoken about what the government should do: She said it should cut coal-fired power by 30,000 megawatts — equivalent to the capacity of all coal-fired power plants in Texas and Pennsylvania. The government met her more than halfway through and agreed to a 20,000 megawatt reduction.
It was a major victory for the country’s environmentalists. But on Friday, Mrs. Nguy, 46, convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to two years in prison, according to three people with knowledge of the verdict. Her case has sent the environmental movement trembling with fear.
In a soft voice and self-effacing, Ms. Nguy produced reports documenting the risks to Vietnam, which has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, from continuing to rely on coal. She traveled across the country, using science and statistics to persuade the public and persuade local officials.
She also organized campaigns and mobilized communities, especially among young people, to advocate for the environment – activities that could be seen as a threat to the one-party state, which has long been intolerant of dissent in general.
Many environmentalists say the prosecution of Ms Nguy, known as Khanh, and other activists violated Vietnam’s pledges at a United Nations climate summit in Glasgow last year when Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh promised to phase out coal consumption by 2040. It was an important development: Vietnam, a country of 99 million inhabitants, was the ninth largest consumer of coal worldwide.
“It makes no sense to us,” said Michael Sutton, executive director of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, which has written to Vietnam’s ambassador to Washington, calling for The release of Ms. Nguy.
“She has done everything she can to help Vietnam achieve its own goals and to make the country look good internationally,” he added. “We are concerned about what this says for the future of and the success of Vietnam’s stated energy ambitions.”
Others saw the case 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 Legal Initiatives for Vietnam, based in Taiwan. “And they don’t tolerate even light criticism.”
Before Ms. Nguy’s plea, Vietnam had little renewable energy. But a growing awareness of the health costs of burning fossil fuels led the government to embrace solar energy. Many local governments offered tax exemptions 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 pushed back against renewables. In several draft plans, the government has overhauled its policies, initially stating that it wanted to continue its dependence on coal. There were fears that weaning the country from coal would harm the economy and that renewable energy would be an expensive and unreliable way to power the country.
In many ways, Ms Nguy’s treatment highlights the Vietnamese government’s contradictory approach to environmental protection and inter-ministry infighting. Faced with mounting public anger over air pollution and chemical spills, the government has admitted environmentalists and tolerated limited protests.
But it has also been criticized by officials who called it unfair that developed countries have long been allowed to pump out huge amounts of greenhouse gases while Vietnam is being pressured to find cleaner ways to develop its manufacturing sector.
“They may be concerned that Vietnam’s transition from coal would harm their interests, so they want to silence her,” said Le Hong Hiep, senior fellow in the Vietnam Studies Program at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “I think that may be the main reason for her arrest.”
This tension played out in Vietnam just two weeks before last year’s UN summit.
The Ministry of Industry and Trade had just proposed a doubling of coal-fired power, according to a draft plan. Ms. Nguy urged the public to distribute a letter to the prime minister, signed by multiple environmental groups, warning him that the policy could “endanger Vietnam’s isolation in the international community.”
“Dark times come not from a lack of sunshine, but from a lack of leadership,” Ms Nguy wrote in a Facebook post. “We still believe and hope in the determination of the Prime Minister and senior leaders to bring about a climate breakthrough.”
They did. Almost immediately after the top the United States, Britain, the European Union and Japan began discussing possible energy deals with Vietnam. In March, US Special Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry visited Vietnam on a promise to increase commitment to climate and clean energy. In May, the Group of 7 Major Economies announced it would provide financial and technical assistance to Vietnam to help the country transition from coal-fired energy to renewable energy.
Jake Schmidt, senior strategic director for international climate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he has “zero confidence” now that Vietnam can deliver on its energy transition with the crackdown.
Ms. Nguy knew her activism had made her a target. Julien Vincent, executive director of Market Forces, an Australia-based group that targets institutions that fund environmentally destructive projects, said Ms Nguy said her office had been raided by police officers, describing how “the police or government agencies are never too far away.”
“They always follow them,” said Mr. Vincent. “She said that was part of everyday life.”
Ms. Nguy’s arrest stunned her friends as she stood out for her non-confrontational approach. She has said she admires Greta Thunberg, but acknowledges that the Swedish teenager’s style of climate activism would not be accepted in Vietnam. She has said that one of her main motivations is being a mother of three children, ages 20, 15 and 10.
Coal was an issue close to Ms. Nguy’s heart. Born and raised in a rural area of northern Vietnam, Ms Nguy’s family lived near a coal-fired thermal power plant. She remembered the dust and gray pallor caused by the plant.
At that time, Vietnam was engaged in coal. In 2011, the government said it plans to add about 75 gigawatts of new coal by 2030. Vietnam had only 4 gigawatts of coal at the time, and the new target – the total coal capacity of just over Germany and Poland combined – would put the country on track to have the fourth largest number of coal-fired power plants in the world, after only China, the United States and India.
That year, Mrs. Nguy in setting up Green Innovation and Development Center, or GreenID, a group that aims to create a renewable energy pathway for Vietnam. A year later, she founded the Vietnam Sustainable Energy Alliance, which now consists of 12 organizations.
After Ms. Nguy was awarded the Goldman Prize in 2018, the People’s Army Newspaper, by the Vietnamese Ministry of Defense, called her an “Asian environmental hero” for “helping the state make policies for sustainable development.”
The enthusiasm did not last long. In February, police in Hanoi arrested her.
Now in a detention center in Hanoi, Ms. Nguy is in good health and keeps up with her meditation practice, according to a person with knowledge of her situation.
Before being sentenced, she said she hoped for the shortest jail term possible, the source said. Her goal: back to work quickly.
Richard C. Paddock reporting contributed.