The Vietnamese Bauxite Mining Controversy: the Emergence of a New Oppositional Politics
In the first half of 2009, a highly controversial public debate emerged in Vietnam over government plans to mine bauxite in the remote upland regions of the Central Highlands. Many and diverse persons and organizations spoke out vociferously against these plans. They included, among others, government scientists, artist–intellectuals, domestic reporters, activist bloggers, religious leaders, overseas Vietnamese, and retired high level state officials, including no less than the iconic military leader of the anti-colonial revolution and “wars of independence”, General Võ Nguyên Giáp. Their means for engaging state authorities on bauxite mining were also many and diverse. They included organizing workshops and seminars, publishing articles in the domestic press, writing open letters and petitions, posting information and commentaries online, and, in a few exceptional cases, demonstrating publicly, distributing “no bauxite” T–shirts, and filing a lawsuit against the Prime Minister. The critiques raised against bauxite mining were also wide–ranging. While early discussions emphasized a wide range of social and environmental impacts of bauxite mining, these discussions quickly became embroiled with such divisive issues as national security, Sino–Viet relations and, not least of all, the relations of the communist party to the Vietnamese people.
This widespread opposition to bauxite mining generated one of the most significant domestic confrontations with the party–state since at least the Vietnam War. This dissertation provides a detailed ethnographic examination into this controversy and the different groups, people and processes that made it happen. It argues that the bauxite mining controversy signaled the emergence of strong “political cultures of opposition” in contemporary Vietnam. Political cultures of opposition are significant for their capacity to bring many and diverse groups and processes together and translate their diverse grievances into a common opposition to the ruling regime. As such, they can also signal a potentially pivotal moment in processes of broad socio–political transformation. The research for this dissertation is based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork, while I was living in Hanoi, Vietnam, from 2009 to 2011. It comprised in–depth and semi–structured interviews with sixty different informants, whom I interviewed on nearly one hundred distinct occasions; the collection of hundreds of different types of texts that were generated from the bauxite mining controversy; and participant observation in various settings.