She spoke out against Vietnam’s coal plans. She was arrested then.

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 most famous environmentalists in the country.

Nguy Thi Khan was vocal on what the government should do: she said it should reduce coal capacity by 30,000 megawatts – the equivalent of all coal-fired power plants in Texas and Pennsylvania. The government welcomed more than half of it, agreeing to a 20,000-megawatt cut.

This was a great victory for the country’s environmentalists. But on Friday, Nguy, 46, was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to two years in prison, according to three people familiar with the sentence. Her case sparked fears among the environmental movement.

Soft-spoken and self-deprecating, ma’am. Nguy has prepared reports documenting the risks to Vietnam, one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, of continue to rely on coal. She travels across the country, using science and statistics to convince the public and influence local officials.

It also organizes campaigns and mobilizes communities, especially among young people, to advocate for the environment – activities that can be seen as a threat to the one-party state, which has long been intolerant of dissent in general.

Many conservationists say the prosecution of Ms. Ngui, known as Khan, and other activists have questioned Vietnam’s promises at a UN climate summit in Glasgow last year when Prime Minister Pham Min Chin promised to phase out coal consumption by 2040, this was a significant development – Vietnam, a country of 99 million people, was the ninth largest consumer of coal worldwide.

“It doesn’t make sense to us,” said Michael Sutton, executive director of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, who wrote to Vietnam’s ambassador to Washington and called for Miss. Release of Nguy.

“She did everything she could to help Vietnam achieve its own goals and make the country look good in the international arena,” he added. “We are concerned about what this says about the future and success of Vietnam’s stated energy ambitions.”

Others saw the case as a reflection of 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 Trin Huu Long, co-director of Legal initiatives for Vietnambased in Taiwan. “And they will not tolerate even light criticism.

Prior to Ms. Nguy’s advocacy, Vietnam had little in terms of renewable energy. But growing awareness of the health costs of burning fossil fuels has prompted the government to adopt solar energy. Many local authorities have proposed tax exemptions and attractive tariffs to encourage investment. Work – Vietnam has become the country with the largest installed capacity of solar and wind energy in Southeast Asia.

But many officials opposed renewable energy. In several draft plans, the government deviated from its policy, initially saying it wanted to continue to rely on coal. There were fears that diverting coal from the country could harm the economy and that renewable energy could be an expensive and unreliable way to power the country.

In many ways, Ms.’s treatment. Nguy highlights the conflict-ridden approach of the Vietnam conflict to environmental protection and the struggles between different ministries. Faced with growing public anger Air Pollution and chemical spillsthe government allowed environmental groups and tolerates limited protests.

But it has also faced criticism from officials who have unfairly said that developed countries have long been allowed to pump huge 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 transition to coal could harm their interests, so they want to silence it,” said Le Hong Hiep, a senior fellow in the Vietnamese Research Program at the ISEAS Institute in Singapore’s Yusuf Ishaq. “I think that may be the key reason for her arrest.”

Tensions erupted in Vietnam just two weeks before last year’s UN summit.

The Ministry of Industry and Trade has just proposed doubling the capacity of coal, according to a draft plan. Miss. Nguy called on the public to circulate a letter to the prime minister, signed by a number of environmental groups, warning him that the policy could “threaten Vietnam’s isolation in the international community”.

“The dark times are not due to a lack of sunshine, but due to a lack of leadership,” she said. Nguy wrote in a Facebook post. “We still believe and hope in the determination of the prime minister and top leaders to make a breakthrough in the field of climate.”

They made. Almost immediately after the summit, The United States, Britain, the European Union and Japan have begun discussing possible energy deals with Vietnam. In March, John Kerry, the US special envoy for climate, visited Vietnam, promising to increase commitment to climate and clean energy. In May, the Group of 7 major economies announced it would provide financial and technical support to Vietnam to help the country move from coal to renewable energy.

Jake Schmidt, senior strategic director for international climate at the Council for the Protection of Natural Resources, said there was no “zero confidence” now that Vietnam could make the energy transition through repression.

Miss. Nguy knew that her activity had made her a target. Julien Vincent, executive director of the Australia-based Market Forces Group, which focuses on institutions that fund environmentally destructive projects, said Ms. Nguy told him that her office had been attacked by police and described how “the police or government agencies are never too far away”.

“They always follow them,” he said. Said Vincent. “She said it was part of everyday life.”

Ms. Nguy’s arrest puzzled her friends because she stood out for her non-confrontational approach. She said she admired it Greta Thunberg but he admitted this to the Swedish teenager style of climate activism will not be accepted in Vietnam. She said one of her main motives was to be the mother of three children aged 20, 15 and 10.

Coal was a problem close to Ms. Nguy’s heart. Born and raised in a rural area of ​​North Vietnam, Mrs. Nguy’s family lived near a coal-fired power plant. She remembered the dust and gray ash caused by the plant.

At that time, Vietnam was tied 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 target – total coal capacity of slightly more than Germany and Poland combined – would set the country on track to have the world’s fourth-largest coal-fired power plant, after only China, the United States and India.

This year, Ms. Nguy helped set up the Green Center for Innovation and Development, or GreenID, a group that aims to pave the way for renewable energy for Vietnam. A year later, she founded the Vietnam Sustainable Energy Union, which now includes 12 organizations.

After Ms. Nguy won the Goldman Award in 2018, the People’s Army newspaperby the Vietnamese Ministry of Defense, calling her an “Asian environmental hero” for helping the country “make policies for sustainable development.”

The enthusiasm did not last long. In February, police in Hanoi arrested her.

Now at a detention center in Hanoi, madam. Nguy is in good health and up to date with her meditation practice, according to someone familiar with her situation.

Prior to her sentencing, she said she hoped for the shortest possible sentence, the source said. Her goal: to return to work soon.

Richard S. Paddock contributed to the reporting.

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