Protest Against BOT: How Vietnamese Drivers Fight Back

Quynh-Vi Tran
Quynh-Vi Tran

BOT, this three-letter-word probably does not have any special meaning for anyone but the Vietnamese people. It is a daily nightmare for many commuters in the country of close to 95 million in population.

BOT stands for Build-Operate-Transfer, which is a form of contracts between a private company and the government that has become very popular in transport projects across Vietnam. By April 2018, it was estimated that 67 BOT(s) were in operation throughout the country.

To put it simply, in a typical BOT development plan, the government would contract with a private company to build a transport project – for example, a section of a highway or a new highway bridge – and later allowed the company to operate a toll booth for a number of years to collect money from commuters to recover their investment.

However, in Vietnam, once these BOT(s) began to open toll booths to collect fees, some of them faced enormous opposition from the people, namely the drivers who were subjected to paying such fees.

In August 2017, a massive protest initiated by drivers when BOT Cai Lay in Tien Giang Province began to collect fees had lasted for days, causing this toll booth to stop collecting fees indefinitely.

The drivers’ reason for protesting the fees was because the toll booth was wrongly situated, collecting money from people who did not use the road that was constructed under the BOT project.

On August 6, 2017, the drivers started to use small bills to pay for the toll fees – which range from 35.000 VND – 180.000 VND – creating long delays on the highway in many days. After about two weeks, the BOT’s owner had no choice but to close down the toll (“xả trạm” in Vietnamese) and let traffic goes through without collecting the required fees until the government could come up with a resolution.

BOT Cai Lay, however, remains completely shut down from December 2017 until today, while both the local and central governments have yet to finalize a plausible, alternative plan to resolve the problems. Their latest proposal – announced on January 15, 2019 – was to reduce the fees and extend the collecting period, but such a plan still failed to address the concern about the wrong location.

In early December 2018, allegations regarding another wrongly situated BOT stormed both social media and the news in Vietnam because this toll booth is stationed on the most important highway in the country – National Highway 1 – at the outskirt of Ho Chi Minh City in Binh Tan District.

The drivers alleged that the toll booth continued operating after its contractual time with the government had ended for more than 31 months, collecting fees that it was not entitled to. When being confronted, the owner of the BOT – IDICO company – claimed that the toll remained because it had built other transport projects nearby and could continue to collect fees.

However, the drivers did not accept this explanation, stating that if IDICO had constructed other projects, the toll should be stationed in those areas.

BOT An Suong locates at a critical junction for traffic entering and leaving Ho Chi Minh City, and the toll collects fees both ways for at least 15.000 VND each. For those who have to travel through this area daily, the amount they pay could be quite substantial in any given month.

On December 6, 2018, about one hundred drivers showed up to protest the fees collection at An Suong, and they faced hundreds of men, as well as police officers and civil security forces. A group of men wearing masks opened the door of a protesting driver’s car, dragged out Le Thai Hung who was sitting on the passenger’s seat and physically assaulted him.

Hung was then taken to the nearby police station by the same group where he alleged that he got beaten up during his 12-hour detention. The police did not charge him; they later released him and said he fell and suffered injuries.

On January 14, 2019, the story of BOT An Suong got heated again on social media where four drivers (one of them is journalist Truong Chau Huu Danh) who protested the fees collection at this toll booth were detained illegally in an alley nearby for over 30 hours.

The victims live-streamed their plight where they were confined in a car, surrounded by hundreds of masked men and police throughout the night.

Their three cars were picked up by a towing truck which they claimed was acting under the order of the owner of the BOT. They were towed from the BOT to an alley about 50 meters nearby where the four persons were held against their will. Barricades were put up at the only entrance/exit of a dead-end alley, effectively stopped them from leaving. They also claimed that their cars were damaged due to the removal. A fifth person was attacked and taken away earlier in the evening of January 14, and his car later was towed to an unknown place.

In the live-stream clips, viewers could see police officers were present at the scene but failed to act and protect the victims from both the removal and the false imprisonment. Also present at the scene was a large group of men in “blue masks” who acted most aggressive, yet it was impossible to know their true identity.

The four continued staying together in one car, a Ford Ranger, where no one was allowed to get close to them. Food delivery, their lawyer (who came by the next morning), and even an ambulance, all were denied entry.

Around 9:00 P.M., one of the drivers, Huynh Long, stepped off the car to find a restroom and disappeared. He later was found unharmed, but his wallet and cellphones were taken.

Long said he was held against his will by a group of men on motorbikes, who then rode around town with him and threatened him to stop his protest against BOT An Suong. They later left him stranded on the streets after taking his belongings, but Long got help and was able to come back to the alley the following morning to be with his friends.

By January 15, 2019, the police attempted a few times to write up their investigative report about the incident, and the four victims finally were allowed to leave the scene in the late evening. They stated that they would initiate legal action against those who were involved in the false imprisonment.

On January 16, 2019, the protest by the drivers and others continued at An Suong, asking the BOT to stop collect fees. One driver said in a live-stream on Facebook that he has prepared for the worst, and that if the BOT’s owner would again try to detain drivers, he could last up to ten days.

At about 2:00 P.M. local time, according to the same protesting driver, the toll booth gave up and let cars pass through without having to pay.

There is a Facebook group of drivers who participated in these BOT protests in recent years calls Friends on the Long Road (Bạn Hữu Đường Xa).

One of the reasons these protests were successful and received public support was the fact that a lot of Vietnamese people got frustrated when they have paid a lot of taxes for improving and maintaining road conditions, and yet the country’s infrastructure and transportation remained the worst in the world.

Further, whether it was the Formosa environmental disaster, the land eviction in Loc Hung garden, or these BOT projects, the people did not get to participate in the decision-making process nor were they even consulted. Often, the public never knew about these projects until they became disastrous for the people’s daily life.

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Quynh-Vi Tran

Quynh-Vi was a litigation lawyer in California before becoming a democracy advocate and journalist in 2015. She is also a strong advocate for abolishing the death penalty.