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Protest Against BOT: How Vietnamese Drivers Fight Back

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Traffic at BOT An Suong. Photo courtesy: 24h News.

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.

Press Release

The Vietnamese: Call for Pitches

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Dear Readers and Writers:

For the last five months, The Vietnamese has not been publishing regularly, something that you may have noticed. Our magazine was short on staff and it affected our publication. We are very sorry about any inconvenience it may have caused you. But here comes the good news. 

Starting in September 2019, we have been back and starting to use a new working scheme for our publication. Now we are reaching out to freelancers to submit pitches and work on articles to be published on our platform. 

As we have written in our mission statement for The Vietnamese, this magazine will be “a platform for each and every Vietnamese individual – who shares our dreams, our visions, and our daily struggles for a democratic country where the rule of law and human rights are respected – to raise their voice and bring their issues to the world stage.” 

We have probably also noticed some of the same issues as many of you, that Vietnam’s human rights situation and political scene were not being demonstrated as clearly as we want them to be on the world stage. Many of the critical issues that Vietnamese people care and are concerned about were not discussed in English writings. And now, this is the time that you can submit your pitches and start writing about what concerns Vietnamese people the most in terms of human rights, democracy, and political concerns.

Please be aware that as a magazine, The Vietnamese quite often does not publish very time-sensitive or breaking news. We decide on pitches at our weekly editorial meetings, and so it may take up to at least one week to respond to your pitch. Once we accept a pitch, it typically takes two weeks to one month before it is published as our editorial team is also made up of freelance and part-time staff, which may delay our response time. 

A few times a year, we will also be considering a specific call for pitches for certain themes and we will send out updates when there are such calls.

OUR RATES:

– US$200 for text (approximately 1,500 words for written pieces)

– US$200 for 7-10 minute (edited) video clips with English subtitles, US$150 for a recorded op-ed or interview. 

Invoices should be submitted after the article has been published on our website. We are committed to paying timely and promptly.

PITCH FORMAT:

Please answer all of these questions in an email to be sent to editor@thevietnamese.org or vi.tran@thevietnames.org. 

– What is your name?
– What section are you pitch to, is it written form  or video?
– What’s your idea? (Please be as specific as you can.)
– Who could you talk to or have access to?
– What makes this story interesting or insightful?
– When can you submit the first draft?
– Will you submit photographs with the article that you or another person has taken?
– Please provide any links to your previous published articles or videos.

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Press Release

Pham Doan Trang Received Prize for Impact from Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 Press Freedom Awards

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Photo credits: RSF

On September 12, 2019, our editor Pham Doan Trang had received the Prize for Impact from Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Awards 2019 in Berlin, Germany.

Trang was not able to travel and received her award in person. Instead, our editor Trinh Huu Long and also the editor-in-chief for Luat Khoa magazine was representing Trang to accept it.

Being her colleagues, The Vietnamese magazine’s staff is delighted and honored that Doan Trang received the Impact award. We have all been inspired and moved by her tireless efforts – as she stated – to make sure that “journalism is not a crime anywhere in the world.” Together with her, we all work for Vietnam to soon be a democratic country.

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Imprisoned Dissident – Anh Ba Sam – Encountered Odd Events Before Release Date

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Portrait of Anh Ba Sam. Photo credits: Luat Khoa Magazine.

Journalist Nguyen Huu Vinh (whose pen name is Anh Ba Sam) faced quite a few peculiar encounters in Prison Center Number 5, Yen Dinh district, Thanh Hoa province in recent months.

According to Le Thi Minh Ha, his wife, on December 9, 2018, a man in a police uniform came to visit Vinh in his prison cell and spent an hour and a half talking to him. At the end of their conversation, the man left behind an envelope full of money and told Vinh that after his release from prison he should support To Lam, the current minister of public security – the national police force in Vietnam.

Mrs. Ha told Luat Khoa magazine: “My husband recounted the story to me when I visited him. Neither one of us could grasp what was happening. Who was this man and who had directed him to do such a thing? Was he someone who works for To Lam or someone who wanted to harm To Lam? Nevertheless, it could also be intimidation. We think we should publicize this information to protect Vinh.”

Both Ha and Vinh went to college with the current Minister To Lam in the 1970s, where all three were studying at the People’s Security Academy. This school is where the Vietnamese government trains its future secret police force officers.

Vinh was arrested on May 5, 2014, and at the time, To Lam was the vice minister of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS). He was held in pre-trial detention for almost two years before being convicted of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state, the rights and interests of other entities and citizens,” and sentenced to five-year-imprisonment on March 23, 2016. Before his arrest, he was the owner of the blog site Anh Ba Sam – one of the most famous online newspapers in Vietnam during the past few years.

Another event – which also caused Ha to have more concerns over her husband’s safety – happened on January 27, 2019, the day of her monthly visit to Prison Center Number 5.

She stated that one prison guard had requested to meet her in private and told her: “On the release day (which will be May 5, 2019), if there are only family members then the center will process the paperwork and release him at the gate of the prison. If there are other non-family members accompanying (you), carrying banners and posters with them, then the prison center will take Vinh to a remote area and leave him there by himself.”

“On March 4, 2019, my husband called me from the prison center in accordance with the monthly allowance of five-minute-phone calls, where he told me that the same prison guard met with him again in private and told him the same thing,” Ha informed Luat Khoa magazine.

Mrs. Ha had already sent a letter of complaint to Prison Center Number 5 on February 1, 2019, to report the previous incident. She received a response dated February 25, 2019, which insisted that no prison guard had communicated any such content to either her or Vinh at the center.

Luat Khoa indicated that its reporter contacted the prison center with the number Ha had provided in April 2019, but the person who answered the phone refused to acknowledge the name of the alleged prison guard. Instead, he stated that the name belongs to someone who lives near the prison center. When the Luat Khoa reporter pressed for the current condition of Nguyen Huu Vinh, the person then said he did not know.

Mrs. Ha had also lodged complaints regarding the threat to release Vinh in a desolate area with Minister To Lam, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the National Assembly Judicial Committee and its Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, as well as Ho Thanh Dinh – The head of the Prison Management Bureau. However, all of her complaints eventually were passed down to Prison Center Number 5 to resolve.

“The person who threatened me and my husband was an officer at Center Number 5, and if all of my complaints were making their way back to this same place, then it would be meaningless. Both of us are feeling anxious and scared now that they (the prison guards) might try to harm Vinh one way or another,” Ha said.

On March 4, 2019, she also sent a letter to an alumni group consisting of her and Vinh’s former classmates at the People’s Security Academy, to suggest that if any one of them is going to accompany her on his release day, then please don’t bring any banner or poster so that they would be “in compliance with” the prison center’s request.

*** This story was first written in Vietnamese by Tran Ha Linh for Luat Khoa magazine on April 12, 2019. The Vietnamese has reviewed all of the complaints and letters which Mrs. Ha submitted and the official reply from the prison center. But because we only received information from Mrs. Ha, we decided at this time not to reveal the names of the prison guard or of the man in police uniform mentioned in this story.

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