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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

Statement On The Recent Arrest of Pham Doan Trang

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Reporters Without Borders (RSF) awarded Pham Doan Trang RSF Prize for Impact in 2019. Photo courtesy: RSF.

On October 6, 2020 at 23:30, the Vietnamese authorities arrested Pham Doan Trang, a current member of our editorial board, in Ho Chi Minh City. She was charged with “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code, and “making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code.

The Vietnamese Magazine, strongly condemn this blatant violation of human rights committed by the Vietnamese authorities. Pham Doan Trang is a highly-respected journalist who has diligently expanded the political and legal information for the masses in Vietnam, encouraging people to practice the universal values of freedom and democracy that are stated clearly in Vietnam’s Constitution and which the government has also supported in many of the international treaties it has signed. A journalist should be allowed to report and a writer must be able to publish her books in every corner of this world. Journalism is not a crime and journalists should not be treated as criminals. The suppression of these basic human rights should be treated as a crime.

We demand the Vietnamese government release journalist Pham Doan Trang unconditionally and immediately. In the meantime, from now until she is released, we demand that the authorities uphold her rights and legal interests, including her right not to be tortured, right to have legal representation, right to meet her family, right to privacy, right to medical assistance, and the right to have a full and complete access to all the files related to her case.

We also encourage our readers and those who care about Vietnam and Vietnamese citizens to raise objections against this arrest and join us in our demand to have Pham Doan Trang released immediately. Please join us in continuing her fight for freedom and in reporting, publishing, translating, and raising our voices against injustice whenever and wherever possible.

Tran Quynh Vi – editor-in-chief

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COVID-19: Why Vietnam’s Second Positive Wave Might Not Be Entirely Negative

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Vietnamese people quickly wear masks as protective gears. Photo courtesy: The Vietnamese

After nearly 100 days of zero new confirmed cases in the local community, within the last 10 days, there has been a jump in the number of patients contracting the virus in various cities in Vietnam.

According to official figures, in the six months from January 23  to July 25, there were only 140 local cases, the rest were imported patients, and zero fatalities. Since July 25, in a period of less than two weeks, more than 300 new local cases have been confirmed with 10 deaths so far.

Da Nang, the third largest city of the country, has become the new epicenter of the pandemic. 

While this new surge seems to have caught the entire nation by surprise, in reality it is a scenario that was long written on the wall, with the pandemic having never really ceased to rock countries after it first appeared on the world stage in January 2020 (the first reported case outside of China). And though it has created a new scare among citizens, it is a positive and necessary alarm.

Empty street in Hoi An city in August 2020. Photo Courtesy: The Vietnamese

To the moon and back

More than three months without domestic positive cases had put the whole nation in a complacent mode. Even the health care staff at hospitals had lowered their guard. Most of the initial cases from July 25 were linked to patients and their caretaker relatives in Da Nang hospitals.

Since then, the virus has quickly spread throughout the community and to other cities.

Fortunately, it does not take long for the whole system to restart and quickly return  to crisis mode. Da Nang was almost immediately put under partial lockdown, with thorough contact tracing being carried out for every new case. People who had been in close contact with new positive cases were put under quarantine. Medical teams and personnel from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh were sent to the epicenter to help relieve the pressure and the wearing of face masks in public in big cities became mandatory again. 

There is reason to be optimistic about the ability of the country to contain the new wave despite it having caught everyone off guard.

Local wet market in Hoi An City. Photo courtesy: The Vietnamese

Through the looking glass of Taiwan

With the initial success in containing Covid-19, there has been an ongoing debate among citizens on whether Vietnam’s authoritarian system is better equipped than other democratic societies to cope with a pandemic. However, focusing on governing systems might miss some critical points.

Comparing Vietnam with Taiwan, an exemplary success in the fight against this pandemic, may provide some useful insights.

At first glance, the two countries could not be more different. One is a communist state, the other one of the most vibrant democratic systems in the world. At closer look, Vietnam and Taiwan share some vital similarities in the fight against Covid-19. 

They both are next to China, the origin of the pandemic. Both governments, and especially their people, have the same distrust of the Chinese Communist Party, hence the high alert mode from the very beginning, long before other countries took this infectious disease seriously. They also share painful experiences from the SARS pandemic in 2003, which also originated from China. With those scars still fresh in mind, going through this crisis is like bathing in the same river twice. They knew how and where to swim.

The culture and society also played an important role here. 

Both countries are still dominated by Confucious-like ideals about the need for a harmonious society where collectivism trumps individualism. In the case of major crises like a pandemic, this kind of mindset helps glue the community together faster, quickly putting everyone into the same “for the common good” mode. 

This particular pandemic, Covid-19, in which the elderly are the most vulnerable, also highlights one important aspect: how societies treat and value their aged populations.

In Vietnam, like Taiwan, most families have at least one senior member living under the same roof. Therefore, most people, even the younger generations, despite being in low-risk groups, still voluntarily took extra precautions to protect their family members.

Opportunities lie in the midst of every crisis, as the old saying goes. And there are many opportunities for a change-demanding society like Vietnam.

While the resurgence has shattered the illusion of exceptionalism, deflating many hardcore aficionados of the authoritarian system, it has also inflated the constant alert mindset, which is a life-and-death difference in the fight against most infectious diseases.

The health crisis also puts the whole governing system in the spotlight, pushing the need for greater transparency and accountability.

With the virus always seeming to have a head start, the authorities have had no other option than to constantly play catch-up. Around-the-clock updates and publicized data and numbers are now the new normal. Government officials are forced to focus on containing the spread of the pandemic. Even when the pandemic is over, it is hard to imagine returning to “the old normal”. 

The virus has also created space for a newborn civil society. With the government’s resources stretched thin and vastly inadequate, citizens and volunteer groups have organized themselves for a wide range of mutual-support activities, from donating basic necessities to setting up coordinating teams to offer transportation for supplies and people in need. Again, when the pandemic is over, citizens who have trained themselves in this new normal will not be easily caged again. Instead, they will demand a greater place on the stage in building a common and better society for themselves.

A deadly pandemic is obviously not an ideal scenario to push for a positive change in any society. But as in any crisis, a good response brings along good reforms. 

There are reasons to be optimistic about the emergence of some form of positive change after the country has gone through this extraordinary period. 

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9th Annual Vietnam Advocacy Day

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Vietnam Advocacy Day is an annual event, organized by Boat People SOS, where Vietnamese Americans across the United States come to Washington, DC to meet with their representatives to voice about human rights issues in Vietnam and to connect with other Vietnamese diaspora community, human rights witnesses and advocates. Due to COVID-19, the 9th annual VNAD 2020 will take place through several webinars.

Please register for the webinars at the links below.

Webinar 1: Friday July 31st, 9AM- 11AM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Religion and the Rights of Indegenous Peoples

Register for Webinar 1: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-FORB-1

Webinar 2: Friday July 31st, 1PM- 3PM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Religion and the Rights of Indegenous Peoples continued

Register for Webinar 2: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-FORB-2

Webinar 3: Friday August 7th, 9AM- 11AM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Expression, the Press and Internet

Register for Webinar 3http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-EXPRESSION

Webinar 4: Friday August 7th, 1PM- 3PM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Expression, the Press and Internet
Topic: Prisoners of Conscience and Torture

Register for Webinar 4: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-POC

Webinar 5: Friday August 14th, 9AM- 11AM EDT

Topic: UN Mechanisms and Sanctions

Register for Webinar 5: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-UN

Webinar 6: Friday August 14th, 1PM- 3PM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Expression, the Press and Internet
Topic: UN Mechanisms and Sanctions – continued

Register for Webinar 6http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-SANCTION

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