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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.

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Vietnamese Police Continue Questioning People Over Facebook Activities

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Phan Chi Toan at the police station. Photo courtesy: Vietnamnet.

The police force in Ben Tre Province, Vietnam seemed to have been quite busy in the last few months, going after people’s postings on Facebook.

In January 2019, their Domestic Security Bureau took a university student in and questioned him over his Facebook’s usage, including whether he had joined a group calls “Liking BBC Vietnamese” (Thích BBC Tiếng Việt) – which the police classified as “politically hostile.”

On February 13, 2019, Vietnamnet newspaper reported that Ben Tre provincial police conducted an investigation and interrogated a 35-year-old man, Phan Chi Toan, about his Facebook’s activities under the username “Phan Rio.”

Police alleged that the Facebook account calls Phan Rio was conducting “subversion against the people’s government.”

How did he do it according to the authorities?

He did so by joining numerous groups, allegedly “politically hostile” towards the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the State, posting, sharing, and commenting on contents that incited demonstrations, as well as propagating to defame the policies, guidelines, and directions of the VCP and the government.

The police had not formally charged Toan with a crime but did declare that they would proceed with the case according to the regular procedures.

The same Vietnamnet’s article further mentioned that the People’s Committee of Mo Cay Bac District, also in Ben Tre Province, had fined a 55-year-old man – Dang Tri Thuc – under Government’s Decree 174/2013/ND-CP, Article 64, Section 4, for using his Facebook account to incite public demonstration in December 2018.

Accordingly, Thuc, a driver, was accused of using the live-stream feature on Facebook to make video clips, calling on others to protest on a few major road intersections on December 22 and 28. He allegedly admitted guilt, confessed and promised he would not repeat the offense, so the authorities fined him with 15M VND or approximately 650 USD.

Decree 174/2013/ND-CP, Article 64: Violations against regulations on websites/ news websites

Section 4. A fine ranging from VND 30,000,000 to VND 50,000,000 shall be imposed for any of the following violations:

a) Propagating information against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; sabotaging the bloc of great national unity at a degree of severity which is still not liable to criminal prosecutions;

b) Propagating information with the aims of inciting war of aggression, causing hatred between ethnic groups or people of countries, inciting violence or propagating reactionary thought at a degree of severity which is still not liable to criminal prosecutions;

c) Distorting history, denying the revolutionary achievements or offending the nation, people or national heroes at a degree of severity which is still not liable to criminal prosecutions.

While the right to demonstrate is constitutionally protected in Vietnam, the government had routinely violated this right by applying their Decree 38/2005/NĐ-CP – to regulate “public gatherings – during protests to arrest the participants.

Since the nationwide mass protests broke out in June 2018 against the draft bills on the cybersecurity law and the development of three special economic zones, the security police have continued to track down those who had participated and made arrests in different cities and provinces.

The family of a woman names Doan Thi Hong from Binh Thuan Province has recently made a public plea on social media, alleging that Hong was taken into police custody by a group of plainclothes police on September 2, 2018. She was a participant in the same June 2018 protest mentioned above.

Although she has a young child under 36-month-old at the time of the arrest, which under Vietnam’s laws is a factor to consider against pre-trial detention, her sister claimed that Hong had been arbitrarily kept incommunicado since September of last year.

According to her sister, Hong was not a dissident and only exercised her right to protest that one time.

It seems that the police’s recent investigations targetting Facebook’s activities and usage in Vietnam also focus primarily on the average users and not necessarily the more well-known bloggers and dissidents.

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Vietnamese Police Questioned University Student Over Facebook Postings

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Tran Ngoc Phuc at the police station. Photo courtesy: Dong Khoi online newspaper

On February 1, 2019, the Domestic Security Bureau of Ben Tre Province interviewed Tran Ngoc Phuc, a 21-year-old student of Ton Duc Thang University in Ho Chi Minh City at their station.

Dong Khoi online newspaper, a publication of the VCP’s Provincial Committee in Ben Tre, published the story on the same day.

According to the article, the police accused Phuc, a resident of Tan Phu Commune, Chau Thanh District, Ben Tre Province, of using his personal account to propagandizing against the Vietnamese Communist Party and the State.

Namely, Phuc was using Facebook under the name “Ngoc Phuc” to join several “politically hostile” groups. Among them, was “The South of Vietnam” (Miền Nam Việt Nam), Fanclub of Saigon Capital (Đô thành Sài Gòn Fanclub), and  “Liking BBC Vietnamese” (Thích BBC Vietnamese).

Phuc also allegedly admitted to the police that he was indeed the Facebooker Ngoc Phuc and that he had posted, shared, and commented on specific contents.

The police had deemed these contents as materials which “propagandized, sabotaged the thoughts, distorted the direction, objectives, and policy of the VCP, the laws of the State and distorted (the image of) the leader Ho Chi Minh.”

Formal charges against Phuc had not been filed, but the police indicated that they would continue to build the case and follow the regular legal procedures in this case.

During the first month since the new Cybersecurity Law took effect in Vietnam on January 1, 2019, there were several reports that the police had questioned and detained some Facebookers.

Rights groups, online campaigners, bloggers, activists, and dissidents continuously criticize the new law for further curtailing freedom of speech and shrinking the online civic space in Vietnam.

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Former Political Prisoner, Truong Duy Nhat, Disappeared In Thailand After Seeking Refugee Status With UN

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Truong Duy Nhat. Photo courtesy: Teu Blog

Last Friday, January 25, 2019, former political prisoner, Truong Duy Nhat, was last seen at the office of the UN HCR – The Refugee Agency in Bangkok, Thailand.

Nhat was there to register himself as an asylum seeker after leaving Vietnam earlier in the month.

According to his family and friends, no one had heard from him since last Saturday, and they could not contact him.

Nhat has left Vietnam for Thailand for about 21 days, said his family.

The family was able to confirm that Nhat was not held by Thailand’s IDC (Immigration Detention Center). They also obtained further information today that Thai authorities, up to this point, did not arrest Nhat either.

Nhat’s phone number in Thailand is not turned off, but no one answered the calls. His wife and daughter are worried about his safety and well-being as they are still unable to get in touch with him.

Truong Duy Nhat was sentenced to two-year-imprisonment in 2014 under Article 258 of the 1999 Penal Code. Nhat was arrested in May 2013 and held in detention until his trial.

The government alleged some of his blog entries on the Blog “Another Point of View” (Một Góc Nhìn Khác) was “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe the interest of the state”.

His blog was indeed critical of the government and the leaders of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

One of the entries published in April 2013 was calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and the VCP’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong for their perceived political and economic mismanagement.

After his release in 2015, Nhat continued with his blogging and resided in Da Nang, Vietnam.

Nhat’s wife is still in Vietnam, but his daughter is studying in Vancouver, Canada. They are asking members of the public to come forward with any useful information regarding his whereabouts.

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