The story first sounded like the twisted plot of a comedy about feudal Vietnam a few centuries back. It went like this:
Three bad guys robbed a court official’s post and shocked the township when news on the enormous amount of money the robbers had taken, spread like wildfire. The officials scrambled to explain the origin of the funds while trying to scale down its size, but only to raise even more suspicion on their corruption among the public.
It was, however, not a movie plot but a real story in Vietnam 2019 with a small difference: the location of the robbery was a well-known BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer) toll booth near Ho Chi Minh City.
During the Tet celebration last week, three men robbed the BOT booth of the Ho Chi Minh City-Long Thanh-Dau Giay expressway in Dong Nai Province. They allegedly took over 2B VND or approximately 86k USD at once. The amount was rumored to be from only one shift of the BOT’s collection activities that day.
Netizens were quick to point out that the robbery happened during the biggest holiday in the country where traffic flow through the main highways and expressways decreased dramatically in Vietnam, leading people to believe that the usual amount this particular BOT booth collects during a regular day would have been a lot higher.
The BOT’s owner – Vietnam Expressway Services Engineering Joint Stock Company (VEC E) – tried to diffuse the situation in an interview with Tuoi Tre newspaper on February 8, 2019, the day after, stating that the amount taken was collected from eight different shifts, not one.
But by then, the amount taken by the robbers was no longer the public’s primary concern.
Instead, people started to demand answers on the validity of the very existence of the toll booth. According to the Facebook page of journalist Ngo Nguyet Huu, the information on how long this particular BOT could continue to collect toll fees seemed to be missing.
Quick math on the average amount of money the BOT booth could generate daily raised more concerns over the potential sum that could have been taken illegally from the commuters if it indeed, did not have the authority to collect.
Some people had pointed out that the BOT booth in question has been operating long enough for it to recover the costs of construction and make enough money in return, casting more doubts on the legality of its existence.
To add fuel to the fire, on February 11, 2019, people on social media went livid when VEC E announced that it would refuse services to two particular vehicles at their Ho Chi Minh-Dau Giay BOT booth indefinitely, alleging the drivers of these cars “had incited disorder behaviors.” Its decision would have the effect of not letting these two cars use the expressway where the BOT booth is located.
Almost immediately, netizens started to call VEC E’s action “unconstitutional,” violating the people’s freedom of movement. Others questioned the company’s authority to enforce their decision. Although considered as a “quasi” government enterprise in Vietnam due to its investment structure, whether VEC E could act under “state action” is still debatable.
The people’s anger has caused the Transportation Department to immediately reassure the public on February 12, 2019, that it will not allow VEC E to refuse services and that all violations at BOT booths should be dealt with according to Vietnam’s administrative procedures.
Allegations of corruption involving BOT booths have been raised in numerous cases in Vietnam recently, and some saw VEC E’s announcement as evidence of BOT’s investors acting under the “protection” of the authorities.
A group of drivers acting as Vietnam’s freedom riders has been protesting against some BOT booths where they openly questioned the legality of some of these booths.
Their works faced intimidation, false imprisonment, and physical assaults by masked men in civilian clothes when they protested at or near the locations of these BOTs.
When these drivers tried to complain to the authorities but only received a slow, and sometimes even no response from the local police forces, the public began to suspect shady business deals between the owners of the BOT projects and the officials.
One of the latest incidents of intimidation happened just last Saturday night, February 9, 2019. A driver names Nguyen Quang Tuy alleged that he was physically assaulted and suffered significant injuries after getting involved in a minor dispute over payment types at Ben Thuy BOT in Nghe An Province.
More Vietnamese people have become vocal and voiced their complaints and discontentment about the BOT fees because they see these as unreasonable additions to the transportation taxes already imposed on them by the government for roads maintenance.
During the past two years, with more than 60 booths stationed throughout the country’s main highways and expressways, BOT is a social and political problem that could only get more severe with time.