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Robbery Unwittingly Exposes Potential Corruption In Vietnam

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Comics about the BOT robbery exposing potential corruption on Tuoi Tre Comics. Photo courtesy: Tuoi Tre Cuoi.

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.

News

New Visa Rules Make It Easier for Foreigners to Work, Invest in Vietnam’s Coastal Economic Zones

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On November 25, the National Assembly (NA) of Vietnam passed amendments to its Law on Entry, Exit, Transit, and Residence of Foreigners that would allow visa-free entry into coastal economic zones, as well as enable visa status changes from inside the country. The amendments were approved with 83.6% of the vote and go into effect July 1, 2020.

The amendments stipulate that in order for a coastal economic zone to quality for the visa-free exemption, it must be separate from the mainland, possess clearly defined territory and boundaries, have an international airport, and must not compromise national security or national defense.

Of note in the amendments is the alternate phrasing “special administrative-economic unit” used to refer to areas affected by the new law. The phrase “special economic zone” (SEZ) is considered sensitive after nationwide protests broke out in June of 2018, in opposition to a Special Economic Zones (SEZ) law that was being considered before the NA. The law would have established SEZs in Van Don, Bac Van Phong, and Phu Quoc, but widespread concern that the SEZs would be overrun by Chinese investors prompted the NA to shelve the law.  

Some Vietnamese have noted that Van Don and Phu Quoc of the previously-shelved SEZ law both qualify for visa-free entry under the new amendments, sparking concerns that the government is attempting to circumvent popular opposition. Representatives of the NA themselves have expressed concerns that opening up these areas to visa-free travel may pose a national security threat and have requested greater government regulation.

But Vo Trong Viet, chairman of the NA Committee on National Defense and Security, has argued that “the amendments would make it easier for foreigners to stay in Vietnam to learn about the market, and look for jobs and investment opportunities without wasting time and money on immigration procedures.”

Also included in the amendment is a stipulation allowing foreigners to change or renew their visa status while inside Vietnam, instead of having to leave the country entirely, as was previous practice. The amendment allows for visa changes by individuals in specific circumstances: “visitors who can prove they are investors or representatives of foreign organizations that make legal investments in Vietnam” and their family members, as well as foreign workers who receive job offers or enter with e-visas (provided they have the requisite work permit or work permit exemption).

Vietnam’s National Assembly, elected in 2016 and currently in its 14th session, consists of 496 members, 475 of which belong to the Communist Party (the remaining 21 are independents). Though largely considered a “rubber stamp” parliament due to a lack of public consultation and debate, discussions over pieces of legislation have increased in recent years, and the NA has begun to assume a larger political role in the eyes of the public. The NA meets twice a year to formally ratify laws, with individual members serving five-year terms.

Elections for the 15th session of the NA are set to take place in 2021.

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Freedom of expression

Two Human Rights Groups Issue Joint Statement Against Harassment of Independent Publishing House

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Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the Vietnamese government for their escalating harassment of an independent publishing house.

Liberal Publishing House, established February 14th, 2019, seeks “to promote human rights and freedom of information in Vietnam by printing and publishing books without censorship from the Vietnamese government”, in a mode similar to samizdat operations in former communist countries of Eastern Europe.

In a statement issued November 27th, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch stated that Vietnamese “police have harassed and intimidated dozens of people connected to the Liberal Publishing House […] in what appears to be a targeted campaign” against both the publishing house’s readers and workers.

The statement also describes a situation in which police “detained and allegedly tortured a man in custody on October 15 in Ho Chi Minh City, allegedly to force him to confess to working for the publisher. Police detained him for more than 12 hours, during which time he was repeatedly beaten until his nose bled. Since being released he has gone into hiding, fearful of re-arrest.”

The police harassment has been nationwide, striking the three major Vietnamese cities of Hanoi (north), Hue (center), and Ho Chi Minh City (south), as well as the central provinces of Quang Binh and Quang Tri, the south-central province of Phu Yen, and the southern province of Binh Duong. Readers have reportedly been called into police stations for questioning and forced to sign statements declaring they will no longer purchase books from Liberal Publishing House; workers have reportedly been ensnared in police traps while carrying out deliveries.

Liberal Publishing House has acknowledged the police harassment and issued to its readers a series of precautions to take when ordering books, as well as what and what not to say when confronted by police. It has also made available for free a digital copy of its book A Handbook for Families of Prisoners to inform readers of their rights and guide them through the legal process.

Liberal Publishing House’s other titles include Politics for the Common People, Non-Violent Resistance, and the English-language title Politics of a Police State. Dissident blogger Pham Doan Trang, who recently received the 2019 Press Freedom Prize for Impact from Reporters Without Borders in September, is one of the publishing house’s main contributors.

Although freedom of the press is guaranteed by Article 25 of the 2013 Vietnamese Constitution, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is a one-party, authoritarian state that does not tolerate challenges to its power. It controls all official media and publishing houses in the country and regularly censors material that does not conform to sanctioned historical or political narratives. 

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Freedom of expression

In Prolific Day, Vietnam Sentences Six Dissidents to Prison for “Anti-state” Activities

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Nguyen Chi Vung (top), Pham Van Diep (middle), Vo Thuong Trung, Doan Viet Hoan, Ngo Xuan Thanh, and Nguyen Dinh Khue (bottom, left to right) . Photo sources: Kien Thuc, Binh An, and Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper, respectively. Composite photo created by Will Nguyen.


In a particularly damaging day for Vietnamese dissidents, six individuals were sentenced to a total of 26 years in prison for opposing the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). The convictions on November 26, 2019 bookend an active month for Vietnamese security forces, who have arrested and convicted numerous individuals for their on- and offline “anti-state” activities. 

Nguyen Chi Vung, 38, was sentenced to six years in prison by a court in the southern Mekong Delta province of Bac Lieu. Vung was convicted under Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code for “Making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and articles against the SRV”. According to Reuters, Vung had “held 33 livestream sessions on Facebook ‘to share distorted information’ and ‘encourage people to participate in protests during national holidays’”.

Pham Van Diep, 54, was convicted under the same article, with a north-central Vietnamese court in Thanh Hoa sentencing him to nine years in prison and five years probation. His indictment stated that he had a nine-year history of expressing online dissent and that he made frequent Facebook posts criticizing the VCP leadership and SRV policies. According to Tuoi Tre newspaper, he had previously printed and distributed anti-SRV flyers in the Lao capital city of Vientiane. On June 28, 2016, Diep was arrested by Laotian authorities, tried in February of 2018, and sentenced to 21 months in prison for “using the territory of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to oppose neighboring countries”. Lao authorities took him to the Vietnamese border one month after his trial, where he was allowed to re-enter Vietnam.

In Dong Nai, a province bordering the southern hub of Ho Chi Minh City, four individuals were convicted under Article 118 for “Disruption of security”. According to Vietnamese Human Rights Defenders, “[t]he four convicted were arrested on April 25, 2019, for their intention to participate in a peaceful demonstration scheduled on April 30 to mark the 34th anniversary of the fall of the US-backed Saigon regime”. Vo Thuong Trung, 42, and Doan Viet Hoan, 35, were each sentenced to three years in prison, while Ngo Xuan Thanh, 49, and Nguyen Dinh Khue, 41, each received 28 months.

The convictions of these six individuals in one day comes a little over a week after 43-year-old music teacher Nguyen Nang Tinh was sentenced to 11 years in prison and five years house arrest for violating Article 117. According to his lawyers, a Facebook account making anti-SRV posts used the same name as their client. However, they said the account did not, in fact, belong to him. Tinh was arrested May 29, 2019 and convicted on November 16 in the north-central province of Nghe An.

Last week also saw the high-profile arrest of Pham Chi Dung, a journalist with a doctorate in economics, and a founding chairman of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam. Dung, 53, is a former VCP member and is known for his incisive political and economic critiques of both the VCP and SRV. He has written for Voice of America, BBC, Radio Free Asia, NBC News, Nguoi Viet, and Asian Nikkei Review.

Dung’s arrest has been noted by the European Union and condemned by Reporters Without Borders, who hailed him as “an outspoken Vietnamese journalist and leading press freedom defender who for years has been trying to help create an open and informed civil society in Vietnam that is not controlled by its Communist Party.” He is currently being held at the Phan Dang Luu Detention Center in Ho Chi Minh City, one of two centers in the city where political dissidents are usually held while they are being investigated (the other being Chi Hoa Prison). He faces up to 12 years behind bars.

Although freedom of speech, press, and assembly are all guaranteed by Article 25 of the 2013 Vietnamese Constitution, the SRV is a one-party, authoritarian state that does not tolerate challenges to its power. It routinely arrests and convicts activists under Articles 117 and 118 of the penal code, as well as Article 331, which cites  “Abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State”. Such broadly defined articles are regularly used as a catch-all to target citizens who criticize the VCP or demand political reform. The SRV has long claimed that it does not jail prisoners of conscience, only individuals who violate the law. Human rights groups say the two are not mutually exclusive.

Addendum: On November 28, 2019, two more individuals in Dong Nai were convicted under Article 117. Huynh Minh Tam, 41, and his sister Huynh Thi To Nga, 36, were sentenced to nine and five years of prison, respectively, for making Facebook posts critical of the SRV.


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