Vietnam court convicts Catholics in land dispute

Eight Vietnamese Catholics, standing, go on trial Monday, Dec. 8, 2008, for allegedly disturbing public order and damaging property during a series of prayer vigils held last year as part of a campaign to get back confiscated church land. (AP Photo/Vietnam News Agency, Thong Nhat)

Eight Vietnamese Catholics, standing, go on trial Monday, Dec. 8, 2008, for allegedly disturbing public order and damaging property during a series of prayer vigils held last year as part of a campaign to get back confiscated church land. (AP Photo/Vietnam News Agency, Thong Nhat)

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — A Vietnamese court convicted eight Catholics on Monday on charges of disturbing public order and damaging property during a series of prayer vigils to get back confiscated church land, but gave them light sentences.

One defendant received a warning while the others were given suspended sentences ranging from 12 to 15 months. They received up to two years of probation and were sent home.

The mostly peaceful but illegal vigils were a bold step in a country where church-state relations are often tense and the government frowns on public protests of any kind. The dispute did not focus on religious freedom but on a parcel of land worth millions of dollars.

Catholics and their supporters pray outside the Dong Da district court in Hanoi, Vietnam, Monday, Dec. 8, 2008, during a trial. Several hundred Catholics gathered outside the courthouse Monday morning to support eight Vietnamese Catholics who went on trial Monday on charges of disturbing public order and damaging property while holding prayer vigils to demand the return of confiscated church land. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

Catholics and their supporters pray outside the Dong Da district court in Hanoi, Vietnam, Monday, Dec. 8, 2008, during a trial. Several hundred Catholics gathered outside the courthouse Monday morning to support eight Vietnamese Catholics who went on trial Monday on charges of disturbing public order and damaging property while holding prayer vigils to demand the return of confiscated church land. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

Hundreds of Catholics, many carrying pictures of the Virgin Mary, cheered as the defendants emerged from the Donga Da district court. Some raised one of the defendants over their heads in jubilation, while others chanted “Innocent! Innocent!”

Scores of riot police stood guard around the building during the verdict, but no clashes were reported.

As he left the court, defendant Nguyen Dac Hung, 31, said he would appeal his 12-month suspended sentence. “I’m totally innocent,” he said. “This is an unjust verdict.”

While they decried the verdicts, Catholics were relieved by the light sentences. The defendants could have received up to seven years in prison.

“The authorities made a concession to the struggles of our Catholic brothers and sisters,” said Le Quang Uy, a Catholic who came to show his support. “This is our victory.”

The defendants were arrested several months ago during a series of prayer vigils held to demand the return of the land near the Thai Ha church.

Hundreds of Catholics gathered at the site for several weeks. They knocked down a section of the wall surrounding the land, set up an altar and a statue of the Virgin Mary on the site and prayed for its return.

During Monday’s trial, the defendants maintained their innocence, saying they had peacefully sought the return of church land.

“Peaceful vigils cannot be illegal,” said defendant Nguyen Thi Viet, 59. “We did not disturb public order. We did nothing wrong.”

Hanoi authorities say the Thai Ha church and its surrounding land belong to the city. They say a former parish priest signed papers turning the property over to Hanoi in 1962.

Church members insist they have documents verifying their claim on the property.

Property laws are complex in Vietnam, where Communist authorities seized buildings and land from wealthy landowners, churches and other groups after taking power. Such properties were used by the state or redistributed to veterans or others who helped bring the Communists to power.

Earlier this year, Catholics also held vigils at a second valuable parcel of land in central Hanoi, the site of the former Vatican embassy in Vietnam, which closed after the Communist government took power in 1954.

A woman pray in front of Vietnamese police officers outside the Dong Da district court in Hanoi, Vietnam, Monday, Dec. 8, 2008, during a trial. Several hundred Catholics gathered outside the courthouse Monday morning to support eight Vietnamese Catholics who went on trial Monday on charges of disturbing public order and damaging property while holding prayer vigils to demand the return of confiscated church land. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

A woman pray in front of Vietnamese police officers outside the Dong Da district court in Hanoi, Vietnam, Monday, Dec. 8, 2008, during a trial. Several hundred Catholics gathered outside the courthouse Monday morning to support eight Vietnamese Catholics who went on trial Monday on charges of disturbing public order and damaging property while holding prayer vigils to demand the return of confiscated church land. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

In each case, the Catholics began their demonstrations after hearing rumors the government planned to sell the properties to developers.

As the conflicts escalated, the government announced it would convert each site into a public park and open a library at the former Vatican site.

With more than 6 million followers, Catholicism is the second most popular religion after Buddhism in the country of 86 million. Masses at Catholic churches around the country are heavily attended.

Vietnam has often come under international criticism for its record on religious and human rights. But in recent years, relations between Catholics and the government have begun to improve, emboldening church members to assert themselves more.

Vietnam and the Vatican have been discussing the possibility of re-establishing diplomatic relations.

http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hFaNWDuuQ4A1hcYeEtbf3GoGu5AwD94UG40G2

Catholic protesters face court in Vietnam

A Catholic church in Vietnam where eight Catholics have gone on trial on public order charges

A Catholic church in Vietnam where eight Catholics have gone on trial on public order charges

HANOI (AFP) — Eight Vietnamese Catholics went on trial Monday charged with disturbing public order and destroying property in the communist country during rallies over a land dispute.

The defendants were among thousands who joined prayer vigils and peaceful rallies over the past year in the capital Hanoi demanding the return of Catholic church land seized by the state half a century ago.

The eight defendants — four men and four women — are accused of causing public disorder and destroying property, charges that each carry up to seven years’ jail, at the height of the demonstrations in August.

To back the state’s case, prosecutors in court showed video footage of Catholic protesters tearing down part of a brick wall around a disputed parcel of land adjacent to the Thai Ha Redemptorist parish.

Catholics hold a vigil outside a court in Hanoi where eight of their religious group have gone on trial

Catholics hold a vigil outside a court in Hanoi where eight of their religious group have gone on trial

Most church lands and many other buildings and farms were taken over by the state after communists took power in North Vietnam in 1954. The disputed Tai Ha property was used by a state textile factory that has since been demolished.

The Tai Ha property and another disputed plot of land in the centre of Hanoi — the site of the former Vatican embassy adjacent to the main St Joseph’s Cathedral — were turned into public parks in recent months.

Several of the defendants in Monday’s hearing acknowleged taking part in some of the unauthorised mass meetings held since before Christmas 2007, but they told the court they were doing so to protect church property.

“I know for sure the land belongs to the church,” said 54-year-old Ngo Thi Dung, one of two women who has been held in detention for several months.

The other female detainee, Nguyen Thi Nhi, 46, admitted displaying posters and using a musical gong in the rallies, saying she also tried “to protect the land of the church.”

Also on trial but earlier released on bail were two more women — Nguyen Thi Viet, 59, and Le Thi Hoi, 61 — and four men — Le Quang Kien, 63, Pham Chi Nang, 50, Ngyen Dac Hung, 31, and Thai Thanh Hai, 21.

Hoi denied causing public disorder, saying “when we pray, we are quiet.”

Catholics hold a vigil outside court in Hanoi where eight of their religious group have gone on trial

Catholics hold a vigil outside court in Hanoi where eight of their religious group have gone on trial

Access to Monday’s hearing was restricted by officials who cited the small size of the courtroom in the Dong Da local government building.

Four foreign diplomats and two journalists for foreign news organisations were allowed to follow the hearing via closed-circuit television.

Vietnam’s tightly controlled media has largely ignored the trial.

Thousands of Catholics in parishes across Vietnam, including southern Ho Chi Minh City, have held prayers and vigils to support the defendants, said the online Catholic news service vietcatholic.net.

More than 500 Catholic faithful, including priests holding religious icons, held a vigil and sang hymns outside the government building where the trial was being held, watched over by riot police and plain-clothed officers.

“We came here to ask for justice,” said one supporter in the crowd, 67-year-old Nguyen Thi Hoa. “The Catholic detainees are all innocent.”

Another Catholic, holding up a picture of the Virgin Mary, said “the charges are groundless because these people only protected the land of the church. They did not commit any violence against the authorities.”

Vietnam, a former French colony and a unified communist country since the war ended in 1975, has Southeast Asia’s largest Catholic community after the Philippines — at least six million out of a population of 86 million.

http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5i_XFM25iyhj70czxNIb48vCxWegQ

Vietnam Catholics protest at land dispute trial

HANOI (Reuters) – Hundreds of Vietnamese police and riot police sealed off streets leading to a government building on Monday as eight Catholics went on trial over their attempt to claim a plot of disputed land in the capital.

More than 1,000 Vietnamese Catholics turned up at the People’s Committee offices in a Hanoi district to protest against the trial, a rare expression of dissent against the southeast Asian country’s ruling Communist Party.

In a peaceful demonstration, the Catholics sang hymns and held up banners demanding justice for the eight, whose court appearance is the latest twist in a dispute that has been rumbling on for months.

The piece of land in question is owned by a garment company but the protesters argue it is church land.

In August, state television showed pictures of people using hoes and hammers to break what it said was a section of the brick wall surrounding the plot, leading to police claims of “causing public disorder” and “intentional destruction of property.”

“They’re trying these eight people to send a message to the rest,” one of the protesters told Reuters, asking not to be named for fear of recrimination.

Religion remains under state supervision in the mostly Buddhist country, although Vietnam has the second largest Catholic community in Southeast Asia after the Philippines, with about 6 million among the 86.5 million population.

The Hanoi government is working toward establishing formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican, and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited the Pope there a year ago.

(Reporting by John Ruwitch; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Alan Raybould)

http://www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSTRE4B70Q720081208

Coal mine blast kills 7 in Vietnam

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — A blast Monday at a coal mine in northern Vietnam killed at least seven workers and injured 15, a company executive said.

Rescue workers pulled their bodies from a 750-foot-deep (230-meter-deep) tunnel in Quang Ninh province and were still searching for another victim following the methane explosion early Monday morning, said Nguyen Van Thuan of the Khe Cham Coal company.

Fifteen miners were being treated for burns, while 103 others escaped unhurt, he said.

Authorities believe the miners died from severe burns. Investigators were trying to determine what started the blast, Thuan said.

Quang Ninh, about 120 miles (190 kilometers) east of capital Hanoi, is Vietnam’s main coal mining region.

Vietnam’s worst mining accident occurred in 1999, killing 19 workers.

http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5h7qfR8TApUFv7ogCOs96KwRAbcxwD94UANN80

Vietnamese Catholics on trial in land dispute case

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Eight Vietnamese Catholics went on trial Monday on charges of disturbing public order and damaging property while holding prayer vigils to demand the return of confiscated church land.

The Catholics are accused of knocking down a brick wall surrounding property near the Thai Ha church in Hanoi’s Dong Da district during several weeks of prayer vigils late last summer. They face up to seven years in prison.

Several hundred Catholics gathered outside the Dong Da district court Monday morning, displaying pictures of the Virgin Mary. Scores of riot police stood guard around the building, but no clashes were reported.

As testimony began Monday, defendant Nguyen Thi Nhi, 46, said church members held the vigils to “protect the prestige and property of the church.”

Property laws are complex in Vietnam, where communist authorities seized buildings and acreage from wealthy landowners, churches and other groups since taking power in 1954. Such properties were used by the state or redistributed to veterans or others who helped bring the communists to power.

Hanoi authorities, who have since turned the property into a public park, say the Thai Ha church and its surrounding land belong to the city.

The church claims it has documents verifying its claim. The city claims a former parish priest signed papers turning the property over to Hanoi in 1962.

With more than 6 million followers, Catholicism is the second most popular religion after Buddhism in the nation of 86 million.

http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hFaNWDuuQ4A1hcYeEtbf3GoGu5AwD94U9UC80

Vietnam’s market economy leaves the poor behind

Bill Snyder, Chronicle Foreign Service

Monday, December 8, 2008

(12-08) 04:00 PST Ho Chi Minh City — At 16, Xuan Phuong left her home in central Vietnam to join the Viet Minh’s struggle against the French in 1946. She marched barefoot through the mountains, manufactured explosives and acted in propaganda plays for more than a decade before becoming a filmmaker covering the “American War” for North Vietnam.

Twenty years later, Doan Vinh left his wife and three children to join the National Liberation Front in the mountains near Da Nang to fight Americans. He too fought for a decade.

Both still live in what was once South Vietnam – Doan in Da Nang, Xuan Phuong in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon – and both are proud of their past struggles. But the lives of these war veterans could hardly be more dissimilar.

Now retired, Doan, 71, lives in a cramped, stucco house with a leaky roof. Rent and medical insurance for his ill wife consume well over half the family income – a pension of about $120 a month. Meanwhile, Xuan owns an art gallery, a resort on an island in the South China Sea and a number of other business ventures.

Market-based economy

Their lives reflect the stresses of Vietnam’s turn to a market-based economy. As opportunities for a new entrepreneurial class continue to grow, the safety net for the poor is fraying. Farmers and townspeople have been displaced by hotels and factories built by foreign investors; organized labor – where it exists – is impotent; health care is spotty; and traffic and air pollution in major cities have reached critical mass.

“My life,” said Doan’s wife, Mai Thi Kim, “is full of misery.” Even so, Doan’s framed Communist Party membership certificate hangs in the family living room.

Like many veterans of the American War, as it is known in Vietnam, Doan is reluctant to speak about the fighting, saying only that “the past is the past, and it’s now over.”

If there’s lingering bitterness toward his former adversaries, it’s well hidden, and his delight at hosting a gaggle of visiting Americans appears genuine.

Indeed, the war seems far from the minds of most Vietnamese – more than half of the nation’s 86 million inhabitants were born after 1975.

Of more immediate concern is Doan’s struggle to make ends meet. Last year, the family’s former home was destroyed by the monsoon rains that regularly flood central Vietnam. The government’s response? “A few bags of rice,” he said. If he stops paying health insurance premiums that consume 20 percent of his income, he would be unable to pay for his wife’s treatment. Medical care was free in Vietnam until 1989.

Even though the nation has averaged an annual economic growth rate of almost 7 percent between 1997 and 2004, annual per capita income is just $2,600. In 2006, the World Bank estimated that 36 percent of Vietnam’s inhabitants live on just $2 a day.

The turn to the free market began gradually in 1986, when the Communist Party initiated economic reform.

“The feeling was that socialism had made us poor,” said Gang Wells-Dang, co-director of Action for the City, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to improving life in Hanoi.

Wells-Dang, who is married to an American, says that the economic reforms didn’t pick up steam until the end of the U.S. trade embargo in 1994. Between 2001 and 2007, exports to the United States increased 900 percent, according to CIA data.

To be sure, the end of stringent controls on foreign investment injected billions of dollars into the economy and the pockets of many Vietnamese. Between 2000 and 2005, the gross domestic product more than doubled to $53 billion. The relative abundance of cash – for middle and upper classes, at least – is evidenced by the huge popularity of cheap motor scooters and small motorcycles imported from China.

Traffic and pollution

Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are choked with scooter traffic that often overflows onto the crowded sidewalks. The air is so bad that many drivers, and even some pedestrians, wear surgical-style masks. It’s not uncommon to see two people squeezed onto the back of a scooter while the driver talks or sends text messages on another ubiquitous item – the cell phone. Scooters have largely replaced the bicycle, and chunky SUVs, while relatively rare, struggle to navigate the narrow, twisting streets of the capital’s old quarter.

Less obvious to a visitor is the complex of factories in a huge industrial park near Hanoi’s airport. Companies such as Sanyo, Canon, Daewoo and Panasonic formed joint ventures with the government and now employ thousands of people, including many refugees from the still-impoverished countryside.

Conditions in the factories are far from the socialist ideal. Many workers live in ugly shantytowns lining the airport road. Visitors are not permitted beyond the high fence that surrounds the industrial complex, but an underground video by independent filmmaker Tran Phuong Thao making the rounds in Hanoi tells their story.

One woman left the countryside at the behest of a recruiter. But on arriving in Hanoi, she found out the job was contingent on paying the recruiter a fee of $106, more than a month’s salary.

What’s more, the job only lasted a few months. Factories in the park tend to hire for relatively short stints and then force the workers to reapply for their positions, a tactic designed to weed out troublemakers. Those who lose their jobs have no unemployment benefits to fall back on, so the pressure to conform is enormous, says Wells.
Working class loses out

“We went from working-class heroes to cogs in the machine,” said an unidentified female worker in the film. She was later fired and now lives on the street, the filmmaker told a group of American visitors after a private screening in Hanoi.

It’s not surprising that a film critical of the system can only be shown privately, analysts say. The government has little tolerance for dissent by its citizens or reports by foreign reporters based in the country. Earlier this year, Ben Stocking, the chief of the Associated Press Hanoi bureau, was beaten by police while covering one of the capital’s rare demonstrations in which Catholics were demanding more religious freedoms. Tour guides who let their charges witness anti-government actions risk jail time.

When the war with the United States ended in 1975, Xuan Phuong spent time in Paris, where she managed to save a bit of money by working as a translator. She used her savings to buy Vietnamese art and eventually opened the Lotus Gallery in one of Ho Chi Minh City’s fancier neighborhoods. Later, she bought vacation homes on Con Son Island in the South China Sea and developed a small resort where prisoners of the South Vietnamese government once languished in infamous “tiger cages.”

Speaking out

Although her family connections and knowledge of French helped her build a comfortable life, Xuan’s status in the country has been somewhat precarious, she says. In part, her upper-class origins are a mark of suspicion, despite her past heroism.

Now 80, she has spoken out against the injustices of the government, some of which were outlined in her autobiography, “Ao Dai: My War, My Country, My Vietnam,” with the title referring to traditional garb worn by Vietnamese women. Originally written and published in France, the book has had limited distribution in Europe and the United States and has been labeled as “very harmful” by Hanoi. The government objected to her criticism of failed land-reform policies and the growing gap between rich and poor.

Like Doan, Phuong takes pride in Vietnam’s successful fight to become independent of the French and the Americans. But her pride is tinged with sadness over the increasing divide between rich and poor.

“After such a long life, it’s so sad to see so many things that have gone wrong,” she said.

E-mail Bill Snyder at foreign@sfchronicle.com.

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/12/07/MNT61469VC.DTL

U.S. – Vietnam Partnership

07 December 2008

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, Environment, and Science Claudia McMurray visited Ho Chi Minh City, Can Tho City, Lam Dong Province, and Dong Nai Province November 18 to 22 to promote environmental and scientific cooperation between the United States and Vietnam. Two specific goals of her trip were to highlight the importance of cooperation on climate change research and mitigation, and to encourage efforts to preserve wildlife, as well as combat illegal wildlife trafficking.

On November 20, Assistant Secretary McMurray participated in the inauguration of the U.S. government-funded Delta Research and Global Observation Network, or “DRAGON” Institute, in Can Tho. She told the audience the center will provide “the opportunity for scientists from the U.S. and Vietnam to work together to find solutions to the challenges climate change presents to management of each nation’s river deltas,” as the Mississippi and Mekong deltas have common vulnerabilities.

A day before Assistant Secretary McMurray arrived in Vietnam, the United States and Vietnam announced the establishment of a joint working group to study the effects of climate change. The group will operate under the U.S.-Vietnam Science and Technology Agreement signed in 2000.

Assistant Secretary McMurray also met with officials of the Ho Chi Minh City Forest Protection Department and Customs Bureau, with whom she stressed the U.S. commitment to stopping illegal wildlife trafficking, a black market trade that nets traffickers between ten and twenty billion [U.S.] dollars a year. “Some may not know this,” said Ms. McMurray, “the largest market for [illegal wildlife and wildlife products] is China but the second largest market is the U.S.”

Ms. McMurray visited the Cat Tien National Park in Dong Nai province to view rehabilitation centers for the Asian black bear and golden-cheeked gibbon. Both species are endangered because of relentless pressure from poaching for traditional Chinese medicine and the pet trade. She said the U.S.-Vietnam partnership aims to curb both the demand and supply of trafficked wildlife through steps such as wholesale advertising in the United States to raise awareness, and training Vietnamese forest protection forces and customs officials to improve crackdowns on traffickers.

During her visit, Assistant Secretary McMurray also stressed the need to balance economic growth with environmental protection. “The U.S. underwent a period of strong economic development and had conflicts between economic development and environmental development,” she said. “Vietnam should not forget the environmental issue because of economic interests.”

http://www.voanews.com/uspolicy/2008-12-07-voa4.cfm

Water buffalo rampage leaves 2 dead in Vietnam

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — A water buffalo went on a rampage in central Vietnam, killing two villagers and injuring four others before soldiers shot the beast dead, police said Sunday.

The ordeal started Saturday when the buffalo suddenly charged 64-year-old Tran Cam and gored him in the stomach, killing him instantly, said Tran Ngoc Yen, a police officer in Thua Thien Hue province.

Over the next four hours the buffalo ran wild through three villages.

Villagers used large wooden sticks in a bid to tame the buffalo, but it charged and gored 50-year-old Nguyen Van Quyet, Yen said. Quyet was taken to a hospital, where he died hours later.

Soldiers later cornered the beast in a rice field and shot it dead.

An autopsy found the animal had a large tumor in its stomach, and authorities suspect the buffalo went mad from the pain, he said.

Water buffalos are commonly used by farmers in Vietnam to plow rice fields and pull carts.

Thua Thien Hue province is some 400 miles (650 kilometers) south of Hanoi.

http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5ha6BdvePbIfec3Ko4BOmpyu9nn3QD94TKV5G0

Test for Vietnam government: free-speech bloggers

By BEN STOCKING

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Last fall, when police clashed with Catholic protesters over confiscated church land, the Vietnamese public didn’t need to rely on the sanitized accounts in the government-controlled media. They could read all about it on the blogs.

The photos and translated Western news reports about last September’s outlawed prayer vigils were posted in a Vietnamese blogosphere where anything goes — from drugs, sex, marriage and AIDS to blunt criticism of the communist government.

Until now the government has generally taken a hands-off attitude. But officials at the Ministry of Information and Communications appear to be losing patience. They say they are preparing new rules that would restrict blogs to personal matters — meaning no politics.

Blogs and unlicensed news Web sites have taken on added weight since a crackdown on journalists cast a chill over Vietnam’s mainstream media.

In June, two journalists who had aggressively covered a major government corruption case were arrested and one of them was sentenced to two years in prison. Four others had their press cards revoked after running front-page stories decrying the journalists’ arrests.

The bloggers were quick to react.

“We fought two wars to free ourselves from the shackles of imperialism and colonialism, all in the hope of having basic human rights,” wrote Vo Thi Hao, a novelist and painter, on her self-titled blog. “Even the French colonial government allowed private media, opposition parties and free expression.”

Such sentiments would never appear in Vietnam’s state-controlled media, which are dominated by admiring stories of the country’s leaders or dull accounts of the bureaucracy at work.

In the reporting of the vigils organized by the Catholic Church to demand the return of lands seized decades ago, the state media portrayed the protesters as lawless, while the bloggers portrayed them as principled and brave.

“I get information from the blogs that I could never find in the state media,” said Nguyen Thu Thuy, a blogger who delves into her religious beliefs and family life. “Everybody has the right to free expression,” she said in an interview.

Roughly 20 million of Vietnam’s 86 million citizens use the Internet, according to the latest government figures. While high-profile bloggers are concentrated in the big cities, cyber-cafes can be found in all but the most remote corners of the country.

Any public criticism of the government would have been unthinkable a few years ago, but today’s bloggers are sometimes scathing.

A popular Ho Chi Minh City blogger known as Osin recently chided Vietnam’s top-ranking officials for chartering airplanes to fly to international meetings.

“A head of state should not use a chartered plane to show off,” he wrote, pointing out that when the prime minister of Thailand visited Vietnam, he came on a commercial flight. “A politician’s reputation does not depend on whether he can fly around in a big plane. It depends on whether he values the taxpayers’ money.”

Information and Communications Ministry officials did not reply to an interview request from The Associated Press.

Vietnam has yet to go as far as neighboring China does in suppressing undesirable Internet content. It blocks some Web sites run by overseas Vietnamese that the government views as a political threat. But it has not hindered access to Yahoo 360, a blogging platform that is extremely popular with young Vietnamese.

“It’s interesting that they’ve chosen not to block it,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a professor at the University of Hong Kong who has written about China’s Internet policies. “One assumes it’s because they don’t want to deal with the blowback it would cause.”

Still, the government occasionally tries to make an example of those who go too far.

A blogger known as Dieu Cay was charged with tax evasion after encouraging people to protest at the Olympic torch ceremonies in Ho Chi Minh City shortly before the Beijing games last summer. He criticized China’s policies in Tibet and the Spratly Islands, an archipelago in the South China Sea that is claimed by both China and Vietnam.

Vietnam’s government is particularly sensitive to anything it regards as fomenting public protests, and also is wary of upsetting its giant northern neighbor.

Vietnamese bloggers often write confessional postings that have nothing to do with politics.

One named “Sun’s Secret” recently wrote about her upcoming marriage and her fears that she was rushing into it too quickly. “Sometimes I feel like I just want to run away from this relationship,” she confided.

Sun’s Secret also confessed to feeling remorseful because she introduced two friends who slept together and later found out that they were HIV positive.

“Is it my fault?” she asked. “I introduced them.”

Some bloggers say the government has failed to keep up with the spread of blogging, and think it’s too late to roll it back.

“The government doesn’t have the technology or the manpower to control all the bloggers,” read a posting on TTX Vang Anh, a popular self-styled citizens’ “news agency.”

The Associated Press: Test for Vietnam government: free-speech bloggers

Vietnam far from a modern economy

Duncan Mavin in Ho Chi Minh City, Financial Post Published: Friday, December 05, 2008

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (Paul Haigh/Bloomberg News)

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (Paul Haigh/Bloomberg News)

Vietnam was supposed to be the lair of the next Asian Tiger. Ripe for development, open for business, and with a young population eager for the homeland to emulate the economic miracle of its giant neighbour China.

There were all the early signs of growing affluence — Western designer stores such as Louis Vuitton and Burberry — flocked to the nation’s cities and Western investors and bankers were drawn too.

But any visitor to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, can see that Vietnam is still far from a modern economy.

By 10 p.m. the streets are dark and free of pedestrians, shops are shuttered and there are few lights on in any buildings, a result of the government’s campaign to conserve energy. The airport at Ho Chi Minh is near empty and a handful of cars own the road downtown, even though this is a city of seven million people — three times the size of Toronto.

Vietnam’s recent economic data is equally dismal, as rampant optimism has given way to a more realistic view of the country’s future.

The country’s stock market is the worst performer in Asia this year, with the benchmark index tumbling by about 67%. Real estate prices in Hanoi, the capital, and Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s economic hub, have fallen too.

“[We are] encountering challenges in ensuring macroeconomic stability, developing human resources and upgrading infrastructure as it integrates into the world economy,” warned the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Sinh Hung in September.

Early in the year, inflation was Vietnam’s main concern, reaching 28% by August. Inflation eased slightly to 24.2% in November, and growth is now the big issue. Vietnam sells about one fifth of all exports to the U.S., and like its emerging Asian neighbours, the country will suffer if a prolonged global slowdown inhibits foreign investment and limits the developed world’s appetite for cheap exports.

“A deeper global downturn — especially in advanced economies which account for the bulk of Vietnam’s total exports and remittances — will have a material impact on Vietnam,” said IMF assistant director for the Asia and Pacific Department Shogo Ishii in Hanoi this week.

In an effort to stimulate a sputtering economy, the State Bank of Vietnam, which raised interest rates throughout the first half of 2008, has now cut its benchmark interest rate four times since late October. Still, gross domestic product growth is expected to slow from 8.5% in 2007 to 5% this year and 4% in 2009, according to Asian brokerage CLSA.

“The current account deficit is headed for an ugly 19% of GDP this year,” said CLSA analyst Anthony Nafte in a report. Vietnam faces “a long road out of crisis,” he added.

In the early part of 2008, there were plenty of optimists ready to ignore the teething problems of Vietnam’s emerging economy.

Back in April, Goldman Sachs re-affirmed the “next Asian tiger in the making” tag in a report that said Vietnam’s GDP will grow at an average of 8% over the next 14 years.

“We share concerns on the potential risks, including the recent surge in inflation, and challenges in fiscal and monetary policies,” the report from Goldman Sachs noted. “Nevertheless, we are cautiously optimistic about Vietnam’s economic growth given its solid reform path so far.”

Indeed, the communist country, which started on a path to economic liberalism in the mid-1980s, very recently began to make much bigger strides, especially after it was admitted to the World Trade Organization last year.

In particular, Vietnam has plentiful cheap labour and began to open up that resource just as factories in China were hit with costly new labour laws that made them less competitive.

As suitors from richer nations came knocking, Vietnam saw inward foreign investment soar. The country became the biggest beneficiary of private equity deals in South East Asia during 2007 and the first half of 2008, according to a report from consultants Deloitte. Almost a third of all private equity deals in South East Asia during that period were in Vietnam.

But that was only part of the story, and Vietnam certainly had its problems, even before the full extent of the global economic slowdown emerged later in the year.

There’s a growing gulf between rich and poor, as well as a massive skills shortage across many sectors. “If the skill level in Europe is 100% then Vietnam is 30%,” says Matthias Duehn, a German lawyer with DFDL Mekong based in Ho Chi Minh City.

Corruption is another major problem, ranked the second most important business issue facing Vietnam by foreign investors surveyed in a recent Economist Intelligence Unit poll. A measure of the international concern about this issue is that Japan, which pledged US$1.1-billion in low interest development loans to Vietnam last year, this week froze further lending to Hanoi until the government takes “meaningful” steps to eradicate corruption in its public works programs.

Above all, Vietnam has a dearth of the sort of infrastructure needed to tempt more manufacturers from China’s Guangdong province and other low cost regions in Asia to build factories here instead.

A Hong Kong-based private equity player who made a recent trip to Vietnam full of anticipation returned realizing it would be a decade or more before the country is ready to compete with Southern China’s manufacturing base.

The main highway between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi — a distance of more than 1,110 kilometres — is narrow and uneven. There’s no subway or public transit to speak of in Ho Chi Minh City, where the roads are clogged with pollution emitting scooters, and rail travel is not consistent. Though Vietnam is rich in oil, it has no refineries — the first is planned to open next year — and so it is a net importer of a resource of which it has plentiful reserves.

The Vietnamese government recently announced it will spend US$2.2-billion to upgrade the country’s waterways by 2020. But for now Vietnam’s ports are not nearly deep enough to carry the massive container vessels that carry global manufacturing shipments.

“You can get lots of cheap labour to make running shoes but that’s no good if you don’t have a deep enough port to ship the shoes out of the country,” says Mr. Duehn.

Big retail chains like Carrefour and Wal-mart have not yet set up store in Vietnam, a sign of how far the country lags behind other Asian nations. Despite recent reports to the contrary, a Wal-mart company spokesperson told the Financial Post the U.S. giant has no specific plans to move into Vietnam. The U.S. retail giant has more than 200 stores in China.

Also it is impossible to place Vietnam on the Big Mac Index — a widely used back-of-the-envelope way to compare cost of living in two places based on the cost of a McDonalds’ burger. The ubiquitous U.S. fast food chain has not yet made it here. Nor can you meet for a chat in Starbucks because the coffee chain, which even had an outlet in Beijing’s forbidden city until last year, does not have a single store in Vietnam — though Highlands Coffee, a local chain started by Vietnamese-born American David Thai, does a decent imitation.

To the Vietnam optimists, this represents opportunity. Retailers, including Canadian retailers, “should be very, very concerned about Vietnam,” says Thomas Delahaye, Vietnam director for Canadian strategy consultancy Secor Group.

“People have enough money to buy a motorbike, a television and maybe send their kids to an English school. Five years ago it was not possible,” adds the young Frenchman.

Indeed, what most attracts many foreign investors is the country’s potential. In particular, Vietnam has some of the most favourable demographics on the planet. The country has 85 million people, three-quarters of whom are not yet 35-years old. The average age is just 25. There are one million Vietnamese babies born each year and one million people joining the workforce every 12 months. There are high levels of education, literacy, and English. And in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi at least, per capita GDP has already passed US$1,000 — the magic mark that is often perceived to be the first step toward a modern consumer society.

Also in Vietnam’s favour, the country enjoys relative political stability, which recent unrest in Thailand only goes to underline. Despite widespread corruption and concerns about press freedoms and the rule of law, Vietnam has also proven to be open to foreign investment in recent years — exports and imports equal a massive 160% of GDP.

In fact, Western business leaders ranked Vietnam as “providing the broadest range of opportunities [of any South East Asian nation] across most sectors in the next three years, from consumer goods and healthcare to IT,” according to a survey by The Economist Intelligence unit.

Looking for another way to measure the country’s progress, Mr. Delahaye points to the consulting sector he works in. The big international consultancy firms like Bain, McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group have not yet set up permanent bases in Vietnam, he says. With so many business problems to solve, it’s only a matter of time before they get here.

http://www.financialpost.com/news/story.html?id=1038325

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.