Vietnam Needs to Combat Industrial Pollutions says World Bank

June 30, 2008Industrialization is taking its toll on Vietnam’s environment and more funds should be dedicated to fighting pollution, the World Bank said in a study published on June 27. Between 1990 and 2005 Vietnam achieved an average annual growth rate of 7.5% in gross domestic product, driven largely by the industrial sector, but little was being done to protect the environment, the study said.

“There is a growing pressure on the government to raise public expenditure on pollution control and to force business to do the same,” the study said. “The cost to the economy of pollution, which is increasing in volume and toxicity, are becoming evident to the government and the public at large.”

Funds dedicated to fighting pollution gradually grew from 2000 to 2005, when it reached $600 million , But the bank said Vietnam needed about $2.5 billion  to adequately address the problem.

Five provinces or big cities, including the financial hub Ho Chi Minh City and capital Hanoi, are home to 63%  of manufacturing jobs and nearly 55% of the country’s industrial firms. “Industrial pollution is highly concentrated in certain areas of the country, and originates from a few manufacturing subsectors,” the study said.The manufacturing of chemical products and shoes were among the top polluters in the country, the bank said.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2008

PCI ‘bribed’ Vietnamese official

A manager of a Vietnamese organization that oversaw a multibillion yen highway construction project in Ho Chi Minh City received bribes allegedly paid by Pacific Consultants International to secure the contract for the project, which was funded with Japanese official development assistance, a PCI source said.

It also has been learned that PCI allegedly paid bribes on at least two occasions–once in 2003 and once in 2006–reportedly instructed to do so by the headquarters of the major consultancy firm.

“Headquarters ordered us to give money as remuneration for receiving the order,” a former PCI executive reportedly told the special investigation squad at the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office.

Investigators are looking into whether PCI violated the Unfair Competition Prevention Law by bribing an overseas public official.

PCI received about 1.1 billion yen in fiscal 2001 for consultancy work on a project to build a highway traversing Ho Chi Minh City from east to west. In fiscal 2003, a consortium that included PCI and other firms won a contract worth about 2 billion yen. Both were for ODA works funded with yen loans.

According to the PCI source, a manager of PMU–the organization managing the highway construction project–received the alleged bribes.

PMU is a management organization established by the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee–an administrative organization similar to a city office in Japan. It is responsible for overseeing infrastructural improvements such as roadworks and waterworks.

The cross-city highway was a massive project that involved tunneling under the Saigon River in the city. The total project cost was about 80 billion yen.

The alleged bribes were paid in spring 2003, immediately after the consortium received the order for consultancy work, and again in 2006. Both payments were in U.S. dollars, reportedly amounting to a sum equivalent to several tens of millions of yen.

“Both the payments were ordered by the headquarters,” a former PCI executive is said to have told investigators during questioning. The executive also reportedly said the funding in 2003 was “remuneration to get the order.”

The executive later worked as the head of an affiliated company in Hong Kong that was allegedly used by PCI as part of a tax evasion scam. PCI sent money to that company to help win contracts for ODA projects in southeast Asia.

Investigators plan to cooperate with judicial authorities in Vietnam to investigate the alleged shady funding.

Speaking Up for Vietnam

A Buddhist monk missing since authorities evicted him from his pagoda. A Montagnard Christian beaten to death in police custody. A lawyer involuntarily committed to a mental hospital after she championed the rights of farmers kicked off their land. Journalists jailed for exposing corruption. A young man sentenced to prison after chatting online about democracy and human rights. More than 400 people wasting away in harsh prison conditions for their political views or religious beliefs.

This week, the prime minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Tan Dung, brings Vietnam’s road show to Wall Street and meets President Bush and leaders likely including the U.S. presidential contenders, John McCain and Barack Obama.

When America’s political and financial leaders sit down with Prime Minister Dung, they should not forget these courageous individuals and should address directly the systemic pattern of rights violations in Vietnam that they represent: the Vietnamese government’s lack of tolerance for dissent and denial of fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religious belief.

In Vietnam today, the government still controls all media, as evidenced by the arrest in March 2008 of two investigative reporters who exposed a major corruption scandal in 2005. The reporters, Nguyen Viet Chien of Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper and Nguyen Van Hai of Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper face charges of “abusing their positions and powers while performing official duties.”

Police harass and arrest bloggers and cyber-dissidents for Internet postings critical of the government. In January 2008, a court sentenced cyber-dissident Truong Quoc Huy to six years of imprisonment for distributing leaflets criticizing the Communist Party and participating in pro-democracy forums on the Internet. He was charged with “abusing democratic freedoms of association, expression, assembly to infringe on the interests of the state.”

National security laws are used to imprison members of opposition political parties, independent trade unions, and unsanctioned press outlets or religious organizations. Laws such as Ordinance 44 authorize the detention without trial of dissidents at “social protection centers” and psychiatric facilities if they are deemed to have violated national security laws.

In March 2008, police arrested Bui Kim Thanh, an activist who defended victims of land confiscation and involuntarily committed her to a mental hospital.

Mr. Bush should know that Vietnam’s leaders harass and arrest church leaders campaigning for rights or choosing not to affiliate with state-controlled religious oversight committees. For the last 30 years the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam’s Supreme Patriarch, Thich Huyen Quang, has either been in prison or under house arrest for publicly protesting government policies.

Authorities have beaten and arrested members of ethnic minorities in remote areas such as Montagnard for refusing to join state-sanctioned church organizations, protesting land confiscation, making contact with relatives or Montagnard groups abroad, or trying to seek political asylum in Cambodia.

In April of this year, police arrested Y Ben Hdok in Dak Lak after other Montagnards in his district tried to flee to Cambodia. Police refused to allow his family or a lawyer to visit him during three days in detention. On May 1, police told Mr. Y Ben’s wife to pick up his battered body. His rib and limbs were broken and his teeth had been knocked out. Police labeled the death a suicide.

During Prime Minister Dung’s visit to America, he should hear that the American people and government care about how Vietnam treats its people. This is an all too rare chance to back Vietnam’s courageous activists, writers, and human rights defenders, who have risked their liberty to make their country more open, tolerant, and free.

Why Vietnam Needs Freedom Now

PROTESTS will surely sur round Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s meeting today with President Bush. But Dung will no doubt still find it a relief to be out of his own country: Back home, the economy is in turmoil, with popular discontent rising.

Yet the crisis presents Dung with a huge opportunity: the chance to open up the system and go down in history as a reformer.

Vietnam has enjoyed strong growth these last few years, and acceptance into the World Trade Organization has put it firmly on the path of integration into the world economy. But Dung’s campaign of doi moi (economic renovation) is in trouble, as the people suffer a host of ills.

Inflation rose 25 percent in May, with food prices up to 42 percent higher than a year ago. Unemployment is high. Soaring global oil prices add to the pain – as does the weaker US dollar, which lowers the value of remittances sent from overseas Vietnamese.

And all this helps expose a bigger problem – an oppressive state bureaucracy that is now the chief obstacle to progress.

The government can’t seem to control inflation; the education system doesn’t teach young people the skills they need for a global economy.

Huge government investments are plowed into inefficient national companies. Abuses of power, such as the expropriation of land without fair compensation, are rampant.

Increasingly, Vietnamese are showing their frustration – with responses ranging from simple non-cooperation to the nationwide wave of factory strikes.

The government has responded in typical fashion – arresting activists, freelance bloggers, lawyers, businessmen, students, farmers and workers.

Vietnam still has huge growth potential. Last year, overseas Vietnamese sent more than $7 billion to family back home – a significant boost for the economy. Overseas donors and lending agencies have promised millions in aid.

And foreign direct investment rose by $15.7 billion in just the first few months of this year.

In short, the problem Dung faces is not a lack of willing investors. It is a government bureaucracy that remains defiantly rigid and unaccountable.

Consider Vietnam’s most notorious recent corruption case, where government officials appropriated millions of dollars – some of it funded by foreign aid – to place bets on European soccer matches.

Several officials were put on trial and convicted of misusing the funds and then trying to cover up their misdeeds with bribery.

But then, last month, two newsmen who helped expose the scandal were arrested – which most Vietnamese see as the bureaucracy’s revenge.

It will be next to impossible for the nation to address corruption and hold authorities accountable if journalists who expose these misdeeds are threatened with jail.

This is Dung’s moment – if he’ll take it. He needs to impress upon the politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party that managing all the strains of a fast-developing society is easier if there is a free market of opinions as well as of goods and services.

Economic strains will confront the government with some tough decisions. But these decisions will be easier to sell to the people if citizens feel they have had some say in reaching them.

Why wait? By using today’s problems to open up, Dung can help bring stability and prosperity to Vietnam. By changing its present stagnant course, Hanoi can ensure that unrest does not break out into chaos – something no one wants, least of all foreign investors with hundreds of millions at stake.

And by opening up, Dung will help the Vietnamese achieve something that millions of their neighbors already have: freedom.

This is also a unique moment for the United States. American influence (mainly via growing US investment) is the only real agent for change in the country right now; Vietnam desperately needs that influence to continue.

The people need increased trade and outside investment so we can improve our education system and lift ourselves out of poverty. But we also need investors to speak out on the need for reform that will increase transparency and accountability – and help build a democratic Vietnam that respects the dignity and rights of its people.

We Vietnamese want change. We know that the government can’t deny us our freedoms forever. And we hope America’s business and political leaders take the chance to remind Vietnam’s prime minister of that truth during their meetings this week.

VIETNAM: Ban on street vendors threatens livelihoods

Photo: Martha Ann Overland/IRIN
A bicycle vendor carries dozens of baskets for sale through the streets of Hanoi

HANOI, 23 June 2008 (IRIN) – For the past decade, Nguyen Thi Lan has risen at 3am to boil up a pot of sticky rice. Before the sun comes up, she packs it into a bamboo basket, secures it to her bicycle and begins the long ride to Hanoi. In the city, she serves up scoops of rice sprinkled with dried pork, peanuts and sesame seeds and on a good day she will return home with $3.50.

Lan has no choice but to do this work ever since most of her family’s rice paddies were “reclaimed” by local officials, she says, and sold to developers. Far from grumbling about the long hours and meagre pay, Lan says the money has allowed her to send her children to school and ensure they do not go hungry.

But from 1 July, Lan will no longer be able to sell her packets of sticky rice in the city because street vendors will be banned from commercial streets. Lan says her family will starve.

“We will all go hungry,” Lan says. “We are poor people. We have no land. We are dependent upon the street.”

Mobile vendors have been an integral part of Hanoi’s street life for centuries. Women in conical straw hats, balancing twin baskets suspended from bamboo poles, are one of the city’s most enduring images.

Selling goods from bamboo baskets and bicycles also provides income to villagers with little education and few other means of support. According to the Asian Development Bank project, Making Markets Work Better for the Poor, an estimated 5,000 mobile vendors – mostly women – operate in the city centre. Like Lan, most are the family’s main breadwinners.

Photo: Martha Ann Overland/IRIN
These women will be banned from Hanoi’s streets as of 1 July 2008

Vendors also provide a service. In a country that has yet to develop a supermarket culture, mobile vendors provide city dwellers with everything from cheap fruit and vegetables to bras and live tropical fish.

To the People’s Committee of Hanoi, however, they are a menace. As the capital modernises, cars, motorbikes, rickshaws and street vendors all try to squeeze through the Old Quarter’s narrow lanes. With shop wares spilling on to the sidewalks and instant hairdressers and bike repairmen to dodge, walking down Hanoi’s congested streets is not for the faint-hearted.

The ban is designed to make the city more habitable, says an official from the Hanoi Trade Management Division, who asked not to be named. “It is to beautify the city,” he said, referring to Decision 02, which bans mobile vendors from 62 streets. “Hawkers are a major reason for traffic problems. We believe that once the ban is enforced it will help improve urban sanitation, food hygiene and ease congestion.”

On the run

Hanoi has no programmes to help mobile vendors find alternative employment. No NGO has taken up their case. These traders do not belong to a labour union. Because they are literally on the run all the time, they are notoriously difficult to organise.

“What will we live on?” asks Ng Thi Hoa, pausing nervously before setting down her baskets. If she stops too long, police can give her a Green Ticket, which varies from 20,000 (US$1.15) to 50,000 dong (US$2.90) depending on the infraction and is supposed to go to a street cleaning and waste removal fund.

Photo: Martha Ann Overland/IRIN
Vegetable sellers will no longer be allowed to ply Hanoi’s busiest streets beginning 1 July

Hoa sells bundles of incense sticks, earning about 7 US cents for every pack she sells. Out of the $2 or $3 she earns, she has to pay 70 cents for a place to sleep – a mattress on a floor in a room shared with other market women. Food and shelter take up half her earnings, the rest goes to her children in her village. “The entire family depends upon the sale of these ancestral offerings,” Hoa says.

But not everyone sees the ban as spelling the vendors’ demise. The status of Hanoi’s street hawkers is very murky, says Paule Moustier, a food marketing researcher with CIRAD, the French institute that studies agriculture in Asia. One regulation calls it illegal and another one taxes it with the Green Ticket.

“The new ban essentially recognises that they can carry out activities but in restricted areas,” says Moustier. By establishing that they are legitimate, it would be easier to organise street vendors and minimise harassment from officials, Moustier argues.

For now, Hoa’s plan is to outrun the police when the ban goes into effect, making working conditions even more desperate. But with all her family’s land gone and two children back home, a life on the run, she says, is better than starvation.

Human rights in Vietnam on agenda

President Bush will meet with Vietnam’s prime minister this week in Washington, and it is being reported that the White House is committed to bringing up the subjects of human rights and religious persecution.

Vietnam has a history of persecuting Christians involved in the underground movement. Todd Nettleton, spokesman for Voice of the Martyrs, says although the situation has improved over a five- to ten-year period, Vietnam still has a long way to go.

“… [T]hey are still not at the level of saying to their people [they] can worship God how [they] want to … without the interference of Communist officials …,” he notes. “They have worked very diligently to try to present the world a picture of more openness and more freedom of religion — but the reality is that thousands of Christians in Vietnam don’t have the freedom to assemble together ….”

Judith Ingram of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also agrees that Vietnam has improved. “But we think really it’s too soon to determine whether the Vietnamese government is truly committed to respecting religious freedom instead of maintaining control of its religious communities,” she contends.

However, human rights groups and some members of Congress suggest Vietnam has increased repression of political activists and religious leaders. And the Commission on International Religious Freedom is hopeful Vietnam will be under the watchful eye of the State Department.

“We believe strongly,” notes Ingram, “that Vietnam should continue to be on the list of ‘countries of particular concern’ because of persistent and severe religious freedom restrictions targeting some ethnic minorities, Protestants, Buddhists, Vietnamese Mennonites … and monks and nuns associated with the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.”

She points out that one of the purposes of establishing positive trade ties with Vietnam was to help develop a dialogue on issues such as religious persecution.

Vietnam motor-cyclo drivers protest vehicle ban

HANOI (AFP) — More than 100 drivers of three-wheeled motor cyclos, many of them invalid veterans of the ‘American war,’ Monday protested against a looming ban of their vehicles in communist Vietnam’s cities.

The men in Hanoi said a government prohibition from July 1 of the modified motorcycles — which are now commonly hired to transport bulky goods through traffic-choked urban streets — will deprive them of their livelihoods.

“We laid wreaths at the war martyrs’ monument this morning,” said Le Thanh Tam, 59, a driver supplementing a 60-dollar state war pension he receives after losing his left leg in a southern battlefield in 1969.

“I’ve had this vehicle for four years, helping people transport furniture when they move house. I earn 50,000 to 100,000 dong (2.9 to 5.8 dollars) a day. My wife and two children are unemployed … How can we live now?”

Police kept a close eye on the drivers — many of whom were dressed in olive army garb and soldiers’ pith helmets — and who had parked their vehicles in a row on the edge of a busy street outside a Hanoi government office.

“We need them (the government) to create new jobs for us, or to allow us to keep the vehicles and to register them,” Tam told AFP.

Authorities in Hanoi and the southern commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City have announced a July 1 ban on all modified three- and four-wheeled vehicles, aiming to reduce traffic jams, air pollution and road accidents.

Hanoi has about 2,000 of the three-wheelers, according to traffic police figures quoted by the Lao Dong (Labour) newspaper, and Ho Chi Minh City has over 20,000, the Thanh Nien (Young People) daily reported.

Authorities in Hanoi also plan to ban from July 1 the city’s street vendors — mostly rural workers who now hawk produce and consumer goods on foot or bicyle — from almost 100 major streets and public places.

Both bans were announced early this year but delayed amid public criticism.

Food poisoning hospitalises hundreds in Vietnam

Hundreds of workers from a footwear factory in Vietnam have been hospitalised after showing symptoms of food poisoning, an employee of the firm and state media said.

A staff member from the Taiwanese-owned VMC Hoang Gia factory in southern Vietnam said “several hundred” had been hospitalised, but the state-run Tuoi Tre newspaper said the number was “almost 1,000”.

“Most of them became dizzy and several others suffered from stomach ache and headache after having dinner of rice with tofu, cabbage and fish on Monday,” in the factory canteen, the staff member said.

Many workers had been discharged but others were still in local hospitals for treatment, the staff member said, asking not to be named.

Provincial health officials in Tay Ninh, where the factory is located, are investigating the case, the employee added.

Food poisoning outbreaks, especially in factory canteens, have become more common in Vietnam with bad hygiene often blamed as the key culprit.


Vietnamese student dies after selling kidney in China

Hanoi – A student has died at his home in central Vietnam after selling one of his kidneys in China to earn money to marry his girlfriend, officials said Monday.

To Cong Luan, a 22-year-old student at the Industrial Technical College in Ho Chi Minh City, died Sunday at his home in a town in the central province of Ninh Thuan, according to Pham Thi Hong Phan, an official with the town’s People’s Committee.

‘He died yesterday evening,’ Phan said. ‘He was brought home from a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City more than a month ago after doctors said he was incurable.’

Luan had his left kidney removed in December at a hospital in Guangzhou, China, where he developed paralysis after the operation, according to Phan. He was brought back to Vietnam in April and was treated at a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City until his family took him home.

Luan was living in Ho Chi Minh City with his girlfriend Ho Thi Khanh Minh, 18, in 2007 when he met a woman who offered him 50 million dong (3,000 dollars) for his kidney, according to the newspaper Phap Luat Ho Chi Minh City.

Luan had met the woman, Nguyen Thi Thuy, 58, at a military hospital where he periodically went to sell blood, the newspaper said.

Thuy took Luan to China on December 10, 2007, where a Chinese man acted as a broker to sell Luan’s kidney to the hospital.

‘We didn’t know what he sold his kidney for, but his girlfriend told other people that he did it for money to organize a wedding with her,’ Luan’s father, To Cong Son, was quoted as saying.

Police in Vietnam have not arrested Thuy and have not launched a criminal investigation into the case.

‘We haven’t launched a criminal investigation into the case because Luan himself made the decision to sell his kidney in China,’ said Mai Van Tan, chief of the Social Crime Investigation Department of Ho Chi Minh City. ‘There’s not enough basis for a case.’

Luan’s girlfriend Ho Thi Khanh Minh is seven months pregnant, according to the news website VnExpress.

Inflation juggernaut bears down on Vietnam bourse

It has to be one of the worst ever stock market runs. Ho Chi Minh City fell every trading day in May and early June amid gloom over skyrocketing inflation and an economy seemingly going off the rails.

By the time the market had finished its 25-day slide last week, the index was down 60 per cent from the start of the year, making it the world’s worst performer.

Vietnam’s problems illustrate the difficulties of many emerging market countries as they struggle to keep a lid on inflation.

After years of growth, these economies are facing questions over how to contain rising prices, exacerbated by the soaring value of oil and food.

Inflation in the 20 largest emerging market economies rose to 6.9 per cent in March from 4.5 per cent in March last year, according to Fitch.

In Vietnam, inflation hit 25 per cent at the end of May, the highest level since 1993.

However, there are signs Vietnam’s market may be at a turning point as Hanoi signals a growing determination to battle inflation even if it means sacrificing growth.

On four of the past five trading days, Ho Chi Minh City has risen, gaining nearly 4 per cent in total. Volumes have increased from $2.4m on June 10 – the day before it hit bottom – to $20m on Tuesday.

“I am not saying this is the end of the bear market,” Kevin Snowball, a director at Ho Chi Minh City-based PXP Asset Management, said.

“It may be that it turns out to be the proverbial dead cat bounce. But for the time being, we are stepping back and having a look at whether there is any conviction on the upside.”

Selling pressure seemed to ease after the State Bank of Vietnam raised an interest rate last week to 14 per cent from 12 per cent, its second rate rise in three weeks, as part of an increasingly aggressive monetary tightening.

Previously, it had relied on administrative edicts and mandatory bond purchases by banks to drain liquidity.

“The central bank is starting to develop a more sophisticated monetary policy framework, one which uses interest rates in a more transparent way,” Benedict Bingham, the IMF’s resident representative in Hanoi, said.

But many still worry over whether Hanoi is doing enough to curb its spending and spending by state-owned enterprises – a factor in the overheating.

“The fiscal stance for 2008 is not yet clear to investors,” Mr Bingham said.

“The government needs to put the pieces together and answer the basic question that everyone is asking, which is: Is fiscal policy going to pull in the same direction as monetary policy?”

The jury is out on whether Vietnam, like the rest of the emerging market universe, will be able to tackle the serious problems that inflation is creating for its economy and markets.