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.



Test for Vietnam government: free-speech bloggers


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.


The Growing NGO Lobby in Vietnam

Nguoi-viet.com, News report, Jami Farkas, Posted: Dec 06, 2008

Professional lobbyists are gaining ground in Vietnam as shifting laws give stakeholders a larger say in policy making.

NGOs in Vietnam are advocating for government policy change as authorities become more open to the role professional lobbyists can play in formulating laws.

Since the 1990s, international Non-Government Organizations’ main work has been helping with Vietnam ’s socio-economic development plans. They traditionally provide financial assistance and planning in areas such as health, poverty reduction and education by working with local nonprofit organizations such as the Vietnam Women’s Union, with lobbying just playing a minor role in their work.

The government, through the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations and the Committee for Foreign Non-Governmental Organization Affairs, has called on them to help in particular areas such as HIV/AIDS and vocational training.

But international integration and the country’s accession to the World Trade Organization have paved the way for more lobbying.

”There has been a big change in the process of government policy making in Vietnam,” said Vu Thi Nga, a consultant for the Consultancy on Development (CODE), an NGO that has been helping to bring together government representatives and NGOs at lobby workshops in Hanoi over the last two years.
Nga said there used to be a ”top down” system that created a lot of ”overlapping” in the Vietnamese legal framework.

But she said that a new law on the promulgation of legal documents passed in June had made the situation better.

The CODE consultant said the new law mandated that law and policy makers must carry out impact assessments of new laws while also proposing solutions to possible risks and consulting public opinion on the new measures.

She said agencies now have to publish draft laws on their Web site for 60 days.

Nga said CODE was established in March 2007 to carry out development research, advocate for policy, build partners’ advocacy capacity and improve public awareness of the need for lobbying.
She said the nonprofit organization was working to help people recognize the need to use professionals to advocate for policy change.

”I think that heightening people’s awareness of lobbying is the thing that must be done immediately in order to build professional lobbying in Vietnam,” she said.

Nguyen Anh Thuan, who consults for PACT Vietnam managing and developing grants from the U.S. government, said that lobbying was more successful than it used to be because members of the government travel a lot more than they used to and they have seen programs working in other countries such as Thailand and Australia.

The consultant, with 15 years’ experience, in the HIV/AIDS field, said he had worked with the ministries of Health and Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs to develop policies to help fight the epidemic.
During the building of the Can Tho bridge which started in 2004, he was the first person to alert the Ministry of Health to the HIV/AIDS risk posed when migrant workers are employed on large scale infrastructure construction jobs, he said.

What resulted was a 2006 policy that all big projects with a migrant workforce nationwide must have an HIV prevention program.

He said to advocate policy change, ”Groups of different NGOs, provincial HIV/AIDS centers need to have representatives of people affected with HIV and government partners and agencies.”

”You need to have people work with you, do workshops and educate the local media,” he said.

Regarding the HIV issue, the PACT consultant said, ”The government has become really open, accepting of the issues” because the manner of advocacy was diplomatic, constructive and well prepared.

He said as a result of his NGO’s lobbying, the Japanese government and the Ministry of Transport allocated US$170,000 for an HIV-prevention program in Can Tho for workers and residents and that such programs have spread all over the Greater Mekong Region.

He said that in the context of HIV prevention, he didn’t think the government was shackled by a concern that it was a moral issue, instead he said they just want to see evidence that HIV prevention programs are not going to pose a risk.

He said this is the role of professional advocates for policy change.

According to Nga, there are three main reasons why lobbying operates less effectively in Vietnam than other countries: a lack of professional lobbying organizations to convey information ”accurately and effectively” to the government; ”distortion of lobbying” in Vietnam by corruption, bribery and wheeling and dealing; and a ”too cumbersome” administration system.

”It is difficult for lobbyists to identify who they need to lobby. To improve lobbying activities in Vietnam , the government needs to simplify the administration system and create personal responsibility in machinery of government.”


Donors pledge $5 bln soft loans, grants to Vietnam

Vo Hong Phuc, Minister of Planning and Investment in Vietnam and Consultative Group co-chairman, left, listens as James W. Adams, vice president of the World Bank and Consultative Group co-chairman, right, speaks during closing session in Consultative Group Meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, Friday, Dec. 5, 2008. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

Vo Hong Phuc, Minister of Planning and Investment in Vietnam and Consultative Group co-chairman, left, listens as James W. Adams, vice president of the World Bank and Consultative Group co-chairman, right, speaks during closing session in Consultative Group Meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, Friday, Dec. 5, 2008. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — International aid donors pledged $5 billion in low-interest loans and grants to Vietnam on Friday, with the total falling slightly from last year because Japan has frozen aid until the communist country takes effective measures to tackle corruption.

Last year, donors pledged $5.4 billion in official development assistance to booming Vietnam, which has recorded economic growth of at least 7 percent annually over the past decade.

On Thursday, Japan, which has provided more development aid than any other country to Vietnam, said it would make no new loans to Vietnam next year.

The announcement came after four Japanese executives pleaded guilty last month to paying $820,000 in bribes to a Vietnamese official overseeing a highway project in Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s southern commercial and financial hub.

Tokyo has said it would only resume providing aid to Vietnam when effective anti-corruption measures are in place.

Other donors also raised concern about corruption, as well as the recent arrests of two Vietnamese journalists.

“The events of the last six months have raised concerns with respect to whether the media is being encouraged to actively report on corruption within the government,” said James Adams, vice president of the World Bank.

Minister of Planning and Investment Vo Hong Phuc replied that the journalists “were arrested for breaching laws, not because they were fighting corruption.”

Phuc praised international donors for their support in the face of a deepening global economic downturn.

“In spite of difficult times and the financial crisis, most countries have increased their aid commitment to Vietnam,” Phuc said. “This reflects the donors’ support for the policies of the Vietnamese government.”

The World Bank became the largest aid donor, with a pledge of $1.66 billion, and the Asian Development Bank pledged $1.57 billion. The European Union will give $893 million.

Over the past three years, donors have pledged a total of $13.6 billion in development aid to Vietnam, of which over $6 billion has been spent, mostly on infrastructure projects, according to the government.


Western Donors Urge Vietnam To Respect Human Rights

Editor: Sharon Li
5 Dec 2008 08:35:00 GMT

HANOI (AFP)–The European Union and the United States on Thursday urged communist Vietnam to guarantee civil liberties, following the recent jailing of a journalist who helped uncover a major corruption case.

The European Union told Vietnam at an international donors meeting focused on Vietnam’s economy that it wanted to “underline that political and civil rights are equally important and should not be separated.”

“We strongly believe that by not respecting the political and civil rights, the path of progressive development will be seriously hampered” in Vietnam, the E.U. said in a statement.

The bloc said it “shares international concern” over the recent two-year jail term for newspaper journalist Nguyen Viet Chain, who had helped uncover a major corruption scandal in a transport ministry unit three years ago.

The U.S. said in its statement to the Consultative Group meeting that “Vietnam’s economic performance and its international reputation are compromised by restrictions placed upon the personal freedom of its citizens.”

“Greater tolerance of dissent and differing views are essential for the country to achieve its full potential,” it said.

Meanwhile, a group of four Western countries urged Vietnam “to continue to improve access to religion” in the Central Highlands, where unrest broke out in 2001 and 2004 fueled by land pressures in the coffee-growing region.

Rights groups say the government has repressed ethnic minorities practicing Christianity there because it links the religion to “hostile forces” in the United States, the communist government’s former wartime enemy.

The Western group – made up of Canada, Norway, Switzerland and New Zealand – said it had “noted some positive trends towards greater religious freedom in the region” during a visit to three provinces there last month.


Corruption could hinder growth, international expert warns

Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter (L) and Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai in Hanoi Tuesday

Vietnam’s leaders need to urgently tackle corruption, which is putting economic growth at risk, an economic expert has warned.

Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter said a strong press was a key plank in exposing and preventing corruption.

“Corruption could make any country’s progress come to a complete stop,” Porter told the Global Competitiveness and Competitive Advantages of Vietnam conference in Ho Chi Minh City on Monday.

The country has experienced impressive growth over the last two decades, Porter said. However, reforms so far have not been enough to lift Vietnam to the middle income economy bracket.

The reforms implemented over the next couple of years will determine whether the country will follow the experience of the Republic of Korea or the Philippines, he said.

South Korea had a nominal annual per capita income of US$20,015 in 2007. In the same year, the Philippines had a per capita income of $1,626 and Vietnam $829, according to International Monetary Fund estimates released last month.

Porter said every country’s competitiveness depended on its efficient use of human capital, cash and natural resources.

According to the Global Competitiveness Report 2008, Vietnam’s global competitiveness index score was -0.35, with the nation’s monthly minimum wage at about $50.

Vietnam fell two places to 70th in the 2008 Global Competitiveness Report, chaired by Porter and released in October by the World Economic Forum.

A series of experts have identified the key barriers to Vietnam’s economic growth as high inflation, poor infrastructure and a lack of skilled laborers.

Porter said the current global economic downturn meant Vietnam should set its key priorities as reducing corruption, improving infrastructure and improving the skills of its workforce.

He said the government also needed to urgently introduce the financial market reforms that were part of Vietnam’s World Trade Organization (WTO) commitments, as well as reform state-owned enterprises.

The more important thing was for all levels of government to commit to the same agenda, he said.

Too many levels of government in Vietnam was also holding back development, with each locality working on its own programs, Porter said on the sidelines of another seminar in Hanoi Tuesday.

Economists and policy-makers, including Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai, also attended the Country Competitiveness Discussion in Hanoi.

Some attendees at the HCMC conference on Monday said the government had made a good start in tackling corruption.

“I do believe the government here is on the right track to fight corruption despite lots of work needing to be done in the time ahead,” Bo Eklund, Danish businessman and general director of private equity fund management company FMS Vietnam, told Thanh Nien Daily on the sideline of the seminar.

In the long term, Vietnam could focus on agricultural development to turn itself into one of the world’s largest suppliers of food and foodstuffs, Porter said. Alternatively, the country could invest in warehouses and seaports to become a leading global cargo transit center.

Do Xuan Quang, managing director of freight forwarding company Vector Aviation, said Porter’s proposal for Vietnam’s competitiveness plan should guide the nation’s policymakers.

“Porter’s competitiveness action agenda for Vietnam sounds great but the issue is how we will implement it,” said Pham Chi Lan, vice president of the Institute of Development Studies.

Pho 24 restaurant chain founder Ly Quy Trung also said Porter’s message seemed sensible.

“Our economy still expects shortcomings next year,” Trung said. “However, crisis always goes along with opportunity.”

The competitiveness seminar in HCMC was hosted by the Pace Institute of Directors and attracted more than 1,000 attendees from Vietnam and neighboring Asian countries.

Reported by Vinh Bao – Truong Son