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Vietnam: Citizens against Corruption

Corruption’s cruel backlash: the case of Doan Van Vuon

Early last year near the port-side city of Hai Phong, fish farmer Doan Van Vuon armed himself with homemade bombs and guns in a violent resistance against the public officials who had come to forcibly confiscate his land.

Doan Van Vuon acquired his property back in 1993 and like all landholders in Vietnam received only temporary land-use rights. In that time he converted what was once swampland into a profitable business raising fish and prawn on his land.

The confrontation with public officials left seven security officers injured but the publicity the case generated led to Vietnam’s prime minister publically rebuking local authorities in Hai Phong and declaring the eviction to be illegal. The day following the confrontation, Vuon’s property was stormed by more than 100 police and public security officials who demolished both Vuon and his brother’s houses, which was not even on the land marked for confiscation.

Doan Van Vuon and his family have since been allowed to keep their land as an investigation showed local officials had made mistakes in ordering his eviction, but in April this year he was sentenced to five years imprisonment for attempted murder as a result of the conflict with the authorities.

In the past two years, Vietnam has witnessed extraordinary examples of ordinary people standing up against corruption. But these concerned citizens face difficult challengers and in some cases find themselves targeted for their courage by the institutions they criticise.

Take the case of Doan Van Vuon (see box) a small business man thrown off his land because of a dispute: he ended up physically confronting people from the local authorities when his legal appeals were dismissed and although his land claims were later upheld, he was sentenced to prison for attempted murder. Several months earlier, investigative journalist Hoang Khuong who went undercover to expose police corruption but was sentenced to four years for bribing a policeman in a sting operation he staged and recorded for his article.

In Vuon’s case, the Hai Phong People’s Court later found that issues in land management had resulted in mistakes in revoking his land. Others have pointed out that evictions are in some cases driven by local officials who receive “commissions” from new landholders.

The courage of their convictions

Despite these kinds of reprisals some people are still willing to speak out against corruption. Retired school teacher Le Hien Duc, 80, who won the 2007 Transparency International Integrity Award, continues to receive complaints and petitions against corruption related to land grievances, and there is now a website, www.toidihoilo.com for people to lodge and share their experiences with bribery. A group of university students have also developed codes of conduct for students and teachers as part of the School is Beautiful project to improve integrity and transparency in education.

Some of these initiatives have been recognized and supported by government and development partners in Vietnam through the Vietnam Anti-Corruption Initiative (VACI) Programme.

Taking the pulse

Transparency International’s 2013 Global Corruption Barometer found that land management was perceived to be the second most corrupt sector in Vietnam with more than one in five people who came into contact with land services paying a bribe in the past year. Furthermore, corruption in land appears to be getting worse in urban Vietnam, with 34 per cent of urban citizens paying a bribe in 2013, compared to 25 per cent in 2010 in a similar survey by Transparency International.

Corruption in the police and the judiciary are also increasing. The number of urban Vietnamese citizens, out of those who had contact with the sector, who paid a bribe jumped to 64 per cent for the police (from 49 per cent in 2010) and 22 per cent for the judiciary up from 16 per cent in 2010.

The effects of self-censorship

The systemic problem of corruption in the key institutions which are meant to protect the legitimate rights and interests of citizens, show the quandary faced by people like Vuon. His well-publicised story and similar cases have provoked public protests that show there is growing anger against perceived public mismanagement and lack of transparency and accountability in the performance of public officials. But overall Vietnamese citizens are becoming increasingly pessimistic over the role people can play against corruption.

In 2013, 53 per cent of urban Vietnamese disagreed that ordinary can make a difference against corruption, compared to only 33 per cent in 2010. Seventy-nine per cent of people said they would not report corruption because “it wouldn’t make a difference” or because “they are afraid of the consequences.” Vietnamese citizens are the least willing out of all countries surveyed in Southeast Asia to report a case of corruption and the least likely to refuse to pay a bribe.

Positive examples of successful challenges to systemic corruption can change this and at a time when the level of corruption in Vietnam is perceived to be increasing and public confidence in government anti-corruption efforts decreasing, it remains important to highlight success and call on the authorities to support not attack those who seek to uncover wrongdoing.

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For any press inquiries please contact press@transparency.org

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