Who is this joke on?

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A stone kept at the Chu Se District's People's Committee in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai. The stone was seized from a local woman last month on suspicion that she had illegally mined it though no one knows if it has any commercial value.

It sounds like one of the innumerable folk stories I heard as a child, where a clever man gets the better of a greedy official and exposes the latter by prompting an extremely foolish act.

The bare facts of the case reported in the media are these: authorities confiscate a stone and keep it under lock and key. They do not know if the stone is of any value, but they suspect a resident has violated mineral exploitation laws by using a stone she found on her own property as a decoration in her garden.

So the difference between the folk stories I heard and the story I have read about recently is this: no clever person was needed to trick the official and make them do something silly. Authorities in Chu Se District in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai acted on their own accord.

Photographs of the "stone in the cage" that were published in newspapers and other media last weekend have surely given people something to laugh about.

Ksor Hien, a Chu Se resident, said: "I find it very weird! I thought that the authorities made the cage to keep a tiger they had caught on the mountain. But it has turned out that it is a stone!

"The stone does not have legs, so why do they have to fear that it will run away? It's really funny!"

Humor aside, the way district authorities have handled the case since is no laughing matter.

On April 2-3, the Chu Se People's Committee ordered local agencies to confiscate three stones from Tran Thi Sac and Le Hung Dung in H'bong Commune.

Even though the stones' value had yet to be determined, and Sac and Dung took them from their own land to decorate their gardens, the authorities still charged that they had illegally mined minerals.

The two stones found by Dung were handed over to the H'bong Commune authorities for safekeeping, but they all 1.72 tons of them - disappeared mysteriously. Meanwhile, Sac's stone, which weighs 3.2 tons, was taken to the headquarters of the district People's Committee and caged.

Of course, district authorities have a reason to be concerned about every stone in Chu Se, which has been seen as sitting on a goldmine of ornamental and feng shui stones, especially since late 2009 when an agate stone found in the district was estimated to be worth over VND2 billion (US$95,600) at an exhibition of ornaments.

Nguyen Van Lanh, secretary of Chu Se's Party Unit, told the Tuoi Tre newspaper that the hunt for, transport of and trade in ornamental stones in the district is "complicated" and a "social problem," so they had to confiscate "suspicious" stones.

However, the problem here is that it has been over 40 days since the stone was confiscated from Sac, but its value remains unknown, despite the fact that enough time has passed to make whatever determination was needed.

And what is the point in spending money, time and efforts on making an iron cage to keep a stone?

People need authorities to take transparent action with good judgment and rationale in handling a problem, not random, knee-jerk reactions.

Yes, life is tough and it is good to laugh, but who is this joke on?

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