Gov't castigated over Vinashin debacle, bauxite mines

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Lawmakers demand vote of no confidence in cabinet members, reiterate need to stop bauxite projects

A ship launched by the Vietnam Shipbuilding Group's plant in Dung Quat in central Vietnam. A mismanagement scandal involving the group sparked severe criticism of the government by lawmakers.

Nguyen Minh Thuyet shrugged off concerns that the National Assembly will become less vocal about the government's performance after he and some other outspoken lawmakers step down.

"I am convinced that many other prominent lawmakers will continue to address the legitimate concerns of the people," Thuyet said.

Thuyet, who is set to retire as he turns 63 next year, said he hoped what is probably his last proposal to the National Assembly would be dealt with before its ongoing final session wraps up.

"I am hopeful because my proposal is simple and not beyond the mandate of the National Assembly."

On Monday (November 1), Thuyet called on the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, to set up a committee to probe responsibilities of cabinet members in a high-profile scandal involving the Vietnam Shipbuilding Industry Group (Vinashin) that pushed the state giant to the brink of bankruptcy with billions of dollars in unpaid debt.

In a "painful and difficult" move, Thuyet called for a vote of no confidence in the prime minister and any ministers involved in the Vinashin debacle. Those who are subject to the investigation should also be temporarily suspended, he said.

"Vinashin has actually collapsed, no matter what kind of euphemism we might use to address this [debacle]," he asserted.

Founded in 1996, Vinashin aimed to become one of the world's top shipbuilders. But as the group expanded and diversified into running businesses ranging from animal feed production to tourist resorts, it incurred massive debts that the government has estimated at VND86 trillion (VND4.5 billion), around 4.5 percent of the country's gross domestic product in 2009.

Thuyet said the collapse of Vinashin has placed a huge debt on the shoulders of the people, thwarting plans to build roads, bridges, schools, and hospitals for people in need at remote and mountainous regions.

Since August, seven Vinashin execs including its chairman have been arrested in the ongoing probe into the group's mismanagement. Deputy PM Nguyen Sinh Hung has been deputed to head a government commission to help with Vinashin's restructuring.

PM Nguyen Tan Dung last month admitted the Vinashin case was a "serious matter," blaming shortcomings in economic management. The government has conducted "self-criticism" and mulled over solutions to the issue, Dung said.

But Thuyet and some legislators at the Monday assembly session demanded the government make clear who bears the final responsibility. Those who made mistakes should apologize to the people and step down, they said.

As the legislators are in the middle of their five-week final session before the upcoming Communist Party Congress, when the country's leadership is selected, Thuyet said: "The responsibility of the National Assembly before the Party and the people cannot be honored if it is unable to address all Vinashin-related questions."

"If we just go easy on each other, the country and the people will bear the brunt."

"˜Let history judge our decision'

The National Assembly floor saw heated debate again on Tuesday as Duong Trung Quoc, another outspoken legislator, called for a stop to the construction of two bauxite mines in the Central Highlands.

"I cannot rest assured even after Environment Minister Pham Khoi Nguyen guaranteed the safety of the two bauxite projects, on a theoretical basis," Quoc told the assembly session. "What the public demands to know is how far the gap between theory and reality is."

Quoc said growing public concern over a Hungary-like catastrophe in Vietnam is "totally legitimate."

On October 4, a reservoir containing toxic waste burst at an alumina plant near Ajka, Hungary sending a wave of red sludge into the surrounding area, killing nine people and injuring 150 more. The sludge is a byproduct of refining bauxite into alumina, the raw material used in making aluminum.

The incident reignited fierce protests against ongoing bauxite development projects in the Central Highlands.

Prominent intellectuals, including a former Vice President and Deputy Environment Minister, have rejected government assurances that the project will be both profitable and environmentally sound. In an open letter to the nation's leaders, they called for the suspension of work on the mines pending further scientific review and serious debates.

"The cost of temporarily postponing or cancelling the bauxite exploration in the Central Highlands is still cheaper than the incredible, even irreversible price to pay for a catastrophe and its consequences," the petition said.

It noted that other countries including China have reportedly closed many bauxite mines to avoid a catastrophe.

Quoc on Tuesday slammed the government for its slow response to public concern.

A government report sent to the National Assembly dated October 19, a day before the legislature opened its plenary session, had stopped short of doing so, Quoc said.

"I am wondering if the government could really be that cavalier," Quoc said.

"Unless the National Assembly reinforces its supreme monitoring mandate [as enshrined in the Constitution] and unless public opinion is heeded, the Vinashin debacle could be duplicated in the bauxite projects," he said.

"We stand to hemorrhage money and officials in the Vinashin case. But the fate of the nation will hang in the balance should any bauxite-caused catastrophe occur."

Quoc reiterated the call to halt the bauxite projects for further deliberation, saying it would not be a decision against the people's will.

He also urged the National Assembly to publicly announce the names of lawmakers who vote on significant projects like the bauxite development.

"By doing so, we the lawmakers will enable the people today and history to judge the decision taken by each of us."

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