How tough is Vietnam actually getting on corruption?

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The public needs action, not rhetoric, in the war on graft, analysts say


Motorcyclists wait for a green light in downtown Hanoi on February 27, 2013. Party leaders have reiterated that they are committed to rooting out corruption, and that doing so is imperative to the survival of the Party itself and the current political regime. But insiders say the people have had enough of rhetoric and the biggest concern in the fight against corruption is the lack of public trust and accountability on the part of authorities. PHOTO: AFP

The fact that the death sentences recently handed down to a former bank executive and a businessman implicated in a high-profile corruption case may or may not signal an intensified anti-graft crackdown in Vietnam. Analysts say much more needs to be done to repair shattered public trust.

At a trial last week, a Ho Chi Minh City court sentenced Vu Quoc Hao, former general director of Vietnam Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Agribank)'s Financial Leasing Company No.2 (ALCII), to death for embezzlement, abuse of power, fraud and "deliberately violating state economic regulations causing serious consequences" in a major loan scam that caused ALCII VND531 billion (US$25.1 million) in losses.

Dang Van Hai, the former chairman of a construction company, was also sentenced to death in the case for appropriating $3 million. Nine others including Hao's staff and three other businessmen got jail terms ranging from three to 14 years for mismanagement or abuse of power. 

The trial took place at a time when the country's leaders look to clean up the banking sector and the Communist Party's Interior Commission, tasked with fighting corruption, has named the scam one of the 10 most important corruption cases involving government and other officials.

But analysts say the jury is still out to gauge whether or not Vietnamese authorities are really serious about delivering on their pledges to weed out corruption.

"Corruption in Vietnam is systemic," Jairo Acuña-Alfaro, anti-corruption policy advisor to the United Nations Development Program in Vietnam, told Vietweek.

"This endless corruption, when pooled together with economic mismanagement"¦ and wasteful public spending, has resulted in billions of dong wasted," he said. "The ongoing criminal corruption charges happening are a testament of the pervasiveness of the problem."

Small fish

At a recent session of the ongoing session of the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, lawmakers pointed out that a large number of exposed corruption cases were minor and involved only low-ranking officials at the village or commune levels. They said the anti-corruption campaign was not working and that many inspections had led to few discoveries and little justice.

"I think the biggest concern in the fight against corruption is the lack of public trust and accountability on the part of authorities," said Le Nhu Tien, an outspoken lawmaker.

The number of Vietnamese citizens willing to blow the whistle on corruption has declined significantly over the last few years, according to July's 2013 Global Corruption Barometer report commissioned by Transparency International, an NGO based in Germany.

The report said Vietnamese respondents are the least willing to expose corruption out of all countries surveyed in Southeast Asia. Vietnam also has the highest percentage 51 percent of people in the region who say that reporting "wouldn't make a difference," according to the report.

Big pond

Vietnam has some of the most comprehensive anti-corruption legislation in Asia, but poor implementation has rendered the laws toothless, analysts say.

The country still ranks poorly in global corruption surveys. Last year Vietnam stood 123rd out of 176 countries and territories on the Transparency International-commissioned Corruption Perception Index.

The country's top leaders have admitted to widespread corruption and inefficiency, as well as financial debacles at state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Vietnamese lawmakers have also slammed the government for shielding those pampered SOEs and other interest groups that they say are major sources of entrenched corruption.

With different studies continuing to confirm that the practice of giving and receiving bribes is so common in Vietnam that it is not perceived as bribery, analysts say the country's leadership is facing an uphill task.

"The leadership has to earn the trust of the people by showing them that they themselves are "˜relatively clean' and have good and sincere intentions to clean up the system for the good of Vietnam and not only for their own benefit," a foreign diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Lip service

Analysts and lawmakers say a number of current anti-corruption measures are really only window dressings.

They point to a new decree that that requires officials and lawmakers to reveal their incomes and assets annually, saying it fails to plug major loopholes that enable people to get away with corruption. Perhaps the most glaring is that the declarations of assets would not be accessible to the public online, they say.

Party leaders have reiterated that they are committed to rooting out corruption, and that doing so is imperative to the survival of the Party itself and the current political regime. But insiders say the people have had enough of rhetoric

"The political will [to fight corruption] is already there. The problem is yet again the weak enforcement of corruption regulations," Tien, the lawmaker, said. "If most of the people that are corrupt are anti-corruption officials, the public will call their incentive to investigate into question.

"Citizens are not fools."

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