Arms race looms large in Vietnam

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With robbers increasingly resorting to violence, city residents with no confidence in the police are arming themselves in self defense


  Foreign tourists stroll down a street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. With an increasing number of street robbers arming themselves, many city residents have followed suit in self defense.

Last Wednesday, Timothy Chandler was walking along Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City when a man riding a motorbike approached and snatched a camera from his hand.

The thief, 24-year-old Huynh The Phat, sped away but was quickly arrested not so far away by two patrolling plainclothes police officers who had secretly followed him.

The Englishman got back his camera and police are pressing robbery charges against Phat.

This is one of the street robbery stories with a happy ending. Such stories are rare.

Most of the time, the robbers get away and are never caught, and some of the time, the stories have very tragic endings.

On September 17, 22-year-old Hoang Ngoc Tri had his laptop snatched in Tan Binh District's Truong Chinh Street by 28-year-old Cao Xuan Lap.

Tri chased after the robber and crashed his motorbike into Lap's. The robber then took out a knife and stabbed Tri in his chest and stomach. Tri succumbed to his injuries in a hospital later the same day.

After the attack, Lap dropped his bike and ran away into an alley but he was chased by Vo Si Hoang, 33, a police officer in Tan Phu District, who was passing by.

Police say Lap stabbed the cop in his arms and face as he attempted to flee but the injured Hoang and other passers-by managed to catch him.

Facing an increasing number of street robberies with muggers ready to use weapons against those trying to prevent their escape, many people have equipped themselves with weapons, although it is illegal in Vietnam.

 
A man (on motorbike) sells a tear gas cylinder near the Cathedral de Notre Dame in downtown Ho Chi Minh City on October 6
According to the Penal Code, illegal possession of "military support weapons" like guns, tasers and tear gas is punishable by jail terms of up to seven years.

A government decree that took effect in May this year also bans people from carrying "rudimentary weapons" like homemade knives.

However, many people say they are carrying weapons of various kinds despite knowing that it is illegal because of the increasing number of street robbers who are armed. They say if they are not able to fend for themselves, it might be too late before the police arrive.

Armed robbers

According to deputy Minister of Public Security Pham Quy Ngo, there were 500 cases in which criminals used "military weapons" in 2011, an increase of 68 percent over the previous year.

The number of criminals using weapons continued to increase in the first half of this year, according to the ministry's Crime Police Department.

In HCMC, the municipal police department reported 1,425 crimes between May and September.

In a statement on October 4, the agency warned that city dwellers should not use the phone when driving motorbikes, carefully attach the bag strap to the bike and not expose jewelry when driving to avoid robbery.

In case of being robbed, people should try to remember the color and license plate of the robber's bike and report to the nearest police station or the city police department via two hotlines, (08) 3 838 7342 and (08) 3 920 7196, it said.

The city's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism has also instructed tourism enterprises, including those operating travel agencies and hotels, to warn tourists to take precautions against being robbed.

"The robbers are very cunning and they often follow tourists when they leave the hotel and rob them when they are walking on the street or at tourism destinations," the agency said in a statement on August 22, adding that there were many cases when they caused "accidents dangerous to tourists' lives."

Captain Nguyen Thanh Tuan, chief investigator of the Binh Tan District police division, said people should keep an eye on their property not only on the street but also in cafés, shops or even their houses because the street robbers have been expanding their range.

"Sometimes a robber rushes into a café, shop or house to snatch a cell phone or laptop right in front of the owner's eyes and flees to a motorbike kept ready by an accomplice. They can become dangerous and are willing to attack anyone chasing them," he said, advising that chasers should call out for help and maintain a safe distance from robbers with weapons.

Illegal "˜self-defense'

Many people, especially those who have to go home late, say they are arming themselves just in case they have to face the ruthless robbers.

A construction engineer in District 9, who wanted to be identified only as T., said he has been robbed twice when driving his motorbike home late from work. He recently bought a tear gas cylinder from an online shop.

"I know that it's illegal. But I am frustrated after being robbed twice and losing my laptop, cell phone and wallet. I have to be prepared, otherwise I may be harmed as well," he said.

Not only motorbike drivers, many truck drivers say they always bring along a weapon or two to fight robbers.

"I have witnessed robbers stealing truck batteries in front of the drivers. Some drivers have cried out for help only to be beaten. I was also robbed once but couldn't do anything," said Cuong, a truck driver in Binh Tan District.

Cuong said he and other truck drivers now carry weapons, but refused to divulge further details.

A Vietweek investigation found it is quite easy to buy any weapon from the HCMC black market and via online shops.

A man at the Dan Sinh Market in District 1 offered a tear gas cylinder for VND300,000 and a police club for VND700,000. He said he would have his men deliver the product to customer's home to foil police detection.

Another man from an online shop said he sells a taser for VND3.2 million and has many other weapons that have been smuggled into Vietnam, mainly from China.

Following recent reports on civilians possessing weapons illegally, Major General Tran Ve of the Ministry of Public Security said his ministry has instructed provincial police departments to enforce inspections and encouraging residents to surrender their weapons to authorities by the end of this year.

"Relevant authorities will also step up inspections of weapon smuggling into the country through the northern and southern borders," he said.

Lawyer Pham Van Thanh of the HCMC Bar Association said widespread use of weapons by residents for their defense could actually lead to more crime because the act of damaging another's health is illegal; and punishment ranges from home arrest for up to 3 years to, in serious cases like causing death, between 10-20 years in prison or even life imprisonment.

Furthermore, once they start carrying them, people will tend to use the weapons to address even minor conflicts instead of using them solely in self-defense against robbers, he said, adding that this would make the society more violent.

But the people said their concerns were legitimate.

Dau Bac, a reader, wrote in to Vietweek: "When police cannot maintain security, residents have to defend themselves by arming themselves."

Another reader, Tran Tien Vu, said: "Residents no longer believe [in police protection] and it is okay to take care of oneself.

"I was robbed at night and the robbers beat me up. The police only arrived an hour and a half after I called them. I was beaten and robbed and finally I had to stay at the police station until the morning."

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