Creeping fatalism

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Public cynicism about the mystery of vehicle fires can prove "˜dangerous', sociologists warn


Motorcyclists ride down a road in downtown Ho Chi Minh City last December. Judging by reader response to media reports, the public seem to have accepted the mystery of exploding vehicles and such apathy can prove "˜dangerous,' sociologists warn.

For around 32 million Vietnamese motorbike owners, January 9 was a black day. They woke up to realize that adulterated fuel might have been the reason behind hundreds of motorbike explosions, meaning their main means of transportation could be a time bomb set to go off anytime.

That day, Vietweek ran its first exposé of unscrupulous tanker truck drivers siphoning gasoline and adulterating it with sloppy and substandard chemicals. Photos that caught them in the act were published along with the stories.

The exposé came as public concern mounted about the mysterious fires that were, without any warning, engulfing motorbikes and even bigger vehicles with no one having any idea of the cause.

Though Vietnamese scientists and experts have differed over adulterated fuel being the prime suspect in the fires, one question that has persisted is: Why have the authorities been slow to act on what is apparently the only clue available so far in the case of the mysterious fires?

After the exposé, a minister and at least two Ho Chi Minh City senior officials vowed action on the problem. However, not much has been seen since.

As the mystery fires continue to burn motorbikes and other vehicles, a police source said investigations were still "underway." Meanwhile, the public have been left to find their own solutions to the problem.

"I no longer have my bike refilled at unfamiliar pumping stations," said Nguyen Huu Trong, a 62-year-old retiree in HCMC's District 4.

"That might be the best way to protect myself before the authorities step in," Trong told Vietweek.

"The thing is, in my opinion, the people have no choice but to learn how to come to terms with this."

More than 100 vehicle fires have taken place across Vietnam since last year. In 2011 alone, 89 cases were recorded with two deaths, according to Vietnam Register, the country's quality control agency. The two deaths have since been registered as murders.

Since then, the fires have also claimed bigger vehicles including cars and buses.

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Many expatriates who have been to other countries before coming to Vietnam have said vehicle explosions are a "bizarre phenomenon" unique to the country. However, experts in the field are not rushing to this conclusion.

"I'm certain of some isolated cases of cars exploding in Europe," said Alfredo de la Casa, a former risk management manager for the Minister of Transport in England.

But while vehicle explosions may not be unique to Vietnam, the fact that adulterated fuel caused the fire could be, de la Casa said.

"In those cases and some I believe took place in the US, the reasons for the explosions were based on electrical failure. I'm sure that the case is not unique to Vietnam, although the cause may be."

De la Casa said he was aware of the high risks of changing the composition of petrol.

"A few years ago there was a fire in one of the main petrol storage places [which took place in Buncefield, just outside London] and as a result petrol had to be transported via pipes from other areas using different pipes.

"Normal petrol was unaffected. However the petrol used for planes, which has to have very specific components, got polluted just by being sent through the wrong pipes, and we were very close to have planes exploding."

The fear is, according to de la Casa, that this could be the case for Vietnam as well.

"So I wonder whether the Vietnamese government is making sure that aviation fuel here is consistently checked."

"˜What will be will be'

In his most explicit gesture to assuage public fears, Transport Minister Dinh La Thang said in January that his agency would bear the main responsibility for any exploding vehicle in 2012. Thang also pledged drastic action to stop the phenomenon.

Le Manh Ha, HCMC's deputy mayor, and Le Anh Minh, deputy chief of the city police force, both said there was enough evidence to press criminal charges against the suspects.

But many members of the public seem to be taking official pronouncements with the proverbial pinch of salt.

"I think the most pragmatic way to deal with the problem is to stop worrying," said Hoang Van Dao, a 55-year-old xe om (motorbike taxi) driver in District 7.

"What will be will be. What is the point of continuing to worry when you will never be able to know when and whether your bike could catch fire?

"I have heard the promises made by authorities. But I think I've just forgotten them all."

Growing apathy

Last year, a single case of an exploding motorbike attracted between dozens to hundreds of comments from readers who expressed their concern and called for quick action from authorities.

But the two most recent cases of exploding vehicles have elicited little reaction.

A March 9 story about a 29-seat bus that caught fire in the Mekong Delta got eight comments on the website of the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper. But no one reacted to another story about yet another motorbike that caught fire in HCMC, published on the same website a day later.

Experts say this apparent dwindling of public concern is not difficult to decipher.

"The Vietnamese public expects the Ministry of Public Security to investigate and resolve this matter quickly. So if a pressing social issue is not solved, it can happen that the general public will get jaded or become cynical," said Le Quang Binh, a sociologist who runs the non-profit Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment in Hanoi.

But this apathy is alarming, experts say.

"Perhaps more than anybody else in this region, the people of Vietnam have been willing to accept the bad with the good," said David Koh, a Singapore-based Vietnam scholar.

"In the old days, a VND1 billion embezzlement case had the nation riveted. Nowadays, people take it for granted if the state loses VND10 billion to a corruption scam," said Binh.

"Part of this willingness to accept the bad with the good may reflect the fact that cases they expected to be dealt with strictly have been whitewashed instead.

"This [cynicism] is a negative reaction."

Binh said if yet another major scam like the adulterated fuel case is hushed up, the cynicism will deepen and its cumulative impacts would be "dangerous."

"I would expect public outbursts of frustration," Binh said.

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