Dog wars

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Mob violence spirals in dog thieving country while public health officials brace for a possible cholera outbreak

 
A man weighs slaughtered dogs for sale at his roadside stall in Duong Noi village outside Hanoi. Dog meat is popular in Vietnam and some other Asian countries. Photo: Reuters

Le Hoang Dien and Duong Quang Nhat were driving through a particularly dark stretch of Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province's Chau Doc District when they noticed the beams of flashlights coming up behind them.

It was Friday night and they had spent the evening with friends who had given them a bag of corn to take home. They worried, as the lights drew nearer, that they were being pursued by bandits. Further down the road, a group of men surrounded them on motorbikes and demanded that they pull over.

It was around 10 p.m. Dien, the 20-year-old deputy director of the Hoang Dien Transport Company, tried to speed away. Eventually, the pursuers managed to force Dien and Nhat, to the side of the road where they revealed themselves to be uniformed members of a local militia.

The militiamen told the men they suspected the men of trying to kidnap a dog. They considered Dien's attempt at evasion and the large sack he was carrying as evidence of their culpability. When they discovered only corn in their sack, they instructed the pair to wait while they searched the road for the corpse of a dog.

When Nhat and Dien began to protest, the militiamen attacked them, the men say. Angry locals soon joined the fray. After a thorough beating, the two men were transported to the Chau Pha Commune police station where they were held overnight. In the morning, they were released to the Ba Ria General Hospital where doctors treated Nhat for minor injuries and Dien for a broken rib, a broken left kneecap, a broken tooth and multiple head injuries. On Monday, Tan Thanh District Police pledged to investigate the incident.

The assault provided the latest example of vigilante violence targeted at dog thieves"”a function, some say of the lawless nature of the dog trade.

Cholera

Although eating dog is not illegal in Vietnam, regulations like those that govern the beef, poultry and pork trades have never been issued for dog meat. Critics of Vietnam's dog trade worry about the public health implications of a meat trade that lacks standards for processing or transportation.

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Last May, at an epidemiological conference on the trans-boundary prevention of cholera in the Greater Mekong Sub-region, experts identified the dog trade as one of the means of spreading cholera throughout the region.

"Most cholera outbreaks in South East Asian countries were transmitted via the trade of dogs and dog meat," said Nguyen Tran Hien, director of the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology and the lead author of the study.

The team charted the movement of the animals by following a specific strain of cholera. The disease followed the dogs from Nakhon Phanom, Thailand into Muang Khammouan, Laos and dissipated in northern Vietnam"”in Ha Tinh, Thanh Hoa and Hanoi.

Two years ago, a major cholera outbreak in northern Vietnam was traced back to a series of dog meat restaurants"”606 people were infected. That same summer Laos reported 237 cases, Thailand reported 1,974 and Cambodia reported 588.

Vietnam logged just two cholera cases last year and one in the first quarter this year, but Nguyen Van Binh, director of the Preventive Medicine Department under the Ministry of Health, warned about the possibility of further infections this summer.

"If we are well-prepared to fight the disease, we will be able to maintain a fatality rate of less than one percent," Binh said.

According to Phung Thi Thu Phuong of the World Health Organization Representative Office in Vietnam, international cholera outbreaks have steadily increased since 2000.

"In May 2011, the World Health Assembly recognized the re-emergence of cholera as a significant global public health problem and adopted a resolution calling for the implementation of an integrated and comprehensive global approach to cholera control," she told Vietweek.

Last August, police in Nakhon Phanom Province intercepted four trucks loaded with 2,000 dogs bound for Vietnam. The dogs, the trucks and 200 cages were seized at the scene. Only 770 of the dogs survived. The rest succumbed to fatal illnesses and injuries caused by being crammed into the cages.

The following month, the Thai Nakhon Phanom Provincial Court sentenced a Vietnamese citizen and four Thai nationals to eight months and 10 days in prison for operating a dog smuggling ring. The men were also fined between Bt12,000 (US$378) and Bt22,400 ($705) each.

Ultimately, their sentences were reduced for cooperating with the authorities.

Escalating fights

Dog meat continues to be viewed as a delicacy for well-heeled drinkers in Vietnam"”indeed, dog meat now sells for roughly VND120,000 ($6) per kilogram.

The increased demand for dog has led to widespread thieving, which in turn has inspired some communities to turn to vigilante justice.

On Monday, police in Bu Gia Map District in Binh Phuoc Province pressed robbery charges against Truong Ba Hung, 18, and Nguyen Van Tan, 22, for stealing dogs in Long Tan Commune.

The men were caught, last Saturday, while poisoning a pair of dogs that they intended to sell to local restaurants.

Many considered Hung and Tan lucky.

On June 27, the residents of Nghe An Province's Do Luong District chased after two dog thieves.

One of the men managed to escape the mob.

The other, 32-year-old Nguyen Van Luong, was beaten to death. His motorbike was burned to cinders.

Two days later, a mob in Vinh (the province's capital city) seriously injured Nguyen Van Hien, 25, for stealing dogs in Nghi Kim Commune.

Meanwhile, many thieves have begun to lash out at their pursuers.

On June 26, Vo Hoang Nam of Dong Nai Province's Long Thanh District was killed by a dog thief wielding a homemade stun gun.

Nam's family said that when he heard the sound of the animal in distress he ran out of the house only to be electrocuted to death.

The citizens, in turn, are stepping up their efforts.

Many communes in central and north-central areas have established a system of checkpoints to trap would-be dog thieves.

Last month, police and more than 1,000 residents in Quang Ngai Province's Nghia Hanh District held alarm drills designed to rally the residents of neighboring hamlets to intercept fleeing dog thieves.

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