Whistleblowers a vulnerable species

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Vietnam's National Assembly's deputies attend a Fall session in Hanoi last month. Lawmakers discussing amendments to the 2005 anti-corruption law have agreed on the need to strengthen safeguards and incentives for whistleblowers, to ensure they do not have to fear retribution.

The thugs came after dark, just as Tran Huu Suu was locking his door.

That night in February 2011, they punched him, kicked him, slashed him with knives, and terrified his four children. He suffered severe injuries to his right hand, which still hurts whenever the weather changes.

In the hospital, he received an anonymous letter saying the beating was just a warning.

Suu, a 48-year-old farmer in the north-central province of Nghe An who has been exposing and fighting corruption among local officials since 1998, says the message was clear: Stop blowing the whistle "” or else.

Vietnam's top leadership has admitted that endemic corruption is stalling national development, and they have spoken of the need to protect whistleblowers so that more cases of graft can be exposed.

But this has not happened, prompting the public to question the sincerity behind the rhetoric.

The National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, passed a broad anti-corruption law in 2005, but its implementation has failed to deliver solid results.

The country still ranks poorly in global corruption surveys. Last year, Vietnam's Corruption Perception Index had shown slight improvement, moving up four spots from 2010 to 112 out of 183 nations surveyed, according to the Berlin-based Transparency International.

"We need to be honest with ourselves: the 2005 law is nothing but a fiasco," Duong Trung Quoc, an outspoken lawmaker, said recently during a parliamentary debate on amendments to the anti-corruption law.

Quoc described the anti-graft campaigns Vietnam has launched in the last seven years as "fanfare battles where the guns go off so loud but fail to hurt anyone because the bullets are blanks."

He said it was a "painful fact" that many whistleblowers had suffered retaliation in recent years because measures were not in place to protect them.

Sowing fear

 
Tran Huu Suu has publicized people's accusations that local officials were selling public land and filling their pocket.

Suu, the Nghe An native, has been taking up cudgels on behalf of the public, publicizing people's accusations that local officials were selling public land and filling their pockets. He has also exposed commune leaders who had used bogus highschool diplomas to foster their careers.

Authorities have verified and confirmed the truth of many of his allegations.

Suu says he knows for sure that the attack in February 2011 was retaliation for blowing the whistle on two senior commune officials who he claims forged documents to usurp allowances meant for war veterans.

"They had threatened me many times saying they would make me pay the price if I continued meddling in their business," Suu told Vietweek.

Though authorities later confirmed wrongdoings by the two officials and fired them, the police have failed to ascertain who was behind the attack, citing the lack of evidence.

While people like Suu have been publicly recognized for their anti-graft efforts, the people who allegedly attacked them in retaliation remain at large.

Of 18 whistleblowers honored by the Nghe An provincial government, Suu says six have been assaulted, like him, but investigations have never succeeded in identifying the people who attacked as well as those who organized the assaults.

Suu says he has always been bombarded by calls warning him against "going too far."

But, he says what worries him the most is not his own safety, but that of his children. His wife died in 2010.

"Who knows what will happen to the kids when I'm not with them? If the government cannot protect us, people like me cannot continue taking risks because we certainly do not want to lose our lives."

Lawmakers discussing amendments to the 2005 anti-corruption law have agreed on the need to strengthen safeguards and incentives for whistleblowers, to ensure they do not have to fear retribution.

Without any protection, people will start believing that exposing corruption threatens their safety and dignity, not to mention their family members and their properties, said Nguyen Trung Thu, a lawmaker of Long An Province.

"Few will dare to fight it, for fear of retribution," he said.

Media failure

Six years ago, Vietnamese whistleblowers may have found a major ally in their fight.

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In 2006, the media exposed a huge gambling and embezzlement case, which came to be known as the PMU-18 scandal, leading to the resignation of the transport minister and the arrest of his deputy, who was later absolved, and other senior officials.

The exposé also prompted the then Party chief Nong Duc Manh to warn that corruption was posing a threat to the very survival of Vietnam's political system.

But the media has appeared to lose steam since.

The preliminary findings of a foreign study said last year that the corruption-related coverage in seven newspapers over a five-year period has fallen. Most stories were about happenings on the provincial level, even though the papers were either national papers or targeting a national audience, it said.

A number of Vietnamese studies also showed more than two-thirds of journalists said they were often hindered from performing their duties properly.

In his closing remarks to a regular meeting of the Party's Central Committee last month, Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong admitted the failure to address rampant corruption. He said the Politburo, the Party's decision-making body, had "seriously criticized themselves and admitted their major mistakes."

In Vietnam, the practice of giving and receiving under-the-table money has become so common that it is no longer considered bribery. A majority of firms see it as business-as-usual, and are happy to bribe officials to get things done.

Nowadays, bribes for officials are not only given in the form of gifts, luxury vacations and cars, but also exotic wildlife products such as rhino horns, bear bile, or tiger bone paste, said Le Nhu Tien, another prominent lawmaker. He has publicly accused many bureaucrats of funneling ill-gotten gains to their close relatives.

At the plenary parliamentary session last June, many lawmakers also said the government has become a shield for the cosseted state-own enterprises and other interest groups that are major sources of entrenched corruption.

"As corruption gets increasingly sophisticated, we desperately need a high-caliber corruption fighting body staffed with officials who will not hesitate to sacrifice their lives and careers for the cause," Tien, the lawmaker, said.

"˜They have a faith in me'

The nation's legislative body is mulling several major moves that look to crank up the country's anti-graft campaign and make it more effective.

The amended anti-corruption bill envisages having Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong replace Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung as chairman of the Anti-Corruption Steering Committee.

Lawmakers are set to vote on the bill by the end of the session later this month.

The draft law also considers better protection for whistleblowers. It seeks to drop criminal charges against those who are forced to pay bribes, but blow the whistle on the deal later.

But Vietnam is yet to take serious action to encourage the whistleblowers as other countries in the region have done.

In the Philippines, immunity is granted to whistleblowers who offer bribes to public officials. The South Korean Anti-Corruption Act also states that criminal acts of people who blow the whistle and expose the crime will be pardoned or their punishment mitigated. In Malaysia, similar statutory provisions apply to those engaged in money laundering.

"These are some features that should be incorporated into the law in Vietnam to make it robust and encourage people to speak the truth without fear of reprisal or punishment," a Hanoi-based foreign diplomat said, declining to be named.

Vietnam has been rewarding whistleblowers since 2010, but this measure has limited impact and can itself be co-opted by powerful but corrupt officials, experts say.

They also add that whistleblowers, while doing essential work, can also cross the line by putting their fame ahead of the cause.

Le Hien Duc, 82, is an anti-corruption campaigner and whistleblower who won Transparency International's Integrity Award in 2007.

Duc has spent her retirement receiving and following up complaints from people all over the country.

She has been forwarding petitions to the authorities demanding justice, sometimes insisting that they meet her. She has taken on school officials who short-changed children on their lunch, a water company that charged residents for renovations it never carried out, and once called a minister 30 times to pursue a complaint.

But "Vietnam's best known corruption crusader," as she has been described in the Western media, is also a controversial public figure. She has been criticized for overstepping her bounds and prying into people's private lives.

Duc has dismissed such criticism, saying she is doing what she does because "the people always need me."

Vietnamese authorities certainly do not seem to have the confidence of the public, who trust people like Duc more.

The most recent Governance and Public Administration Performance Index found that among those that acknowledged being asked for bribes, only around 13 percent made a formal denunciation. More than 70 percent found it a futile exercise to denounce, were scared of retaliation, or considered the procedures too burdensome.

Suu, the whistleblower from Nghe An, said wherever he

goes, he is always greeted with respect.

"The people appreciate what I have done for them. Whenever they need to lodge a complaint, they go find me.

"I think it is because they have faith in me, not the authorities."

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