In Vietnam, ingrained prejudice leaves police between a rock and a hard place

By Dien Luong   October 8, 2017 | 08:26 pm GMT+7
In Vietnam, ingrained prejudice leaves police between a rock and a hard place
A policeman directs traffic on a street in Hanoi. In the era of social media, deep-seated public prejudice against corruption and misconduct is working increasingly against the police, insiders and analysts say. Photo by Reuters/Kham

Social media reports of corruption and misconduct are working increasingly against the police, putting them on the defensive.

On a recent afternoon in Saigon, a woman was pulled over by a traffic cop for driving in the wrong lane. She jumped out of the car, lashed out at the cop and apparently tried to attack him. The officer, on the other hand, appeared meek and remained on the defensive.

Such resistance against traffic cops is all too common in a country where the masses are already of the opinion that the traffic police force is the most corrupt institution here. Video clips and photos of police officers being shoved away by taxi drivers or clinging to the windshield wipers of speeding buses are constantly popping up online.

The problem became serious enough for the Ministry of Public Security to in early July allow the police to use any legal means necessary” to deal with those who break traffic laws and resist officers on patrol. The order came in the wake of a disturbing video showing a traffic cop being thrown off a speeding truck whose driver had refused to pull over. The officer, who was desperately clinging to the front of the truck, was critically injured.

In the era of social media, deep-seated public prejudice against corruption and misconduct is working increasingly against the police, putting them on the defensive and making it more difficult for them to carry out their duties, insiders and experts say.

"The police and the people have always had a strained relationship,” a Vietnamese police official said on the condition of anonymity.

An apparent rise in public action against the police with the latest incident reported just this Sunday in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak, coupled with corruption and misconduct stories widely reported in the local media recently, have tainted the image of the police force, he said.

"The police are actually worried about every move they make now. They easily give in to strong public reaction, even though their actions may be totally justifiable."

in-vietnam-ingrained-prejudice-leaves-police-between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place

In 2011, police in the central province of Thanh Hoa tried using giant fishing nets to snag the wheels of illegal motorbike racers, but had to stop following a public outcry. Photo by VnExpress/Le Hoang

In 2011, police in the central province of Thanh Hoa grabbed international headlines for devising what many called a novel initiative to stop illegal motorbike racers in their tracks: using giant fishing nets. The police would throw the nets into the rear wheels of the racing bikes to get them tangled and slow the bikes to a stop.

Though the provincial police said this unorthodox tactic had not caused any major accidents or proved dangerous to the racers, they decided to suspend the tactic in the wake of a public outcry. Many dismissed the method as too risky because of the collateral damage it could have caused to other road users. But proponents of the tactic said the police had bowed to public pressure too soon, and that the decision would put them on the back foot again.

In 2013, the Ministry of Public Security floated a new law to allow officers to shoot at "those who showed signs of resistance”. It said the right to shoot at suspects under a wider range of circumstances would allow the police to protect themselves in life-threatening situations.

Such an otherwise legitimate proposal did not come at the most propitious time, however. Just in late 2012, the World Bank released the results of a survey in which 5,460 Vietnamese respondents overwhelmingly identified the traffic police as the most corrupt group of individuals in the country. It is in this context that naysayers all but nipped the law in the bud, saying trigger-happy cops could abuse it. Since then there has been no final word on the draft law.

That was the last time the World Bank commissioned a survey on public attitude towards traffic police. But just last March, Transparency International, a Berlin-based advocacy group, released an 18-month long survey of more than 20,000 people in 16 Asia-Pacific economies that included Vietnam. The survey found that nearly two in five respondents agreed that the police were mostly or entirely corrupt. The finding was on the one hand emblematic of a common bugbear plaguing the region, but on the other corroborated such ingrained public attitude in Vietnam in particular.

But experts remain cautious over the assumption that public attitude towards the police, especially traffic cops, is getting worse in Vietnam.

“Stories of police misconduct were not new even a decade ago,” Phan Tuong Yen, a psychologist at Ho Chi Minh City's Hoa Sen University, said. “It is the blooming social media that is the key driving factor in exposing them more to the public, sometimes even leaving people overwhelmed by an information overload,” Yen said.

“Also thanks to social media, there have been increasing numbers of different viewpoints defending police actions online, seeking to counter extreme criticism of the force. That's added another layer of complexity to this already complicated issue.”

In a country that is among Facebook’s top 10 countries by users, the police have also shown signs of embracing the platform. In Da Nang and Saigon, police officials are using Facebook to report traffic-related information or crimes to the public. But in reality, media reports or Facebook posts of police misconduct have appeared to grab more public attention, eclipsing the positive efforts being made by officers to help civilians.

Experts concur that social media, chiefly Facebook, will play an increasingly crucial role in shaping and the public stance in this regard, leaving the police facing a double whammy: increased public scrutiny and self-inflicted pressure. 

“This makes them even more tense when they're on duty and puts them more on the defensive,” said Yen.

In Vietnam, it is a no-brainer for any junior reporter to ask people about how traffic cops have elicited bribes from them. From a taxi driver to an office worker, everyone seems to have their own accounts of police bribery. But another narrative has emerged in which the people too are blame for condoning corruption by agreeing to bribe officers on the spot out of fear of going through the hassle of paying fines.

“It is just too accepted as ‘the Vietnamese way’,” said Dennis McCornac, a professor of economics at Loyola University in Baltimore (Maryland) who lived and worked in Vietnam in the 1990s.

“Right now, the attitude about corruption is still ‘this is Vietnam’. Until there is a change in the mentality of the population and all levels commit to reducing corruption, the problem will persist,” he said.

VnExpress International spoke to nearly a dozen people about their encounters with traffic cops. Some said the main priority for traffic police is to "trap and fine” rather than regulate and direct traffic; but most said they deserved to be pulled over.

“Frankly, there are still many Vietnamese drivers in frequent breach of traffic rules,” Bui Quang Huy, a taxi driver, said. “There's no way of understanding the police's job until you're in their shoes.” 

But still, the onus is on the police to initiate change, analysts say.

“Vietnamese society is changing faster than police culture nurtured for decades by the Ministry of Public Security,” Carl Thayer, a longtime Vietnam analyst in Australia, said, referring to the government agency that manages the police force across the country.

“Public scrutiny would act as an independent check on the powers of the ministry whereas the ministry operates from a culture of relative impunity,” Thayer said.

The bottom line is the ministry should work to “change its culture from impunity against the public to working with the public to ensure fair law and order,” he said.

Trang Bui contributes reporting