Top Vietnamese lawmaker calls for setting up 'red-light areas' in special economic zones

By Dien Luong, Vu Vi   September 12, 2017 | 09:27 pm GMT+7
Top Vietnamese lawmaker calls for setting up 'red-light areas' in special economic zones
A view of Phu Quoc Island. The government is all set to grant the island the special economic zone status with a top lawmaker even suggesting legalizing prostitution to boost business there. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

'Life has such realistic demands. We’ve got to go with the flow and work out an appropriate management mechanism.'

Red-light areas, which are still banned in Vietnam, should become legal to boost business in the country’s special economic zones alongside casinos, a vice house speaker said Monday.

Phung Quoc Hien, the vice chairman of the legislative National Assembly, said at a meeting of the Assembly's Standing Committee that Vietnam should consider establishing regulated red-light districts in certain special economic zones where the ban on local gamblers has been lifted on a trial basis.

Authorities in Vietnam's economic hubs have proposed the pilot establishment of such areas like those in Singapore, where prostitution would be regulated.

“Life has such realistic demands,” Hien told Monday's parliamentary meeting, which was convened to debate draft regulations on Vietnam’s special economic zones.

“We’ve got to go with the flow and work out an appropriate management mechanism,” he added.

Vietnam is preparing to make a final decision on a series of incentives for three special economic zones, namely the Van Don Special Economic Zone in the northern province of Quang Ninh, Van Phong in the central province of Khanh Hoa and the southern resort island of Phu Quoc.

The government has cast them as major investment magnets along the lines of Singapore and Hong Kong. While casinos for these zones have been approved, Monday was the first instance of an official publicly considering licensing red-light areas there.

Gambling and prostitution have long been considered forbidden vices in Vietnam. But the government has adopted a more lax attitude towards them in recent years.

In 2013, Vietnam abolished compulsory rehabilitation for sex workers in favor of fines no higher than $100.

The move has since sparked fierce debates among researchers, officials, and lawmakers on whether the country should legalize sex work.

Some 70 countries in the world have legalized prostitution outright, including Australia and Germany. According to a report by the United Nations Development Program, sex work has been decriminalized in many Southeast Asian countries as police turn their focus on arresting pimps and brothel owners instead of the prostitutes themselves.

Proponents of legalizing prostitution in Vietnam say the move is critical because it could significantly reduce the transmission of HIV among sex workers. Advocates cite studies indicating that STDs are more commonly spread in countries that ban sex work. They also say that even though Vietnam has declared a “war on prostitution,” sex work has continued to thrive.

More than two years ago, sociologists in Saigon proposed that the government establish regulated red-light districts in order to root out some of the worst results of the trade, such as sex slave trafficking.

But the proposal eventually died out under strong opposition from Vietnam’s rooted mindset that prostitution is an emblem of moral decadence.

Even if sex work is legalized, it is unclear how the authorities will deal with the trade.

Tran Chi Dung, the director of the tourism department in Kien Giang Province, which is home to Phu Quoc, expressed reservations.

“This is a sensitive matter,” Dung told the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.

He said the decision to open a casino on the island came after many rounds of discussions. Legal prostitution too, he said, must be dealt in the same cautious manner.

When Vietnam was debating whether it should lift the ban on local gamblers, opponents of the ban say it has only sent droves of Vietnamese gamblers abroad. The government has endorsed a study by Augustine Ha Ton Vinh, an academic who has extensively researched Vietnam's gaming industry, which pointed out that the country hemorrhages as much as $800 million per year in tax revenues from Vietnamese punters who cross the border to Cambodia.

So according to the government, it might as well let them gamble at home so they can pay taxes to Vietnam instead of foreign countries. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc announced last December that the Politburo, the decision-making body of the ruling Communist Party, had granted permission for Vietnamese citizens to gamble at two casinos: the one being built on Phu Quoc Island and the other set to open in Van Don.

But in a country still dominated by Confucian social mores, the debate on the legalization of prostitution has focused more on how to better protect the rights of the already vulnerable sex workers than how to cash in on the world's oldest profession.

“Vietnam is still short of the highest political will to legalize prostitution,” said Khuat Thi Hai Oanh, who founded and directs the Hanoi-based Center for Supporting Community Development Initiatives, an advocacy group that seeks to improve the quality of life for the most marginalized populations in the country.

“Perhaps because such a move implies too many political risks which would dwarf any possible gains for the authorities,” Oanh said.

“But to be fair, Vietnam’s relevant policies on prostitution have made some significant headway,” she said. “There are reasons and indicators to hope for an even better change in the future.”