The driver taking the rap for Vietnam’s toll station protest

By Hong Phuc   December 4, 2017 | 09:55 pm PT
The driver taking the rap for Vietnam’s toll station protest
Two drivers shake hands at the Cai Lay toll station in Tien Giang Province, when the staff surrender their packs of changes and decide to let them pass freely on December 2. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen
In this conflict, someone must be to blame, and if it's not the officials who approved the station then it must be the drivers.

Phuong drives a van for a travel company, and his wife works at a factory. With a combined income of VND14 million ($610) a month, they have managed to put two children through college.

After 22 years of marriage, the couple still live in a rented house in Binh Duong, an industrial province outside Saigon.

To Phuong, nothing really stood out about his 26 years as a driver until he was featured widely in local newspapers last Thursday. He was pictured being grabbed by the armpits and taken away by two police officers at a toll station in Tien Giang Province.

The toll station drama started months ago.

Phuong was driving past a gas station in the southern province on August 3 when he saw a charity box full of change, so he asked the woman in charge of the station to exchange the notes.

He used the stack of change to pay the highway toll fee, becoming one of the first drivers to use the method to vent his indignation against what they believe is an “unfair” levy.

The toll station was opened along National Highway 1 in early August to recover the money spent to resurface the highway and build a new bypass around a local town. Many drivers strongly disagreed. They said they had already paid a toll for using the highway, so any extra toll stations should have been placed along the bypass instead.

Paying the toll with small change means the attendants have to spend more time counting the money which holds up traffic at the station, but none of the drivers seemed to mind.

That was until Phuong was escorted away like a criminal.

His driver’s license was revoked simply for paying the toll fee with small change, and he lost his shoes in the struggle. He was held in a police station from 5 p.m. until nearly midnight without food. His fellow drivers bought him dinner and a pair of slippers, but neither reached him.

He eventually got home at 3 a.m., hungry, thirsty and shoeless. His wife and two children were waiting. They asked him what had happened, but he was unable to answer.

He became famous, or infamous, and friends kept inviting him out for coffee to discuss the incident.

“They kept calling me, but I dared not show up,” Phuong said.

His neighbors were also full of questions. They wanted to know what he had done to be taken away in a prison van.

He tried to tell them he had done nothing wrong, but few understood. The image of him being dragged away by two cops was so strong they believed he had done something illegal.

Even his children questioned him. Most of their friends had seen the video and believed their father was a criminal.

“I’m just worried they might drop out of school,” Phuong said.

On Monday, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc instructed the toll station to suspend operations for one to two months for further appraisal in response to the controversy. Many drivers have celebrated the move as a victory.

But did they really win?

Many official statements regarding the chaos have suggested that it was "an organized protest" against a legal policy. Investors of the BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer) station also asked the authorities to punish drivers who paid the toll fee with small change.

Many of these drivers are ordinary people like Phuong, who just want to get on with their jobs and look after their families. “I wouldn’t know how to start another job,” Phuong said.

He and his wife still owe the bank VND200 million ($8,800), and the van he was driving was rented.

Phuong said there’s no reason for him to just randomly oppose a government policy. “We all want to be left alone to care for our families, but the toll fee is unreasonable.”

Too bad the people in charge don't think so.

Officials from the transport ministry have said that “the location of the toll station is reasonable,” and that it had been approved by multiple government agencies.

In this conflict, someone must be to blame, and if the officials who approved the station are not then it must be the drivers.

When there are problems with a government project and no official is held responsible, a nobody like Phuong suddenly becomes a person of interest.

For days, this “public figure” has dared not look at his neighbors, many of whom now know his full name for the first time.

Trinh Hong Phuong became a guilty person in the eyes of his neighbors and his own children, just because there’s no one else to take the blame.

I spent one and a half hours talking with Phuong. In the end, all he wanted was to get his license back so he could continue driving and taking care of his children.

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