The loneliness of a whistleblower in Vietnam

By Nguyen Dong   July 27, 2020 | 04:46 pm PT
A man who single-handedly exposed corruption against all odds with no support from family or friends was thanked officially with a thankless gesture.
Nguyen Dong

Nguyen Dong

A certificate of merit.

After he fought non-stop for six years against corruption and protecting public interest, Pham Tan Luc, 61, was finally recognized for his brave and selfless act.

It was a day in early June. Authorities of Binh Trung Commune in Quang Ngai Province’s Binh Son District called Luc on the phone and asked him to drop by their office whenever he was back home.

Luc was working as a guard at a building in Da Nang City, not far from Quang Ngai, when he received the call. He did not hesitate. That night, he took a bus and traveled 130 kilometers (81 miles) to reach his house in Binh Trung.

The next morning, Luc dressed up and went to the commune’s office at 8 a.m. He had been informed that the commune’s chairman would hand over a certificate of merit signed by the chairman of Binh Son District.

Luc was taken to a small meeting room, where four commune officials were waiting. After one of them read out loud a decision on rewarding him, Sau was given the certificate along with a bouquet and VND1 million ($43) in cash.

There was no fanfare, not a single member of the public in attendance.

The "ceremony" lasted all of five minutes.

"I felt so lonely and sorry for myself. I asked one of the officials to take a photo of me as a souvenir of that day."

As the photo was taken, Luc could not smile.

A dangerous road

The 5-minute ceremony was not the first time he had felt isolated and lonely.

There were many such instances throughout his six-year journey of dogged persistence, shedding sweat, tears and blood protecting the quality of the Da Nang-Quang Ngai Expressway, which runs 139 km (86 miles) between Hoa Vang District of Da Nang City and Tu Nghia District of Quang Ngai Province.

Throughout those long years, as he kept reporting wrongdoings by China’s Jiangsu Provincial Transportation Engineering Group Co., Ltd, or JTEG, the contractor for a VND1.3-trillion ($56-million) section of the expressway that runs 10.6 km through Binh Trung Commune, he never had anyone by his side.

JTEG is quite a famous name in the infrastructure industry. The group’s website states that it makes seven billion yuan ($979 million) each year implementing projects in poor and developing countries, from Central African Republic to Mongolia, Fiji, Cambodia and Bangladesh.

Luc’s arduous journey started after JTEG hired him in 2015, when he was just an ordinary resident living next to the construction site, as one of its guards. With his own experience in the construction sector, Luc detected a series of mistakes by the Chinese contractor.

He took photos, notes, filed petitions, and repeatedly sent them to higher authorities and the Vietnam Expressway Corporation (VEC), the expressway’s main investor, but got no response. During his process of denouncing JTEG, he was tempted with bribes, assaulted and received death threats from both unknown sources and workers at the site.

Pham Tan Luc stands by the Quang Ngai-Da Nang Expressway, May 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong

Pham Tan Luc stands by the Quang Ngai-Da Nang Expressway, May 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong.

A lone wolf

A poor man who sometimes ran out of money to top up his mobile phone, Luc stood tall as a public citizen when the authorities were conspicuously absent.

He was a lone wolf whose own family did not support him in the fight; even his neighbors turned their backs against him.

In some cases, Luc successfully convinced the contractor into fixing the faults he had pointed out, but for the most part, no one bothered.

He asked relatives working in state agencies and friends in the police to help him with petitions, but no one lifted a finger. He traveled hundreds of kilometers to the office of the expressway management board in Da Nang City, but they always refused to meet him in person.

It was only in 2018 when completed sections of the expressway, including those not built by JTEG, started revealing faults, that people took notice.

In November last year, police detained and probed four VEC officials.

In early May this year, Le Quang Hao, deputy general director of the firm, was arrested.

And it was not until investigations were launched into the wrongdoings in constructing and assessing the expressway’s quality that local authorities considered recognizing Luc’s key role in exposing corruption.

On the certificate of merit, Luc is praised for "promoting the people's supervision spirit, participating in supervising projects in Binh Trung Commune."

There is no mention of the Da Nang-Quang Ngai Expressway in particular and no mention of the actions Luc had taken to fight corruption. Explaining the omission, the commune officials said that they had put the name of the project in the file making a recommendation to acknowledge Luc’s contribution.

No one believed that Luc’s reports on JTEG could make any difference, especially when they saw how seriously he was assaulted, requiring hospitalization for several days.

We have heard about stones being thrown into Luc’s house in the middle of the night. Luc and his wife collected the stones and put them into a bag as "evidence." But who would they send the evidence to? What could be done to help him?

It is impossible to quantify the effort that Luc has quietly devoted for the expressway. He was not just a guard on the site; he was a guardian for the nation whose conscience and courage are reflected in statements that he was "not afraid of death" and that he "has to fight to make sure we have a qualified road to leave for our next generations."

To repeat, the importance of Luc’s work cannot be understated, even as the Transport Ministry is in the process of choosing a contractor for five North-South Expressway sections.

One of these, the HCMC – Trung Luong section, the only expressway that connects Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta, will need VND22 billion ($947,000) for repairs. After it opened to traffic just 10 years ago, the expressway’s surface is already flaked and chipped.

The expressways are not the only infrastructure projects that have quality problems, of course.

But in each and every instance, the official system of monitoring and supervision failed.

It took a poverty stricken but honest man like Luc to dare raise his voice and "show responsibility of the residents."

In other instances of people who speak up or act against corruption, we can see that it is indeed a thankless task; worse, the retribution can be nasty.

In 2017, Nguyen Tien Lang, 79, and Nguyen Cong Uan, 80, in the northern province of Bac Ninh were terrorized when people splashed their houses with urine and stool and chopped down their pomelo trees in just one night. This was how they were rewarded for reporting that 3,000 counterfeit war invalids certificates were being used to get undeserved financial aid from the state.

And in the central province of Quang Tri, a man named Mai Xuan Lan was stabbed to death last August as he tried to tell a man not to run a red light.

We are afraid

It is a sad state of affairs that the fear of retaliation, of getting involved and of other consequences of speaking out and denouncing those engaged in wrongdoing has prompted most of us to avoid the responsibilities of being a public citizen and to resign ourselves to accepting that these things happen. Our fear makes us conclude that we can do nothing about it.

In fact, not many people know that denunciation is a basic right of any citizen guaranteed by Vietnam’s constitution, and an extremely important channel to help state agencies access information, detect and handle violations.

To be responsible citizens, we do not need to bust a billion dollar project like Luc. We can start with very small things in our daily life.

When we see a neighbor block the sidewalk with something, we decide to ignore it to avoid spoiling the relationship. If we someone litter, we simply shake our heads and walk away. Not our responsibility, we tell ourselves.

When he was given the certificate of merit without a single public person present, Luc asked a pertinent question. "How can they encourage people to monitor (projects) if they reward me like this?"

A famous quote goes: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Luc has shown us what a normal citizen can do, but what does it say about us that he is isolated both by authorities and the community around him?

Luc could not smile for the photograph. We should not be smiling either.

*Nguyen Dong is a journalist. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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