Monday, March 12, 2007

Police Brutality in Việt Nam

Not wearing a helmet? That could happen to you. Especially if cops are involved.

Pity poor Lê Minh Thảo. He wasn't driving a motorcycle without his helmet. If he'd been doing it in the city, he'd be fine, probably. It's legal to do it there, if I think unwise. But it's against the law to ride one on the highways around Củ Chi. But that's not the reason you see him bloodstained and gashed and with part of his scalp torn away.

No, it was the three cops he met that did it for him. But not at first. No, they wanted a bribe. But this brave young man stood his ground. Yes, he was in the wrong, and he admitted it. Yes, he would pay. But what he'd like to do is get a ticket, and a receipt as you'd expect in most places. That is the law there, and has been for some years. That is his right. Pay later, not now, and at the local office during working hours. Not to these thieves with uniforms.

The cops didn't like that one bit, and argued, and harangued, but Thảo was not giving in. There was money in his pocket, but that wasn't going to Việt Nam's finest that were in front of him. He needed the cash. So he got annoyed, and left, and drove up 50 metres before the cops caught up with him. And then they beat it, as you see in the picture. They beat him on the head, and on the shoulder. And if a journalist hadn't been driving past with his camera, his story would be only one of many similar, anonymous, stories from that country - unknown to all apart from friends and family.

As I recall, It was far easier for foreigners like myself. I once got stopped by a group of officers near my last place in Sài Gòn, because one of my bike's headlights was not working. Now, what I'd been told in such situations is to speak no Vietnamese - none whatsoever. English only, and preferably as idiomatic and quickly as possible. The average officer there doesn't have that good a grasp on English, and it's best to confuse them until they wave you away.

But it wasn't my night. The police man stated "Passport, please?" in clear, unaccented English. I guessed I could abandon my plan of doing my best Spud impersonation from Trainspotting. So I handed it over. He walked away, showed it his superiors, and then asked "License, please?" I said I no license. "No license? Bike registration?" I admitted the bike belonged to my wife, and I didn't have the paper with me anyway. The man retreated into another huddle. And I was thinking: well, my wife is in hospital, I needed the bike to visit her, and although I hated paying bribes, there was one or two 100,000 đồng notes in my pocket...

And the policeman came back and waved me away. They had me bang to rights, and I was free to go. I couldn't believe it. Neither could my wife nor my father-in-law when I told them later. They found it the funniest thing in the world. 

Now if I had been a local, the cops would have been on me like piranhas on a jaguar's corpse. With hands out, that is - not batons out, unless I made a lot of trouble. But me a foreigner - well, it's not so much that I have rights but that that country has certain obligations to other countries when their citizens are involved - especially rich ones like mine. Maybe it was too much administrative overhead that night. Or perhaps, I too could have asked for a receipt as well, which meant no cash for those ticketing me. Beat up a foreigner? Well, that could jeopardize Việt Nam's embryonic but hard-won reputation as a tourism destination, affecting its GDP growth of 8% per annum or something... God, I have no idea what the authorities are really thinking. But the authorities tend to take a softer-softer approach with the expats and the tourists that with its own citizenry.     

If only Lê Minh Thảo had been born overseas, like I.

(His story and the picture are derived from: Bị đánh hay... tự té ngã?, courtesy of Tuổi Trẻ.)