Accessibility links

Breaking News

Corruption still seen as a concern in Vietnam despite death sentence

FILE - Vietnamese real estate tycoon Truong My Lan, front center, is escorted into a courtroom in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, March 5, 2024.
FILE - Vietnamese real estate tycoon Truong My Lan, front center, is escorted into a courtroom in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, March 5, 2024.

While this month’s death sentence in a multibillion-dollar Vietnamese fraud case may show the power of Hanoi’s antigraft campaign, interviews in recent days showed continuing concerns over political impunity in Vietnam and vulnerability and corruption in the country’s poorly paid public sector.

Meanwhile, two of those interviewed expressed doubts the sentence would actually be carried out.

On April 11, Truong My Lan, the 68-year-old chairwoman of real-estate firm Van Thinh Phat Holdings Group was given the death sentence for embezzling $12.5 billion, leading to damages that have now reached $27 billion, as well as well as 20 years each for bribery and violating banking regulations. She was also ordered by the court to return $27 billion to Saigon Commercial Bank, or SCB, for taking out bad loans over 11 years.

In 2012, Lan merged three banks into SCB. Although Vietnamese law prohibits anyone from owning more than 5% of the shares of any bank, prosecutors said that through proxies and thousands of shell companies Lan indirectly owned 91.5% of SCB.

Nguyen Hong Hai, senior lecturer at VinUniversity in Hanoi, said Lan's sentence shows the government's effort to impart a public message.

"We have to put it in the context of the ongoing blazing furnace anticorruption campaign launched by the Party in 2016," Hai told VOA on April 16.

"They want to send a clear message to the public that they really want to clean up society and they are determined to combat corruption."

A 38-year-old bank clerk in Ho Chi Minh City struck a similar chord in an April 17 written message, telling VOA that the verdict helps to restore faith in financial institutions.

"Lan and her people have used the banking system to take the money for their own purposes," he wrote in Vietnamese. "A quick verdict helped to gain back people's trust."

Corruption said likely widespread

However, Zachary Abuza, Southeast Asia expert and professor at the National War College in Washington, said corruption is likely widespread in Vietnam's banking sector and despite the sentences meted out, high-level officials escaped implication.

The country’s Communist Party "definitely circled the wagons and made sure that some lower-level party officials and regulators were held responsible, but it didn't go any higher," he told VOA on April 12.

"It definitely should have gone higher," he added.

During the trial, 85 individuals were punished in addition to Lan, with sentences ranging from probation to life imprisonment. Do Thi Nhan, the head banking inspector of the State Bank of Vietnam, was given a life sentence for accepting a $5.2 million bribe to cover up SCB's wrongdoing.

Hai in Hanoi said authorities are likely implicated in Lan's corrupt business practices and more officials may be revealed.

"In any corruption case, they are somehow involved with authorities and government officials particularly when it comes to a very huge corruption case like this one that involves real estate and the banking sector," Hai said.

"Maybe more investigations will be conducted. … The authorities have not yet said that it's the end of the case," he said.

Systemic bribery

Part of the cycle of corruption that led to Lan's scam is the low pay of public sector workers, making them vulnerable to bribery, said Nguyen Khac Giang, visiting fellow at Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Giang told VOA on April 17 that the monthly salary for the government's top role of general secretary is approximately $1,000, mid-level officials make about $400, and those entering the public sector out of college do not make enough to live without accepting bribes or taking on side jobs.

"People who just start working for the state, they get about $150 a month," Giang said. "If you get this kind of salary you cannot survive in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City."

The government is trying to address the issue by increasing public sector salaries by 30% starting July this year. Although the move shows a "strong political will," Giang said he worries it will not be enough to stop entrenched corruption with salaries starting at such a low level.

"We have 2.5 million bureaucrats," he said. "There's a lot of people on the state payroll and basically when you have too many people and a very small cake it is impossible to give everyone the share that they wish to have."

Sentence may not be carried out

Meanwhile, it may be that Lan’s death sentence will not actually be carried out, even though its imposition signals a serious government attitude toward corruption.

Ha Huy Son, the director of the Ha Son Law Company in Hanoi told VOA April 11 that he expected appellate courts would commute Lan’s death sentence.

Lan’s death sentence "conveys the message that authorities are not lenient on economic crimes incurring consequential losses," he said, adding that Vietnamese courts "have made it a norm" that if embezzlement case defendants compensate more than three-fourths of the losses incurred, their sentences will be commuted.

In addition, he said. It can take up to 20 years for a death sentence to be carried out, and Lan is almost 70.

Le Quoc Quan, a dissident and lawyer living in exile in the U.S. state of Virginia predicted to VOA April 11 that Lan would not be put to death, saying that while the death sentence is needed "to placate public sentiment, which is boiling over corruption," it can "also serve as a bargaining chip to force Lan to compensate."

"Truong My Lan being alive and well is good for recovering losses. Dead Truong My Lan serves nothing," Quan said.

Le Nguyen of VOA’s Vietnamese Service reported from Washington.

  • 16x9 Image

    VOA News

    The Voice of America provides news and information in more than 40 languages to an estimated weekly audience of over 326 million people. Stories with the VOA News byline are the work of multiple VOA journalists and may contain information from wire service reports.