by Thu Huong Le
One of the largest corruption stories of the year has come to an end in December: two former executives at the Viet Nam National Shipping Lines were found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to death.
Each was convicted of embezzling VND10 billion (US$476,000). They masterminded the purchase of a non-functional floating dock that resulted in a loss of about VND367 billion ($17.9 million) for the Government, as well as "intentionally violating state regulations on economic management, causing serious consequences."
The verdict for former Vinalines' chairman Duong Chi Dung and his accomplices has given the public a greater trust in efforts to reform State-owned companies, which is vital to the country's socio-economic development goals in 2014.
This has underscored the Government's efforts to clamp down on corruption and ensure the public that fighting corruption is among the nation's top priorities – a mission that does not just involve documents and discussion.
According to a government report in November, courts at all levels held 278 corruption trials this year, while the State inspectorate uncovered 80 new fraud cases involving state funds, while recalling $2.8 million.
In February, an anti-corruption committee was founded under the Party and chaired by Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. The committee has 16 members, whom Trong said must be models in their uprightness, righteousness and objectivity. In his address at the launch of the new committee in February, the Party leader also vowed that the committee would not succumb to fear or temptation.
At least 10 major corruption cases have been brought to light this year, involving major players in the economy, such as Vinalines, Agribank and Asia Commercial Bank.
According to the head of the Government Inspectorate, Huynh Phong Tranh, besides Vinalines and Agribank, which also resulted in two death sentences, the remainder of the major cases would be put on trial in the first and second quarters of 2014.
Tranh also noted, in one of the interviews with local media, that bringing to light these 10 cases displayed the government's efforts to touch the highest and the most powerful.
This year was also the first year that the country implemented the revised Anti-Corruption Law, which was passed in December 2012 by the National Assembly, requiring senior government officials and lawmakers to disclose their assets and income.
International experts have also agreed that corruption has moved up on the political agenda in Viet Nam and the legal framework for curbing corruption has been well-developed.
But more must be done to achieve the kind of sustainable growth we want in the year ahead.
At a meeting earlier this month between development partners and government officials, fighting corruption was stressed as the key to improve the transparency and effectiveness of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and the banking system.
Donors felt that to prevent future losses, similar to Vinalines, efforts must be made to ensure the process of equitising SOEs would be carried out smoothly and making sure they would divest from non-core businesses.
The Government has recently extended the State budget over-expenditure cap from 4.8 per cent of GDP to 5.3 per cent, as fighting corruption is closely related to whether we can spend that money effectively at a time when public resources are extremely limited.
Fighting corruption, however, also comes from the bottom up. Despite laws offering some protection for whistle blowers, people such as the medical tester who went against all odds to report unethical medical misconduct at Hoai Duc General Hospital in August, must be honored, encouraged and protected. If citizens feel that such whistle blower can't be protected, they will lose their faith.
In 2012, the Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index still ranked Viet Nam 123rd out of 176 countries and territories, with some citing lax supervision and enforcement of the law paving the way for corruption, in addition to the lack of independent anti-corruption agencies.
The signs are that we are on the right course in fighting corruption. Actions, however, speak louder than words and we expect more of the kind of the same actions we saw in the Vinalines trial in the years to come. — VNS