BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Conviction for corruption in high places in Vietnam can bring a sentence of death, and yet even that doesn't seem to be much of a deterrent there. As earnest as the ruling Communist Party is in consistently cracking down on graft among politicians and businesspeople, the situation has improved little in recent years.
Last week it was the turn of a former chairman of state-owned PetroVietnam to be handed a death sentence and a bank's former chief executive was jailed for life in what has been called the biggest fraud trial in modern Vietnamese history, involving 51 defendants.
The People's Court of Hanoi found Nguyen Xuan Son and Ha Van Tham guilty of mismanagement, property appropriation and abusing their authority. At PetroVietnam, Son embezzled US$2.15 million (S$2.94 million) and scooped another US$8.7 million from Ocean Bank, which is partially owned by the state.
He'd worked there previously. Tham, chairman of the board at Ocean Bank, and accomplices also affiliated with the bank violated credit regulations that seriously undermined state monetary policies and cost the bank US$88 million. The massive trial resulted in jail terms ranging from three to 17 years as well as suspended sentences of between 18 and 36 months.
Vietnam is routinely harsh in punishing high-ranking officials convicted of corruption. In late 2013, in a high-profile corruption scam that riveted the nation, two former bosses of state-run Vietnam National Shipping Lines (Vinalines) received death sentences for embezzling nearly US$one million.
The tough stance, though, has barely made a dent in the country's "corruption perception index", as measured annually since 2012 by Transparency International. The watchdog's 2016 report released early this year placed Vietnam at 113 among 176 countries and territories. Its point score out of 100 was 33 last year and 31 from 2012-2015.
What's wrong with this picture? Ask most Vietnamese and they'll say the ferocious, highly publicised crackdowns on corruption mask an underlying political struggle among the powerful elite.
The case against the PetroVietnam and Ocean Bank officials had been brewing for some time. In May, the "mayor" Ho Chi Minh City, Dinh La Thang, was ousted from the inner circle of the decision-making politburo over alleged fraud involving PetroVietnam. Observers believe he might well have committed fraud, but the main reason for his purging was that he was close to Nguyen Tan Dung, the prime minister bumped from office last year.
It falls to current party chief Nguyen Phu Trong to establish for the world community that his seriousness in tackling corruption does not stem from a desire to get rid of political enemies. By all accounts a highly intelligent man, Trong must know that tough penalties alone will not curb corruption.
In fact, it is more often a matter of thuggish authoritarianism serving as a catalyst for graft and other abuses of power. Corruption flourishes in dark places. Only by ensuring that the workings of government are transparent to all, and that the rule of law is effective and efficient, can it be uprooted at the base.
If corruption genuinely concerns the leaders of any government, they must determine where in their administrative systems serious reform is required. That applies to state agencies and state-owned enterprises too. The problem will not go away without sincerity, transparency and accountability.
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