Vietnam Shows Big Ambitions In Sprawling New Port Project

Haiphong, the third largest Vietnamese city, could become a new Asian transport hub to compete with Hong Kong and Singapore.

The port of Haiphong, set to become one of the main gateways in and out for north Vietnam.
The port of Haiphong, set to become one of the main gateways in and out for north Vietnam.
Michel de Grandi

HAIPHONG — The ship leaves the city of Haiphong behind, headed towards the Red River Delta. The contrast between the two riverbanks is striking. On one side, a never-ending line of boats are waiting to unload at the wharf. On the other, there is nothing but a preserved site. The sea is more than 15 kilometers downstream, and visitors need a lot of imagination to picture what a greatly expanded Haiphong port will look like in 2025.

Today, this sea access is crammed, but a series of projects are expected to transform it into a vast complex equipped with, among other things, a deep water port. Construction began in 2013, and it is scheduled to open in 2016 or early 2017.

The new port, which will be called Lach Huyen Port, will eventually allow ships over 80,000 tons — as opposed to the current 15,000 to 20,000 tons — to stop in Haiphong, some 100 kilometers from the capital Hanoi. The project includes the construction of more 10 kilometers of docks along a channel with a draft up to 14 meters. Financed in part by Japanese funds, the plans also involves building a 9-kilometer bridge, the connection by highway to Hanoi and power plants, sewage treatment plants, etc.

These installations are only a small part of a much bigger development plan to build industrial parks inspired by those created in 1997 in Dinh Vu, which is home to investors such as Knauf, Chevron, Shinetsu and, more recently, Bridgestone.

Fortified by its first successful experience in Dinh Vu, the Belgian company Rent-A-Port has been entrusted with the development of 1,800 hectares (4,448 acres) of these new industrial parks around the deep water port.

The interest in the Red River Delta stems from the fact that the area has 40 million inhabitants and many companies. "We position ourselves where there's a market," explains David Thomas, general manager of the Vietnam-based branch of German company Knauf, which is investing 30 million euros in a new factory.

Multinational corporations like Samsung are turning Vietnam into one of the support bases for their production. For that, the South Korean company was granted significant tax advantages. Still, those are offered "on a case-by-case basis, nothing is automatic," says Nicolas Audier, a French lawyer who has been living in Asia for more than 20 years.

Creating a new hub

Along with its attractive tax deals, Vietnam uses its political and social stability to its advantage, highlighting the cheap cost of labor. The country also wants to offer an alternative to China — a country many Koreans, Japanese and even Europeans are leaving because of skyrocketing production costs.

Haiphong and the Red River Delta — Photo: NASA World Wind

By developing the new port at Haiphong, Vietnam's third biggest city with an anticipated three million inhabitants by 2025, the authorities wish to dispense with the international hubs of Singapore or Hong Kong for all goods from and towards Europe and the American continent. In theory, this shouldn't be too difficult because major ship owners such as CMA, CGM, MSC or Maersk are already prepared to include this stop in their regular Asian lines.

But that's not all. As the southern part of the country has been enjoying rapid development since the 1990s, the north now wants to make up for lost time, giving birth to the craziest projects. For example, using Haiphong as a gateway for some of southern China's traffic, especially for the Yunnan province. The idea is not entirely without merit because there is already a project to create an economic corridor between Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, and Haiphong. It has financing from several organizations, including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

A first section of 245 kilometers stretching from Hanoi to the border with China already divides the journey's length by two. But although traffic alone is enough to completely justify such construction, the project is nonetheless dependent on the sensitive political relationship between Vietnamese and Chinese authorities.

Last spring's riots, following Beijing's deployment of an oil rig in disputed waters off the Vietnamese coast, quickly turned into anti-China protests. The events are still fresh in everybody's mind, with the apparent exception of the Vietnamese authorities, who are well aware that China remains a top trading partner despite everything.

Regardless of the sometimes chilly relationship between Beijing and Hanoi, the port at Haiphong is set to become one of the main gateways in and out for north Vietnam. A return to its origins in a way. Indeed, when the French created the port in the early 20th century, Haiphong was Tonkin's main port and, more importantly, the favored link between Europe and what was then called the French Indochina.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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