Belarus Lukashenko sees plot after blast kills 11 

The site of the explosion at the metro station Oktyabrskaya in Minsk, April 11, 2011.

President Alexander Lukashenko said that a blast that tore through a crowded metro station in the Belarus capital Minsk in evening rush hour killing 11 people was an attempt to destabilize the country.

As police placed the capital on high alert, Lukashenko, who has led the ex-Soviet country since 1994, linked the explosion to a previous unsolved blast in 2008, saying: “These are perhaps links in a single chain.”

Acts of deliberate violence are unusual in Belarus, a republic of 10 million people which shares borders with EU members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania and with Russia and Ukraine.

“We must find out who gained by undermining peace and stability in the country, who stands behind this,” said the president.

One opposition figure said he feared Lukashenko would use the blast to crack down even more harshly on political rivals.

“Prosecutors qualify this as a terrorist act,” a source in Lukashenko’s administration told Reuters.

Lukashenko, who is at odds with Western governments over a police crackdown on an opposition rally against his re-election last December, said: “I do not rule out that this (the blast) was a gift from abroad.”

Monday’s blast occurred on a platform at around 6 p.m. at the Oktyabrskaya metro station — one of the city’s busiest underground rail junctions — about 100 m (yards) from the main presidential headquarters.

Lukashenko was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying 11 people had been killed and 100 injured. A presidential administration source later said 126 people had been injured.

In his remarks, Lukashenko referred back to July 2008 when a home-made bomb wounded about 50 people at an open air concert he was attending. The crime was never solved.

Idea Kadhafi will step down ‘ridiculous,’ says son 

The charred hand of a pro-Kadhafi fighter is seen as Libyan rebel fighters buried him in a communal grave near the western gate of Ajdabiya.

Libyan rebels rejected an African Union initiative for a truce accepted by Moamer Kadhafi, and said the only solution was the strongman’s ouster, an idea his son called “ridiculous.”

The rebel rejection came after NATO chiefs warned that any deal must be “credible and verifiable,” and as alliance warplanes were again in action against heavy Kadhafi weaponry pounding Ajdabiya and Misrata.

A delegation of leaders mandated by the African Union (AU) to stop the fighting in Libya arrived late Monday in the Algerian capital for two days of talks with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, APS news agency reported.

“We are working to find a solution to this complex question and we are continuing our efforts to get out of this crisis,” Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was quoted as saying on arrival.

He was accompanied by Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso, AU Commission chairman Jean Ping and Ugandan Foreign Minister Henry Oryem Okello, APS said.

Kadhafi has accepted a proposed “roadmap” calling for an immediate ceasefire, boosted humanitarian aid and dialogue between the two sides, but the insurgents have rejected the plan, saying Kadhafi must go immediately.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also stuck to US demands for Kadhafi to step down and leave Libya as part of a peaceful transition, but declined to comment on the proposed African Union deal before being fully briefed.

She told a news conference in Washington however that “there needs to be a transition that reflects the will of the Libyan people and the departure of Kadhafi from power and from Libya.”

Kadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam admitted that it was time for “new blood” in Libya, but called talk of his father stepping down “ridiculous.”

“The Libyan Guide (Kadhafi) does not want to control everything. He is at an advanced age. We would like to bring a new elite of young people onto the scene to lead the country and direct local affairs,” he told France’s BFM TV.

“We need new blood — that is what we want for the future — but talk of the Guide leaving is truly ridiculous,” he added.

In Benghazi, rebel leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil said the African initiative did not go far enough.

“From the first day the demand of our people has been the ouster of Kadhafi and the fall of his regime,” he said.

“Kadhafi and his sons must leave immediately if they want to be safe… Any initiative that does not include the people’s demand, the popular demand, essential demand, we cannot possibly recognise.”

NATO, meanwhile, said it struck more loyalist targets around Ajdabiya and the besieged port of Misrata on Sunday and Monday, destroying 11 Kadhafi regime tanks and five military vehicles.

The regime warned that any foreign intervention under the pretext of bringing aid into Misrata would be met by “staunch armed resistance,” the official JANA news agency quoted the foreign ministry as saying.

Diplomats in Brussels said on Friday that the EU was gearing up to deploy military assets for a humanitarian mission to evacuate wounded from Misrata and deliver food, water and medicine to the city.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned that warplanes will keep pounding Libyan forces as long as civilians are at risk.

“I would also like to stress that the guiding principle for us will be how to implement the UN Security Council resolution fully, that is to protect the civilians against any attack,” he said.

Shamsiddin Abdulmolah, a spokesman for the rebels’ Transitional National Council, welcomed the African Union efforts, but demanded Kadhafi’s overthrow.

“The people must be allowed to go into the streets to express their opinion and the soldiers must return to their barracks,” he told AFP.

“If people are free to come out and demonstrate in Tripoli, then that’s it. I imagine all of Libya will be liberated within moments.”

He also demanded the release of hundreds of people missing since the outbreak of the popular uprising and believed to be held by Kadhafi’s forces.

South African President Jacob Zuma said earlier that Tripoli had accepted the African Union plan for a ceasefire.

“We also in this communique are making a call on NATO to cease the bombings to allow and to give a ceasefire a chance,” he said.

The rebels, however, doubted Kadhafi would adhere to a truce.

“The world has seen these offers of ceasefires before and within 15 minutes (Kadhafi) starts shooting again,” Abdulmolah said.

The rebels have said they would negotiate a political transition to democracy with certain senior regime figures, but only on the condition that Kadhafi and his sons leave Libya.

Meanwhile, Libya’s former foreign minister Mussa Kussa, who is in Britain after defecting from Moamer Kadhafi’s regime, told the BBC Monday that the restive nation could become a “new Somalia” if civil war broke out.

Vietnamese runners target Olympics qualification 

Truong Thanh Hang (L) and Vu Thi Huong are training hard to qualify for the 2012 Olympics in London.

Sprint queen Vu Thi Huong and middle distance runner (800m, 1,500m) Truong Thanh Hang are training hard to qualify for the 2012 Olympics in London.

Local experts say the athletes should concentrate on the Olympics rather than the Southeast Asian Games in Indonesia in November where they should be defending their titles easily because as are no strong rivals in the region.

Huong and Hang both participated in the 2008 Olympics in China but they did so with wild card entries, not after qualifying. This time, they want to qualify.

Nguyen Manh Hung, deputy general Secretary of Vietnam Athletics Federation (VAF), said, “There are strong grounds for our ambition because Hang and Huong are at their peak.

“With a double budget of US$160,000 this year, we can make big track and field investments. For the first time, Huong, Hang and Le Ngoc Phuong will train in Germany at an expense of $44,000. We will also put VND150-170 million ($7,200-8,100) into cash prize funds.”

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is yet to announce an official requirement for qualification for the 2012 Olympics, but it is likely to be below 11.30 seconds for the 100m race, the benchmark for the 2008 Olympics.

“My personal best was at the Southeast Asian Games in 2009 where I did the 100m in 11.34 seconds. That is 0.4 seconds more than the Olympic qualification requirement. At the Asian Games in China in 2010, I won the bronze medal but I covered the 100m in 11.43 seconds. That’s why I must train hard now. I’m leaving for Germany on April 18 for a training course and I hope the 3-week training in Cologne and Frankfurt will improve my performance,” Huong told Thanh Nien.

Coach Nguyen Dinh Minh said, “It will be extremely hard to improve Huong’s performance, but we are determined to make it better. The main tests will be the Asian Track and Field Championships in Kobe (Japan, July 7-10), the World Track and Field Championships in Daegu (South Korea, August 27 till September 4) and the 26th Southeast Asian Games in Indonesia in November.”

Thanh Hang’s coach Ho Thi Tu Tam said, “Hang will train in China from May 1-28 before going to Germany for more training.”

German expert Uwe Freimuth, who is also training Hang, has said that Hang, who finished second in the women’s 800m and 1,500m races at the Asian Games in China in 2010, can qualify for the London Olympics.

A VFA website report said, “Uwe has suggested making Asian Games runner-up Hang one of the world’s top 10 in her category, which no Vietnamese expert has ever thought of before. However, Hang’s performances at the 16th Asian Games in China in 2010 have made VAF believe in Uwe Freimuth’s suggestion."

Hang herself said, “To be in the world top 10 is a dream for any athlete; but I know I must do more, especially in nutrition and technical skills.”

DTLA moves into relegation zone after home loss 


Dong Tam Long An (DTLA) were thrashed lost 0-3 at the Long An Stadium by Da Nang in the ninth round of Vietnam’s top-tier V-League football tournament on Sunday.

It might be too early to say the 2005-06 champs will be relegated to the second-tier First Division, but if the dismal form continues, it looks as a distinct possibility.

The absence of a real matchmaker for DTLA was made glaring by the role played by Da Nang midfielder Minh Phuong.

Phuong, who transferred from DTLA to Da Nang before the league kicked off, made neat passes to the visitors’ strikers and Ngoc Thanh scored a brace before Gaston Merlo scored the third.

There was a controversial event in the match when referee Nguyen Duc Vu awarded a goal from a free kick to the home team, but changed his mind and denied it.

While the visitors were leading 1-0, Kassim’s 48th -minute free kick hit the shoulder of home team striker Thanh Binh while he was in an offside position before going into Da Nang’s net.

The decision let to arguments between the players and coach Simon McMenemy.

DTLA now remain in 13th position out of 14 teams with just six points while Sunday winners Da Nang, title winners in 2009, retain their third place standing with 17 points.

Meanwhile, Song Lam Nghe An climbed one position to top with 19 points after a 1-0 away win over Navibank Saigon at Ho Chi Minh’s Thong Nhat Stadium on Thursday. Navibank Saigon slid one spot to seventh with 12 points.

Nghe An’s climb was made possible because Dong Thap with 17 points slid from top place to second after a 0-3 away defeat to Thanh Hoa at the Thanh Hoa Stadium on Sunday. Thanh Hoa with 12 points still remained in 12th spot despite their impressive victory.

Khanh Hoa’s 2-1 home win at Nha Trang Stadium lifted it up one place to fourth with 16 points while their opponents Hoang Anh Gia Lai, 2003-04 champs, fell one position to fifth with 13 points.

Defending champs Hanoi T&T climbed one place to sixth with 13 points while 2007-08 champs Binh Duong slid one spot to ninth with 12 points after both teams fought to a goalless draw Thursday at Binh Duong’s Go Dau Stadium.

Ninh Binh jumped three places to eighth after a 2-0 home victory at home over Hanoi ACB, who remain at the bottom with four points.

Hoa Phat Hanoi and Hai Phong each slid one place to 10th and 11th respectively after their 1-1 tie at Hanoi’s Hang Day Stadium on Sunday. Both teams have 11 points now.

Vietnam’s Q1 car sales jump 30 pct year on year: industry 


Car sales in Vietnam in the first quarter jumped 30 percent from the same period last year to 27,896 units, while a Vietnamese car maker surpassed Toyota in sales last month, the Vietnam Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (VAMA) said on Wednesday.

The number of cars sold in March alone increased 1 percent from a year earlier to 9,513, the association said in its monthly report. The data did not contain figures from Vinamotor, although VAMA gave no explanation.

Sales by the Vietnamese firm Truong Hai, which assembles vehicles including South Korean KIAs, exceeded Toyota’s for the first time, reaching 3,085 units in March, up 29.9 percent from a year ago , the report said.

Toyota sold 2,357 units during the month, it said.

Bankers say dollar rate cap gives strength to dong 

Local banks have lowered their interest rates on dollar deposits.

Economists and bankers are expecting a switch from dollar holdings to dong assets after the central bank capped the interest rate on dollar deposits.

The State Bank of Vietnam has capped dollar deposit rates at 3 percent for individuals and 1 percent for institutions, effective April 13. Local lenders will also have to raise their reserve ratio on deposits held in US currency from May onward.

Bankers welcomed the move saying it will end the race among banks to raise their dollar deposit interest rates. Before the rate cap was imposed, local banks were offering to pay up to 6 percent annually on dollar deposits.

Ly Xuan Hai, general director of Asia Commercial Bank, said dollar rates in most other countries remained under 1 percent while they surged unreasonably to 5-6 percent in Vietnam.

Hai said the new rule will discourage foreign-currency holdings and ease pressure on the dong.

His bank now sets interest rates between 2.90 to 3 percent on dollar deposits. That compares to a maximum interest rate of 14 percent on dong savings.

Another bank manager said depositors are expected to sell dollar deposits and switch to the dong because of the widening gap between local and foreign currency interest rates. Pressure on the dong will ease when the market no longer prefers the US dollar, he said.

The manager estimated that banks in Ho Chi Minh City alone had around US$10 billion in dollar deposits, more than half of which came from individuals.

Foreign-currency loans increased 13 percent in the first three months of the year. Even though foreign-currency liquidity at banks was ensured, the central bank said dollar lending rose unexpectedly.

Experts said even companies that don’t need to import goods prefer dollar loans so they can benefit from low borrowing costs. Interest rates on dollar loans are 6-8.5 percent, approximately half of dong lending rates.

The rate cap on dollar deposits will allow banks to lower their lending rates, but Hai of Asia Commercial Bank said a sharp decline is unlikely.

The amount of dollar deposits lenders must set aside will be increased next month, and this will prevent drastic cuts in lending rates, Hai said.

Economist Le Tham Duong, on the other hand, said a cap on interest rates may force banks to find ways around the new rule.

“An administrative order often results in dodging of regulations,” he said. “If corporate demand for dollar loans remains high and banks are unable to attract dollar deposits (at the new low rates), they will be forced to break the cap.”

Duong noted that local banks have already circumvented a similar cap on dong deposits.

The State Bank of Vietnam in February recognized the 14 percent rate cap on dong deposits established earlier by the Vietnam Bank Association.

News website VnExpress reported last week that many banks, including the bigger ones, were breaking the cap. As banks had trouble raising funds amidst soaring consumer prices, they tried to attract deposits with rates of up to 18 percent a year, the report cited an official of Vietnam Bank Association as saying.

Saving the Hoan Kiem Turtle is simpler than you think 

A giant turtle which is considered a sacred symbol of Vietnam surfaces at Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of Hanoi on March 7, 2011.

Dear Editor:

The world now knows the plight of Vietnam’s sacred turtle struggling to survive in polluted Hoan Kiem Lake. The turtle’s suffering need not to be the "price of progress" as Hanoi grows. There is a relatively simple and inexpensive solution which can greatly improve the water quality of the lake, while long term solutions to Hanoi’s growing pollution problems are solved.

The process, developed by a Canadian company, BactaPur, involves sprinkling safe, natural enzymes on the water, as well as installing a simple network of compressed air pumps to aerate the water, providing oxygen. The enzymes consume the pollution sludge at the bottom of the lake and the air bubbles provide oxygen to the water, much like in a home aquarium. 

Within weeks the water will clear up and the turtle’s chances of survival will be greatly increased.  When the continuing pollution of the lake from the surrounding area is dealt with, the lake can taken off "life support" and return, once again, to the healthy lake it was for hundreds of years.

Here are the comments of the expert from the company, which studied the lake 12 years ago:

In the various news stories I have read about the problem there, it seems that there was no analysis whatsoever about the water conditions. There is a lot of written information about the “mud” which is being removed – while it is potentially possible that this is actually mud, I doubt it – believe it is more than likely a thick layer of organic wastes – namely what we call sludge.

The US$2 million that is being spent is such a complete and total waste of money – I don’t see how the project could possibly cost that much.

Another point I noted in the news stories I have read is that they are estimating the depth of the lake at 0.4 meters. If this is an accurate measurement, it means that in the past 12 or so years the lake has gone from a then 1.5-meter average depth to a 0.4-meter depth… this is a symptom of eutrification (or europhication – the addition of artificial or natural substances to an aquatic system) and further indication of ever worsening conditions of the water in the lake.  With the coming of summer and increased heat, it can be anticipated that dissolved oxygen in the lake will drop significantly and that this will further reduce the ability for the turtle to survive.

Another point that is mentioned in the articles I have read is the problem of run-off from the streets and areas surrounding the lake. I recall that the area around the lake is slightly elevated when compared to the lake.

So, run-off after rains will also bring not only the water from the rains but also carry hydro-carbons which are on the surface of the streets. This type of pollutant load is of much greater danger to the health of the lake and the turtle than the paper and other things that are “complained” about by the people in charge of the lake protection.

I could not find an email address for Prof. Ha Dinh Duc who is written about as the “protector” of the lake. I would like to write him and ask about the required water parameters for maintaining healthy conditions for the lake…

Treating the lake would be very simple. The best solution is to have an analysis done of the water and sludge that is in the lake. It would be “best” to collect samples for analysis at several points in the lake – taking a sample at the surface, another at the mid-point, and a third from the bottom of the lake at several points. It would be “best” to do this at 10-15 different locations which would provide 30 to 45 samples for analysis. I would start by asking if this was ever done by Professor Ha Dinh Duc – if it was, then a copy of that data would be a great place to start. 

If it wasn’t then that should raise all types of red flags.

If the requested data can be provided, then a full program of treatment can be recommended.


Tom Miller, President

Green Cities Fund

Artistic license, altruistic claims 

Poster of pop group Danity Kane posing naked for an anti-fur campaign. A Vietnamese model’s claim that nude photographs of herself aimed to promote awareness of environmental protection has been received with skepticism and criticism.

Vietnam is a society still bound by long-standing traditional mores, although some of these have unraveled at a rapid pace for the last few decades.

Nudity and sexuality is still a controversial subject here, and those who engage in it typically claim artistic license, and from a commercial standpoint, controversy sells well.

There has been no shortage of nudity related controversies, but the latest one over the recently released set of nude photographs of Ngoc Quyen, a famous model, is a bit different.

In this instance, more than artistic license was claimed. The project had an altruistic motive; it was done for the sake of the environment, said the model and the photographer, To Thanh Nghiep.

As a painter, I don’t think the photos

of the naked lady sitting, standing, and hanging to a rock cliff served the purpose of calling for nature preservation efforts as claimed. Even though the photos were taken in lush surroundings, amidst a forest with a spring and rocks, all many people have been able to see is an effort to promote her body.

Some people have said that the objections have been raised because the photographer’s skills weren’t good enough to express the good intentions.

I think both the model and photographer have failed in trying to make use of a good cause to justify their project.

This is not a rare practice these days, the spouting of a cause or doing something “hot” to attract attention.

The entertainment industry leads the effort and the art industry does not lag far behind. Unskilled creators and performers usually use this gambit to make their works less boring.

Now, if you can do something “hot” and draw attention to your knowledge and awareness of social problems, you hit two birds with one stone.

Judging by the initial brickbat-bouquet ratio on Quyen’s project, it can be argued that the stone missed both birds. But this is going to be the talk of the town for sometime, and hence it might have paid off for Quyen, if all she wanted was some publicity.

Art is not an easy space for people to play tricks, even if it might seem so.

Art in general and photographs in particular can reveal the thinking of the creator or creators. “Indecent” and “tasteless” are some of the comments this nude photo-op has attracted.

This is not the first and definitely not the last controversy over nudity. As a very subjective matter, the line between art and pornography can be thin at times.

Quyen told Thanh Nien: “Don’t pay any attention to me, look at the gorgeous nature behind me.”

Nature is gorgeous indeed, but was she hoping for the same compliment by striking poses in all her natural glory?

Visa on arrival: an unpleasant welcome 


I returned to Vietnam yesterday (March 19) and utilized again the visa-on-arrival (V-O-A) service.

The situation at the V-O-A counter at Tan Son Nhat International Airport was quite chaotic and disorganized, as it has been from the initiation of the program. This wasn’t too much of a concern a year ago as the service was not heavily utilized.

Now there are many, many visitors expecting to get their visa on arrival. Unfortunately the wait, once one gets to the front of the initial line to drop off your passport, for me yesterday, was about 30 minutes.

As typically observed in these sort of situations in Vietnam, there were some locals who seemed to have the inside line who were getting the visas for others, who, I imagine, were "taken care of" more quickly.

Even picking up your passport, with your new visa, is problematic as the woman calling out the names had apparently no idea how to pronounce the names on the passports. During the time I was there I facilitated a few folks getting their passports back because nobody could decipher what name she was attempting to say.

What the V-O-A providers might consider doing is, as each passport is tendered, a number printed on a laminated card attached to a lanyard be given to the visitor, and when the passport is returned and the fee paid, the lanyard is used again. I suggest having the number on a lanyard because any visitors already have their hands full when they arrive. This would be a way to insure that the V-O-A process is "first come, first served".

It’s horrible to subject international visitors to an abysmal first experience on their arrival in Vietnam. Now that the streets from the airport to downtown have finally been widened and the sewer work under the streets is finished, what was possibly the worst part of tourists’ visits before, the trip from the airport to downtown is a relative breeze. Similar focus must be brought to bear on this unnecessary, frustrating V-O-A bottleneck.

Clifton Buck-Kauffman

(Ho Chi Minh City)

Know thy enemy 


Vietnam needs a strong, independent watchdog and greater consumer awareness

A girl walks past shelves of groceries at a minimart in Hanoi March 18, 2011.

Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, has been in fashion for some time now. It has emerged as a response to growing consumer awareness in developed countries of sweatshops, unfair trade practices and environmentally harmful activities as well as a refusal to accept them.

While there have been rare instances of one man’s courage and conviction making a huge difference for consumers, most notably Ralph Nader, whose book, “Unsafe at any speed,” forced automakers to develop safer products and gave us the modern car, many of the later successes were widespread movements like product and brand boycotts.

It is important to remember this background to CSR, that it was not something that the corporate sector did of its own volition, but something that it did to offset, and later, pre-empt consumer-driven opposition and rejection. It is also a PR plank for the company, boosting its image and enhancing brand value.

The plethora of “returning to the community” projects that many companies implement has certainly done some good, but CSR is no substitute for consumer vigilance.

In Vietnam, we witnessed a shocking case of corporate social irresponsibility when Taiwanese monosodium glutamate maker Vedan Vietnam, which was bound to take environmental protection measures, was found to have been doing the opposite for more than 14 years. After the exposure, it denied the extent of its wrongdoing, and tried not to pay due compensation.

In fact, it was a consumer boycott led by supermarkets refusing to carry its products that finally pushed Vedan to pay farmers the compensation they and representative organizations had negotiated.

There have been many companies that have since been found polluting the environment against the law, but laws in Vietnam seem to lack sharp teeth. Most of the time, environmental polluters get away with puny fines.

What has been the response of Toyota Vietnam in light of the recent exposure of technical flaws in some of their models. Note that, in its Sustainability Report 2008 the company said that “Toyota came to Vietnam not only to achieve business objectives, but also to perform social responsibilities and obligations toward the community for a thriving and prosperous life.”

The carmaker has insisted that the flaws are minor, wouldn’t affect driver safety, and there is no need to recall around 8,830 defective cars as it has received no complaints from consumers so far.

If, as the whistle-blower engineer has claimed, the company tried to prevent the exposure and wanted the flaws not be exposed in the first place, how much trust can consumers place in Toyota Vietnam’s statements, not just about its noble aims, but about its own products?

Vietnamese consumers are still vulnerable. They need all watchdogs, from the press to government agencies responsible for checking product quality, to do their job well to make sure the products and services they buy are safe and priced fairly.

But given all the shortcomings that the watchdogs operate under, it is difficult to expect that they will get the job done by themselves.

The Vietnam Register, in charge of supervising vehicles’ technological soundness, told Thanh Nien that it only checked 30 percent of a car to make sure it’s generally safe.

“We can’t check every single thing on a car… The manufacturers are responsible for any safety problems with other parts,” said Do Huu Duc, deputy general director of the agency.

On July 1, the Consumer Protection Law will take effect. However, for it to really benefit consumers, professional agencies armed with appropriate knowledge, equipment and manpower need to be established. Consumers must be able to turn to a trustworthy, qualified agency when they are adversely affected.

Most of all, consumers themselves should be aware of their rights and responsibilities. CSR should be placed in the context of a self-regulatory effort designed to allay the customer, and at the same time, avoid tougher government regulations and other monitoring measures.

Companies will act responsibly if, and only if, their profit margins are threatened.

This is the bottom line.