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?

Tallest skyscraper project scaled down 

An artist’s rendition of the PVN Tower in Hanoi

PetroVietnam Construction JSC, a subsidiary of state-owned Vietnam Oil and Gas Group, announced on Sunday that it has adjusted the height of its tower project in Hanoi to cut construction costs.

The 102-story PVN Tower, which was slated to become the tallest skyscraper in Vietnam, now has 79 stories only, the Vietnam Economic Times reported.

The adjustment will allow PetroVietnam Construction to cut its investment to US$600 million from the original estimate of $1 billion.

The company said it will not use state funds to finance the project.

PetroVietnam Construction plans to partner with foreign contractors including South Korea’s Hansin and Samsung to develop the project.

The tower will be built on a 25 hectare area in Hanoi’s Tu Liem District. The final design will be announced on March 30.

At 79 stories, PVN Tower will no longer claim title to the tallest building in the country. The record will be passed on to a 100-story five star hotel project that Kinh Bac City Development Corporation has slated for construction in the capital.

The Mekong River's Pandora s box 

A woman fishes in the Mekong River in Laos in September 2010.

Though Zeus warned Pandora never to open the box given to her, the temptation proved too strong and Pandora forever unleashed into the world misery, suffering and sorrow.

Today, much like this mythical Greek tragedy, the decision-makers of the Mekong sub-region face a similar temptation in the form of a cascade of hydropower dams proposed for the Mekong River.

They have also received Zeus’ warning from a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) report that warns of grave social and environmental consequences should the dams proceed.

In September last year, the government of Laos initiated a regional decision-making process, facilitated by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), for the proposed Xayaboury dam located in the eponymous mountainous province in northern Laos.

Over the next four months, the governments of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam will make a joint decision on whether or not to approve construction of the dam, which would be the first of 11 mainstream dams proposed for the lower stretch of the river that runs through the four countries.

The initiation of this regional decision-making process on the Xayaboury dam pre-empted by three weeks the release of the SEA report, which was commissioned by the MRC in May 2009 and was originally intended to inform future decisions on mainstream dam development.

Whilst to most it would seem common sense to consider the SEA report’s recommendations before moving to more advanced stages of decision-making, it is perhaps not surprising that the Xayaboury dam has been pushed quickly ahead by its proponents, leapfrogging the launch of the SEA report by weeks.

The SEA report concludes that construction of dams on the Mekong River’s mainstream would irreversibly undermine the ecology and economic productivity of the river and will place at risk the livelihoods and food security of millions of people who depend upon the river’s resources.

It recommends that decision-making on Mekong mainstream dams, including Xayaboury, be deferred for 10 years due to the massive risks and vast impact associated with the projects, and the need for more than 50 more critical studies to ensure that decision-makers are fully informed about these risks.

With very limited commitment to transparency and accountability in this new decision-making process, however, it seems that common sense might be in short supply, although civil society groups and the wider public have tried to make their opinions heard.

While the regional decision-making procedures over the Xayaboury dam began three months ago, the MRC only publicly released an ambiguous roadmap for its implementation late last month.

Remarkably, whilst comment is invited, the project’s documents have not been disclosed to the public, rendering the process opaque, unaccountable and increasingly lacking in credibility.

In October 2009, for example, a 23,000-signature petition calling for the Mekong River’s mainstream to remain free of dams was sent to the prime ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

More recently, in September last year, Thai community groups representing about 24,000 people in five provinces along the Mekong River submitted a petition to Thailand’s Prime Minister asking him to cancel the Xayaboury dam.

If built, the Xayaboury dam will displace over 2,100 people, at least 200,000 people would suffer a direct impact on their livelihoods through the loss of fisheries, riverbank gardens, agricultural land and forests.

The dam would also block a critical fish migration route – including for 23 fish species that travel from Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake – and scientists from around the world have concluded that there is no viable mitigation technology. Up to 41 fish species would face the threat of extinction, including the iconic Mekong Giant Catfish.

The myth of Pandora’s box has long been used as a lesson in the dangers of curiosity, temptation and the weaknesses of human nature. The question is, can we heed Pandora’s lesson before it is too late?

The decision lies in the hands of the governments of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

On first inspection it may appear that Thailand is a key decision-maker, as it plans to purchase 95 percent of the Xayaboury dam’s electricity. In addition, the project’s lead developer is Thailand’s second largest construction company, Ch. Karnchang, and four major Thai banks are considering financing the project.

However, as the Mekong River is a shared resource between all four lower Mekong countries, and joint decision-making over its sustainable and equitable sharing is embodied in the 1995 “Mekong Agreement” that mandates the MRC, in fact it is decision-makers from all four Mekong countries that will formulate the final decision on whether the project is approved or not.

As Vietnam contemplates this crucial decision, serious consideration must be given to the trans-boundary impacts the Mekong Delta may suffer as a result of the development of the Xayaboury and ten other proposed dams on the Mekong River’s mainstream.

The Mekong River is an integrated ecosystem and upstream development can have unintended – but severe – downstream consequences.

By altering the delta’s important life-cycle of water, silt and nutrients, the mainstream dams could have far-reaching implications for the delta’s rice production, fisheries, and agriculture, with implications for the local and national economy.

In a world facing a growing food and water crisis, working together to protect and share the Mekong River’s rich natural resources, rather than undermining them, should be a high priority for the region’s decision-makers.

If, like Pandora, decision-makers choose not to heed the advice of the SEA report and instead open the dam-building box, grave misfortune is certain to follow.

It is yet not too late to prevent the tragedy of these dams from being unleashed. Some boxes are meant to remain unopened.

By Ame Trandem
Ame Trandem is a campaigner with the NGO International Rivers, a partner of the Save the Mekong coalition.

600 youth to serve commune-level administrations as deputy chiefs 


A new project approved by the Prime Minister will recruit 600 young people to work for commune-level administrations nationwide from now until 2014.

A VnExpress report said Saturday that the project aimed to provide well qualified youth to work for the local governments, helping them to effectively implement poverty reduction programs and at the same time, create a resource base of young officials with high management capacities.

Under the project, the selected candidates, university graduates less than 30 years of age, will work as deputy chairman or chairwoman at 600 communes in 62 poor districts across the country, according to the news website.

They have to commit to serve the local administrations for at least five years, and those who quit the job before the committed time will have to pay compensation to the state for investments made in initial training and support.

The news website reported that the plan will be piloted in the five provinces of Cao Bang, Dien Bien, Nghe An, Quang Ngai and Kon Tum from now until next year, with an estimated 100 candidates selected to serve commune-level administrations.

Ca Mau officials detained in embezzlement probe  


Vietnamese police on Wednesday arrested the deputy director of Ca Mau’s Agriculture and Rural Development Department for embezzlement.

According to the Ministry of Public Security’s Anti-Corruption Department, Nguyen Thong Nhan and four of his subordinates misappropriated over VND2 billion (US$ 102,616) while he was in charge of a project to enhance the southern province’s aquaculture capacity between 2006-2008. The project was aided by Denmark.

Nhan pocketed VND55 million, while Nguyen Trung Chanh, deputy chief of Ca Mau Fisheries Promotion center, got over VND120 million.

Chanh was also taken into custody, while others were let free for the moment, police said.

Nhan, who was dismissed from the province’s Party Unit in October, was also accused of wrongly spending over VND1.9 billion ($97,485) together with the officials.

It is estimated the ring has inflicted the project’s budget with a loss of nearly VND4.2 billion, according to the department.

Further investigation is underway into the case.

Poor farmers given diseased cows as welfare support 

An animal health official checks a cow in Quang Ngai Province

Many poor households in the central region’s Quang Ngai Province have discovered the cows they were given as poverty support are infected with the foot-and-mouth disease, VnExpress said Monday.


Animal health officials in Tinh Hoa Commune, Son Tinh District have been busy in recent days instructing the residents to sterilize their breeding area and quarantine the sick cows.


Dang Ngoc Hop, a commune animal health official, said the foot-and-mouth disease has spread quickly among animals in the commune, starting from the cows that provincial officials gave farmers in a poverty alleviation project.


The commune now has 21 sick cows and nine of them were from the project.


“When the cows were handed over, several residents had found that the animals were not as healthy as they were told. The cows fell sick after two days,” Hop said.


Dang Tuong Cong, a local farmer, said his own cows were strong until they were tended to along with cows from the project. “My wife and I have been worried for days. If all the cows die, we’ll be empty-handed.”


The cattle supplier, Tai Nguyen Company, has given each affected household VND500,000 (US$26) to treat the cows, but it has also maintained that the animals had been tested by the province’s animal health officials before being handed over to the residents.


Quang Ngai agriculture officials had bought 42 cows at VND6 million ($308) each from the company, to deliver to 84 poor households, some in Binh Son District.


Do Van Tu, another project beneficiary, said the province and the company were blaming each other leaving “the farmers to suffer all.”


Ireland pledges $38.9 mil. for poverty project

Ireland has pledged to grant 30 million (US$38.9 million) to a Vietnamese government’s program to foster development in disadvantaged, ethnic minority-inhabited and mountainous areas in Vietnam.

Ireland’s Ambassador to Vietnam Maeve Collins and Deputy Finance Minister Pham Sy Danh signed an agreement regarding the nonrefundable aid in Hanoi Tuesday.

P135 has been implemented in two phases, the first lasting from 1999-2005 and the second until 2010. During phase one, P135 helped 736 communes across Vietnam out of poverty.

Source: VNA