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.

Help readied for Vietnamese citizens in Ivory Coast: FM spokeswoman 

A supporter of internationally recognised Ivory Coast leader Alassane Ouatarra mans a machine gun at a check point in the Angre district of Abidjan.

Vietnamese diplomatic agencies around the Ivory Coast stand ready to help Vietnamese citizens residing in the African country racked by unrest when needed, foreign ministry’s spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said Thursday.


Nga said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has ordered the Vietnamese embassy in Morocco to ascertain the number of Vietnamese nationals as well as their living conditions in the country that is said to be on the brink of a civil war.


Thanh Nien reporters found that many Vietnamese residing in Ivory Coast mainly run restaurants and photography shops, while most laborers are former crew members of foreign fishing boats.


A reader in the southern province of Soc Trang said his elder sister and ten other Vietnamese citizens were hiding in a restaurant in Abidjan City, where the unrest is most intense.


Many other readers reported similar situations involving their loved ones.


Le Van Thanh, deputy chief of Overseas Labor Management under the labor ministry, said they have never granted licenses to any local laborer to work in the Ivory Coast, and so far no companies or individuals have registered for sending laborers to the country.


“We only know of laborers [who are sent overseas] legally, so we cannot know the number of Vietnamese laborers in the Ivory Coast,” Thanh said.


But, the labor ministry is responsible for securing the safety of all Vietnamese workers in all countries, he added.


The French embassy in Abidjan told Thanh Nien Thursday that Vietnamese people in the Iovry Coast can contact the UN force in the country as well as Opération Licorne (Operation Unicorn), a French peacekeeping force, for help.


Vietnam evacuated more than 10,000 workers from Libya recently after the country was hit by anti-government demonstrations and a government crackdown.

Major quakes, tsunamis unlikely in Vietnam: scientist 

A woman holding her child leaves her high-rise apartment in Hanoi as tremors from a Myanmar quake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale shook the capital city on Thursday

Vietnamese citizens fearful of earthquakes measuring 7.0 or more on the Richter scale or tsunamis hitting the country can breathe easy, a scientist says.

This is because Vietnam does not lie on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a zone where frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur in the basin of the Pacific Ocean, said Tran Van Tan, deputy head of the Vietnam Institute of Geology and Mineral Resources.

“However, aftershocks measuring below 7.0 can happen in northern Vietnam,” Tan said Friday, a day after the 6.8 magnitude quake hit Myanmar, leaving at least 74 people dead and hundreds homeless. Tremors of the quake were felt in Hanoi, sending many people into a panic.

Le Minh Huy, director of the Center of Earthquake Information and Tsunami Warning, said though the number of quakes have tended to rise in the country, they have not been not powerful.

Since late 2010, many provinces and cities across the country like Cao Bang, Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, Ba Ria – Vung Tau have experienced tremors, he said.

As for tsunamis, scientists of the Institute of Meteorology, Hydrology, and Environment under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, said the possibility of tsunami in the country’s coastal areas is very low.

They said Vietnam is protected by its neighboring island and peninsula countries like Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia; therefore, tsunamis originating in the Pacific Ocean are unlikely to reach the country.

Meanwhile, Minh said in case a strong quake strikes Manila in Philippines and causes a tsunami, it would take at least two hours for it to reach Vietnam’s central region.

“We can transmit tsunami warnings 10-20 minutes after the quake occurs [in Philippines]. So, we have more than an hour [which is enough] to evacuate residents,” he said.

In the event of tremors, Minh recommended that people cover their heads with their hands and shelter under nearest tables to avoid falling objects.

He said after the tremors end, they should immediately leave their houses and return only when the situation becomes stable, 30 minutes to one hour later.

For people outdoors, Minh said they should stay away from high-rise buildings and trees at the time of the quake.

In related news, following the recent Hanoi quake and the Japan disaster, the government has ordered the Ministry of Construction to examine buildings across the country and consider demolishing old apartment buildings that cannot withstand earthquakes, newswire VnExpress quoted Le Quang Hung, director of the ministry’s Project Quality Assessment Department as saying.

Gas prices rise following refinery shutdown 

A delivery man carries an LPG cylinder on a motorbike in Ho Chi Minh City

Retail prices for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in Vietnam have increased by about 4 percent after the country temporarily halted operation at the Dung Quat during an equipment check.

Ho Chi Minh City-based Saigon Petro said a 12-kilogram cylinder of LPG now costs VND343,000. The company said the shutdown at the country’s only oil refinery has led to a supply shortfall.

Do Trung Thanh, sales manager at Saigon Petro, said local distributors have had to import more fuel and, as a result, retail prices have gone up.

State-owned Vietnam Oil & Gas Group, also known as PetroVietnam, halted production at the Dung Quat refinery for an inspection early last week. The shutdown is expected to last up to three weeks.

LPG prices were raised 3 percent earlier this month, to VND330,000 per 12-kilogram cylinder, due to rising world prices.

Saigon Petro said local consumers should expect another hike, in April.

Stretching an hour into a year 

Hanoi youth gathered at last year’s Earth Hour celebration. Millions of people are expected to switch off lights for an hour from 8:30 p.m. on March 26 to raise awareness about energy conservation during Earth Hour 2011.

La Thuy Diem Hang is sure that this year’s Earth Hour will witness record participation in Vietnam.

This week, volunteers and organizers have been busily arranging activities and preparing communities all over the country for the big event.

This Saturday, environmentally-conscious people and businesses all over the world will shut off their  electric lights from 8:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

The main event in Vietnam is set to take place in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue.

“In 2010, the campaign was held in Ho Chi Minh City mainly by WWF Vietnam,” said the 23-year-old graduate from the HCMC University of Science. “This year, many local environmental clubs and organizations have gotten involved.”

Hang said that many young first-time participants in last year’s event in HCMC have joined this year’s campaign to mobilize others. “We have distributed leaflets and encouraged locals from seven neighborhoods in HCMC to join the campaign,” she told Thanh Nien Weekly. “Also, 60 cafés in the city have committed to turning off their lights during the event.”

As Vietnam faces down its growing energy needs, energy efficiency policies and programs are being looked to as the cheapest and most immediate solution to the nation’s power shortcomings.

Making strides

Manufacturing flourished as the nation’s economy soared, driving up the country’s power demands – and not always in the most efficient way.

In the past ten years, international development agencies have implemented a host of small scale programs to help Vietnam make its grid more efficient.

In 2003, for example, researchers discovered that Vietnam consumed 39,000 British Thermal Units (BTUs) for every dollar of its gross domestic product (GDP). That same year, Japan used about 5,000 BTUs per dollar of GDP.

From 2004-2009 Electricity of Vietnam (EVN) implemented a program to promote the installation of energy-saving compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) in houses and buildings across Vietnam. 

“The program had a major impact, transforming the lighting market in Vietnam, and reducing peak demand by 300 MW,” said Peter du Pont, who worked as a consultant to EVN and the World Bank during the implementation of the program. “It also reduced emissions of carbon dioxide, by more than three million tons." 

At the moment, the Asian Development Bank is looking to fund the streamlining of seven heavy manufacturing sites, according to Felix Gooneratne, Asia Director, International Institute for Energy Conservation (IIEC).

“Investment grade audits conducted at seven sites (five cement and two steel) have identified significant potential for generating electricity from process waste heat that would supplement on-site electricity demand,” said Gooneratne. “Investment plans are currently being finalized.”

At the same time, the United Nations Development Program has targeted small and medium-sized manufacturers for efficiency projects.

Future energy needs remain a major issue in the country.

Last month, the government raised the costs of electricity roughly fifteen percent. Officials at the Ministry of Industry and Trade said they hoped that higher power prices would make the construction of large power projects more attractive to foreign investors.

In the meantime, Vietnam is looking to develop its own grassroots campaign to curb energy usage.

Beyond the hour

Earth Hour was initiated by the WWF – a non-governmental environmental advocate – to increase climate change awareness and induce mitigating responses.

The first event was held in Sydney in 2007 and has quickly spread around the globe.

Last year, hundreds of millions of people across the world, in 4,616 cities and 128 countries and territories, turned off their lights during the last weekend in March.

Tran Minh Hien, Vietnam Country Director of the WWF Greater Mekong Program, said that they plan to launch an extensive campaign that will last the whole year.

“The main event night is just a beginning,” she said. “Several activities have been launched for individuals, companies and organizations nationwide.”

WWF Vietnam has held talks with students from 16 universities and schools about climate change and Earth Hour.

Hien said that the first success of the campaign is that it has attracted more support from governmental agencies, organization and individuals.

In 2010, 20 cities and provinces as well as more than 300 companies and organizations participated in the event.

“This year, up to 30 cities and provinces and more than 4,800 companies and organizations have committed to participating,” Hien said.

Facing down energy demands

This January, the Law on Economical and Effective Use of Energy took effect. The law resolution sought to establish limits on the use of energy in homes and businesses-though actual regulations have yet to be established.

In the meantime, Vietnam is facing some very immediate problems in its energy needs.

According to the HCMC Energy Conservation Center (ECC) the city will face a shortfall of two million kWh of electricity every day during the remainder of the dry season—which ends in May.

Center Director Huynh Kim Tuoc said that the energy shortfall would not be a problem if local consumers became more conscious about their energy usage.

“If 1.8 million households in HCMC turned off their air conditioners for an extra 30 minutes, the city would save 900,000 kWh of electricity a day,” he told Tuoi Tre newspaper in an interview last week. “More efficient use of electricity in factories and offices would also solve the energy shortage.”

But local campaigners and public awareness campaigns are already taking hold.

Last March, the ECC and the HCMC Women’s Association launched a campaign to make 100,000 households energy efficient. As a result, many households have reduced their electricity bills between 10-50 percent during the previous year.

”We built a network of some 1,200 propagandists in all the city’s 24 districts,” Tuoc said. “Each was assigned to be in charge of around 100 families to offer energy saving consultations and encourage them to use electricity efficiently.”

Tuoc added that the ultimate goal is to change the community’s awareness in purchasing and using electricity.

“The result was great,” he said. “The participants later encouraged others to participate in the program.”

Lawmakers ask for careful study of nuclear risks 


Vietnamese lawmakers urged the government to carefully consider the risks involved in the country’s plan to build eight nuclear power plants.


The request came during a National Assembly meeting held Saturday in Hanoi.


Assemblywoman Dang Thi My Huong from the central province of Ninh Thuan said that news about a partial meldown at a Japanese nuclear plant and a recent tremor off the province’s coast have given rise to public concern about the plan.


Ninh Thuan is slated to be the site of the nation’s first nuclear power plant and Huong has asked the government to provide public updates on the project’s progress to calm those concerned.


Nguyen Minh Thuyet, a representative from the northern province of Lang Son, agreed.


He said he had recently heard that the Russian-owned Rosatom Corp., Vietnam’s partner in the project of the first plant, has pointed out disadvantages in the plants’ proposed locations.


Thuyet said there were concerns that the plants would be located too close to offshore fault lines, making them suceptible to possible tsunamis, or on crusts where earthquakes start.


“I suggest that the government’s agencies study [the risks] very carefully,” he said.


Last Wednesday, following explosions and fires at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, Vietnam’s Ministry of Science and Technology held a press conference to announce that the country’s nuclear plans wouldn’t be affected.


Local officials and scientists pledged that any facilities built inside the country would include the latest safety features informed by the catastrophe in Japan.


Last October, Vietnam signed a multi-billion-dollar deal with Russia to build its first nuclear power plant, which is expected to go into operation in 2020.


Vietham also plans to cooperate with Japan on two other nuclear reactors.


Eight nuclear plants are slated to go into operation by 2031.

Wanted: Better products, and an even better attitude 

An Audi waiting its turn at a gas station in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.

My father once told me: “You lose not because your rivals are too strong to be defeated, but because you’re not strong enough to win. So, make yourself strong first.”

I think this lesson should be applied to the current problem facing the Vietnamese economy: the crazy import of luxury goods.

The General Statistics Office recently announced that Vietnam imported luxury goods worth a total of US$10 billion last year.

It’s not a shocking figure these days, considering how frequently we see cars costing millions of dollars, mobile phones costing hundreds of millions of dong, or foreign liquor bottles that cost the annual income of a civil servant.

What’s shocking is that even though high taxes have been imposed on luxury goods for years, the imports continue to increase.

There is a 300 percent import tax on cars on average, but Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Aston Martins were still shipped to Vietnam last year. It is said that most “super luxury cars” are already present in Vietnam.

Some people argue that those who have money have the right to buy what they want, including branded and luxury goods.

However, with the country facing serious problems like the rising gap between the rich and the poor, and the scarcity of foreign reserves, not to mention an annual per capita income of just over $1,000, overspending on luxurious goods by rich people is no longer their own affair.

Certainly not when their behavior is worsening the country’s trade deficit.

To deal with this problem, administrative measures like taxing and placing restrictions on foreign currency loans aren’t enough.

What matters here is people’s attitude. Once a matter of shame, people actually think ostentatious consumption, especially of foreign goods adds to their prestige!

I feel that to change this belief, we need to improve the quality of domestic goods and services, while organizing a long-term campaign to promote their consumption.

If we have good products and services that satisfy consumers, foreign products will have no way to dominate local markets anymore.

In South Korea, for example, local consumers’ support of domestic goods has helped the car, electronics and cosmetics industries develop strongly not only within the country but in export markets as well.

If experts are alarmed by the import of luxury goods in Vietnam, it means that the Vietnamese people’s undue preference for foreign goods is also cause for alarm.

If we don’t act now to instill a sense of national pride, the country’s trade deficit problem will only gorw.

Vietnam denies participation in joint military drills 


A senior military official squashes rumors that Vietnam participated in a US-Thai military exercise

Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Chi Vinh says Vietnam has no intention of joining the Cobra Gold joint military exercise in Thailand. Meanwhile, he said that Vietnam will reinforce defense cooperation and is preparing to join the United Nations Peacekeeping Commission.

Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh has rejected claims about Vietnam’s participation in the Cobra Gold 2011 military drill in Thailand (from February 7-18). Vinh has said that Vietnam doesn’t have any intention of joining another military exercise.

“This year, Vietnam didn’t send participants to the [Cobra Gold] military exercise,” Defense Ministry-owned Quan Doi Nhan Dan (People’s Army) newspaper quoted Lieutenant General Vinh as saying on Wednesday (February 16). “It is wrong to say Vietnam sent its people to prepare battle strategies [in the exercise],” he was quoted as saying. “I wonder where it came from. This incorrect information could mislead the public about Vietnam’s policy.”

Vinh was denying rumors that had surfaced suggesting Vietnam would join the other participating nations in formulating a regional battle plan.   

Count us out

The Cobra Gold exercise, hosted annually by Thailand, was launched in 1982 as a bilateral effort between the US and Thai militaries. It was promoted as a multi-national exercise in 2000, when Singapore joined, and has since grown to become one of the largest land-based, combined military training exercises in the world.

Cobra Gold 2011 was officially kicked off on February 7 in Thailand’s north-eastern province of Chiang Mai.

Besides hosts US and Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia and Singapore are participating in the exercise that will be observed by military teams from China, India, Sri Lanka, Laos, Brunei, Russia, Mongolia, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates and New Zealand.

Vinh said Vietnam joined the exercise for the first time in 2003, as an observer, but has not regularly participated in the annual event since then.

“The purpose of Vietnam’s participation was to observe military exercises of other countries,” he said.

Recently, speaking in Malaysia, US Navy Adm., Patrick Walsh, Commander of the US Pacific Command, expressed the intention of inviting Vietnam to join the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) military exercise with the US and some other countries in the region.

However, Vinh said that Vietnam has not received an official invitation nor studied the military exercise.

“I want to stress again that Vietnam is not participating in any [joint] military exercise,” he said. “In the near future, Vietnam will only join joint humanitarian exercises like deactivating landmines.”

Peacekeepers to be

Vinh confirmed that the country has “actively” prepared to become a member of the United Nations Peacekeeping Commission as well as integrating with the international defense community.

He said that Vietnam has expressed its willingness to join the UN peacekeeping force at the right time and this would help the country improve its position and study various issues around the world.

Vinh said that Vietnam began preparing to join the UN force some four years ago, by training personnel, securing government approval and seeking for investment, “because the country is still poor.”

Any international military participation will be purely humanitarian, he stressed.

“Vietnam’s policy is not to send its peacekeepers to places where there are conflicts,” he said.

Vinh said that a new “security structure” was formed during the first ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (Plus Eight) in 2010 when many countries from outside the region joined the bloc. The Vietnamese army has participated in the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) and other defense conferences of the Southeast Asian bloc, he added.

In defense cooperation, Vietnam will boost current bilateral and multilateral relations, especially defense forums like the ADMMs, Vinh said.

“Vietnam will actively contribute to ASEAN, first and foremost for its own benefit,” he said. Vinh claimed that Vietnam’s participation would improve its international image, help modernize its army and help protect its sovereignty in the region and the world.

Asked about how Vietnam would contribute to ASEAN in solving the conflict between two members in the bloc – Thailand and Cambodia – that has recently flared up near the disputed Preah Vihear temple, Vinh said Indonesia (ASEAN’s 2011 Chair) and all members should help find solutions to maintain peace and stability in the region.

The disputes should be solved through peaceful negotiations that comply with international laws, he said.

118 year old woman lost 7 sons in freedom struggle 

Tran Thi Viet, 118, persevered after losing seven of eight sons to the war against foreign occupations.

She turns 119 in 2011, but Tran Thi Viet’s memores of events and people she has met over three centuries (19th, 20th and 21st) is still clear.


It is not just her age that makes Viet, named the oldest Vietnamese by the Vietnam Records Book Center this month, stand out.


The centurion with nearly 500 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, is one of the country’s greatest Heroic Mothers, with seven of her children dying battling French and American occupations.


Viet, a native of the southern province of Long An, said she got married when she was 21 and gave birth to ten children, including eight sons.


As the mother herself was illiterate and their family was too poor to afford tuition fees, all of children received very little formal education.


But they were aware of what they wanted to do when seeing their fellow country men killed and their villages destroyed by foreign powers.


All of her sons joined the Vietnamese forces to fight against occupations, and seven of them sacrificed their lives for the country.


In 1953, her eldest son, 37-year-old Nguyen Van Lien, was killed, leaving three children behind.


Seven years later another son, Nguyen Van Tao, died on duty, and a year later, her husband died of injuries sustained after joining an attack against the French colonial forces.


And in 1962 and 1963, Viet lost two more sons – Nguyen Van Kien and Nguyen Van Tri – to the foreign occupation.


In 1968, her youngest brother Nguyen Van Dau died in a campaign against the US forces.


On the same day in 1973, two more sons died in battle.


Losing seven sons to the war, including two whose bodies have never been found, didn’t stop the heartbroken mother from going on living, supporting her grandchildren and daughters-in-law who’d lost their husbands.


She went fishing and did all kinds of work to earn a living.


Now Viet lives with one of her grandsons and his wife in Long An’s Ca Gua hamlet.


Sometimes culture researchers come to listen to her singing southern lullaby songs which, according to them, can’t be found anywhere in books.


While it is a great happiness to have so many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Viet’s grief has never faded away, even after so many years.


Nguyen Thi Nguyen, her granddaughter, said: “Many times I’ve seen grandmother lie in the hammock in tears. When I ask if she is okay, she would be silent for a moment, then say: ‘I miss your father and your uncles’.”


Hanoi opens HIV/AIDS fund 


Hanoi Health Department on Tuesday opened the city HIV/AIDS Patients Fund to offer good medical treatment and help patients integrate into the community.

Nguyen Van Dung, deputy director of the Hanoi Health Department and director of the fund, said the patients’ fund will give advises to the department over supporting HIV/AIDS patients in the city.

“The fund will organize campaigns to encourage individuals and organizations around and outside the country to prevent and fight the disease in Hanoi, as well as take care of the infected,” Dung said.

Hanoi is among the five cities and provinces with the highest number of HIV patients in the country, with 275 per 100,000 people infected and 1,549 new infections last year, according to the department.

Since the first case was discovered in 1993, the city has diagnosed 22,078 HIV patients, as of the end of last year, most of them being sex workers and drug users. 8,409 of these have developed AIDS, with 3,519 fatal cases, the department said.