Dateline: Vietnam

Corruption cartoon
  From Dien-Tin, Saigon’s leading opposition newspaper

Corruption in South Viet Nam: Pervasive, Profound and Permanent

Published in American Report, July 22, 1974

By John Spragens, Jr.

CAN THO, Viet Nam — The blue Ford mini-bus fills with passengers until it is near to bursting. A rough count gives 25 sweltering under the midday sun as the driver pulls up to the ferry across the Mekong River.

There are two ferry landings, one civilian and one military. After what seems an interminable wait in the civilian line, with several other cars waved ahead of him, the driver is told by one of his assistants to go over to the military landing. That guard has agreed to let the bus on.

After a short wait, the guard waves the driver on. But another guard at the ramp blocks the way. As the ferry pulls away, with room for one more car, the driver curses the little “king” and drives back to the civilian line. With gas prices so high, he is trying to make this trip without paying any bribes.

No luck. After waiting an hour without getting across the river, he gives in. The “supplemental fee” amounts to more than a full passenger fare for the Can Tho-Saigon trip.

These ferry guards, like the innumerable police and soldiers who have, or assume, the authority to stop and search vehicles along the roads in Saigon-controlled South Viet Nam, are great believers in Tran Hung Dao, as people put it here. It’s like an American cop following the “religion” of George Washington or Abe Lincoln. Their images on the folding stuff speak.

It is in checks of vehicles and personal papers that ordinary Vietnamese are most often hit. But this sort of corruption is only small cheese.

In the delta province of Vinh Binh there are, on paper, nine battalions of regional forces troops. A colonel from Thieu’s palace guard sent there to take over as province chief, as a reward for faithful service, found in his briefing by the outgoing chief that there were in fact only two battalions.

The outgoing chief also filled the colonel in on the details of how salaries designed for the seven phantom battalions should be distributed to generals up the line. After a few weeks on the job, the colonel decided he didn’t want the headaches that went along with his rewards. He asked Thieu to relieve him.

In another delta province, the dapper, 40-ish province chief explained to me that if Saigon could just provide electricity and roads and schools for the people, there would be no communist threat. “But,” he said, “too much sticks to people’s fingers on the way down, so the country folk never get the services.”

He told me how, just after he arrived in the province, the wives of all manner of lower officials and businessmen came to call on his wife. It is generally officials’ wives who take care of their financial interests, but he had left his wife in Saigon. He chuckled thinking how disappointed they had been. No way to make the usual arrangements with him.

“Unfortunately,” he said, deftly using his cigarette to singe a thread from the sleeve of his mildly mod shirt, “there’s nothing more I can do about the situation because I don’t know who is involved.”

Whether the chief was being candid or not, it is indeed beyond his individual good will to root out corruption. In the Saigon regime, corruption is more than an intractable malady; it is the lubrication which keeps the ponderous governmental machine running at all. At lower levels, as in the case of the guard at the ferry crossing, it is a matter of stretching one’s pay to cover the soaring cost of living.

The wife of one middle-ranking policeman pointed out that her husband’s salary, which amounts to less than $50 a month, is barely enough to cover his own expenses, including a 20-mile commute from Saigon to the nearby provincial capital where he works. Even for civil servants who live and work in the same town, some extra income is needed to make ends meet.

For higher levels, where officials are far from worried about keeping body and soul together, the chance for raking off a bit of cream is a prerogative of office which has come to be taken for granted. The graft makes it worth the unpopularity, and also makes it worth the price of the job.

A province chief, for example, must shell out a hefty sum to get his position. But he can more than make it back from fees for jobs he has the power to pass out, his cut from phantom soldiers' pay, a share from police check-point bribes, authorizations for business dealings, and a myriad of greater and smaller operations over which his post gives him power.

The cash that fuels this corruption comes from two sources — from the pockets of the poorest Vietnamese who can least afford to pay but even less afford to resist, and from taxpayers in the U.S. and other countries, which keep foreign aid flowing to the Thieu administration. The biggest recent scandal illustrated both currents.

Chemical fertilizers are an all-important part of miracle rice cultivation when it is grown according to the methods introduced in Saigon-controlled areas over the past several years. This fertilizer itself is part of direct American aid.

This year, systematic hoarding of the vital fertilizer was driving the price of a bag as high as that of a bag of rice. There were warnings that the hoarding could cause a 50 percent shortfall in the next rice crop. A typical investigation of the affair was carried out by the National Assembly. Since legislators were among those involved, no one was surprised when the investigating committee declared they would disregard anyone who was holding less than a hundred tons of fertilizer. That set the tone for the long-drawn-out farce of “investigation.”

It would take pages to catalog the many faces of the still-flourishing black market. While U.S. aid supplies rice to feed Saigon troops, the Saigon press reports large black market sales of local rice to Cambodia. Military supplies, too. A Western journalist remarked that many of the American shells fired into Phnom Penh by liberation forces were equipped with sophisticated fuses of a type which is not supplied to Lon Nol — a fuse that is issued to Saigon’s ARVN.

It is widely believed that the chain of corruption extends to the highest offices of the regime. As in other countries, the higher the office the more difficult it is to get any specific information. It might be foolhardy to try. Just the mention of high names in connection with corruption can be dangerous.

Jacques Leslie of the Los Angeles Times, for example, was kicked out of South Viet Nam last summer for a story on brass smuggling which linked the office of Prime Minister Kheim, Saigon’s No. 2 strongman, to the scandal. Leslie did not give hard evidence for his charge. The government didn’t bother to refute the charges. They simply expelled Leslie.

Saigon has just kicked off another anti-corruption drive with big headlines and the blessings of religious leaders. But the betting is that in spite of a bit of musical chairs, the powerful of the Saigon regime will have their hands in the pockets of the poor, and of the American taxpayer, as long as they can cling to their power.

Copyright John Spragens, Jr.

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