Monday, December 5, 2011

A historic day: Aung San Suu Kyi meets Hillary Clinton in Yangon

Local and international journalists queue up outside 54 University Avenue, the family residence of Aung San Suu Kyi, where she was detained under house arrest by the military junta for 15 years until her release last November We were told to arrive at least 3 hours before Suu Kyi and Hillary Clinton graced us with their presence for security reasons.

A US Secret Service officer keeps watch while the "uncles" from Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, including 82-year-old U Win Tin, file into her house ahead of the meeting with Clinton.

Western journalists had a good opportunity to top up their tan while waiting for the "two ladies" to appear. The set-up, by Inya lake in the garden of Suu Kyi's house, looks like it would make a good wedding venue if she is ever short of cash.

This member of the traveling Washington press corps appears to be struggling to come to terms with his comically-oversized Burmese mobile phone, the sort of brick-like communication device last seen in the West about 20 years ago. In a country with very poor mobile phone networks, the large aerial helps but not enough to assuage this poor chap's frustrations.

Here come the brides...

They make a great couple, complete with matching hand gestures.

Photographers scramble to get a shot of "the hug".

Surprisingly, for two women with steely reputations, the warmth between them looked genuine.

Some of Burma's private weekly newspapers went big on the Clinton/Suu Kyi meeting. A veteran Burmese journalist told me that sticking The Lady's photo on their front page always boosts sales. The government still does not allow any privately-owned newspapers to publish on a daily basis but has indicated that that may change next year.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

An interview with Vietnam's first and only astronaut

Today the Financial Times has published a special edition magazine to commemorate the 50th anniversary of man going into space.

Below is an extract of my interview with Pham Tuan, Vietnam's first and only astronaut.

Pham Tuan was the ideal candidate to become the first Asian in space, as far as Vietnam’s hard-line communist leaders were concerned. From humble beginnings in a poor village, he had already risen to the rank of national hero. Defending his homeland from sustained US attacks during the Christmas Bombings of 1972, Tuan was credited with becoming the first Vietnamese fighter pilot to shoot down a B52 in air-to-air combat – a feat many US aviators still insist was impossible.

During his eight-day sojourn at the Salyut 6 space station, Tuan beamed back messages hailing Vietnam’s long struggle for independence and thanking the Communist party “for having trained me and given me wings to fly into space”.

Back on planet Earth, the hungry Vietnamese people were not so easily taken in. A popular rhyme at the time pondered: “We have no rice, we have no noodles, so why are you going into space Mr Tuan?”
Read the rest of my profile here.

Monday, March 28, 2011

(Not) Understanding Vietnam

If you want to understand why Vietnam is mired in economic instability, I'd urge you not to read this story on the state-owned Voice of Vietnam news website.

The story - an interview with a national assembly member headlined: "Why are gold and USD strictly controlled?" - meanders around the subject, adding new layers of confusion with each paragraph.

Perhaps it's just a bad translation - I know official Vietnamese can be very tough to render into crisp English.

After circling round and round, the report climaxes with a richly and - I suspect - accidentally ironic ending, which merits full quotation:

Dr Kien: The bottom line is that people have lost their trust in the value of the domestic currency due to one-sided information in the media.

Reporter: Thank you.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Western pop music in Vietnam: from “social evil” to status symbol

My latest post for the Financial Times' Beyond Brics blog:

Throaty song-writing legend Bob Dylan and 90s teen favourites the Backstreet Boys might not have much in common as far as most music fans are concerned.

But both are playing big gigs in Vietnam over the next few weeks as music promoters test out the appetite for expensive, international standard entertainment.

Communist Vietnam has opened up rapidly over the last twenty years and Western pop music has been off the list of “social evils” for some time. But the live music market remains relatively undeveloped and only a handful of international artists have played in Vietnam thus far.

In a country where many would count themselves lucky to earn $100 a month, you might wonder who will be willing to pay $50-$120 for a ticket to the Dylan and Backstreet Boys gigs. But that’s well within the reach of status-conscious urbanites, who have been splashing out on iPhones, fancy cars and sleek scooters for a number of years.

Read the rest of this blog post over at the FT's Beyond Brics, which is free to all comers.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Financial Times is recruiting a News Assistant in Hanoi

Vacancy – News assistant for the Financial Times, Hanoi

The Financial Times, one of the world’s leading business news organisations, recently opened a bureau in Hanoi in order to expand its coverage of Vietnam.
We are looking to recruit a Vietnamese national to work as a news assistant alongside our resident foreign correspondent.
The successful candidate will be a dynamic and enthusiastic self-starter, with experience in journalism and strong news judgement.
You will help the correspondent to cover a wide range of stories involving economics, investment, politics, climate change, health and social issues. As we are a new and small bureau, you must be flexible and able to work independently and as part of a team.
When covering breaking news, you will have to work under pressure to tight deadlines.
This is an exciting opportunity for an ambitious individual to gain experience working at a leading international news organisation and to help shape our coverage of Vietnam.

Job description

Setting up and carrying out interviews with government officials, business leaders and others
Scanning the Vietnamese press for important stories and monitoring other news sources
Generating and developing story ideas
Carrying out in-depth research
Translating and interpreting
Some travel within Vietnam will be required

Essential Qualifications/Experience/Qualities

Bachelors degree or higher
Experience in journalism
Fluent in Vietnamese and English
A good understanding of economics, business and politics
Confident and good at making new contacts
Able to find information quickly


Good existing contacts among government officials and in the business community

Competitive salary

To apply, please send your CV and a covering letter explaining why you're the right person for this position to Ben Bland at

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Comparing corruption in India and Vietnam

My colleague David Pilling has written a great column in today's FT, arguing that, despite much hand-wringing, Indian companies are as much to blame for corruption as government officials.

India is said to grow at night while its government sleeps. The quip, beloved of Indian businessmen, is often invoked to rubbish a corrupt and incompetent state and to praise a supposedly heroic entrepreneurial class. But there is something wrong with this picture. In many sectors, Indian entrepreneurs make money not in spite of government interference, but precisely through colluding with a state that provides the land, licences and rent-seeking opportunities on which they thrive.

A number of Vietnamese contacts have persistently made the same point to me here: when it comes to corruption, it takes two to tango.

Many Western businesses are also guilty of double standards, criticising the dominance of the state in the economy, while themselves seeking patronage, licences and rents from the government.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Vietnam’s black market alchemists

Life is not easy when annual inflation is more than 12 per cent, your currency is likely to be devalued again shortly and you have to splash out on overpriced Lunar New Year gifts to impress your friends, family and colleagues.

But Vietnamese people, long faced with macroeconomic instability, have become expert at cooking up black market schemes to make a little money on the side. The latest ruse, picked up by the Phnom Penh Post, involves travelling to neighbouring Cambodia, withdrawing dollars from an ATM at the official dong-dollar exchange rate and then converting the greenbacks back to Vietnam dong at the superior black market exchange rate.

Read the rest of this blog post over at the FT's Beyond Brics, which is free to all comers.

Diageo thirsty for local alcohol in Vietnam

While a select class of wealthy Vietnamese men like nothing more than cracking open a bottle of Johnnie Walker with their mates at a karaoke bar, the vast majority of alcohol consumed here is home-made “rice wine” served in re-used plastic water bottles.

But tastes are changing as the middle class grows and Diageo, the global drinks group, has forked over £33m for a stake in a local vodka maker as it seeks to tap into the growing fondness for higher quality but affordable Vietnamese brands.

Read the rest of this blog post over at the FT's Beyond Brics, which is free to all comers.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The power of connections in Vietnam

Whether you're a luckless street kid, an ambitious Communist party apparatchik or an upstanding foreign investor, there are few greater truisms in Vietnam than "it's not what you know but who you know."

I observed a classic example this week while on a trip to the paddy fields of greater Hanoi.

Approaching a traffic police roadblock, the car I was in was flagged down by an officious senior cop. He beckoned the driver out of the vehicle and accused him of violating traffic regulations (yes, they do exist here) by overtaking on the other side of the road.

No matter that there was no oncoming traffic, the dividing line down the centre of the road was dotted rather than continuous (indicating overtaking was allowed) and that this driver was perhaps the most cautious I've ever had the pleasure to travel with in Vietnam.

The cop was either having a bad day standing around in the clammy Hanoi cold or needed some extra cash ahead of Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.

The driver was taken aside and given the usual dressing down that precedes negotiations over the extent of any fine (around 500,000 Vietnam dong or $25 for this type of offence, so I'm told).

Rightly or wrongly, it is unusual for traffic police to stop cars containing foreigners as they don't want to create extra work for themselves or risk annoying some important diplomat, investor or other VIP.

So I stepped out of the car, naively intent on explaining my status as a foreign journalist and asking politely if we could be allowed to resume our journey.

No sooner had I walked up to the senior policeman, head bowed out of respect, than the driver had called up a relative who worked for the traffic police and passed the phone to the other cop who swiftly waved us on our way.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

History in the making: live tweeting Vietnam's Communist Party congress

The last time Vietnam's Communist Party met for its all-important five-yearly national congress, Twitter, the 140 character micro-blogging service, was yet to launch.

So prepare for a social media first, when I "live tweet" the 11th party congress, which begins on Wednesday at Hanoi's rather smart National Convention Centre.

Granted the bar hasn't been set that high. I didn't see any other journalists using Twitter at the pre-event press conference on Monday and Twitter isn't yet that popular in Vietnam (though that may change if Facebook continues to be blocked - some people have started bypassing the block by using Twitter to update their Facebook page).

But it's still going to be a first, provided I can get a mobile phone signal.

Read all about it at

For a sneak peek inside the congress venue, check out this blog I wrote for the FT's Beyond Brics.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Moving on

Apologies for the lack of posting. This blog has been through its fair share of changes over the last few years, starting out as part of The Daily Telegraph before going independent and then joining Asian Correspondent.

But, after more than a year on the Asian Correspondent platform, we've agreed to go our separate ways.

I'd like to thank all my regular readers and commenters and would urge you to bookmark my new/old blog web address, which will be

As ever, I can be reached at or @benjaminbland on Twitter.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Taxi boy and the taxi girls

It's been a while since I penned my last Taxi Tale, a regular blog series dedicated to the insightful anecdotes, witty repartee and occasional pearls of wisdom that emerge from my regular conversations with taxi drivers around the region. So here's a new one:

Once every month, a Hanoi taxi driver goes to pick up one of his best clients - a South Korean businessman in his mid-20s. Without fail, this young man needs to travel every four weeks to Do Son, a far-from-swanky beach resort east of Hanoi. It may only be 130km from the Vietnamese capital but because of the poor condition of the roads and the deteriorating traffic, a round trip can take as long as eight hours.

For the young Korean, these time-consuming, regular journeys are essential to his ongoing success in Vietnam. But he is not traveling to meet government officials or business contacts. He is not interested in the sea, the sand or even the Do Son casino (open only to foreigners like all Vietnam's growing number of casinos).

He goes to Do Son to sleep with Vietnamese prostitutes and to alleviate the boredom and alienation of expatriation. While few businessmen would travel quite so far to satisfy their carnal desires, across Asia, prostitution continues to oil the wheels of commerce. And commerce continues to oil the wheels of prostitution.

The taxi driver, who only earns $500 a month with which to support a wife and two young children, is happy with the regular custom. Like many men in Vietnam, he has no moral qualms about what his client gets up to.

"Men need to eat, drink and fuck," he told me.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Time for an Aung San Suu Kyi reality check

When U2 releases a statement sharing Bono and The Edge's views on Southeast Asian politics, you know it's time to take a major reality check.

The coverage of Aung San Suu Kyi's release thus far has been breathless - not surprising given how long she has been detained and how much of an icon she has become within her country and globally.

But the emotional outpourings from international journalists, campaigners and worthy pop stars alike seem to be having just the effect that Burma's ruling generals presumably wanted - distracting attention from their sham elections.

It's far too early to know how much real freedom the generals will give Suu Kyi, what she will try to do and what impact this will have on Burma. Even genuine Burma experts seem at a loss to explain the junta's real game at the moment - see the 13, yes that's 13, theories on why they decided to hold elections, penned by academic Andrew Selth at the Lowy Interpreter.

As Nicholas Farrelly at the excellent New Mandala blog puts it: "...many difficult questions remain unanswered and nobody pretends that the future will be easy, or that Burma’s generals don’t have their next moves in mind."

In the meantime, you could do worse than read this sobering piece in The Sunday Telegraph by Justin Wintle, a critical but fair biographer of Suu Kyi. Extract:

Looking back, and comparing what has happened in Burma with what has happened among such other Southeast Asian states as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and even Vietnam since World War Two, it is difficult not to behold an extreme political polarisation between Burma's military and the more liberal elements of its population, in which any bridges between the two sides have long been swept away.

And if the army is principally responsible for the stasis that has ensued, it is arguable that Aung San Suu Kyi's principled commitment to full democracy, and her unwillingness, or inability, to make meaningful compromises, have been a significant contributor.

As for Miss Suu Kyi herself, it is tempting to think she has resigned herself to martyrdom of one sort or another, as the only means left to leave her mark.

Her critics say she is too pure, and that her actual grasp of politics is slender. They also say she made a fundamental error in the mid- 1990s, when she was at liberty, by not bringing on a younger leadership generation within her party, preferring instead to depend upon an elderly coterie made up of such democratic stalwarts as one time defence minister U Tin Oo and the journalist Win Tin, both now in their eighties.

Yet if martyrdom is her chosen path, Aung San Suu Kyi's instincts may not be so awry.

Above all she has furnished the Burmese people with a heroic model quite different from that dreary line of past warrior kings so beloved of Than Shwe and his cronies. And for that she will be remembered, inside and outside Burma for generations to come.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Vietnam: The face of modern Communism

The right to denounce thy neighbour, comrade, colleague or family member is one of the fundamental building blocks of any self-respecting, self-criticising Communist state.

The Vietnamese government  is making some small steps to revamp the legal and political framework in line with the rapid economic changes that have been taking place over the last 20 years.

As part of that process, deputies to Vietnam's National Assembly are currently debating an upgrade to the legislation to ensure that Vietnam has a denunciation law for the 21st Century.

On Thursday, deputies debated the need to find a balance between protecting denouncers from revenge while ensuring that the denounced cannot be unfairly maligned, according to a report in the Vietnam News, the main government mouthpiece.

Deputy Hong Anh voiced the need for a specific framework to protect denouncers so that they will not be deterred by the risk of revenge.

Anh's point was echoed by other deputies, who complained about general regulations in the law regarding this issue, and required elaboration by authorities at various levels on protections for denouncers.

Deputies also mentioned the law also needs to protect the denounced in terms of employment, dignity, and political and economic benefits.

"The law should ensure restoration of honour, rights and benefits of the denounced in case the allegations cannot be proven," said deputy Nguyen Thi Hoa.

It looks like a valiant effort to combine the principle of denunciation with the norms of human rights and employment law. The National Assembly also discussed the need to clarify the denunciation rights of overseas Vietnamese, in light of the fact that expatriates living in Vietnam already have the right to denounce.

Not a right that I'd expect many expats to make use of, however annoyed they may get at being overcharged 2,000 Vietnam dong for a can of Coke.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Singapore’s confused stance on media freedom

Singapore’s government likes to be number one. If you want proof, look through any speech by a government minister. They will invariably reel off a list of examples of the city-state coming top of some global ranking or other on the ease of doing business or quality of life.

Hence the frustration on the part of K Shanmugam, the newly promoted home affairs minister, at the censorious city-state’s lowly ranking in the press freedom rankings produced by Reporters without Borders and others.

In a speech in New York on Thursday, which the website described as the “government's most detailed and robust defence in years of its position on the role of the press”, he bemoaned the fact that media freedom organisations rank Singapore below Colombia, Guinea, Haiti, Kenya and Pakistan.

In Guinea, democracy activists have recently been gunned down and female opposition campaigners raped, so how can Singapore rank below Guinea, he ponders incredulously.

Shanmugam appears not to understand that press freedom indices rank press freedom, not military repression.

More broadly, it seems that he cannot make up his mind whether he wants to defend Singapore’s very restrictive media environment – using the old Asian values argument favoured by Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew – or promote Singapore’s ambitions to be a global media hub.

At one stage, he starts bragging about the Singapore government’s impeccable record of winning libel actions against the world’s leading news organisations:

I suspect that our rankings are at least partly due to the fact that we take an uncompromising attitude we take [sic] on libel – and the fact that we have taken on the almost every major newspaper company. Such audacity that tiny Singapore has.

Then he turns course, insisting that “we don’t shut out the world”:

We have more than 5,500 foreign newspapers and publications in circulation in Singapore. There are close to 100 TV channels carried on our cable networks. Nearly 200 correspondents from 72 foreign media organisations are based in Singapore.

Similarly, he says that the media in Singapore should be politically neutral and “should report fully and fairly what goes on… can probe, ask inconvenient questions, and expose wrong-doing.”

But he attacks the so-called western concept of the media as a fourth estate, holding the government to account. News organisations are fallible, unaccountable and open to influence from their owners and commercial partners, he says.

He’s right about that, of course. But when he poses the following question – “Do parts of the media act as campaign arms of politicians, peddle half-truths and present very biased perspectives?” – this concern surely applies more to Singapore’s homogeneous government-controlled press then to plural Western media environments.

Perhaps the greatest irony of his speech is that many of his criticisms of the Western liberal approach to the media are drawn from commentaries in the self-same leading newspapers that he is so proud of Singapore having sued.

It all goes to show that those who fear criticism the most also crave recognition.