In the last three months, Communist leaders in Hanoi were greatly concerned about increasing problems from inside and
outside of the Party. More party ranking members turned dissidents. More protests from farmers against oppressive measures regarding land disputes. The last three months also saw Communist leaders busy with the National Assembly election to be held on May 19, 2002. Though candidates have been carefully selected by the Party well ahead, Party leaders always try to have their rubber stamp legislature voted and run smoothly for the sake of propaganda.
While they were busy solving so many problems, a scandal of the largest scale in the modern history of Vietnam broke out. Almost every Vietnamese is talking about the Nam Cam Gang, a large organized crimes gang operating nation-wide from Saigon to other cities as far as Hanoi in the North. They have involved in many shady affairs, bribery, illegal transaction, contraband, fraudulence, blackmail, extortion, cock-fighting, sex trade... even homicide.
Last year, Nam Cam was arrested and officially prosecuted on several counts that include: mastermind in murders, assaults, usury, gambling den operation and bribery. About 150 members of his gang have been tracked down and detained.
Nam Cam, or “Cam the fifth sibling,” full name Truong Van Cam, had been an RVN dishonorably discharged soldier in Qui Nhon before 1975 with a history of law breaking. After 1975, he moved to Saigon and while working in the area, he got acquainted with more people who had good connections with Communist officials and Public Security officers in the area who later became his close associates. In the late 1980s, local authorities highly appreciated him as a good citizen having faithfully supported the Communist regime.
For the last two decades, his gang was growing fast and Cam became a “godfather” of a mafia-type syndicate. He quickly ascended to the position of a powerful gang leader that earned him several million dollars after he had been arrested and incarcerated the first time in 1995 and released in 1997.
His relations with many Communist magnates were revealed not long after his arrest for investigation. People are shocked by news about the crimes and state-controlled newspapers are allowed to make it public, because the scandal is too large to be concealed. One after another, underworld gang operations have been reported and as a consequence, people are learning more about questionable business of many high ranking Party members.
According to official reports in Hanoi state-controlled media, there have been more than a hundred suspects, alleged conspirators who were detained for investigation. They are mostly captains to colonels, serving at all levels of the Party and the government hierarchy, most of them are in the Saigon areas and are in charge of criminal investigation, anti-crime task forces, and especially chiefs of Public Security departments at city, district and ward levels. Nam Cam won their support by bribery, sympathy and even blackmail.
His influence has been growing larger in the last 5 years. His underlings were running illegal businesses almost overtly after his first arrest in 1995. People insist that without protection from powerful officials and leaders of the Communist Party, no one could run a wide range of criminal businesses as that of Nam Cam under a regime that holds tight control over every family if not every citizen.
Most recently, the probe has discovered evidence of cover-up schemes at the top Party offices since he was arrested the second time in late 2001.
In early March 2002, high-ranking officers of the Interior Ministry started a wide range investigation on members of the gang and those in the Party, the government and the armed forces having been party to the activities of Nam Cam Gang. More than 50 low and medium ranking officials and Public Security officers in Saigon area were disciplined, among them two journalists of the two state-owned newspapers, Tuoi Tre (Youth) and Cong An Saigon (Saigon Public Security).
The investigation continues to reveal more and more high-ranking officials who have been closely linked to or even conspired with Nam Cam syndicate. The Communist central leaders’ most critical involvement was tracked as far backs as 1995 when Nam Cam was arrested then locked up in a “re-education camp” for his alleged crimes.
According to state-owned newspapers Tuoi Tre and Thanh Nien republished in Lao Dong (Worker) on May 14, 2002, though Nam Cam had committed serious crimes before 1995, the then prime minister Vo Van Kiet ordered a special probe to be carried out by certain Ministry of Interior personnel and related information must be kept secret even within the criminal investigation division. The Lao Dong article also raises the question “Why Nam Cam was acquitted from the charges and released?”
Tran Mai Hanh, member of the Central Committee is bearing the brunt of the intense probe. Hanh is general director the national radio Voice of Vietnam, an important job in the propaganda system only entrusted to faithful party officials. He is also a representative of the current National Assembly and is running for re-election. Hanh played a key role in the release of Nam Cam. In his two official letter sent to the Supreme People’s Procuracy, he asserted that Nam Cam was not doing anything wrong and should be acquitted and released.
On Tuesday, May 13, the National Assembly Standing Committee officially removed his name from the list of qualified candidates in the election on Sunday, May 19. Discipline measure has not been heard of. However, the cancellation of his candidacy is no less a light court verdict.
Several other important figures pleaded for Nam Cam’s case in 1996. The Deputy Chief of the People’s Supreme Procuracy Pham Si Chien is believed as having pressured the Interior Ministry to release Nam Cam before the end of his 3-year re-education term. In his letter last week, Chien shifts the blame on the Interior Ministry, saying it was the Ministry of Interior that holds the sole competence to make the decision.
The ministry officials are fighting back, arguing that as the power of a deputy chief of the Supreme Procuracy is concerned, Chien’s powerful pressure couldn’t be ignored or opposed. It seems to the common people that both are responsible for the questionable favor awarded to Nam Cam.
Chien is also in trouble of another matter. He has been requested recently to make full inventory of his large property. Meanwhile, at least one medium ranking official serving the Supreme Procuracy was arrested last week and accused of his illegal collaboration with Nam Cam.
The investigation is going on. It is expected that many more sensational stories from the Nam Cam scandal will be disclosed and no one could predict how far and wide the probe will reach. For the last 57 years in power, all wrongdoing at the top leaders circle have been tightly concealed, though the public might have been informed a little by rumors.
This time, the scandal reaches the highest posts of the regime. Facts found by investigators are spreading to all corners of the country probably because the scandal can’t be swept under the carpet as 30 years ago.
Some rumors run that the scandal is a battle between different factions in the party. Some foreign journalists even say that the scandal is created by Phan Van Khai’s supporters in a move to retain him in the prime minister’s seat some more years to improve national order and stability. Other observers think that the crack down on Nam Cam Gang and his accomplices is a scheme of Nong Duc Manh, the current general secretary and those siding with him to consolidate his throne. People even say that the scandal is a blow directed at Vu Van Kiet and his ardent supporters who advocate more active economic reform.
The scandal is only at its primary stage. It promise many more unpredictable surprising results.
In the history of Vietnam, there have been eras when corruption erupted sky-high. South Vietnam government under the late President Nguyen Van Thieu was harshly blamed for uncontrollable corruption. But no criminal gangs had ever been able to enroll South Vietnam’s officials or military officers at echelons higher than district police department, into a powerful criminal syndicate with such large sphere of influence as Nam Cam Gang.