AT THE weekend a court in Ho Chi Minh City fined a mischievous drunk for causing public disorder while under the influence of alcohol. Pham Van Binh, a 43-year-old cycle-rickshaw puller, had climbed the bronze statue of General Tran Nguyen Han, a 15th-century warrior who fought Chinese occupation (pictured to the right).
He had waved at the crowd and sat on the General’s hand, stretching his criminal performance to a good 15 minutes, while as police tried their best to coax him down. They even laid out an air-mattress, in case he fell. He jumped, eventually.
Whether it was a protest or simply the antics of a wayward drunk, no one among the crowd of hundreds who watched from the nearby Banh Thanh market could be entirely sure.
The way that his arrest was reported in the official press was perhaps even more unusual, given that his shenanigans had occurred at a sensitive time. Vietnamese officials tend to abhor the slightest hint of any protest or social disorder, and particularly around prominent sites. Such incidents normally go unreported by the state-run press, even when staged in front of a vast audience.
Up north in the capital, the prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, was fighting to save his job. He stood in judgment before an all-important Central Committee meeting which had been dragging on for two weeks, twice as long as usual.
Twenty years ago, after the inaugural Ho Chi Minh City marathon, a drunken reveller climbed the statue of Supreme Commander Tran Hung Dao—regarded by some of his countrymen as Mongolians tend to regard Genghis Khan—with a South Vietnamese flag draped around his neck.
That merrymaker, or vandal, was beaten down by police with truncheons and taken away. Statues like these make popular rallying points for protesters who hope to remind the authorities that their grievances should not be interpreted as unpatriotic.
More recently, retired Viet Cong soldiers marched from the countryside into town to protest the prevalence of land-grabs. They carried with them a bust of Ho Chi Minh. Hundreds more protested last week on the outskirts of Hanoi, where land had been confiscated to build a satellite city.
Land-grabbing, corruption, ridiculously high rates of inflation, bank runs, the collapse of state-owned enterprises and the loss of jobs and religious freedoms have recently provided the grounds for increased protests. They take many different shapes and forms, and taken together they raised doubts about the quality of Mr Dung’s leadership.
Among his critics is General Nguyen Phu Trong, Secretary-General of the Communist Party. He emerged ahead of the meeting as a potential alternative to Mr Dung, who had been re-elected by the party for a second five-year term in July last year.
A major concern has been the personal power that Mr Dung has amassed during his time in office. This became apparent through his personal connections with senior figures from the scandal-plagued Asia Commercial Bank (ACB), the country’s biggest private-owned bank, and at the Vietnam Shipbuilding Industry (Vinashin), which lost $4.5 billion. Executives from both companies are under investigation or have been jailed for corruption.
When the 14-member Politburo at last finished their meeting, they issued a statement saying they “seriously criticised themselves and honestly admitted their mistakes”, in the words of the Party leader, Nguyen Phu Trong, who made a speech broadcast by state media. He said the central committee had decided not to impose disciplinary measures “for the whole Politburo and a member of the Politburo”.
For the time being, at least, Mr Dung has held onto his job. The chorus of discontent is growing louder and bolder, a sign in itself of dissatisfaction from within his own party. Mr Dung is on notice. The statue of Tran Nguyen Han was unharmed, by the way, and Mr Binh made off with a fine of just $36.