LAND GRABS IN VIETNAM

LAND GRABS IN VIETNAM

Land clearance for industrial development, the confiscation of agricultural land and the lack of fair compensation for farmers have all fuelled a number of large-scale public protests in recent years. Real estate prices in Vietnam have rocketed during the past decade. In central Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, commercial space can sell for as high as in some of the most expensive cities in the world.

Cat Barton of AFP wrote: “Land is a divisive issue in communist Vietnam. It is wholly owned by the state and rights of use are not always clear or protected. Millions of rural tenants like Vuon are vulnerable to the whims of local officials, who can reclaim land for vaguely-defined "public interest" reasons, which experts say leads to widespread local corruption. More than 70 percent of all complaints lodged with authorities nationwide concern land. Twenty-year land-leases issued in 1993 will expire this year and the government has not made it clear how the issue will be resolved. [Source: Cat Barton, AFP, April 2, 2013]

"Land use is one of the most complex and sensitive issues in Vietnam," Nguyen Duc Thinh, a senior official told the BBC. "Our policy is to examine all disputes, case by case, in accordance with the government's land law," he said. Vietnamese law stipulates national ownership over all land, which means that organizations and individuals can only apply for the rights to use land, not own it. Land-rights protesters in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Danang, and several provinces in the Mekong Delta continued to report instances of physical harassment and intimidation by local authorities. [Source: BBC, February 26, 2008]

Describing one event, Associated Press reported: “Villagers in northern Vietnam set fire to a government building and held a local official hostage in a dispute over land taken for an industrial park, officials. About 500 people gathered in Lai Yen village to protest the expropriation, and several ransacked the village government building before dousing it with gasoline and setting it on fire, said a village official who identified himself only as Hanh. The mob then destroyed property at the house of a local government official and locked a local health worker in the village clinic for a day, Hanh said. [Source: AP, January 27, 2005 /~\]

“The trouble started when 52 families demanded higher compensation for farmland taken to build an industrial park in the village. They clashed earlier in the day with police who were ordered to clear the site for construction, injuring two villagers and a police officer, he said. Dozens of villagers have been jailed in recent years in Vietnam for assaulting authorities in disputes over compensation for land taken for infrastructure and development projects.” /~\

John Ruwitch of Reuters wrote: “A zooming economy has driven up land prices, tempting officials to move farmers off their land to make way for lucrative projects such as apartments and industrial zones. Local officials said Vuon's land would become an airport. "Over recent years Vietnam has witnessed a rise in violence directed against state authorities by aggrieved citizens," said professor Carlyle Thayer of the University of New South Wales. "Their frequency is an indication that the avenues to adjudication and redress are not available." As in China, where land grabs sparked a revolt in the southern village of Wukan that lasted for months, land issues are a leading source of friction between the public and officials. All land is owned by the state and usage rights are not always clear or protected. [Source: John Ruwitch, Reuters, January 20, 2013 +++]

Thayer said there was no independent means to adjudicate land use disputes. "The local government is free to manipulate the facts of any given case to suit its purpose," he said. Vietnamese authorities give citizens limited land rights and are allowed to seize it from them for national security or defense, economic development or the public interest. In some cases, that translates into industrial parks that bring jobs to the poor, or roads and bridges. But in an increasing number of cases, it means grabbing fish farms or rice paddies for golf courses and resorts accessible only to the rich. +++

Vietnam Hit by Mass Land Protests

Nga Pham of BBC News reported: “A mass protest over the Vietnamese government's land policies is gathering force, ahead of the opening session of the newly-elected National Assembly. Witnesses say hundreds of peasants from the Mekong River Delta are surrounding the offices of the National Assembly in Ho Chi Minh City. A smaller protest is also reportedly being held in the capital, Hanoi. [Source: The protesters are demanding the return of their land, and for any wrongdoing by local officials to be punished. Both protests have been going on relatively peacefully for several weeks, and received little coverage in the local media. However, as the protest in Ho Chi Minh - Vietnam's second city and the main economic hub - has hotted up in the last few days, residents have started complaining about traffic disruption. Land protests are not unseen in Vietnam, but correspondents say a demonstration of this scale and intensity is rare. Nga Pham, BBC News, July 18, 2007 \*\]

“Security forces have begun to get involved to make sure the protest does not get out of control. Local officials in the Mekong Delta provinces have been urged to come to Ho Chi Minh City to "persuade their people to go home", with promises that their complaints will be dealt with appropriately. Meanwhile, a deputy minister of security was quoted by state media as saying that there had been a certain involvement of "reactionary forces overseas". Last Sunday, Deputy Prime Minister Truong Vinh Trong called an urgent meeting with provincial leaders. He asked for a prompt investigation into the case and warned that the Communist Party would not tolerate inappropriate measures. Land seizures in the name of economic development have been a much-debated topic in Vietnam, where the state maintains the sole ownership of land. Peasants frequently complain about unfair compensation and criticise the laws on land use, which in their opinion have too many loopholes and are easily abused by corrupt local government officials.The new 500-strong Vietnam National Assembly, elected last May, is to begin its first session on Thursday in Hanoi. With the mass protest intensifying outside, the deputies will no doubt have many things to debate. \*\

Deutsche Presse Agentur reported: “Vietnamese police in riot gear broke up a demonstration of hundreds of people in Ho Chi Minh City who were demanding compensation for their seized land, witnesses said Thursday. After tolerating the long-running protest for 27 days, armed police moved in late Wednesday night to the tented camp outside the National Assembly offices, forcing the protesters onto buses bound for their home provinces. One of the protesters said the dispersing was peaceful. "Police yanked down all the tents, banners and signs. They ushered groups of protesters onto one bus until it was full and then they started filling the second bus," a protester named Sinh told New Horizon radio. "They did not have to beat anyone because no one had the strength to resist," Sinh added. The crackdown came on eve of the National Assembly's scheduled session and a day after prominent dissident monk Thich Quang Do visited the protest and called for an end to the Communist Party's sole rule. The demonstration of more than 500 people was the longest-running protest in Vietnam for years and had been publicized by overseas opposition groups as a sign of discontent with communist rule. [Source: Deutsche Presse Agentur, July 19, 2007 *+*]

“The protesters — from several Mekong Delta provinces — were demanding compensation for land that had been confiscated by local officials for development projects. Signs and banners at the demonstrations accused local officials of "betraying the [Communist] Party and cheating the people." Other banners appealed directly to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to "save the people." Land protests have become more common in Vietnam, with state media saying property disputes account for 85 percent of complaints against the government. On Tuesday, dissident Buddhist monk Thich Quang Do made a rare public appearance to support the demonstration and urged the protesters to also demand multi-party democracy. Thich Quang Do, the deputy leader of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), delivered 300 million Vietnamese dong (about 20,000 dollars) to the demonstrators on for food. *+*

Vietnamese Man Sets Himself on Fire to Protest Land Confiscation

In December 2007, Associated Press reported: “A Vietnamese man set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of the land where he lived that authorities said belonged to the government, police and state media reported Wednesday December 26. Hoang Huu Hanh, 53, soaked himself with gasoline and lit a match Tuesday when police pulled down his makeshift house in Hai Ba Trung District, said a local police officer who declined to be identified, citing policy. [Source: Associated Press, December 27, 2007 <>]

Police quickly extinguished the fire and rushed him to a hospital where he remained in serious but stable condition Wednesday December 26, he said. The official Vietnam News Agency quoted Lam Anh Tuan, deputy chief of the district people's committee as saying Hanh moved to the area in 1993 after residents were resettled there from an area where houses were taken for a road project. After distributing land for the residents, about 1,700 square meters of land remained. It was not made available for construction because a high-voltage cable was overhead, he said. Hanh, however, illegally built a makeshift house and parking space on 500 square meters (5,382 sq. feet) of that land, Tuan said, adding Hanh refused to move even though authorities had tried to force him out three times. <>

Security Forces Seize Land from Vietnam Villagers

In April 2012, Reuters reported: “Thousands of riot police overwhelmed villagers in Vietnam who tried to block them from taking control of a disputed plot of land outside Hanoi in the second high-profile clash over property so far this year. Villagers in the district of Van Giang just east of the capital had vowed to stand their ground after local authorities announced that they would forcibly appropriate 70 hectares (173 acres) of land for use in a satellite city development called Ecopark. [Source: Reuters, April 24, 2012 <<>>]

“Many villagers camped out on the land overnight, burning bonfires and keeping vigil, photos showed. But a force of 2,000-4,000 police and unidentified men not wearing uniforms converged on the land early on Tuesday morning, three villagers and one other witness said. "We threw bottles of gasoline at them, but it did not help, they had shields. They used clubs to beat us. Even when we ran back to the village, they followed us and beat us," said a villager who gave his name as Kien. <<>>

“Two people at the scene said they had heard what sounded like gunfire but Kien said the sound came from stun grenades that the security forces threw at the villagers. He said 10 people were arrested. "They have acquired the land and used bulldozers to destroy our crops. We have lost to them. I don't know what to do next," he said. A senior government official on the scene declined to comment and said to call back later. Officials at Viet Hung Urban Development and Investment Joint-Stock Co, which is developing Ecopark, could not be reached for an immediate comment. <<>>

“Hung Yen farmers have been staging protests on and off since the Ecopark project was launched several years ago, claiming that the government granted land to the developers without proper consultation or compensation. "If they want the land we just ask that the investors come to talk to us directly about it, but they won't," said a villager named Tuyen contacted by telephone in Van Giang. At least two well-known, Hanoi-based bloggers rushed to Van Giang to chronicle the conflict. The issue has not appeared in state-run media. <<>>

Vietnamese Farmers Defend Their Land with Homemade Land Mines and Guns

In January 2012, farmers outside the city of Haiphong ambushed security forces with homemade landmines and guns in a bid to stop local officials from taking their land. The case was covered in state-controlled media and the fish farmer who organized the defense, Doan Van Vuon, was catapulted to cult hero status, piling pressure on the authorities over a highly sensitive issue. In February, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung publicly chastised local authorities for their handling of the case.

John Ruwitch of Reuters wrote: “The case of a family of farmers in Vietnam who used homemade landmines and guns in a bid to stop local officials taking their land has sparked rare open criticism of the authorities' strong-arm approach, forcing the government to act to limit the damage. On the outskirts of Vietnam's third-largest city, Haiphong, the land dispute that erupted violently on January 5 had simmered for over four years, according to newspapers and websites. Six police and soldiers were injured, and four people — farmer Doan Van Vuon, his brother and two other relatives — were arrested. [Source: John Ruwitch, Reuters, January 20, 2013 +++]

Members of the Vuon family say they were given the 41 hectares (101 acres) of land by authorities in 1993, when it was swampland that had been badly damaged by a typhoon. They transformed it into a fish and prawn business. In 2009, authorities said they wanted the land back without compensation. [Source: Chris Brummitt, April 5, 2013]

Vietnamese media reported that in 2007 district officials sought to reclaim land from Vuon and a neighbour, but the families sued. Arbitration followed and in 2010 the families dropped the lawsuit in exchange for extensions to their leases. Not long after, though, local officials said the deal was invalid and began pushing anew to repossess the land. What brought things to a head is unclear. Vuon was not at the scene but is suspected of having planned the ambush. Shortly after the clash, a family-owned house where the gunmen took refuge was reduced to rubble. One government official reportedly said security forces were behind the demolition. Another later said they were not. +++

Public Response to the Vietnamese Farmers Who Defended Their Land with Homemade Land Mines and Guns

Chris Brummitt of Associated Press reported: “The men have been lauded on the Internet for defending their land in such spectacular fashion. Land grabs by corrupt officials are the leading source of public anger toward the one-party government in this autocratic Southeast Asian nation. Activists opposed to one-party rule in Vietnam have defended the Vuon family. Scores of protesters braved a security clampdown to show their support for the family, and police arrested several near the courts. On Friday, there were no demonstrators, and authorities threatened to arrest journalists taking photographs outside the court unless they left the area. The government has been on the defensive because of the public sympathy toward the family. A month after the incident, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ruled that the eviction was illegal, and ordered the officials who carried it out to be punished. [Source: Chris Brummitt, Associated Press, April 5, 2013]

John Ruwitch of Reuters wrote: “T Critics, including a former state president, were quick to decry the local authorities' heavy-handed bid to reclaim the land that Vuon had converted for aquaculture, saying the use of security forces was inappropriate and illegal. "Eviction is wrong. Moreover, deploying the army and police to evict someone is even more wrong," Le Duc Anh, Vietnam's president from 1992-1997 and a senior army general, told the newspaper Vietnam Education. Dang Hung Vo, a one-time deputy minister of natural resources and the environment, said the decision to take the land "was both against the law and ethics, intentionally stripping them of their rights", the online news portal VNExpress.vn reported. [Source: John Ruwitch, Reuters, January 20, 2013 +++]

“Supporters in Hanoi donated 60 million dong ($2,857) to Vuon and his brother, 6 million to the injured security officers, and had some 200 million more, blogger Nguyen Xuan Dien said online. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung responded this week by ordering the Haiphong city government to investigate. But getting the true story may prove difficult. +++

"Shooting at police is wrong, and they will be jailed for sure," a Vietnamese reporter following the case said on Friday. "But what the press want to know is what drove these people to such a reaction. Whether the local authorities will admit they were wrong is open to question ... In the provinces, authorities may think they can do what they want." +++

Vietnamese Farmers Who Defended Their Land with Mines and Guns Sentenced to Five Years

Cat Barton of AFP wrote: “Vuon was being tried for attempted murder with three other male relatives, all of whom have all been in detention since the incident. The charge carries a maximum sentence of death. His wife and sister-in-law were tried on a charge of resisting officers, in a hearing expected to last until Friday. According to the indictment Vuon and his relatives used the homemade weapons and demonstrated "murderous behaviour" towards public officials. "I knew the use of weapons was not in accordance with the law... my view was that the eviction was illegal so if they did not stop I would be forced to fight it," Vuon, who was flanked by two policemen, calmly told the court. "We just wanted to threaten them" and did not intend anyone to get hurt during the standoff, he said, adding that the family had decided to fight back to try to draw the attention of the country's leaders to their plight.[Source: Cat Barton, AFP, April 2, 2013 <=>]

Vuon's supporters -- who travelled to Hai Phong in droves to show support for the 50-year-old -- voiced fears he would receive a harsh sentence as a deterrent to others. "If the government gives a lenient sentence it may urge other people to react more strongly," pro-democracy campaigner Pham Hong Son, who has spent years in jail, told AFP before police forced reporters to leave the area. Police on the outskirts of Hai Phong prevented busloads of pro-democracy activists and Catholic supporters -- the Vuon family is Catholic -- from entering the northern port city, AFP reporters saw. Five former local officials in the area will go on trial next Monday over the destruction of Vuon's house. <=>

“Court documents said seven policemen were injured in the January 2012 incident as the Vuon family armed themselves with home-made shotguns to hold off local officials trying to evict them from their fish farm in Tien Lang district, 90 kilometres (55 miles) east of Hanoi. Their rare act of defiance in the tightly-controlled communist state triggered a nationwide outpouring of support, with even Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung saying the eviction was "illegal" and promising to prosecute corrupt local officials. <=>

However, Chris Brummitt of Associated Press reported, “A court sentenced a family of four Vietnamese fish farmers to between two and five years in prison after finding them guilty of attempted murder for fighting back against a state eviction squad with homemade guns and land mines. The sentences were less severe than they could have been given the seriousness of the charges. Since the prime minister's order declaring the eviction illegal, they have been allowed to keep the land. [Source: Chris Brummitt, Associated Press, April 5, 2013 ><]

“ Doan Van Vuon, showed no emotion as he was sentenced to five years in prison after a four-day trial in the northern city of Haiphong, close to the family's village. The 50-year-old former soldier had previously argued that the land mines and the gunfire were meant to warn the police and army-backed eviction crew to stay away from his family's land and fish ponds. One of his brothers also received five years, and a third got 3 1/2 years. A nephew received a two-year term. Vuon's wife and a second female relative received suspended sentences for their roles in the standoff, during which seven police and army officers sustained minor injuries. ><

“The presiding judge, Pham Duc Tuyen, said the family's crimes were "dangerous to the society, illegally violating the life and health of other people, violating the normal operations of the state agencies and causing bad impact on the social order and social management of Haiphong City in particular and the country as a whole." Speaking to reporters after the trial, Vuon's defense lawyer, Nguyen Viet Hung, said, "I'm not happy. I had expected for a better verdict." ><

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

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