Vietnamese frustrated by alleged land grabs by local officials

A land dispute in Vietnam’s northern port city of Haiphong has become a national issue.

When about 100 police and local officials came to evict a farmer and his family, they refused to be intimidated and fought back with guns and improvised explosive devices.

It is a rare example of violent opposition in authoritarian Communist-ruled Vietnam.

And the widespread public sympathy for the farmer underscores deep frustrations about alleged land grabs by local officials in cahoots with developers.

Presenter: Liam Cochrane
Speaker: Ben Bland, Vietnam correspondent of Britain’s Financial Times

BLAND: Land disputes are very common across Vietnam, where the land ownership laws are unclear. What’s very unusual about this case is the high use of violence used by the farmer and his family to try and defend their land, so the farmer, a 49 year-old called Mr Doan Van Vuon had been in a long running dispute with the local government over his land, which was formerly swamp land. He turned it into a fish farm and when the local government and police eventually came to evict him from his land, he and his family had set up a number of improvised explosive devices and fought back with guns as well. There was a gun battle and six police were injured according to reports in the state media. This all took place on January 5th and he and his family fled and were eventually arrested and have been charged with attempted murder. So a very unusual level of violence involved and the case was quite a first, but slowly but surely over the last few weeks, there’s been a widespread support and sympathy building for Mr Vuon and his family. In the local media, a number of prominent lawyers, bloggers and even Vietnam’s former president have spoken out in his defence, saying that the authorities are wrong in the way they tried to seize his land and that they sympathise with the use of violence, which is highly unusual in Vietnam.

COCHRANE: And I mean with such a use of violence, as you say, quite unusual. Has this really kind of struck a chord with people around the country?

BLAND: I think so, I mean what you have to understand is that land disputes are one of the deepest sources of frustration and conflict in Vietnam and that’s all linked to corruption. So Vietnam, like China to the north, is run by the Communist Party, but it’s been liberalising its economy over the last 20 years. So now people can buy, sell and trade land use rights but officially the state or the people own all the land and this ambiguity leads to a lot of problems, particularly when the local government wants to take control of land to sell it onto a developer and the UN, for example, says that these land disputes are the biggest source of corruption in Vietnam, because they allege that often developers will get into cahoots with the local government, they will try and buy land cheaply off the people, develop it and then make huge profits. And corrupt Vietnam is a relatively corrupt country according to all the main international indices and land issues go to the heart of this problem. So I think there’s a lot of sympathy across the country. It’s not with the methods he used to try and defend his land, at least with the predicament he finds himself in and it’s common in Hanoi, where I live, to see land protests, people coming in from outlying villages where there is some sort of dispute, walk through the town with petitions and signs claiming their various causes. So this is an issue that all the 85, 86 million people in Vietnam have some sort of sympathy with. Many people will know a relative who has been involved in a land dispute, for example.

COCHRANE: I can imagine the Vietnamese government being quite concerned about this kind of incident becoming an example and about the potential threat to social stability from these kinds of land disputes. What have they been saying?

BLAND: Well, the government hasn’t said much openly about how concerned it is, but it’s definitely demonstrated a growing concern.

The prime minister of Vietnam who is the top of the three key leaders here has ordered an investigation into the actions by the local province and that’s a bit of an attempt to shut the issue down, to kick it into the long grass. But these land disputes and issues to do with land are one of the key social stability concerns for the government, alongside with labour strikes by workers in factories. And one of the signs of how concerned the government is is that they’ve refused to allow me and other foreign journalists to travel to the city to investigate the case and obviously we know what we’ve read in the state-owned media, but we’d rather go there to try and get a more balanced view on the ground, but they’re refusing to allow foreign journalists to go and the local government in Haiphong have said they also want the local press and the state-controlled press to stop reporting on the issue and that’s a sign that they’re nervous about rising temperatures over this issue and the level of public debate. So I think they’re trying to quieten it down now and perhaps this inquiry will report later on in a few months when the issue is more calm.

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