the stand­off at Viet­nam’s Dong Tam?


Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - BY BEN­NETT MUR­RAY

Last April, vil­lagers from Dong Tam on the ru­ral out­skirts of Hanoi al­legedly seized dozens of govern­ment hostages over a land dis­pute. When South­east Asia Globe vis­ited the vil­lage last month, lo­cals shared a very dif­fer­ent story – one that the govern­ment is try­ing hard to keep un­der wraps


Dinh Kinh still suf­fers from the blows in­flicted on his 83-year-old body by se­cu­rity forces last April. He can barely walk any­more. And the win­ter months of north­ern Viet­nam bring even more pain to the com­mu­nity leader.

Kinh, a re­tired govern­ment of­fi­cial in Dong Tam com­mune on Hanoi's ru­ral out­skirts, was protest­ing at a com­mu­nal farm plot locked in a land rights dis­pute be­tween lo­cal vil­lagers and the Viet­namese military, and when he re­fused a po­lice or­der to leave the field, he claims he was shoved to the ground so vi­o­lently that his leg broke. He was then thrown into a car and driven away.

“They bound my hands and put cloth in my mouth,” re­called Kinh of his ar­rest by Hanoi se­cu­rity forces on 15 April 2017, which he char­ac­terised as a kid­nap­ping.

With their com­mu­nity elder hauled off vi­o­lently, the vil­lagers re­sponded with a fury al­most un­heard of in Viet­nam: 38 po­lice and other of­fi­cials were seized and held hostage in what turned into a week-long stand­off that proved to be one of the Com­mu­nist party's worst po­lit­i­cal headaches in years.

Kinh is an un­likely Viet­namese protest icon. A life­long mem­ber of the Com­mu­nist party, he served two terms as both chair­man of Dong Tam and lo­cal party boss. The red flag of Viet­nam, a staunch com­mu­nist sym­bol loathed by dis­si­dents, flies in front of his house.

But Kinh said the dis­pute with the govern­ment over 59 hectares of farm­land flew in the face of the party's pro­claimed egal­i­tar­ian val­ues.

While the military main­tains the land is right­fully theirs – and no one in Dong Tam has pa­per­work clar­i­fy­ing the sta­tus of the land – Kinh said cor­rupt party cadres had plot­ted with military of­fi­cials to appropriate the 59 hectares to sell for their own gain.

“Truong Tan Sang de­clared in the mass me­dia that cor­rup­tion is the en­emy of the peo­ple,” said Kinh, re­fer­ring to the for­mer Viet­namese pres­i­dent, who served from 2011 to 2016.

“I fol­lowed his an­nounce­ment to fight against the en­emy, the cor­rup­tion, the en­emy of the peo­ple,” he added.

Phil Robert­son, deputy Asia di­rec­tor of Hu­man Rights Watch, said land rights con­tinue to be one of the biggest sources of hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions in Viet­nam.

“Over the past 20 years, dis­putes over land, of­ten fuelled by cor­rup­tion of of­fi­cials in con­nivance with land spec­u­la­tors, have con­tin­ued reg­u­larly with no sign that the author­i­ties have the po­lit­i­cal will or in­ter­est in re­solv­ing the sit­u­a­tion,” he said.

The military has owned land in Dong Tam since the 1980s but, aside from an air­base the military built, the area re­mains mostly un­de­vel­oped. By some ac­counts, the vil­lagers of Dong Tam had been al­lo­cated por­tions of the land by the govern­ment, al­though the de­tails are in dis­pute. In 2015, how­ever, the land was legally trans­ferred from the military to Vi­et­tel, a military-owned telco, for an un­spec­i­fied “de­fence project”, ac­cord­ing to state me­dia re­ports.

While the res­i­dents of Dong Tam do not dis­pute the military's claim to 47 hectares out of a to­tal of 106, the rest, they have ar­gued, which they use to grow corn and peanuts, is right­fully their own.

How, ex­actly, such a large group of riot po­lice, some armed with shot­guns, were taken hostage by vil­lagers with sticks and rocks re­mains a mys­tery – and the Viet­namese govern­ment has never elab­o­rated on ex­actly what hap­pened.

When news of the sit­u­a­tion broke, social me­dia ru­mours swirled that the po­lice were in im­me­di­ate peril. The com­mu­nal house where the hostages were be­ing held had sup­pos­edly been doused with gaso­line and was ready to be lit with the po­lice in­side it in the event of a res­cue at­tempt, ac­cord­ing to word on Facebook at the time.

But Viet Hieu, a 75-year-old lo­cal ac­tivist and com­mu­nity leader who was part of the clash, said the po­lice were never in dan­ger. They had not even been kid­napped, he said. They had in­stead been un­will­ing to put up a fight and vol­un­tar­ily sur­ren­dered their weapons and feigned be­ing kid­napped to avoid fol­low­ing or­ders they found ob­jec­tion­able.

“[We said] you should come with us and wait for the govern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives to come make dia­logue,” said Hieu, re­call­ing what was said to the po­lice. “And af­ter hear­ing that, the riot po­lice fol­lowed them to the com­mu­nal house. No one fought the riot po­lice, and they fol­lowed the vil­lagers to the house.”

None of the po­lice in­volved have spo­ken pub­licly about their or­deal, and the vil­lagers' claims that the of­fi­cers sur­ren­dered will­ingly could not be in­de­pen­dently ver­i­fied.

Re­gard­less of the cir­cum­stances of the hostage sit­u­a­tion, Kinh was re­leased shortly af­ter the stand­off be­gan and sent to hos­pi­tal for treatment.

“The Hanoi govern­ment wanted me to van­ish,” said Kinh, but added that of­fi­cials changed their minds once they heard the vil­lagers' ver­sion of events.

The Hanoi govern­ment wanted me to van­ish

Af­ter a week of on-and-off talks, Nguyen Duc Chung, chair­man of the Peo­ple's Com­mit­tee of Hanoi, ne­go­ti­ated di­rectly with the vil­lagers. He promised to in­ves­ti­gate the cir­cum­stances of Kinh's ar­rest and the vil­lagers' un­der­ly­ing griev­ances, and vowed to not press charges against the hostage tak­ers. The stand­off ended and all eyes were on the author­i­ties to see if they would keep their prom­ises.

A year af­ter the stand­off, no vil­lagers have been ar­rested and the land re­mains un­de­vel­oped. Al­though a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion was opened in June, the mul­ti­ple sum­monses that have been is­sued to al­leged par­tic­i­pants have thus far gone ig­nored and the govern­ment ap­par­ently has not pressed the is­sue.

“They threat­ened us, but no one has come to ar­rest us,” said Hieu.

The govern­ment initially de­ter­mined in July that the land in ques­tion did in fact be­long to the military and that a lease to lo­cal vil­lagers had ex­pired in 2012. The case is on­go­ing, how­ever, with a team of five lawyers ar­gu­ing the vil­lagers' case pro bono.

Pri­vate own­er­ship of land in Viet­nam of­fi­cially does not ex­ist un­der the law, al­though de facto own­er­ship through us­age rights is al­lowed. The law is less clear on the con­cept of com­mu­nal own­er­ship, a prob­lem that arises more of­ten in re­mote ru­ral mi­nor­ity vil­lages.

Kinh's son, Le Dinh Cong, said he is con­fi­dent the vil­lagers of Dong Tam will ul­ti­mately pre­vail.

“Ab­so­lutely 100% we will win, it is our true land,” he said. “They don't scare any of us, be­cause we think we are right.”

Lo­cal ac­tivist and com­mu­nity leader Viet Hieu (L) and Li Dinh Cong, whose father's leg was shat­tered by the Viet­namese po­lice, standin the dis­puted plot of land out­side Hanoi

Le Dinh Kinh (cen­tre) with (L-R) son Le Dinh Cong, grand­sonLe Dinh Quang, wife Du Thi Thanh and fam­ily friend and fel­low com­mu­nity leader Viet Hieu (top); an x-ray of the metal rod in­sideKinh's leg, which was inserted in the after­math of last year's con­fronta­tion with author­i­ties (bot­tom)

A satel­lite im­age of the dis­puted area, dis­played in Kinh's house (top); the com­mu­nity house where the po­lice were held, with Le Dinh Cong in the fore­ground (bot­tom)

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