By: David Brown
Đông Tâm is an ancient village on the western edge of the Red River Delta, in the north of Vietnam. Administratively it has been absorbed into greater Hanoi, the national capital, now a city of eight million people. Over the past two years, the village has come to exemplify an untreated wound on Vietnam’s body politic, the conflict over land use rights.
Socially and culturally, Đông Tâm is a world away from the modern capital that has subsumed it, a village of farmers who have tilled the rich alluvial soil of the region for many hundreds of years until a sensational confrontation between villagers and police lifted it from rustic obscurity in April 2017 to national symbol.
The issue is a common one on the urban fringes of Vietnam's cities. Representatives of the Hanoi city government sought to persuade some 30 extended families that they had, in fact, no valid claim to farm a certain 59-ha. tract. After three years of fruitless haggling, the officials' patience wore thin. When four representatives of the families arrived for yet another meeting, they were arrested and taken away. Soon afterward, an angry mob forced its way into the village hall and took hostages: 38 local police and low-level officials.
A week-long stalemate followed; it lit up Facebook, which is the go-to place for news that Vietnam's licensed media aren't allowed to report. Recalling other violent clashes over expropriations, online opinion predicted that things wouldn't go well for the farmers; that state power would punch back.
And then the mayor of Hanoi went to Đông Tâm and promised that if the hostages were released, the four family representatives held by the police would also be freed. Further, that none of the protesters would be punished for resisting state power, and the evolution of the land rights dispute "would be thoroughly reviewed."
Vietnamese public opinion was impressed. So was I. I wrote that Mayor Chung's "management of the confrontation may well mark a turning point. Vietnamese officials have regularly and deservedly been painted as the bad guys in land disputes. This time, top city officials ended the hostage situation in a way that satisfied the public's sense of fair play."
From time to time afterward, Đông Tâm was back in the news. The land dispute didn't go away; in fact, the authorities seemed less and less willing to compensate the villagers for the taking of the land in question. After reviewing boundary records, the Hanoi Inspectorate concluded that the tract had been definitively set aside in the 1980's "for national defense purposes," and it didn't matter that the families had been tilling that land for generations. Though "the People" own Vietnam's farmland, the Inspectorate reminded, the State manages it for them and it can reassign tracts for other purposes when there's a public need.
Fast forward now to the wee hours of January 9, 2020, just two weeks before the Lunar New Year. On the north side of Road 429, the authorities had begun to build a wall that denied access to the disputed hectares. That night, according to the Ministry of Public Security, or MPS, a group of villagers attacked police who were guarding the construction site. They were armed with grenades, gasoline bombs and spears. Repulsed, the villagers retreated toward their homes. The police gave chase, said MPS. In further fighting at the house of the villagers' leader, 84-year-old Le Dinh Kinh, Kinh was killed, a grenade in his hand; so were three police officers, stabbed to death.
In the next few days, the three officers – a colonel, a captain, and a lieutenant – were honored as heroic martyrs, victims of terrorism, but the MPS version of events began to unravel. Posts to independent media described a massive operation: while some 3,000 soldiers cordoned off the slumbering village circa 3 am on January 9, a mobile police unit had deployed to Kinh's home. It's not clear if they intended to kill the former village chief; in any event, Kinh died of gunshot wounds to the head and chest. His wife, several grown children and some neighbors, 26 in all, were arrested, charged as co-conspirators in a "plot to resist and attack the authorities."
On national TV on the evening of January 13, Kinh's son and grandson confessed to abetting Kinh in fighting and killing police officers. Their bruises were visible. Meanwhile, Kinh's battered body was released to family members; his wife was freed, and in a clip filmed on the day of Kinh's funeral, she said that police had forced her to confess that her husband died with a grenade in his hand while resisting arrest.
Then on January 14, MPS revised its account of the three officers' deaths. They weren't stabbed, it said; instead, all three fell into an airshaft while crossing the roof of Kinh's house, and were there doused with gasoline by Kinh's bloodthirsty confederates and incinerated.
Not long afterward, an informal group of liberal intellectuals motored out from Hanoi to visit the scene of these events. Their report, submitted to judicial authorities and leaked to friendly journalists, asserted that there was no evidence of a conflagration at the bottom of the airshaft and, further, that analysis of the pattern of bullet holes in Kinh's bedroom evidenced not a struggle but rather a murder.
And then, in Vietnam, public attention drifted to the imminent Lunar New Year holiday and, just a few days later, to worry that the Coronavirus would soon spread to Vietnam. That was when, coincidentally, I arrived for a four-week visit and made it my business to sample informed public opinion (that is to say, several dozen friends and acquaintances) on the second battle of Đông Tâm.
About what actually happened, there was considerable ambivalence. As the Hanoi regime intends, it's not easy for Vietnam's citizens to access reportage on events in Vietnam from outside sources. To log in to Washington-based Radio Free Asia, the BBC, or one of a handful of overseas websites managed by Vietnamese dissidents, they must connect their devices to a server outside Vietnam, typically via a VPN.
Even the IT-savvy find it less tedious to log in to Facebook, where they root through a maelstrom of opinion and invective leavened by a few facts – sometimes true, often fake. Whether they're reading reports in the licensed and closely supervised domestic media, or checking news that filters in from outside, they are skeptical consumers of information.
A young lawyer I spoke to was the exception; really angry about the recent events in Đông Tâm, he passed on to me an exacting analysis of the incident that demolished the police version. After three hours of slogging through the 33-page document (it was in Vietnamese), I was angry too.
Others I spoke to said they were profoundly shocked when they heard reports of the confrontation. Half of my interlocutors were skeptical of the villagers' claim for compensation, however; several believed that the village authorities had long ago issued phony land use documents. Even these sources, however, said they were appalled by the police tactics and, subsequently, by the patently self-serving MPS version of events.
A few of my interlocutors said the second Đông Tâm incident reminded them of another New Year holiday eight years ago, when aquafarmer Doan Van Vuon and his brothers barricaded themselves on their farm and for a day, with improvised explosives and black market muskets, fought off 80 police under orders to seize it.
That incident and others like it though not so dramatic, prompted strong public sentiment for amendments to Vietnam's Land Law. Farmers, it was argued, should be secure in the possession of the land they work or, if it is expropriated for a legitimate public purpose, they should be guaranteed fair compensation.
In the end, nothing much changed. On the fringes of Vietnam's fast-growing cities, land grabs are still common. Villagers protest, but in the end, they are forced to accept a fraction of the land's value when it converted to some commercial purpose. The officials who make this happen pocket substantial under-the-table rewards and a third party, typically a real estate developer or a state-connected enterprise like Viettel, avoids paying a fair price to those who'd been farming the land.
After the first battle of Đông Tâm, the April 2017 hostage-taking incident, it was possible to believe that Hanoi Mayor Chung's intervention might mark a turning point in land policy, perhaps even reforms that relieved local officials of their lucrative role as middlemen between farmers and developers. It seemed inconceivable that Chung was freelancing. Cynics argued then, however, that it was simply a tactical retreat by the state, with retribution to follow. It seems the cynics were right.
David Brown is a former US diplomat with wide experience in Vietnam and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel