Vietnam's Contentious Land Law - Part 2

This is the second of a three-part series on corruption Vietnam's land ownership by David Brown, a retired US Foreign Service official who served in several posts throughout Southeast Asia.

Early last month, the Vietnamese public, weary after a year of high inflation and slow growth, was turning its attention to the Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday only a few weeks off. In the far south of Vietnam, the long ordeal of labor hero Tran Ngoc Suong was about to end – local authorities had decided to drop charges that she had embezzled funds from the nation’s last thriving collective farm.

Then an extraordinary report from Tien Lang district, on the outskirts of Haiphong, a port city east of Hanoi, sent a shock through the body public. A fish farmer and his family had resisted a large force moving in to enforce an eviction order. With an improvised mine and muskets bought on the black market, they’d wounded two soldiers and four policemen, including the local police chief.

As in the Song Hau Farm affair, it was local authorities’ determination to wrest control of rich agricultural land that provoked the incident.

In 1997, Doan Van Vuon moved to Vinh Quang Village and leased nine hectares of coastal wetlands from the village People’s Committee. Trained as an engineer, Vuon began to build the dikes, sluices and ponds needed to raise fish and shrimp. No one expected Vuon and his family to succeed, but after several years of effort and experimentation, the fish farm turned a small profit. Other pioneers followed Vuon’s example. By 2004, some 20 families in Tien Lang district were developing fish farms covering approximately 250 hectares of previously worthless land. Vuon himself had reclaimed a further 11 ha from the sea, increasing his family enterprise to 20 ha of ponds altogether.

In 2005, however, the fish farmers of Tien Lang received a shocking notice from the district administration. The swampland that they had rented would be repossessed when their leases expired, it said. There would be no compensation for improvements.

All land in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is owned by the state. Since 1993, however, individuals and enterprises have been granted ‘land use rights.’ For most farmers, that meant that they were allotted a piece of their former collective farm for a 20 year period.

Vuon, for reasons still unclear, had been given only a 14-year lease backdated to 1993. He was ordered to vacate by 2007.

Vuon and the other fish farmers say they had believed – in accordance with rural custom – that their leases on the land they’d improved would be routinely extended. Further, like all farmers, they expected that if the local government took a piece of land back for some public purpose, they’d be compensated for the improvements they’d made.

The fish farmers protested. The district authorities wouldn’t budge. The district court upheld the authorities’ order to vacate. The farmers appealed to a higher court in Haiphong City.

As is common in Vietnam, the Haiphong court referred the appeal to an arbitrator, a local magistrate, in hope that the dispute could be resolved informally. The procedure resulted in April 2010 in a “memorandum to create conditions for mutual agreement on resolution of the matter.”

Reportedly, the Tien Lang district agreed to extend the fish farmers’ leases when they expired and the farmers agreed to withdraw their complaint. The document was signed by Vuon and other representatives of the fish farmers and, representing the district government, by the chief of the Tien Lang district office of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. The magistrate then affixed the appeals court’s vermillion stamp.

Undeterred, the district authorities reneged on the bargain. No sooner had the farmers withdrawn their complaint than the district declared the local court’s ruling still valid. Again it pressed Vuon to hand over his fish farm. Driven to desperation, Vuon resolved to fight back. When police, reinforced by soldiers – 80 armed men altogether – moved in on his farm on the morning of January 5, Vuon and his family fired the shots that roused the nation.

It’s not so clear what will happen next. Vuon’s fish farm was devastated, three houses bulldozed and a quarter million dollars’ worth of mature fish looted by strangers. Vuon and his brother are in jail, charged with attempted murder of police officers who were carrying out their duties.

To Vietnamese public opinion, however, the brothers are heroic figures.

Dang Hung Vo, a retired high official, comments that “it’s possible to see the recent incident at Tien Lang as a climactic demonstration of the faults in our Land Law and how it is implemented at the local level. A good farmer, pure, simple and hard-working, who’s driven to defend his right to his land with home-made weapons – what misery! Everybody believes that there’s such a thing as justice and that the law ensures it. Certainly that’s what the farmers who built the fish ponds at Tien Lang believed. They went to the court expecting fair play, but the simple truths they understood proved elusive. The hopelessness of their situation drove them to take desperate measures.”

Vo and other experts on land policy have blasted the Tien Lang officials and the Haiphong deputy province chief who defended them for fundamental errors in the interpretation and execution of the law, but that’s not what’s really at issue here. It’s really a question of common sense and decency, of respect for a farmer’s bond with the land he’s worked – or so many commentators say.

Prime Minister Dung has ordered the Haiphong City authorities to explain how the shootout at Tien Lang came to pass, and how they intend to repair the situation there. Probably a few heads will roll; Vietnam’s public clearly hopes that Farmer Vuon’s won’t be among them.

It’s Dung and his colleagues in the government and Communist Party politburo who must deal with the larger problem, however. Vietnam’s current land law is a time bomb set to go off in 2013 -- without fundamental reform, the sort of tragedy that overtook Dang Van Vuon threatens half the nation’s population.

(Tomorrow, Part 3, The Wisdom of Farmers. David Brown can be reached at