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Vietnam's Dong Tam Incident: the Curtain Falls
And not in a good way
By: David Brown
The verdicts have been handed down in the Dong Tam Incident, a brief but bloody clash between police and a persistently oppositional band of Vietnamese farmers. After a week of testimony, cross-examination, apologies, and pleas for clemency, on September 14 the Hanoi City People's Court found all 29 defendants guilty in various ways of resisting state authority. Two have been sentenced to death, another to life imprisonment, and the rest to lesser terms.
The guilty verdict was no surprise. This was a show trial ordained and orchestrated by the institutions of the Vietnamese state. Prisoner after prisoner uttered virtually identical confessions: "I apologize to the families of the police officers who were lost; I thank our teachers in the prison who taught us how we erred; I thank my lawyers but now no longer need his services; and finally, I ask for a lighter sentence."
The regime in Hanoi takes a dim view of the agrarian protests. In party doctrine and Vietnamese law, the land belongs to the people and the state manages it on their behalf. If farmers persist in asserting their right to till plots of land when the party/state has decreed some other use for it, even if they only insist on being paid what it is worth, they risk being labeled "rioters and terrorists," forcibly removed, and in exemplary cases, prosecuted.
According to The 88 Project, a blog that covers free speech issues in Vietnam, the Ministry of Information directed state-licensed media to paint defendants as “first attackers,” describe their leader as “a degenerate party member,” stress that “most people agree the police had to act to protect the peace,” and not to report "defense arguments detrimental to the government’s case.”
A “documentary” film produced by the Ministry of Public Security was shown at the beginning of the trial that illustrated the government’s version of events and included footage of defendants admitting guilt. When defense lawyers objected and asserted that their clients confessed under duress, they were told to “Just watch it.” The defense lawyers were also denied the opportunity to talk to the defendants while the court was in recess
The events at Dong Tam, an ancient village on the western edge of the Red River's fertile delta, unfolded with the inevitability of a Shakespearian tragedy.
Act I: 40 years ago, the state decreed that 208 hectares of land would be expropriated for the use of the air force, but, as it turned out and for reasons still unexplained, some 47 of those hectares were not, in fact, incorporated into the new Mieu Mon Air Base. It was good agricultural land, and, as they'd done for centuries, residents of nearby Dong Tam Village continued to farm it.
Act II: 35 years or so later, the Ministry of Defense assigned those 47 hectares to Viettel, a high-tech communications corporation wholly owned by the ministry. The farmers erected signs proclaiming their right to refuse eviction, and camped out on the fields. One thing led to another. On April 15, 2017, the farmers' leader, Le Dinh Kinh, a former village chief, and some others were arrested. The farmers reacted by invading the village office to take 38 officials and policemen hostage, a bold stroke that gained them a national audience on social media.
Act III: A surprising turn of events relieved this excruciatingly tense situation a few days later. With a promise that the villagers' claim to the disputed land would be comprehensively reviewed and no one punished, the mayor of Hanoi, a former police general, secured a general release of prisoners.
Act IV: There was, however, no happy ending: in April 2019, central government inspectors announced their verdict: the villagers had no valid claim to the land or to monetary compensation. Not long afterward, Defense Ministry contractors began building a wall around the disputed tract and, it seems, Kinh's extended family and friends began to assemble a small armory including spears, improvised hand grenades, and gasoline bombs.
Act V: In the wee hours of January 9, news of a deadly fight lit up Vietnamese social media. Four were dead: three police officers reportedly incinerated after falling (or, alternately, being pushed) into an air shaft, and the 87-year-old Kinh killed, allegedly with grenade in hand while resisting arrest. Twenty-six others -- members of Kinh's extended family and other followers -- were under arrest. On national television, Kinh's son and grandson confessed to killing the police officers.
In the days that followed, the three officers were proclaimed heroic martyrs and given an elaborate funeral. Though the official version of the deadly events was several times revised as lay analysts picked apart its details, enough survived to craft the state's narrative of an attack on law enforcement officers by the farmers.
It's argued that the Dong Tam incident may induce higher authority to supervise local officials and police tactics more closely. That's not likely. At least from the time of the hostage-taking crisis, deciding what happened next at Dong Tam could not have been left to lower levels. Ministry of Public Security proposals to meet intractable defiance with overwhelming and deadly force were almost certainly endorsed by the highest level of the ruling Party. And then, when the operation miscarried leaving three officers dead, Vietnam's top management concurred in covering up police blunders and, however threadbare their story, in proceeding with a show trial.
Almost as long as there have been farmers, there have been peasant rebellions (Wikipedia has a long list of these) and almost always they have been brutally suppressed.
In Vietnam, the Tay Son rebellion (1769-88) did succeed for a while. Along with various short-lived agrarian revolts against the French colonial enterprise in the first half of the 20th century, it is celebrated in the nation's high school history books.
In present-day Vietnam, protests against injustice by farmers are a familiar story. Le Dinh Kinh seems to have persuaded himself, his sons, his friends, and neighbors that justice, if not the letter of the law, was on their side, with tragic consequences.
Someday, Kinh and others like him may also be commemorated.
David Brown is a retired US diplomat with extensive experience in Vietnam. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.