Vietnam: Land and Disputes

A Journal of People report

The land issue is vital in any economy. Countries in South-East Asia are facing the problem. Land related recent incidents in Vietnam have brought the issue again.

In April 2017, residents of Dong Tam Commune, a village outside Hanoi, freed the remaining 19 hostages they were holding in a week-long stand-off over land rights. The release follows a meeting with the Hanoi police chief, who promised not to prosecute the villagers and to order a re-examination of local land use.

The villagers took 38 people captive in protest. The hostages included police officers and local officials. Some of them were released earlier. Rest of the hostages was freed later after a Hanoi official promised to launch an investigation which is due to conclude in 45 days.

A BBC report headlined “Vietnamese villagers free police hostages” said:

In 2015 the land in question was allocated to a firm run by the Vietnamese military. Residents opposed the move, saying they had received inadequate compensation.

The April 22, 2017 datelined report said:

During the dispute, the villagers built barricades and blocked roads to keep police out and the situation intensified. Local authorities earlier fled the village, leaving residents in control.

The land under dispute covers an area of 50 hectares (124 acres) that the defence ministry allocated to the military-run communications firm Viettel Group in 2015.

Tensions began to rise when Viettel started clearing the land ahead of construction, with residents attempting to obstruct its efforts.

The report said:

Disputes over land rights are common in Vietnam. Government agencies reserve the right to seize farmland for construction and investment projects. But it is rare for protesters to seize such a large number of officials.

Another BBC report headlined “Why Vietnamese villagers are holding police hostage” said:

As tensions escalated in March, Hanoi police opened an investigation into the residents for “disturbing social order”. Matters came to a head on April 15, when police arrested four people. Local villagers retaliated by surrounding and seizing 38 officials including police officers.

The April 21, 2017 datelined report said:

The government showed restraint, sending the Hanoi city chief to the area.

Those taken hostage by the villagers were not treated violently. The villagers said they would not let them go until a deal over the land is reached. They said they lost faith in local authorities and want to talk to senior officials.

The report said:

The story has received limited coverage in state-run media, but more reports have been published since the Hanoi official visited the area. The media have tended to avoid discussing the cause of the dispute. Instead two articles said there were “signs of legal violations by the villagers” and hinted that “everything has its limits”. However, social media – Facebook and YouTube – have played an important role in this particular protest, however. The villagers have filmed videos to post on Facebook when connectivity was not disrupted while their Hanoi-based relatives have done Facebook Lives to publicise the situation. In response, government media such as Voice of Vietnam published a video briefing of the Hanoi official on their websites to demonstrate his willingness to hold dialogue.

Facebook, which has about 35 million users in Vietnam, has quickly become a battleground for pro-government social media users and Vietnamese activists to argue about the stand-off.

The report added:

The Dong Tam crisis is just one of many protests over land use each year.

According to a law approved in late 2014, land can only be taken if it is deemed necessary for socio-economic development that is in the public or national interest. However, “socio-economic development” is loosely defined and vulnerable to abuse and corruption.

In the Dong Tam case, the villagers argue that the land requisition is not for military purposes and thus they should be compensated better.

A protester told BBC Vietnamese: “We only wish to talk with people from the central government. If the prime minister decides to reclaim the land, we will oblige but there must be proper compensation.”

Looking long-term, respected economist Vu Thanh Tu Anh at Fulbright University in Ho Chi Minh City said the current dispute was “a consequence of serious ongoing mistakes in the land policy” which can only be solved with a thorough review of “land ownership, people’s property rights and the local government’s right to reclaim land” in Vietnam.

A few years ago, news of another land related clash came to media. An April 25, 2012 datelined BBC report said:

Vietnamese police have detained 20 people after hundreds of farmers protested on a disputed plot of land near Hanoi.

Riot police used clubs and tear gas to evict the farmers who protested on Tuesday in Van Giang district of Hung Yen province near the capital.

Villagers had camped in the area to try to keep the authorities and private developers away from the site.

Around 2,000 police and security officers were deployed to repossess the area.

The “Vietnam land clash: Arrests after police evict hundreds” headlined report said:

Land rights disputes in Vietnam are becoming increasingly violent.

“They threw stun grenades and came towards the field… then 100 bulldozers were sent in to clear crops,” a local resident, who identified himself only as Kien, told the BBC Vietnamese service.

A private company, Vihajico, was trying for years to build a satellite city called EcoPark, covering 500 hectares of land in the area.

News agency AP reported:

More than 4,000 families were assessed to lose their farmland as a result of the development.

Residents were offered 36 million Vietnamese dong ($1,700; £1,000) as compensation for every 360 sq m plot of land.

However, some locals have said that the compensation is inadequate, and accuse officials of corruption.

One year later, a “Vietnam land eviction farmer sentenced to five years” headlined BBC report said:

A farmer who used home-made bombs and shotguns to fight land eviction has been sentenced to five years in prison.

Doan Van Vuon, 53, his brother and two other relatives were found guilty of attempted murder for injuring several police officers in January 2012.

The April 5, 2013 datelined report said:

Their case had attracted attention, and popular support, as a farmer resorting to violence to protect land in Vietnam is rare.

Doan Van Vuon’s three relatives were sentenced to between two and five years in prison while his wife and sister-in-law received light suspended sentences.

The judge said that the family’s actions had “[violated] the normal operations of the state agencies and [caused] bad impact on social order.”

Before the presiding judge delivered the verdicts, Doan Van Vuon pleaded that he acted out of desperation and that he did not intend to kill anybody: “I was left with no option,” he said.

Vuon’s defence lawyer told reporters after the trial that he was “not happy”. “I had expected a better verdict,” he said.

The BBC‘s Nga Pham says that all the jail terms were more lenient than expected, leading some to speculate that the government is trying to avoid fuelling public discontent over its land policies.

The district government gave Vuon the land to farm for 14 years before it said it wanted it back as part of a future infrastructure project. The remaining part was to be rented at a higher cost.

Vuon protested against the decision, arguing that his family had spent years developing the land and had to pay back debts.

The government moved to evict him after negotiations failed and this resulted in a stand-off.

While land clearances happen frequently in Vietnam, they are rarely challenged.

A Hanoi, November 26, 2014 datelined report by Voice of America said:

In the later part of November, a group of people gathered near a court on the outskirts of Hanoi to show their support at the appeal trial of four land rights activists who were arrested while protesting an alleged land grab earlier this year. They were sentenced to between 12 and 20 months for disturbing public order.

Both of 31-year-old Trinh Ba Phuong’s parents were on trial. Although the court reduced his father’s sentence by three months, he said he was very disappointed with the result. He said he believes the trial was a “tool for oppression and land grabs.”

He said local authorities first announced plans to take the land in 2008. The compensation offered was too low, and 356 families have refused the payment. He said officials did not attempt to negotiate with the residents.

The “Trial Highlights Vietnam’s Persistent Land Rights Problem” headlined report by Marianne Brown said:

Video footage allegedly showing attempts to take the land by force in April has been widely circulated on social media, with over 150,000 views on YouTube.

​In one video, streams of people wearing conical hats cross a field pursued by men wearing green police uniforms and official red arm bands.

Phuong’s younger brother, 25-year-old Tu, said because many of the farmers now have no means to make a living from their land, they are facing great economic difficulties.

Protests of this kind are not new, and in many ways the case typifies the chronic issue of land rights in Vietnam, where the state retains ownership of the land but allows farmers to lease it for a limited period of time. Lessees do not negotiate directly with developers and although prices are supposed to be set according to the market value, that does not happen in practice.

According to a report to the National Assembly in October 2012, the number of complaints involving land acquisition and compensation made up 70 percent of all complaints to governmental agencies from 2004 to 2011.

Jonathan London, a Vietnam analyst at City University Hong Kong, predicted more protests in the future.

“The state so far has not addressed some of the root causes of these disputes and in the absence of more effective institutional solutions to this problem these kinds of street level or spontaneous uprisings are likely to persist because of course the supply of land is not increasing and when people are displaced or when they claim that they are the victims of injustice then the legal system is not frequently seen as a promising option,” said London.

The use of video and social media has become a common tool for protesters to voice their grievances, London said.

“People in Vietnam are increasingly becoming social movement entrepreneurs.”

They are trying to call attention to issues, they are trying to frame issues. While we shouldn’t exaggerate, this is nonetheless impressively skillful attempt by people with relatively little power to bring influence to bear on those who have power and have so far been unresponsive to these people’s claims,” said London.

The Land Law, in effect since 1993, stipulates that households and individuals are entitled to land rights for a “limited period” of 20 years. After that, subject to availability and other factors, local governments will decide whether the land use can be extended.

Many large-scale land disputes and standoffs with officials over land have erupted in Vietnam in recent years, and the number of incidents appears to have increased since the beginning of 2012.

Land issues in Vietnam are more sensitive now than at any time since the ruling Communist Party launched its economic reforms (doi moi) in the late 1980s.

Land in Vietnam is the property of the people (or government), and there is no legal concept of private land ownership.

Under the country’s 1992 Constitution, the government is responsible for the allocation of land to individuals and organizations and allows land users to transfer land use rights.

The land law promulgated in 1993 after the Communist Party had launched economic reforms and abandoned agricultural cooperatives gave farmers 20-year land leases and 7.4 acres of land per farmer for production purposes. But the law also said that farmland was to be returned to the government for reallocation after 20 years. The rationale behind the limits on agricultural land was to allow the government to allocate land to new farmers, given that roughly 60 percent of the labor force still works in agriculture.

The National Assembly began to review the land law and land policies in 2011. Prior to this, the law had undergone minor amendments in 1998, 2001, and 2003. The goal of the National Assembly is to complete the new land law.

One of the highest-profile land disputes was in Haiphong. Alleging that farmer Doan Van Vuon had encroached on neighboring land without permission and had failed to pay taxes since 2007, local government officials with help from the military forcibly evicted Vuon and his family and demolished their house.

Vuon, who resisted with homemade land mines and rifles, was detained for attempted murder and opposition to government officials.

Vuon quickly reached hero status in the media and blogs, and his case triggered widespread sympathy nationwide. For two months, Vietnamese state-owned newspapers ran daily articles that criticized the government’s treatment of Vuon. Eventually, prime minister intervened and ordered local authorities to return the confiscated land to Vuon’s family.

Similar incidents have erupted in cities and urban areas.

In May 2012, the failure of local authorities in Danang to arrange resettlement for households moved to make way for a new residential project prompted a large protest at the construction site for several days.

In 2010, the demolition of the historic Eden commercial and residential center in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City without consultation with the residents resulted in protests over forced evictions and the government’s alleged disregard of public opinion and the city’s historic landmarks.

The land sector in Vietnam has had a well-known turbulent history. Land concentration under the French colonial regime was followed by coercive land reform and collectivisation after the revolution (1945) in northern Vietnam and the end of the war in the south (1975). The Sixth Congress of the Communist Party in 1986 reversed course in the đổi mới (‘Renewal’) policies that enabled a return to household farming, which in turn formed the basis for broad-based poverty reduction and rural development during the 1990s and early 2000s.

According to Vietnam‘s Constitution (Article 53), land is ‘owned by the entire people and managed by the state’, which then ‘allocates land use rights for individual, households and organisations’. Citizen’s rights to land are viewed as granted by the State (2013 Land Law, Article 4), not inherently owned. In practice, therefore, citizens have limited rights to decide on allocation and use of land.

Murray Hiebert, senior fellow and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. and Phuong Nguyen, researcher with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program write:

Seventy percent of complaints filed nationwide against the government and officials are related to land. Three major underlying factors make land reform a hot-button issue in Vietnam.

The first and most contentious is the issue of land ownership. For some time, the overhauling of the land law generated speculation that the government would allow private land ownership.

Land reform was the main topic of discussion in May 2012 at a party Central Committee meeting during which party leaders agreed to retain the state’s right of land management and continue to treat land as the common property of the people. This means that the National Assembly only has the freedom to amend areas of the law other than land ownership. For those calling for the introduction of private property as critical to political reforms and a requirement for sustainable economic development, the party’s conclusion was a major disappointment.

The second issue is the role of farmers in a changing Vietnamese society. More than three-fifths of the population still works in agriculture. Since the late 1980s, farmers have played an important role in turning Vietnam into one of the world’s top exporters of rice, coffee, cashews, and pepper. Senior officials at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment want land use rights to be extended for another 20 years (until 2033) or completely abolished, as long as farmers wish to continue farming. In March 2012, the Government’s Office, a consultative body for the prime minister and the government, ruled that land would not be revoked for reallocation from farmers who have complied with all aspects of the land law. Therefore, it appears that current land reforms will not lead to mass reallocation of land from farmers.

Conflicts over land clearance and compensation have driven a significant wedge between farmers and the Communist Party over the years.

To maintain strong economic growth, the government must provide land for new development projects while appeasing the rural population. Under current law, after the government approves a project, district-level officials have the authority to use coercive measures to clear a site if users of the land refuse to relocate at any cost. As a result, there have been a string of cases of forced evictions, often with the use of military forces, especially in rural areas.

Prime minister Dung in February 2012 ordered all levels of the government to cease the use of force of any kind in land evictions, although there are still no clear policies and guidelines for forced evictions.

The third issue is the state’s record of managing dissent. As Vietnam embraces a more open economy, the government’s control of land has met with resistance in recent years not just from farmers and land users, but also from intellectuals and the media.

While local leaders and police often tend to adopt a high-handed approach in land disputes, the press and the general public in most cases tend to sympathize with evicted residents and protesters against resettlement. Like with the problem of corruption, the issue of land has the ability to unite people against the Communist Party and the government.

Andrew Wells‐Dang, Pham Quang Tu and Adam Burke in their paper “Agrarian Change and Land Tenure in Vietnam through a Political Economy Lens” (conference paper no. 45, May 2015, presented at “Land grabbing, conflict and agrarian‐environmental transformations: perspectives from East and Southeast Asia”, an international academic conference, June 5‐6, 2015, Chiang Mai University, published by: BRICS Initiatives for Critical Agrarian Studies (BICAS), RCSD Chiang Mai University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University, Thailand, Transnational Institute, Amsterdam, The Netherlands) write:

Land tenure in Vietnam is becoming increasingly contested in the context of rapid economic development and growing inequality. Agricultural land in and around cities and industrial areas is targeted by domestic and foreign developers for conversion to commercial uses. In rural areas, farmers’ access to productive land is restricted by the dominance of state-owned or state-connected farms and forest enterprises. As a result, the number of complaints filed over land issues has increased dramatically in the last decade, comprising up to one million land-related disputes of which authorities at best can resolve only half. In some cases, land seizures have prompted farmer demonstrations, such as two high profile cases of resistance in 2012 in Hai Phong and Hung Yen provinces.

The 1993 Land Law (revised in 2003 and again in 2013) maintains the socialist principle of state management of all land while granting farming households Land Use Right Certificates (LURCs) that can be transferred, leased, mortgaged, inherited and used as collateral. In the 2013 Land Law revision, the term for agricultural LURCs was extended to 50 years. Due to the country’s history and the low supply of arable land per capita, Vietnam is a land of smallholders: the average agricultural land holding is 1,560 square meters, less than one-third that of Thailand or Cambodia. 70% of rural households farm an area of less than 0.5 hectare (Centre for Agricultural Policy et al 2013).

At the same time, the Vietnamese state has the legal ability to acquire land from farmers for a variety of public and private development purposes. In euphemistic official parlance, this is referred to as ‘land withdrawal’ (thu hồi), that is the rescinding of previously granted LURCs, although the process is rarely as smooth as this language makes it sound.

In political economy terms, the friction between the limited tenure rights offered in LURCs and the state’s power of compulsory land requisition is the primary driver of land disputes. It forms a key contradiction between the Vietnamese state’s agrarian, equitable roots and its current elite-led push towards ‘industrialisation and modernisation’ (công nghiệp hóa, hiện đại hóa, a leading Communist Party slogan).

The revision of the Land Law in 2013 led to an unprecedented level of public participation in land policy formation, yet many recommendations from farmers, civil society, and local authorities were not reflected in the final version passed by the National Assembly. While political and economic leaders use overt, hidden and invisible power to marginalize farmers, agrarian communities seek influence of their own through network- and coalition-building, including via the media and Internet.

The paper’s conclusions included:

“More progressive policies on securing land tenure depend on shifts in the underlying factors of civil society space and interest-group politics. The Vietnamese government is not a unified actor. Some government allies are prepared to join with civil society advocates in coalitions for policy reform, while different bureaucracies and central-local splits make regulation and enforcement difficult. This is not just a capacity limitation, but is based on diverging interests and incentives. Local officials, for instance, are assessed on economic growth performance, not on compliance with laws. Development, in turn, is seen as a short term measure of GDP rather than a longer-term and multi-faceted social development challenge. Solutions to these constraints in governance will not come from legal or technical means alone but through cooperation of multiple stakeholders, including Vietnamese farmers themselves.”

The paper’s observations and conclusion show a number of contradictions in the Vietnam society, and interests growing up within the society.

There is big scope for misinterpretation of the issues identified in this paper as definitions are according to the authors.  As for example, “progressive policies”, “securing land tenure”, “underlying factors of civil society space and interest-group politics”. There are many similar issues in the paper with scope for debate and having a definition from the perspective of working people, not the rich or emerging rich. At the same time, there is scope and need to identify condition and problems in a society post-revolutionary/going through transformation in nature. Moreover, there is the issue of the rich pushing for enlarging their space.

Kaitlin Hansen in Land Law, Land Rights, and Land Reform in Vietnam: A Deeper Look into “Land Grabbing” for Public and Private Development (Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection, Paper 1722, SIT Graduate Institute, http://digitalcollections.sit.edu/isp_collection/1722, 2013) writes:

As Vietnam continues to search for its ideal balance between Communist control and a market-led economy, land rights emerge at the forefront of the discussion concerning the tension between traditional Socialist ideals of people-owned and state managed property versus neoliberal ideals of private property rights.

The study focuses on three major issues surrounding land in Vietnam: land valuation and unfair compensation, “public” (land seized for projects for the public good) versus “private” (land seized for projects for the benefit of an individual or company) appropriation, and corruption at both the national and local levels.

Kaitlin Hansen writes:

“The salience of the current debate in Vietnam surrounding the definition of land property, the rights to this property, and the marketization of land cannot be understated, as lingering Socialist orthodoxies reinforcing the model of people’s ownership and state management of land increasingly come into conflict with a post-Doi Moi economy governed by market incentives and development projects to spur modernization, urbanization, and economic growth. As in any country, property is a complex topic and cannot be discussed alone outside of its historical, social, and economic context. As Hue-Tam and Sidel assert, ‘Property is among the most important spheres within which a host of conflicts are played out: the values of the market and social values; legal rights and community norms; protecting livelihoods while also ensuring local and national prosperity through infrastructure development; the relationship between social and cultural traditions and the marketization of property rights; and the relationships between equity and fairness, poverty, and market incentives’….

“The debate over who has the rights to land ownership, land management, and land use is an extremely hot issue in Vietnam at the moment; in the last decade alone, provincial officials have seized one million hectares of land from farmers. This number greatly exceeds the 810,000 hectares of land redistributed from rich landowners to poor peasants with the collectivization of agricultural land in the period from 1953-1956—under the motto “farms to the cultivators” (Nguyen, “Land Law Reform”)—as part of the socialist land reform under the newly independent North Vietnam. In the years after Doi Moi, Vietnam’s infrastructure of roads, bridges, and buildings rapidly expanded. From 2001 to 2010, the government reallocated 0.9 million hectares of agricultural land to land for residential use, commercial non-agricultural establishments use, public works and other non-agricultural purposes. Additionally, the government converted 5.4 million hectares of unused land into land for various purposes, rarely agricultural in nature. The contestation over land is of huge relevance to the Vietnamese people when one considers that 71% of 88 million Vietnamese live in rural areas, and 62% depend on agriculture for their livelihood.”

These facts tell:

# there is no scope to reach a conclusion right now;

# there is need to identify forces trying to widen capitalist space; and

# there is need to identify contradictions within the society.

 

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