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Censorship in Vietnam: JFK Miller Interviews Thomas Bass

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  • With permission from author Thomas Bass, The Vietnamese is pleased to reprint the interview Mr. Bass has given to JFK Miller, a Melbourne-based journalist, in February 2018 on his latest book, Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World 

Thomas A. Bass’s 2009 book The Spy Who Loved Us dissects the double life of Pham Xuan An, a correspondent for Time during the Vietnam War and a contemporary of Peter Arnett, Richard Pyle, and Morley Safer. As American radio blasted Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ to signal the evacuation of embassy personnel in those final tumultuous hours of April 30, 1975, An was Time’s last man standing, the magazine’s sole remaining reporter in Saigon as the North Vietnamese tanks rolled in. In truth, he was part of the welcome brigade. An was a spy who used his journalistic contacts to feed vital intelligence to Hanoi. Time’s Zalin Grant, who worked alongside An, called him “the first known case of a Communist agent to appear on the masthead of a major American publication.”

But An’s tale is a story within a story. Bass’s latest book, Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), recalls his experience with Vietnam’s state censorship apparatus when he tried to get a translation of The Spy Who Loved Us published in Vietnam. He succeeded, but at a cost — five years of negotiations and no less than 400 cuts to his manuscript.

Was it worth it? Bass himself answers that question below. For me, the reader, the answer is a resounding yes. The censorship experience Bass recounts in his book paints a vivid picture of present-day Vietnam, and it’s not a flattering one. Economically, the country is one of Asia’s “new” tigers which last year posted the world’s second-fastest growth rate. Politically, however, it’s a paranoid and insecure beast which lacks the ability to confront its own past and look squarely at its own present (Bass does not mince words: Vietnam is “a culture in ruins,” he writes). I traveled to the country several times in the ’90s, but am ashamed to say my conception of Vietnam was cryogenically frozen somewhere between The Quiet American and Apocalypse Now. Well, it was, until I read this book.

My connection with Thomas Bass comes via our different but eerily similar experiences with state censorship – his with Vietnam, mine with China. As I worked my way through his book it struck me how alike the censorship systems in both countries are. And then on page 83, I learned why: Hanoi takes its cues straight from Beijing. The dissident novelist Pham Thi Hoai explains, “We always look to the Chinese and copy them… it is mandatory for every high Vietnamese official to get training in China once a year, just as it was in the time of the Cold War. It is no accident that every campaign and law adopted in China is introduced into Vietnam six months later.”

It’s perhaps no surprise then that Vietnam’s military conflicts with China, including the incredibly brutal 1979 conflict in which tens of thousands died on both sides in less than a month, are glossed over in school textbooks.

But this is simply one of the censorship’s many casualties. Writers and journalists are routinely given draconian prison terms for speaking truth to power. Criticism of the Chinese is censored, as is praise for the French and Americans (“they are not allowed to have taught the Vietnamese anything,” writes Bass). Disparagement of communism and communist party officials is banned, together with the discussion of “government policy, military strategy… minority rights, human rights, democracy, calls for political pluralism, allusions to revolutionary events in other communist countries, distinctions between north and south Vietnamese, and stories about Vietnamese refugees.”

Whether it’s novels or journalism, there’s an overarching optimism that must pervade writing in Vietnam that is forced upon its writers by state censors. Either be censored, self-censor, or be damned. A 1988 novel by the above-mentioned Pham Thi Hoai, The Crystal Messenger (which I’ve not read, but now want to because of Bass’s book), was banned for the reason that its view of Vietnam was “excessively pessimistic.” No surprise that she now lives in self-imposed exile in Berlin, a place where, unlike her homeland, she is lauded for her work.

My one criticism of Bass’ book is the choice of the most prosaic of titles – Censorship in Vietnam – with a nod to Huxley in the subtitle. But this is small beer. On the whole, this is a tremendously eye-opening book, and thoroughly readable. Our discussion follows.

***

Why was it important to you to have a translation of your book published in Vietnam, especially know that it would be censored?

Communicating across borders interest me. There is much to be learned and much to be unlearned, and even the misunderstandings are revelatory. Look what happened when I tried to mail you a copy of Censorship in Vietnam from the U.S. The book was returned to me several weeks later by “homeland security.” Who would have guessed that the “JFK” in your name – honoring of the 35th president of the United States – was suspicious? But apparently, according to the paranoids who patrol our borders, initials without complete first names imply criminal intent. So it took another 20 bucks and the entire “John Fitzgerald Kennedy” to get you a copy of my book.

Another answer to your question has to do with surviving as an author. My books have been translated into various foreign editions, and I enjoy traveling to literary events in far-flung places. So why not add Hanoi? Nha Nam, the Vietnamese publisher of my book, was supposed to be the country’s best. I would be joining the likes of Vladimir Nabokov, Milan Kundera, and Orhan Pamuk. Not bad company.

But I think you’re asking a more serious question, which is the subject of Censorship in Vietnam. If I knew how much grief I would be getting for translating The Spy Who Loved Us into Vietnamese, why did I invite it? The answer is pretty straightforward. I wanted to conduct an experiment. Exactly how much grief was coming my way, and who would be cranking the handle?

Did you brace yourself for a rough ride, or did you go into it thinking that you might perhaps get away with more than you thought you could?

I knew that chunks of my book on Pham Xuan An would be removed. It was full of subversive material – by which I mean material that the Vietnamese consider subversive – conversations with exiled writers, accusations of corruption in the Communist Party of Vietnam, jokes about how ugly the language has become in postwar Vietnam.

My Vietnamese publisher and my literary agent in New York and subagents in Tokyo and Bangkok all assured me that I had nothing to worry about, that none of the books they had published in Vietnam had been censored. They were either ignorant or lying, but it’s also true that no one pays much attention to foreign rights. A book goes into Polish or Portuguese, and very few authors have the time or skills required to check the translation. I had been tipped 3 off to the fact that even novels and poetry are censored in Vietnam. So a nonfiction book about a Vietnamese spy who claimed to have loved the United States and the values of investigative reporting and Western journalism was certainly going to be censored.

For the few hundred bucks my literary agent was making on the deal, he kindly allowed me to rewrite the standard publishing contract for the sale of translation rights, and then we patiently negotiated these changes as the contract was bounced back and forth between New York and Hanoi. I inserted clauses about prior review and final approval of the translation, and I larded the contract with trip switches, so that every time the censors moved on me I had to be notified. The manuscript became a kind of early warning system, ding, ding, dinging on my desk, at every stroke of a censor’s pen. And in Vietnam, as you yourself found in China, there is not just one censor, but various tag teams and competing groups of censors, which operate in a hierarchy of censors that stretches all the way up to the head of the Communist Party. Each level in this hierarchy is afraid of getting whacked by the one above it. So the natural urge is to adopt what the French call langue de bois – the wooden speech of martinets and political hacks. This is how a culture dies … but at least the censors will never be out of a job.

Given my jerry-rigged publishing contract, I owe a great debt of thanks to the editors at Nha Nam who honoured this contract. I was a pain in their necks, if not dangerous to the survival of their company, but still they notified me every step along the way. At the end of five years, my book was radioactive. My original editor had quit the company and quit publishing altogether. The project had been at death’s door a half dozen times, and many of us were surprised when printed copies of the book finally appeared – briefly – on bookshelves in Hanoi and Saigon.

Did you ever consider simply pulling the plug and abandoning the translation altogether?

Remember, this was an experiment, with every twist and turn in the process producing “data.” At the most basic level, I was studying the Vietnamese language. How has it changed since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975? Pham Xuan An complained about these changes when I was interviewing him for “The Spy Who Loved Us,” which began as an article for The New Yorker and later became a book with the same title. He said the Vietnamese language was being corrupted by Marxist-Leninist gobbledygook borrowed from Russia and Maoist terms imported from China. To learn how to speak this new language, An was sent to a “re-education” camp for ten months. “I was a bad student,” he said. “They never understood my jokes, but at least I didn’t do anything serious enough for them to shoot me.” (An’s “re-education camp” was actually a military academy outside Hanoi for training high-level officials, but I believe him when he says the experience was bone-chillingly boring.)

Censoring books in Vietnam begins before the first word is translated. In this case, the person chosen to translate my book was a north Vietnamese journalist fluent in gobbledygook. He produced quotes that sounded nothing like the south Vietnamese spy about whom I was writing. The publisher was surprised that I cared about these things or knew enough to want the language changed. A nonfiction book for them was the equivalent of an encyclopedia entry. Give us the information, and give it to us in today’s language – in this case, the language spoken in North Vietnam, which is where most of the book-buying public lives. There was also a good dose of prejudice at work. The South Vietnamese lost the war, which means that not only their political system but also their culture and language are in the process of being effaced.

After the censored Vietnamese-language copy was published in print, you released an uncensored version on the Internet. Can you explain why this was important to you?

Censorship is so crushing in Vietnam that many authors are skipping printed publications and releasing their work directly to the web. In my case, I wanted to see what the printed book looked like. I wanted to evaluate the damage done to the text by Vietnam’s censors, count up the number of cuts and alterations, and study the people and ideas that got erased.

After assembling my literary seismograph – in other words, after The Spy Who Loved Us was translated and released in Vietnam (although not under that title, which the censors considered far too dangerous)-I felt obliged to provide my Vietnamese readers with a copy of the original book. This too is standard practice in Vietnam. Even when a book is printed, people go to the web to find what everyone assumes will be a more accurate version online.

At the same time, I wanted to conduct a second experiment. Vietnam’s censors work across borders. You can’t publish books online with impunity. Electronic publications will be attacked by trolls, worms, viruses, denunciation campaigns, denial of service attacks, bribery, extortion – whatever works to get them taken down. I don’t want to exaggerate the risks I took, which were nothing compared to my Vietnamese colleagues, but the Vietnamese version of my book – the complete version published online in Berlin on computers hardened against attacks from Vietnam’s censors – invited retaliation. It was attacked in a variety of ways. The translator was forced to drop out. He also pulled his translation, which we could no longer use. People threatened to sue me. The internet lit up with chatter maligning me and the project. The Berlin web site went down a few times, but it held fast against the censors and trolls, due to the good work of exiled author Pham Thi Hoai, whose site for many years has been the rallying point for opposition to Vietnam’s communist police state.

When you engaged the dissident Pham Hong Son to translate your book for the Berlin release, did it weigh on your mind that you might be condemning him to another hefty prison term? (Son had already spent five years in prison and another seven under house arrest for translating essays on democracy).

As I mentioned, the first translator for the unexpurgated version of The Spy Who Loved Us, was forced to quit. Enough threats were brought to bear that he felt he had no choice. Pham Hong Son is a different kind of person altogether. After spending five years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, for translating an essay on democracy and recommending this form of government to his fellow countrymen, he went on doing exactly the same thing after he was released to house arrest. Trained as a medical doctor, a true intellectual and patriot, he is a brave man, someone whom I admire and am lucky to count as a friend. He did the work for free because he thought it was important, and ever since then, I have been looking for some way to repay him.

In your book’s foreword you ask the question central to all of this. Could China and Vietnam’s governance model become the new normal? It pains me to acknowledge this, but democracy, with all its trappings – not least of which, freedom of speech and freedom of the press – is in bad odor at the moment, while the Vietnam/PRC model, which puts economic development above free speech, is in the ascendancy. Add to this, declining American power and an Oval Office occupant who has turned American democracy (indeed all democracy, I would argue) into a global laughing stock, and Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill” now looks like a faltering candle. Is it any real surprise that countries like Vietnam and China seem to have more faith in their political systems than we currently do in ours? And do you not think that democratic reformers in Vietnam are, at least for now, fighting an impossible battle?

This is the key question of the moment. As the western democracies falter and lose faith in themselves, as they debase their elections, trade freedom for security, and forget their founding principles, people think that police states with good shopping look attractive.

This is an illusion. In fact, it is a dangerous illusion. Censorship can kill you. The absence of free speech can kill you. Not knowing the truth can kill you. These are fundamental values, not to be sold at any price, but they are also tools for survival. This argument was made by Nobel-prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, when he was asked by the Indian government to advise them on which model they should choose for development: the open societies of the West or China’s surveillance state, which is attractive at the moment because of its economic growth. Sen warned his compatriots not to go for the shiny lure. He reminded them about China’s Great Leap Forward, which was actually a great leap backward, killing at least 30 million people in a devastating famine. What caused this social collapse? Censorship – a skein of lies spun to please Chairman Mao, ignorance about what was happening in the countryside, courtiers, and buffoons who reported good news in place of facts. Exactly what’s happening in the United States today.

China has been called “a consumerist totalitarian state.” The description is just as apt for Vietnam, I think. In this type of polity, economic growth trumps personal freedom. The idea is that you cannot have both, that personal freedom must give way to economic development, that the two cannot possibly work in tandem. First World economic parity must be attained before you can even start to think about personal freedoms.

Vietnam, like China, is indeed a consumerist totalitarian state, and it too believes that good shopping can replace good governance. It thinks that substituting material goods for freedom is a bargain its citizens will buy. The people I write about in Censorship in Vietnam disagree. For them, freedom is a muscle that atrophies if you don’t use it. They think that all this talk about putting development first and democracy last is a bunch of ideological hooey. This argument is good for nothing more than buttressing the police state and building the walls behind which the ruling elites do their serious stealing. Who ever said that economic development and personal freedom are mutually exclusive? The history of our two countries, the United States and Australia, proves that the opposite is true. In fact, as the United States becomes less democratic and slides toward authoritarian rule, its economic development and leading role in science and technology will be weakened.

In the book, you write that state censorship is producing an intellectual wasteland in Vietnam, and yet I can’t help but think that we’re also suffering from this in the West, despite our having all the freedoms available to us and all the advantages of the digital age. We live in an era where knowledge has never been more widely available, and yet we seem to have succeeded in becoming remarkably ignorant (the rise of populism is not just restricted to the U.S). In a way, it makes us more culpable for our ignorance than those who live under authoritarian regimes. In their system, censorship is preventing them from getting to the truth, but we in the West have no such excuse.

I agree with you that these are perilous times. We are dancing on the edge of the volcano. We are distracted, forgetful, ignorant about our history, and incurious about our future. Plato wrote about this in his allegory of the cave, and here we are, twenty-five hundred years later, still chained to our seats, staring at shadows on the walls. “Democracy dies in darkness” is the motto adopted by The Washington Post after last year’s election in the United States. This sounds vaguely apocalyptic, but the paper’s editor is not looking for salvation in a Batmobile. He is reminding us about the importance of getting the news and learning how to sift truth from falsehood. You know the old joke, “What’s the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? A pessimist is better informed.” This is the golden age of journalism. I can wake up in the morning and before my first sip of coffee peruse headlines from Tokyo to Timbuktu. Sure, the amount of fake news and the stupidity of my optimistic neighbors is unnerving. But in this case, it’s up to me to loosen my chains and turn around if I want to see outside the cave.

You write that censorship exists in all societies, whether it is the state censorship of authoritarian regimes like Vietnam or the “soft censorship” of Western liberal democracies where dissenting views are side-lined. I want to take issue with this, if I may. To me, this a false equivalency. Here, people can express their opinions, while in authoritarian states they are prevented from doing so. Someone may risk marginalisation for expressing a non-mainstream view (whether it’s unpopular, unpatriotic, unorthodox, racist, or simply ignorant), but that person still has the right to say it.

I wasn’t arguing that “soft censorship” is the same as the hard variety, which is enforced by prison sentences or, in the most extreme cases, by death. I think that censorship exists along a continuum. It begins with ideological conformity, fear of retribution, a limited number of media outlets owned by large corporations, PR campaigns, book bannings, surveillance, disinformation, and propaganda. It moves from there to state-run security apparatuses, government control of the media, gulags, torture, and other means by which the state exercises its power. I oppose all forms of censorship, whether they be ideological or market-based. Some deserve more strenuous opposition than others, but all merit the light of discovery and condemnation.

What reaction (or denunciation) from Hanoi do you expect for publishing Censorship in Vietnam?

When the uncensored Vietnamese translation of The Spy Who Loved Us was published in Berlin – with side-by-side comparisons showing the 400 passages that had been cut or altered and with extensive commentary on how censorship works in Vietnam – the publication provoked a firestorm of criticism on the Vietnamese web. Hundreds of messages (not all of them written by trolls) accused me of “betraying” my subjects. I had quoted people without their permission or refused to remove their names when they asked me to do so. (Censoring books after publication is standard operating procedure in Vietnam. If something becomes too controversial or people get scared about being quoted, then a book disappears from the shelves. Even newspaper interviews are never conducted “on the record,” because the record can always be revised or erased.) The firestorm of criticism became the party line on Thomas Bass. He’s a backstabbing, bumpy-nosed betrayer of Vietnamese values who deserves to be censored and, in fact, he reveals the value of censorship, if it keeps people like him out of Vietnamese bookstores. At moments like this, I remember the advice of Henri Beyle, better known to us by his pen name Stendhal, who consoled himself by saying that he wrote for “the Happy Few.”

Now that your book has been published do you have any reservations about returning to Vietnam? Say you were invited to speak about your book at a literary festival in Hanoi. Would you be concerned about any repercussions?

I would be pleased to return to Vietnam. In spite of their benighted government, the people and the country are quite marvelous. Many brave dissidents are currently at work in Vietnam, and I would like to support them. I don’t know whether I’m brave or foolhardy or simply have the bones of a working journalist, but on my next trip to Vietnam, I plan to stuff my suitcase with copies of Censorship in Vietnam and try to carry them over the border. The electronic edition has yet to appear, and I have a lot of friends who would appreciate receiving a copy – even if they have to wrap it in brown paper or hide it under their beds. This will be another small attempt at lighting a match in the darkness.

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Land Rights

This Land Is Our Land: 100 Years Of Blood Spilled Over Land Rights In Vietnam

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Photo courtesy: Luat Khoa Magazine

A 100 years have passed in Vietnam, but the people continue to shed their blood over the ownership of their land.

We all wish to live in peace and harmony. But try to imagine, just for once, if we were put into the shoes of the people whose lands are taken away by others, what would we do?

Whether being ruled by the French during colonization or under the dictatorship of the Vietnam Communist Party, the people who lost their land all faced the same despairing fate. One step forward and they could become criminals facing jail sentences or even the death penalty. One step backward and they could lose everything. 

Throughout this 100 years, Vietnamese people have gone from Noc Nan Field to Senh Field, from Ninh Thanh Loi Village to Lac Nhue Village, from the Tay Nguyen Uprising to the Thai Binh Uprising, from Dak Nong Province to Hai Phong Province, and still there is no end in sight for the land ownership disputes.

We will take a look at 10 notorious cases of land disputes in Vietnam over the past 100 years.

A rural area in Rach Gia Province in the 1920’s. Photo courtesy: Manh Hai/Flickr

1. Ninh Thanh Loi, Rach Gia Province

Time of dispute: January to May, 1927

Area of dispute: around 300 acres

Victim: Boss Chot

Offender: A local chief (cai tổng) named Tr.

Fatalities: 24 

Location: Ninh Thanh Loi Village, Phuoc Long District, Rach Gia Province (now located in Bac Lieu Province)

Time after time, local officers seized 90 percent of the agricultural land of this Khmer village. They learned all about the law on land confiscation and also the tricks to get around them. 

At that time, a local chief named “Tr.” ordered the village chief to prepare land confiscation papers. They planned to confiscate a 300-acre plot of land that belonged to a Khmer local boss who was of Chinese origin named Chot. Boss Chot was not an easy target. He sued the village chief and won the case. To protect his land against the local officials, Boss Chot initiated a plan.

In May 1927, a French field supervisor broke up a traditional ritual set up by Chot to boost his men’s spirit. Chot then captured four farmers on the land of the supervisor and took them home. Next, he set up lines of white thread surrounding his land and prohibited any trespassing.

On May 7, 1927, the chief of Phuoc Long District set up an ambush on Chot’s group but neither side suffered any damage. That night, Chot’s men came to the house of local chief Tr. to take revenge but did not find him. They killed his father instead. 

The next fight broke out following an order from the chief of Rach Gia Province, which resulted in six deaths on Chot’s side and three deaths on the side of the authorities. During the final encounter, the vice chief of Can Tho Province sent men to back up Rach Gia. And this time, Chot’s men were completely outnumbered. He, His daughter, and 12 other people were killed right at the scene.

After the incident, the chief of Phuoc Long District and officers of Ninh Thanh Loi Village reported to their superiors that it was an uprising against the state, instead of a land dispute. The French governor disagreed with the claim. He believed Chot’s initial purpose was to fight against the local corrupt officials who robbed his land, and that with just 40 men Chot could not create an uprising against the state. Instead, it must have been a normal land dispute. The French governor recommended that the governor-general of Indochina review the land law for the Khmer people, and pledged to solve land dispute cases in Ninh Thanh Loi Village in a fair manner.

Farmers who were barefooted in Gia Rai District, Bac Lieu Province in the 1920’s.
Photo courtesy: Manh Hai/Flickr

2. Noc Nan Field, Bac Lieu Province

Time of dispute: 1919-1928

Area of dispute: 72.95 acres

Victims: The families of Bien Toai and Muoi Chuc

Offenders: Mother-in-law of a brother of the chief of Gia Rai District

Fatalities: 5

Location: Ninh Thanh Loi Village, Phuoc Long District, Rach Gia Province (now in Bac Lieu province)

A year after the Ninh Thanh Loi Incident, southern Vietnam was again rocked by the Noc Nan case. Confiscated lands represented the blood and bones of the farmers. When pushed against the wall by injustice, they were ready to sacrifice their own lives to keep the land. The Bien Toai and Muoi Chuc families did exactly just that for their lands.

After the fight that led to the death of four family members of the Bien Toai and Muoi Chuc families, and a French policeman, the case was brought to Can Tho Criminal Court. Two French attorneys voluntarily took the case and defended the two families. Most newspapers in Saigon sent their staff to follow the case live in the courtroom.

Before the deadly face-off, the Bien Toai and Muoi Chuc families had tried all legal means to protest to the authorities but to no avail. They had been working on their agricultural land that was inherited from their grandfather which had a legal leasing paper. Then a Chinese named Ma Ngan secretly plotted with local officers to rob their land.

In 1917, Ma Ngan bought a piece of land next to Bien Toai’s property. He paid extra to the landowner to put into the contract that the purchased area included the Bien Toai family’s land. In 1926, Ma Ngan obtained official legal ownership of the land through bribery. The Bien Toai and Muoi Chuc families now suddenly became farmers working for other people but on the land which they always thought was theirs. Meanwhile, Ma Ngan was aware of his dirty tricks so he did not plan to make a big scene out of it. Instead, he silently sold the land to Ho Thi Tr., the mother-in-law of a brother of the chief of Gia Rai District.

Mrs. Tr. then asked the court for an order to collect all taxes on the land by confiscating all the rice produced by the Bien Toai and Muoi Chuc families. On February 16, 1928, two French policemen accompanied by four soldiers and the village officials carried out the court order on the two families.

At first, Ms. Ut Trong represented the families to monitor the rice calculation process. When the calculation was completed, she asked for an invoice for the rice taken but the group refused and a fight broke out. Members of the Bien Toai and Muoi Chuc families showed up to fight the authoritie’s men. This resulted in the deaths of one French policeman, three younger brothers of the Bien Toai family named Muoi Chuc, Nhan, and Nhin, together with Nghia, the wife of Muoi Chuc.

In court, even the prosecutors defended the farm families. The French prosecutor stated that the Bien Toai and Muoi Chuc families were put in incredibly unjust circumstances. Their land was seized by a conman and their rights were ignored by local officers. It was so cruel because the farmers were ordered not only to hand over all of the rice they produced as a tax, but also had to pay extra money for using their own land.

The two attorneys argued that these genial farmers were victims of a legal system built by the French that was full of loopholes which was abused by men in power. 

The court later announced that Bien Toai, his youngest brother, and his son were to be released. Ms. Ut Trong received a six-month sentence, which was the time she had already been held in prison, and so she was also released immediately. Bien Toai’s brother-in-law received a two-year sentence due to his prior record of stealing. 

The court ruling was widely celebrated and reported by newspapers all over southern Vietnam.

Cambodian general Les Kosem who had Cham ethnicity, a leader of FULRO, who were with other Thuong people. Photo courtesy: Documentation Center of Cambodia.

3. The FULRO Uprising, Central Highlands

Time of dispute: 1955-1970

Victims: Indigenous people in Cao Nguyen (Central Highlands) and other areas in southern Vietnam

Offenders: The government of The Republic of Vietnam and migrants

Fatalities: Unknown

Beginning in 1954, the government of President Ngo Dinh Diem carried out an “absolute equality” policy to assimilate all the communities in the Cao Nguyen area. This policy allowed the confiscation of land of the ethnic Thuong people and transfer to Kinh people, the Vietnamese ethnic majority, and banned all traditional customs and rituals in Cao Nguyen. That was a rollback of the previous authority’s policy where the French had granted Cao Nguyen a special autonomy policy. Before, under French rule, the government restricted the migration of ethnic Kinh people to this area, respected the land rights of the locals and prioritized the use of traditional customs to resolve disputes.

After years of peaceful protest without progress, some local people formed a military group called FULRO (United Liberation Front for the Oppressed Races) in 1963. The group represented not only various ethnic peoples in the Central Highlands, but also the Cham and Khmer. They also received support from the Cambodian government. 

Below are some noteworthy incidents.

On September 20, 1964, FULRO men opened fire on a military camp in Buon Me Thuot, captured six American soldiers as prisoners and occupied the radio station. The next day, the force captured an American colonel. In September 1965, FULRO attacked a Vietnamese military camp. In December 1965, Pleiku and Phu Bon were attacked by the force, which led to the authorities carrying out death sentences against four FULRO soldiers.

The years-long conflict put ethnic Kinh people under constant panic. FULRO demanded that the Saigon government carry out many policies, including evicting all the ethnic Kinh out of Cao Nguyen and returning the land to the Thuong ethnicity. It took the Saigon government a great amount of time and effort to settle this racial conflict. They had to implement land policies which gave priorities to the Thuong people.

Mr. Trinh Khai. Photo courtesy: Mai Pham/Facebook.

4. Lac Nhue, Ha Nam Province

Time of dispute: 1990 – 1993

Area of dispute: 75 acres

Victims: Lac Nhue Village

Offenders: Kim Bang district government

Fatalities: 5

Location: Lac Nhue Village, Dong Hoa Parish, Kim Bang District, Ha Nam Province

After so many futile attempts to make appeals for land disputes and against local official corruption, the Lac Nhue village people decided to take matters into their own hands under the leadership of a person whom they all trusted named Trinh Khai. Details about this dispute were scarcely reported since the government wanted to suppress all related information involving the case.

After many years of teaching at the Marine University, Trinh Khai, an engineer who studied in Soviet Russia, retired to his hometown in the early 1990s. At the time, the local officials in Kim Bang District implemented a new agricultural land leasing system. They cut off 75 acres of land in Lac Nhue Village and granted it to another village. Mr. Khai, who had good knowledge of the laws and also experience with the dirty tricks used by local officials, helped the village farmers to make appeals at the parish level, the district and even all the way up to the central government.

After many incidents in which strangers snuck into the village and threatened Mr. Khai and other people’s safety, the villagers decided to build a fortress to protect them from the outside world.

The peak of the conflict came when two young men from outside of the village were beaten to death by villagers in the middle of the night. The villagers believed the authorities sent the men to assassinate Mr. Khai. State media meanwhile reported that these two men were just normal citizens who came to buy fingerlings. 

After this incident, it was reported that Mr. Khai was arrested when he showed up at the parish office to cooperate with the authorities. There was also information stating that the authorities had ordered the police to hunt down and arrest him. In the end, the leader who protected the land rights of the farmers was given a death sentence. According to veteran journalist Pham Thanh, two villagers also died while being held in prison and six others were given jail sentences.

In a nutshell, this incident was no different than the case in Ninh Thanh Loi, except that the current government did not act fairly like the lieutenant governor of Cochinchina in the past. This time, the government did not judge this case in an unbiased manner. Instead, the authorities consistently claimed the Lac Nhue incident was a case of land dispute where people distorted state policies and constituted conspiracies against the state. The government even published novels and made a movie about the incident (titled “The story of Nho Village) to defame Lac Nhue villagers and Mr. Trinh Khai, letting them go down in history in eternal shame.

The building of the People’s Committee of An Ninh Ward, Quynh Phu District, Thai Binh Province which was destroyed by protestors destroyed in the night of June 26, 1997, value was estimated at 800 millions dong. Photo courtesy: Bauxite Vietnam.

5. The Thai Binh Incident, Thai Binh Province

Time of dispute: 1987 – 1997

Victims: Citizens of Thai Binh Province

Offenders: Officials of Thai Binh Province

Fatalities: Unknown

Location: The entire area of Thai Binh Province

In the 1990s, petitions from citizens of Thai Binh Province regarding land issues and local officials’ widespread corruption piled up yet remained unresolved. 

In May 1997, furious after years of being bullied by local officials, a group of army veterans led about 3,000 farmers to stage a sit-in protest in front of the Communist Party’s headquarters in Thai Binh Province. This event led to a series of uprisings demanding justice throughout the province.

Two retired officials told journalist Huu Tho about the root cause of the uprisings: “Do you believe that we are the bad guys or the reactionary force?” he asked. “How could we put up with these officials when they bully us even worse than the feudal landlords?!”

Tens of thousands joined the protests and riots, captured at least 64 officials and policemen as hostages, and vandalised many government buildings and private houses of local officials. The unrest lasted until November 1997. Many people were sentenced to prison for taking part in these protests.

Uprising in the Central Highlands in 2004. Photo courtesy: YouTube.

6. Ethnic Thuong Uprising, Central Highlands

Time of dispute: 2001 – 2004

Victims: Indigenous people in the four provinces of the Central Highlands

Offenders: Authorities, migrants

Fatalities: At least 33

Location: Central Highlands

The Communists learned nothing from the mistakes of the earlier administration of Ngo Dinh Diem. They also understood nothing about the Central Highlands. The government thought this area was still covered with vast uncultivated lands. They then created new economic zones, built vast agricultural farms, and allowed unrestricted migration from other parts of the country. The result was that the land area of the indigenous people was disproportionately scaled back and the native people in the Central Highlands found themselves in unprecedented harsh living conditions.

Researchers Neil L. Jamieson, Le Trong Cuc and A. Terry Rambo in their 1998 report, The Development Crisis in Vietnam’s Mountains, East-West Center predicted a crisis in the making in the Central Highlands:

“A lot of people in the highland areas start to realize they are poor and left behind. They feel inferior to the people from the lowlands, […]. Lack of money, lack of food, lack of access to natural resources, public services (education, healthcare, information), they are in danger of losing their most valuable assets: their confidence and dignity. […] The problem is more and more people are aware that they are poor.” 

As if pouring gas on a fire, the Communists also destroyed the most sacred thing in the lives of the ethnic Thuong people: religion. The government completely banned religious freedom in the Central Highlands. Traditional rituals were terminated, Protestantism was almost disallowed, and Catholics were stringently restricted. 

A crisis suddenly arose in 2001 and especially in 2004 with the uprising of the ethnic Thuong people. It led to the biggest protests up until then and many violent encounters with the police. The Thuong demanded that the government return their lands and guarantee their freedom of religion. The protests forced thousands of ethnic Thuong either to become refugees in Cambodia or to be sent to education camps and prisons in Vietnam. According to Human Rights Watch, the conflict resulted in eight deaths in the protests and 25 deaths in prisons. However, these figures are impossible to verify since the government prohibited international observers from entering the Central Highlands at the time.

Doan Van Vuon’s land and house were demolished by the government.
Photo courtesy: Thanh Nien newspaper.

7. Doan Van Vuon, Hai Phong Province

Time of dispute: 2009 – 2012

Area of dispute: 19.3 hectares

Victims: The Doan Van Vuon family

Offenders: People’s Committee of Tien Lang District

Location: Vinh Quang Village, Tien Lang District, Hai Phong City

The situation of the Doan Van Vuon family was exactly what the Bien Toai and Muoi Chuc families had faced about 80 years before, but with a different outcome. Although the local officials’ decisions were completely wrong and there were no fatalities in the conflict, the members of the Doan Van Vuon family still faced jail sentences.

Doan Van Vuon, a military veteran, received a five-year sentence while three family members were given sentences ranging from two to five years in prison and suspended sentences.

On the government side, there was only one local official sentenced to 30 years in prison, with the rest given suspended sentences.

The incident started in 2009, when Tien Lang District reclaimed land that had been given to the Doan Van Vuon family. 

In 1993, the local authority handed Vuon’s family 21 hectares and it determined that this decision was legal.

However, in 1997, the local authority handed him another 19.3 hectares and this was later concluded as an illegal decision.

The local authority’s decisions, from the second handing of 19.3 hectares of land to the forced reclaiming of land of the Vuon family, did not have any legal basis. Then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung pointed out that the overlapping and confusing regulations regarding land management and officials’ inability to implement the laws were the root causes of the conflict.

Van Giang farmers during the fight for their land. Photo courtesy: Reuters.

8. Van Giang, Hung Yen Province

Time of dispute: 2012 – now

Area of dispute: 73 hectares 

Victims: A number of families in Cuu Cao Village

Offenders: Government of Van Giang District

Fatalities: 2 

Location: Cuu Cao Village, Van Giang District, Hung Yen Province

The citizens of Van Giang took a step forward to protect their land and they became criminals. In these types of conflicts, when the government sided with corporations (in this case it was Ecopark) to shrink compensation for reclaimed land, the people had no other choice but to stand up and fight.

In April 2012, the authorities sent between 2,000 and 4,000 military police to sweep away a group of citizens who vowed to protect their land. There were 20 citizens arrested after this incident.

In August 2013, a number of families captured and tied up village officials for trespassing on their uncompensated lands. The incident resulted in one man receiving a 21-month sentence and one other receiving a two-year sentence.

In October 2014, two security guards of a backfilling company were beaten to death and one excavator truck was burnt. This led to six people receiving three-to-four year sentences, despite their statements that they neither beat anyone nor vandalized any assets.

From left to right, Dang Van Hien, Ha Van Truong, and Ninh Viet Binh at their trial.
Photo courtesy: Zing. Graphic image: Luat Khoa Magazine.

9. Dang Van Hien, Dak Nong Province

Time of dispute: 2008 – now

Victims: Dang Van Hien and other families

Offenders: Long Son Co.

Fatalities: 3

Location: Small zone no. 1535, Quang Truc Village, Tuy Duc District, Dak Nong Province

This area witnessed many fiere conflicts. There were many fights between migrants and agricultural companies who were offered the land by local authorities. Fist fights, house burnings, field vandalizing, and gun shootings were all familiar to the local people. They chose to rely on themselves to protect the land rather than counting on the authorities.

Dang Van Hien did not want any trouble, but he had no choice. Since 2008, local authorities had offered Long Son Co. an area that included land belonging to Hien and other families. Many violent encounters broke out over the years between the company and the families, yet all levels of government, from province to state, looked away.

One early morning in October 2016,about 30 people came to Hien’s house in a heavy rain to bulldoze his farm. Hien opened fire that day. Ninh Viet Binh, a neighbor, came to back him up. Ha Van Truong, Hien’s cousin, later was also accused of murder, despite the fact that he only handed Hien the bullet magazines.

The incident resulted in the deaths of three workers of the Long Son Co. In court, Hien was given a death sentence, Binh received a 20-year sentence later reduced to 18-years jail time, while Truong was given a 12-year sentence, later reduced to a 9-year prison sentence.

Mr. Le Dinh Kinh. Photo courtesy: Dong Tam TV.

10. Dong Tam, Hanoi

Time of dispute: 2014 – now

Area of dispute: 28.7 hectares

Victims: A number of families in Dong Tam

Offenders: The authorities of My Duc District and Viettel Corporation

Fatalities: 4

Location: Dong Tam Village, My Duc District, Hanoi 

From Dang Van Hien to Doan Van Vuon, from Van Giang District to Dong Tam Village, the message of the Vietnam government could not be clearer: despite their lives being threatened, despite their lands being taken away, the people still have no right to fight back. Any act of defiance that creates damage to the authority’s side will be severely punished, whether the government is right or wrong.

Twenty-nine defendants in the Dong Tam case, including a 77-year old man, were forced to fight back against thousands of police ambushing their village in the middle of the night. Since 2007, there have been many violent incidents in Dong Tam yet the government has been unable to resolve the issue in a fair manner.

The government of Vietnam used to denounce the brutality of French colonial rule. However, nearly 100 years ago under French rule, the trial of the Noc Nan field case was open and the press freely took part, reported and conducted independent investigations. Meanwhile, 100 years later, the trial for the Dong Tam Incident was closed and family members of the defendants were not allowed to even get near the court. Independent press was barred from entering the courtroom, and the attorneys were prohibited from making contacts with the defendants at trial.

***

If there is no fundamental change in the land law in Vietnam to allow the private ownership of land, blood may still be shed over land issues for another 100 years.

This article was written in Vietnamese by An Nam and previously published on Luat Khoa Magazine. The translation is done by Y Chan.

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Recap: Sentencing in the Dong Tam Trial

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All Defendants in the Dong Tam trial at the sentencing. Photo courtesy: Vietnam News Agency

As reported earlier, after four days of a predicted 10-day trial, the Hanoi People’s Tribunal took a recess beginning on the afternoon of September 10 to deliberate. At 3 pm on September 14, 2020, an initial verdict was announced.

These are the details of the sentencing and the developments surrounding them:

The range of initial sentences

The Tribunal sentenced Le Dinh Cong and Le Dinh Chuc to death for the crime of murder. 

Also prosecuted for murder was Le Dinh Doanh, who was sentenced to life in prison. Three other defendants who were charged with murder received prison sentences ranging from 12 to 16 years.

The 23 remaining defendants were prosecuted for obstruction of officials. Among them, nine received prison sentences ranging from three to six years, and the remaining 14 were sentenced to between 15 to 36 months of probation. 

Compared to the recommendations by the Hanoi People’s Procuracy, the Tribunal’s sentencing only differed in granting 7 defendants probation instead of prison time.

Noteworthy is that while nearly all of the defendants received sentences equal to or lesser than the Procuracy’s recommendations, Bui Thi Noi received a heavier sentence than what was recommended.

The Procuracy recommended 4 to 5 years of prison for Bui Thi Noi. The Tribunal sentenced her to 6. 

Bui Thi Noi, adopted daughter of Mr. Le Dinh Kinh, who died in the early morning attack on January 9, directly challenged the Tribunal during questioning on the second day of the trial, asking: “We have laws, but why are they not carried out? Why was my father (Le Dinh Kinh) lured out to a field and his leg broken, instead of being arrested properly…?” 

When the presiding judge asked Noi three times why she bought gasoline, Noi responded “I bought gasoline to burn the corrupt!”

The court’s determinations

As reported by Thanh Nien, the Tribunal determined “This was a serious criminal case that [was] particularly dangerous, denigrating the law and human life.” Judges assessed that “the defendants’ behaviors were extremely barbaric, cruel, and inhumane.”

According to information from Zing, the Tribunal also required the ring-leading defendants to compensate each victim’s family 116 million dong (US$5000) and provide child support to the deceased police officers’ children until they all reach the age of 18. 

Responses from lawyers and relatives of the defendants

Speaking with RFA, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Duyen, Le Dinh Kinh’s granddaughter-in-law, stated: “To be honest, I’m not very surprised and had already mentally prepared myself. I knew for certain they would keep the sentencing as is.”

“The next steps must be taken gradually; there’s simply no way to change [the government’s] hearts or minds,” she continued. “It will most certainly force [those] Dong Tam residents to suffer through long prison sentences.”

Lawyer Nguyen Van Mieng, on the other hand, asserted: “There is not enough evidence to conclude that those three [police officers] died because of Chuc, Cong, and the others. Handing out two death sentences and a life imprisonment is completely unreasonable!”

Mieng shared the view that all four deaths must be re-investigated.

Appeals and future developments

Le Dinh Cong and Le Dinh Chuc, who were both sentenced to death, stated that they would appeal.

We have provided an analysis here regarding the next possible developments in this case.

If at any point, a defendant, victim, or his or her representative appeals, the case will be forced into retrial. The entire case will be presented and re-tried in a higher court, which in this instance is the People’s Supreme Court in Hanoi. 

According to the law, the deadline for retrial ranges approximately from December 2020 to January 2021.

In the meantime, the Procuracy, defendants, and lawyers have the right to provide additional evidence.

Lawyers and relatives still have the right to see the defendants. Other individuals and organizations (journalists, social organizations, international organizations) are also able to submit requests to see the defendants.

***

This article was written in Vietnamese by Y Chan and previously published on Luat Khoa Magazine. The translation is done by Will Nguyen.

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The Dong Tam Case: What happens next?

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Photo courtesy: Vietnam News Agency. Graphic image: Luat Khoa Magazine

On September 14, 2020, the Hanoi People’s Court delivered the judgments in the trial of the Dong Tam case.

What will happen next?

First of all, we need to understand this is a first-instance trial and the judgments have not yet come into force. The enforcement of criminal judgments therefore is not yet initiated. 

Appeal

Within 15 days of the first-instance trial’s verdict, which is from September 14-29, 2020, there are two possible scenarios. 

(Note: According to the instruction from the Supreme People’s Court, the time limit for appeal is calculated from the day after the verdict is delivered, which is September 15, 2020.)

1. If the rulings are not appealed, they will automatically come into force on the 16th day after the verdict was delivered, which will be on September 30, 2020. The sentence enforcement procedure will also be initiated on that day. 

2. If the rulings are appealed:

  • Appeal by the defendants: If any of the defendants, victims or their representatives appeal against the rulings, the case will move into the appellate trial phase. The whole trial will be restarted. In this case, the time limit for making an appeal is September 29, 2020. 

If an appeal is filed beyond the 15-day limit, the appellate court can still consider it permissible “on condition that the appellant has been obstructed by force majeure or objective obstacles from lodging an appeal within the time limit as defined by this Law.” (Article 335, 2015 Criminal Procedure Code)

  • Appeal by the Procuracy: If the Hanoi People’s Procuracy appeals against all or parts of the judgments, the case will also move into the appellate trial phase.
  • Appeal by the Supreme People’s Procuracy in Hanoi: according to law, they have a 30-day limit to appeal the rulings after the verdict was delivered.

What is an appellate trial?

According to Article 330, 2015 Criminal Procedure Code, “Appellate trial means that the immediate superior Court re-tries a case or re-considers the decisions passed by the first instance trial, whose judgments and rulings pronounced for the case are appealed before coming into force.”

In other words, all or parts of the rulings will be re-considered by the immediate superior court.

What is the superior court in this case?

The Supreme People’s Court in Hanoi

When will the appellate trial take place?

At the moment, there is no detailed instruction document on how to calculate the time frame to open the appellate trial, but based on the 2015 Criminal Procedure Code, we can estimate a number of markers for what happens next:

  • Within 75 days upon the admission of a case, the Supreme People’s Court in Hanoi has to issue a decision to hear the appellate case. Therefore, we can estimate in case of appeal, that the last day to issue the decision will be December 13, 2020 (Sunday). Since it is a non-working day, the time limit can be extended to December 14, 2020 (Monday).
  • Within 15 days upon issuing the decision to hear the appellate case, the court has to start the appellate trial. Therefore, we can estimate in case of appeal the last day to start the appellate trial will be December 29, 2020 (Monday).
  • Within 10 days upon issuing the decision to hear the appellate case, the court has to send this decision to the Procuracy–which is on an equal level of hierarchy–and to the defense counsels, crime victims, litigants and protectors of legitimate rights and benefits of crime victims, litigants, appellants, persons incurring interests and duties from the appeal. The last day of this time frame will be December 23, 2020 (Monday).
  • The court can delay the appellate trial for no more than 30 days, which means the last day in this case could be on January 28, 2021 (Wednesday).

In practice, however, the court can violate the time limit regulations. The appellate trial therefore can be delayed to a much later time than the above estimated number of days.

While awaiting the appellate trial, what can happen?

  • The Supreme People’s Court can make decisions on changing or terminating preventive measures such as detention. Although practically, there is no possibility some defendants will be released on bail awaiting the appellate trial, yet it is still an available legal option.
  • If the appellants withdraw the appeals, the court will suspend the appellant trial. In practice, this is also unlikely. 
  • The Procuracy, the defendants and their lawyers can submit additional evidence.
  • The lawyers and family members are entitled to meet the defendants. Other individuals, organizations (the media, social organizations, international organization, etc.) can file proposals to meet with the defendants.

In order to better understand this case, we need to study thoroughly the Law on temporary detention and custody.

What are the possible outcomes of the appellate trial?

According to Article 355, 2015 Criminal Procedure Code, the possible outcomes of an appellate trial could be:

  • Reject appeals and sustain the first-instance court’s judgments;
  • Alter the first-instance trial’s judgments;  
  • Annul the first-instance court’s judgment and send the case back for re-investigation or retrial;
  • Annul the first-instance trial’s judgments and dismiss the case;  
  • Terminate the appellate trial if the appellants withdraw their appeals.

In case of altering the first-instance trial’s judgments, if the appeals are filed by the defendants, the appellate court cannot deliver a harsher sentence than what has already been given to the defendants.

In case of altering the first-instance trial’s judgments, if the appeals are filed by the procuracy or the crime victims, the appellate court can deliver rulings that are disadvantageous to the defendants.

What may happen after the appellate trial?

The rulings from the appellate trial will come into force immediately.

If the appellate court sustains the first-instance trial’s judgments, or alters the judgments but sustains the sentences, the enforcement procedure will be initiated. The defendants become convicts (serve jail sentences, face death penalties). In this case, one must study thoroughly the Law on execution of criminal judgments.

The convicts with death sentences still have a chance to file pardon petition for commutation of death sentence with the state president (within 7 days after the appellate rulings were delivered), petition for a cassation trial, or file for a retrial of the case.

If the appellate court chooses to delivers other outcomes, then there are corresponding legal options for each scenario.

***

This article was written in Vietnamese by Tran Ha Linh and previously published on Luat Khoa Magazine. The translation is done by Y Chan.

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