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The Real Casualty of the Loc Hung Garden Incident: the People’s Trust

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When the officials of Tan Binh District in Ho Chi Minh City gathered over one thousand police officers and other forces to bulldoze some 200 houses at Loc Hung Garden, they destroyed not only the shelters of a few hundred people but something even more important.

What also crumbled and laid buried deep in the rubble was the people’s trust in the current regime–or whatever was left of it.

“I have to tell you honestly, the trust between the people of this community and the government has totally broken down over the decades. We cannot trust them after so many broken promises. They have told us that they would meet with us and provide us with documents about the projects, the plans. We’ve received nothing. There is no trust.”

Cao Ha Truc, one of the persons representing the 124 households living in Loc Hung Garden, spoke to me over the telephone on January 9, 2019, about 12 hours after he was released from the police station and came back to a home that was no longer there.

Truc told me that he was a vegetable farmer until the local authorities engaged in what he called “shady tactics” a few years ago to stop him and others from continuing their farming.

In a video clip recorded earlier in the day, he said:

“They oppressed us by cutting off our means of survival, by letting water flood our vegetable fields, and we could not live (properly) for eight years.

We could not raise cats and dogs because they would die when the land was submerged. The meter-high water took a month to drain, but then the environment became polluted. We had to find other means of living.

We’ve lived here through three generations by farming vegetables, but now we have to flatten out the land and build the four-level houses to keep on living.”

Truc was refuting the government’s claim that the residents living in Loc Hung were constructing houses illegally when it confirmed that some 112 homes were demolished on January 8, 2019.

Loc Hung Garden is a complicated legal issue involving land rights and land possession, with the case beginning to beleaguer the Ho Chi Minh City government in the late 1990s.

The Vietnamese government has faced increasing legal headaches concerning land disputes over the years, due to rapid nationwide development.

Land Disputes Developing with and within Land Development 

Vietnam’s economy grew exponentially in the past three decades after the communist regime decided to “open up” and explore a “free market with socialist characteristics.” In big cities like Hanoi and Saigon, some investment and development projects crashed head-on with the former way of life: farming.

As Vietnam has been an agricultural society for thousands of years, the fact that there were farmers in the big cities probably shouldn’t surprise anyone. However, the clash between the old and new ways of life – coupled with a lack of clear legal framework – has created long-lasting social, economic, and political problems.

The Loc Hung Garden incident was not the first and definitely will not be the last of its kind.

In Vietnam currently, there are hundreds of thousands of land-lost victims who are known as “dân oan” in Vietnamese, often translated as “victims of injustice” in English.

As of January 8, 2018, some may want to add another 124 households from the Loc Hung area to this population.

At the same time, the local government has not exactly been transparent about the legal basis to support their claim to the land.

What the public knows thus far includes a still-pending development project for a public school system from K-12 on the land where Loc Hung Garden is located, and that this project was postponed numerous times during the last five years.

Before that, both the city and the district’s officials had failed to carry out the other public construction projects they previously proposed for the area.

In report No. 6035/UBND-NCPC sent to the Government Inspectorate dated October 20, 2016, the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City admitted two critical matters:

1) The public school development project has yet to be executed and was still only a prospect, and

2) The land dispute with the residents at Loc Hung Garden would have continued to be classified as a “complicated and long-term petition” as the project had already started.

The report and its conclusion indicate that the government always recognized the land dispute at Loc Hung Garden was not a matter of black-and-white and that it anticipated a lengthy legal battle with the residents once the project began.

Information on the pending development project, as well as the proposal on compensation and relocation of the residents, is not made readily available to either the residents of Loc Hung or the public at-large as prescribed by law.

Was There Due Process?

The official reason given by the authorities (the People’s Committees of both the Tan Binh District and the 6th Ward) for tearing down the hundreds of homes was to enforce the order to remove illegal structures at Loc Hung Garden.

For the enforcement and removal to take place, the law in Vietnam requires the authorities to provide three critical documents with sufficient public notice to the violating individuals or entities:

  1. The report conducted by the appropriate authorities on the violation
  2. The decision to penalize the violation, and
  3. The decision to enforce

(Law on Land 2013, Law on Administrative Penalization 2012, Decision 166/2013/NĐ-CP on Enforcement of Judgment, and Decision 102/2014/NĐ-CP on Administrative Penalization Relating to Land – all links in Vietnamese).

These documents should also be served to the violating individuals and entities, giving them an opportunity to remedy the violations voluntarily.

Cao Ha Truc told me he did not receive any of the three required documents but cautioned that he could not speak for all others in the area.

The state-owned newspaper that published the story about Loc Hung also did not enclose copies of these essential documents.

When I called the office of the People’s Committee of Tan Binh District and asked for copies of the documents to be provided electronically according to law, I was turned down. The desk person stated that I would need to show up in person to make my request.

The law prescribes a specific duty to the enforcing authorities, which is to establish that the required documentation exists and that the affected people are duly notified. When the government has yet to provide them, we cannot conclude that there was due process.

Who Owns the Land in Vietnam?

Land in Vietnam “belongs to the entire people with the State acting as the owner’s representative and uniformly managing land. The State shall hand over land use rights to land users in accordance with this Law.” (Article 4, 2013 Law on Land).

I noticed the word “shall” was added in the English translation that I found online. Its addition makes a significant legal difference.

The 2013 Law on Land provides in detail a long list of specific scenarios where the Vietnamese government would hand over land rights use to the people. At the same time, it also prescribes another list of situations where the government could perform land reclamation and land requisition.

The main legal issues in the Loc Hung Garden case have always centered on the farmers’ right to possess the land and their land use rights from 1975 until now.

The government claims they acquired the land and the other 1.2 hectares nearby from the now-defunct South Vietnam’s postal services under Government Council Decision No. 111/CP dated April 14, 1977.

The residents claim that Decision No. 111/CP only covers the 1.2 hectares because the 4.8 hectares in question have been used for farming during the last 60 years in an undisrupted and undisputed manner. They also claim that the 4.8 hectares belong to the Catholic Church and the church gifted it to the farmers in 1954.

All parties involved agree on the size of the disputed land and the fact that the current government did allow residents to continue living and farming on the property undisrupted since 1975.

On January 8, 2019, the Tan Binh District’s division of the Central Propaganda Committee issued a publication, stating that the residents who had been living and farming at Loc Hung Garden would be entitled to compensation according to the policy for agriculture lands.

What would be the justification to compensate the residents if there wasn’t any legal basis for them to live there in the first place?

And more importantly, is any amount of monetary compensation enough to gain back the people’s trust in their government?

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Opinion-Section

Vietnam Should Stand In Solidarity With The People Of Myanmar

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Photo courtesy: Nikkei/Asia

On February 1 2021, the Myanmar military arrested and detained several prominent figures from the National League for Democracy (NLD), the ruling party of Myanmar prior to the recent coup. Among those arrested were Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. 

This was followed by a swift declaration of a state of emergency and the entrenchment of  military cronies in the Myanmar government. Min Aung Hlaing, the figurehead of this new budding dictatorship, stated that it was inevitable that the military would seize control; he alleged that last year’s election, which the military resoundingly lost, was fraudulent and that this coup was their way to ensure a smooth and stable transition towards “a genuine and disciplined demoractic system.” The actions of the Myanmar military have been met by both local and international backlash, criticism, and scrutiny despite their attempt to justify the coup.

Unprecedented numbers of Myanmar citizens have gathered to express their disapproval and anger towards the military through constant and relentless demonstrations and protests; some have even been arrested for their participation in these events. Even though the new regime has been attempting to quell these gatherings through the disruption of internet services, limiting telecommunications access, and through the enforcement of curfews, the Myanmar people have hardly faltered – they continue to remain steadfast and resolute in the face of escalating violence by Min Aung Hlaing’s fledgling dictatorship. 

On the international stage, the residents of other nations have organized demonstrations of their own in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Myanmar. Likewise, private citizens, NGOs, and various media outlets have been spreading awareness of the situation and have placed the actions of this dictatorship under the scrutiny of the rest of the free world. Some foreign countries, such as the United States, now under the Biden administration, have imposed economic sanctions to pressure the Myanmar military into compliance. 

The United Nations Human Rights Council, despite the dissenting voices of China, Bolivia, Venezuela, Russia, and the Philippines, has also made several demands of the current ruling power of Myanmar, such as a call for the immediate lifting of the declaration of the state of emergency and the release of all arbitrarily detained individuals.

Justice for Myanmar, a group of undercover activists that aims to improve the lives of all people in their homeland, has recently published a list of people, businesses, and organizations under the control and sway of the military junta. These entities provided the Myanmar military with assets and sources of revenue that aided it in its systemic takeover of the country that further lined the pockets of those in control. 

Justice for Myanmar calls on “the international community to impose immediate comprehensive and targeted sanctions against the Myanmar military in response to their Feb 1 coup and their continuing violations of international law, including their campaign of genocide against the Rohingya and war crimes and crimes against humanity in ethnic regions.” 

This published report lists 133 businesses fully or partially controlled by the Myanmar military, the names of 174 directors of those businesses, 112 other businesses which the military gets additional income from, and 32 state-owned enterprises that were formerly under the control of civilian institutions. While a majority of the businesses stated are based in Myanmar, there are a number which operate in other neighboring countries such as Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan.

Yadanar Maung, the spokesperson for Justice For Myanmar, states that the “brutal and illegitimate Feb 1 coup, is enabled by their business interests. The Myanmar military leadership uses business to enrich themselves at the expense of the Myanmar people and finance their brutal campaigns of repression….” He then adds that several international businesses such as Kirin Holdings and Viettel empowered the Myanmar military and that their continued operation in the country will only serve to further embolden the junta to commit further atrocities against its people. 

With money being an essential factor in the military takeover, one of the most effective ways to aid the struggle of the citizens of Myanmar is through severing relations with those institutions and companies that actively do business with the junta.

In Vietnam, as private citizens in our own country, something as simple as refusing to patronize businesses like Viettel is a start. Those with direct connections to organizations that work with the businesses on the list may take it a step further and call for these groups to distance themselves from the junta. With enough people, we could even petition our government to look into whether or not they actively do business with any of the corporations in the report in a bid to expose and terminate these agreements. 

Yet, something as simple and cliche-sounding as discussing this issue with family and friends serves this purpose as well. 

After all, the situation in Myanmar is not a story in a vacuum, but rather it is one of many tales regarding the struggle of freedom against the ever rising threat of authoritarianism in the world. It is merely one chapter in the anthology of human history, of the conflict between those who persevere for the betterment of all against those who would enrich only themselves at the expense of everyone else. 

As such, the events in Myanmar cannot be willfully ignored, and we have to stand as a unified front against tyranny, selfishness, and deceit. And thankfully, a few exceptions notwithstanding, the rest of the world seems to be on the same page. 

All in all, the Justice for Myanmar report, the words of its spokesperson, and all the corollary information derived from the available facts underscore the reality that this coup was not the result of grave injustice, nor the misplaced nationalistic sentiments of the Myanmar military; it is the result of the callousness and unending greed of those who would willingly choose to set their nation ablaze rather than let power slip from their fingertips through legitimate democratic mechanisms. 

It is the last resort of a delusional group of people destined to fade into the annals of history as nothing more than a footnote in a textbook. Times are changing and the people of Myanmar have spoken. True democracy will come to them in time as it has come to several other nations in the past. And while the fight rages in the streets of Naypyidaw all the way to the alleys of Kawthaung, the united people of the free world stand in solidarity, in kinship, and in brotherhood with the Myanmar citizens in their struggle for lasting democracy and freedom.

In Vietnam, we are hoping that our human rights and democracy activists will also take the opportunity to stand in solidarity with the people of Myanmar.

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Opinion-Section

Watching The US Presidential Election While Dreaming About Vietnam’s Free Election At The Commune Level

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Propaganda in Hanoi to encourage people to vote in the 2016 National Assembly election. Photo courtesy: Baotintuc.vn

This op-ed article was written in Vietnamese by Ly Minh and previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on November 6, 2020. The translation was done by Jade NG.

***

Although I am a Vietnamese citizen, I anxiously watched the US presidential election in November 2020. Many of my friends in Vietnam also did the same thing. We eagerly watched every turn of that election as if we were personally voting for our own head of state.

The Vietnamese public’s interest in the US presidential election every four years can be seen through the headlines of our newspapers. The mainstream media updates many Vietnamese readers on every step of the thrilling race to the White House.

Looking eagerly at the news every day about  the US presidential election, I cannot help but wonder whether or not the Vietnamese people earnestly wish to elect their own leaders.

In the political context of Vietnam, I understand that this question is a taboo. Needless to say, everyone knows that the current political regime in Vietnam does not allow the Vietnamese to exercise their voting right as in the United States.

Theoretically, the Vietnamese elect their National Assembly delegates through the National Assembly election once every five years. Then, on behalf of the Vietnamese people, the National Assembly delegates elect our national leaders.

Thus, elections in Vietnam ironically have been going on smoothly, albeit with many predictable results. Surprises rarely happen in those elections. Throughout my own monitoring of the National Assembly elections in Vietnam, I found the saying “the Party selects, the People elect” a very reasonable way to explain the development and the results of elections in Vietnam.

The secret desire of many Vietnamese people, including myself, is to have the freedom to make our decisions and to choose our state leaders, and even the National Assembly delegates who actually represent our voices when deciding the big decisions for the country.

That desire is expressed indirectly by many people through monitoring and discussing the US presidential election, as if we were voting for our own state leaders. A friend of mine lamented on Facebook: “I look at the US election and all I  can feel is pain for the Vietnamese people.”

It is impossible not to feel hurt.

Governance is democratic when each vote of the citizens decides who the leaders will be. Every vote influences the final result. The thrill of the US election right up until the last minute was because those of us who watched the election’s progress could see the importance of each ballot cast by the American voters.

Because each person’s vote is so important, the presidential candidates of the US must find ways to enlist the support of their voters, to specialize their campaigns for each state, to come up with policies that please local voters to gain support for the candidates, and even to try to entice the neutral voters.

Meanwhile, looking back at the political situation in Vietnam, my country’s people have no decisive voice in deciding who will become our leaders. Therefore, in Vietnam, many people are not excited about politics and are not interested in who will become the general secretary, the president of the country, the president of the National Assembly, and the prime minister. It is simply because Vietnamese citizens do not have the right, through their votes to influence the selection of these above positions.

Those who are knowledgeable about politics in Vietnam understand that the Party decides all the leadership positions in the country. Some three or four million members of the ruling Communist Party decide for almost 100 million Vietnamese people. Party members also decide all of the major issues of the country through their secret meetings, where the press is not allowed to cover any news. And the public? The public only knows about the results which are often announced by  Party officials after those meetings.

This is the reality about the Vietnamese political situation that I, a Vietnamese citizen, am forced to accept. But I personally think that many people who also accept that reality do not comprehensively support it.

Of course, I fully understand that some supporters of the current regime would argue that the Vietnamese people have the right to vote for the head of the country through the National Assembly delegates. However, I just want to ask two simple questions. First, do you remember who you voted for in a recent election? Second, do you feel happy when your delegate wins the election or sad when she or he fails?

Having an election such as in the United States is a distant dream for the Vietnamese. Nevertheless, I have only a small dream, which is that our local people can one day elect the leaders of their wards or communes, free and fair, by themselves. Hopefully, my dream will come true soon so that in the future I can proudly tell my children and grandchildren that I have elected our ward president in a past election.

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“Law of the Jungle” for Pham Doan Trang

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The arrest of Pham Doan Trang on October 6, 2020. Photo courtesy: Luat Khoa Magazine

This article was written in Vietnamese by songwriter Tuan Khanh and published on The New Viet magazine. The Vietnamese would like to thank The New Viet and author Tuan Khanh for allowing us to translate and publish this article in English. This article was translated into English by Y Chan.

***

While combing through my notes about Pham Doan Trang, I recalled many details which only now have been connected together, which could make up a symbolic book depicting the journey of a young person, from growing up under the socialist educational system to breaking out of the barbed wire of propaganda. She raised her voice to become a symbol of Vietnamese youth born after 1975, who committed themselves to an ideology to help their country rise up.

But what is no less crucial is that along the same journey, we have also experienced a depiction of Vietnamese law, a legal system that is used by the state as “joss paper” to be burnt in traditional ritual and sanctimonious duties, which in essence is completely meaningless. 

Pham Doan Trang has unwittingly somehow become the main character in a tragic story that unveils, through her blood and tears, the nature of that so-called legal system. 

I have uncovered that brief personal struggle of hers and found three markers that could have predicted many recent events.

Pham Doan Trang has always opted to fight for democracy in a peaceful manner through her writings. But the “law” that surrounds her is completely the opposite. 

The first marker was in April, 2017, when the situation around Trang had grown intense. The Hanoi police shelved their kind and friendly attitude toward her, opting for other more “direct” measures. It started with a bicycle demonstration in Hanoi that was stopped by the police. The event was meant to commemorate the anniversary of the Formosa environmental disaster, which resulted in massive fish deaths in the seas off the coastal provinces in central Vietnam. Despite not having taken part in the demonstration, Pham Doan Trang was taken to the police station for interrogation.

“Mother fucker you cuntface!”  Trang recalls a young policeman pointing at her and shouting, angered because he was unable to tell her why she had been detained. When Trang protested against his attitude, the young officer, again unable to respond, shouted again, “I’ll pee in your fucking mouth”. It happened in front of several other police officers, women included. But all stayed dead silent. The incident marked the beginning of a stage when the police no longer treated Trang as a normal citizen who raised her voice on social issues. After that unlawful arrest, journalist Pham Doan Trang started to face much more brutal treatment from the authorities.

The second marker was June, 2018, when many demonstrations broke out in Saigon and Hanoi, protesting the lack of environmental protections as well as voicing criticisms against the Cyber Security Law and the Special Economic Zone Law. Trang took part in one of the demonstrations. She noticed at the time the presence of a young muscular man who was silently walking beside her. She felt a bit doubtful, but assured herself that the man would do no harm to her, but simply follow her.

She was wrong. In the midst of all the chaos and confusion when the demonstrators encountered the police, the young man suddenly approached and stamped on her foot to keep it from moving, then very skillfully delivered a kick under her knee. Trang immediately fell to the ground. The ankle joint, severely injured, swelled. The young man quickly vanished. She thought it was just a minor injury that would heal itself within days. But severe pain later forced her to go to the hospital.

In the two hospitals she visited in Hanoi for examination, after taking X-rays, the doctors all assured her that her injury was nothing serious and that she needed no treatment at all. Later, sensing something was not right, Trang decided to see a doctor she personally knew who worked in a hospital in Saigon. Only then did she find out that the expert kick she had suffered that day had seriously damaged her cruciate ligament, leaving only an almost necrotic lingering fibrous tissue. Had this injury gone undetected for just one more day, she might have had to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. 

What is a cruciate ligament? As the doctor explained, it is used to connect the thigh bone (femur) and shin bone (tibia), keeping the lower extremity straight and bearing the body weight while still enabling the folding and stretching activity through the knee joint. When the cruciate ligament is damaged, the thigh bone and shin bone instead of bonding to each other will become two loosely connected bones, and can not form a structure that bears the body weight while standing.

The kick on the knee will make the knee joint abruptly turn inward, either tearing or stretching the cruciate ligament. This kind of injury is mostly seen in football when a footballer suffers from a malicious foul or in tennis when a player folds his knee while falling down. Or, as in this case, it is the result of a powerful kick from someone who is well trained and knows exactly the consequences of his act. Although having recovered and been saved from losing her leg, Trang now has to spend the rest of her life limping, never again regaining her ability to walk normally.

The third marker was at the concert of singer Nguyen Tin in August, 2018. The melody was replaced by a continuous banging, the sound of bike helmets being smashed against Trang’s head. The act, performed passionately by four fully-masked young men with strong northern accents who were on motorcycles, lasted until the helmets broke apart.

According to Trang, right before this beating, she was taken away by the police after they interrupted the concert and arrested several other people, including her. She was pushed into a seven-seater car and driven to a deserted street in the middle of the night. One officer, who seemed to be the man in charge, then ordered her to get out of the car. Having all her personal identification papers and belongings confiscated by the police, Trang protested and tried to explain to the police that there was no way she could get back if she was left alone in that area. The man in charge handed her a 200,000 dong note (less than US$9) and told her to take a taxi. 

Standing in the middle of a street, confused and still in pain after the initial strikes by the police at the concert, Trang noticed the police car did not leave but stopped a few hundred meters away, from where the officers kept watching her. That was then the helmet-attack happened, after four young men on two motorcycles suddenly approached her. The young men immediately got to work without saying anything, striking her on the head, adding the curse “fucking” with every blow. Only when they all left did Trang manage to hobble away and seek help to get to a hospital.

The stories from the three markers that I point to are filled with countless acts that don’t fit into any legal framework. One can relate such acts to the kind of tactics used by criminal gangs who exert their brutal power to control their turf. The systematic and gang-like attacks used against this woman were planned and coordinated in a perfect manner, and any law-abiding citizen could easily become a victim of such brutality.

And now when Pham Doan Trang has been arrested under some very obscure laws, the joss paper is burning once again on the legal altar where the laws are put on the stage just for show.

In the coming trial for Pham Doan Trang, none of these stories will be mentioned. The Vietnamese State never represses its citizens. No peaceful activists have ever been arrested. Only those who break the law are rightfully punished. There are no human rights violations in this country. Vietnam is a country that always respects and ensures human rights. These words will be engraved on the joss paper being burned on the stage where people who put on judge’s robes hand down their law of the jungle.

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