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:
- The report conducted by the appropriate authorities on the violation
- The decision to penalize the violation, and
- 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?