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Land Dispute in Hanoi Prompted Police Officers To Protest, Is That Illegal?

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Police protested in Hanoi, Vietnam
Police's banner calling to end corruption during their land dispute protest in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo credits: YouTube

On the morning of  November 12, 2019, a protest over a land dispute broke out in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. However, unlike in other recent protests, the protesters were not beaten up and arrested by the local authorities. This is probably because the people protesting were police officers of Dong Anh District and so their protest was not deemed illegal by the Hanoi government. This scenario was rare and not the typical case for most of those who protest in Vietnam because in most cases protesters have been assaulted and arrested by local authorities. 

During the last few years, whenever I have had an opportunity to speak with foreigners, I have defended the right of the Vietnamese people to engage in peaceful assembly, which is protected by Vietnam’s Constitution. The problem is that the  government of Vietnam has always classified the right to demonstrate and gather for peaceful assembly as a “disruption of public order,” and so the authorities have arrested hundreds and thousands of its citizens over the years because they joined protests. 

As it turns out, many foreigners have the false belief that demonstrating is illegal in Vietnam and that people are not allowed to protest. The largest protest in Vietnam after our civil war ended in 1975  happened last year, in June 2018. And at that same time, The Vietnamese also clarified that the right to protest was not only legal, but it was a people’s constitutional right. Yet government officials continued to condemn the people’s right to demonstrate and have vowed that they will not allow any crowd to gather publicly. One of the most strident officials supporting the  banning of all protests is To Lam, the minister of public security – the head of the national police force of Vietnam. 

On November 12, 2019, social media and non-governmental media of Vietnam began to report that these police officers had gathered to protest a land dispute involving houses being constructed in Dong Anh district in Hanoi. The cause of the demonstration was very similar to the case of many farmers who had lost their land because of rapid plans for real estate developmental projects in recent years. Those protesting police officers had paid substantial amounts of money to purchase their homes some 17 years ago, but they had not yet received them. The police officers suspected corruption and went to protest against it. In Vietnam’s state-owned media, these protesters were classified as retired police officers who are not currently on active duty. It is likely that the government wants to soften up the fact that it was a case of actual, currently on duty went on protest for their land right to call these protesters as “retired.” However, the land dispute was confirmed to be true as was the fact that these officers did not receive their houses which they had already paid for. 

Whether these officers are retired or not, this is one of the very few incidents in which people who belong to a police unit have found themselves in the same position as other victims who have lost their land. In this case, it was the land rights of former police officers that had been violated and they could not find a proper way to resolve the problem. Protesting against alleged corruption was the only option for them to raise their voices and to address this issue. 

Police forces in Vietnam have always played a close role in carrying out the government’s actions and will. They have been cast as active members of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP)  who were assigned to fight opposition movements and the people who do not agree with the way the VCP leads. During the November 12, 2019 incident, the protest by these police officers was not abruptly stopped by the authorities. None of the retired officers got arrested and none were classified as “reactionary forces” in Vietnam’s state-owned media, as has been the  case with others who have protested.

This is an indication of the big difference in how the government treats its own police officers versus how it treats Vietnamese citizens during protests. Nevertheless, the protest by police in Dong Anh district earlier this month has underpinned that land disputes are becoming a wild beast in Vietnam. This social problem will not exclude government workers and police who will soon join the masses of people in the country who have suffered the injustice of seeing their land taken from them. 

Earlier this year inJanuary, in the Loc Hung Garden Incident, local authorities wrongfully evicted and destroyed over 100 households in Tan Binh district in Ho Chi Minh City. The residents of Loc Hung have filed their petitions and they are continuing their legal struggle with the authorities right up until now. In a major city such as Ho Chi Minh City, the Loc Hung residents have only faced losing their homes and their land but in other remote areas, the victims have faced physical harm and some  have even lost their lives. That is the story of death-row inmate Dang Van Hien. 

Dang Van Hien and his neighbors from Village 1535, Quang Truc ward, Tuy Duc district, who come from different areas of the country, have become adjusted to living in poverty since the time they were born. They gradually saved up enough money and bought a small piece of land, but all they could afford was property in areas off the  beaten track or remotely placed in the jungle. They have been living as the modern “les miserables” in a remote area in Dak Nong province in the Central Highland of Vietnam. 

These farmers were there to farm and live peacefully until a private company – Long Son Investment & Commercial – came and disputed their land ownership. Tragedy struck when the government granted Long Son 1,079 hectares of forest land without first doing a proper land  survey, which resulted in the company’s claims overlapping the parcels of land owned by these poor farmers. Over the last 10 years, these farmers have tried everything they could to petition the government to correct the improper land assessment. At the same time, Long Son used force to destroy their crops and tried to kick them off their lands and out of their homes. 

On October 23, 2016, a deadly altercation happened involving Hien, his friends and the workers of Long Son. Hien fired a self-made gun killing three workers and injuring some others when workers invaded his farm with bulldozers and weapons. He was sentenced to death in 2018 and the highest court upheld his sentence this year. His life may be spared if President Nguyen Phu Trong grants him a reprieve. However, there is no indication that this will happen.

The Vietnam Land Law has faced a lot of controversies and criticisms in public because its ambiguity has resulted in the many land disputes that people have been facing. Yet, because the state wants to securely own all of the land in the country, individuals and private entities cannot own land and can only receive land use rights from the state. As a socialist country, the Communist Party does not allow private property ownership, and yet the law defines nicely that land ownership in Vietnam “belongs to the entire people” “with the State acting as the owner’s representative and uniformly managing land.” The State also gives itself the power to “hand over land use rights to land users in accordance with this Law.” (Article 4, Land Law 2013). This clause that the state shall “hand over land use rights” has created land disputes in Vietnam over the past decades and continues to do so because of corruption. 

With the recent story of police officers protesting for their land rights this month in Hanoi, we can see that disputes involving land will continue to be a problematic social issue growing inside the country and that no one will be spared, including government workers and police officers. And if the president of Vietnam does not save the life of Dang Van Hien, Hien will be the first person to be executed due to a land dispute and his case may put more pressure on land administration in Vietnam.

To protect their land rights everyone has to fight, from a poor farmer living in the Central Highlands to the police officers in Vietnam’s capital. The consequences each of them may face for protesting for their rights may be very different. But they all have no other choice but to oppose those who violate their rights. The people have waited patiently and petitioned for 10 or 20 years to protect their rights, but they still have not gotten any response from the judicial system. Corruption and secret deals between some local authorities and real estate developers coupled with an ambiguous law on land administration have worked together to prevent victims of land disputes from having their day in court and receiving justice. 

Land Rights

Timeline Of The Loc Hung Garden Incident

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Loc Hung Garden After the Forced Removal on January 8, 2019. Photo Courtesy: Facebook Nguyen Tri Dung.

The forced eviction at Loc Hung vegetable garden in Saigon on January 4 and 8, 2019 joined the long list of land disputes between the people and the State of Vietnam. We are putting together a timeline of events that have happened to date and will continue to update as this story develops.

December 20, 2018

News about a possible forced eviction came about on December 20, 2018, on social media. Blogger and human rights activist, Pham Doan Trang, reported on her Facebook that according to the residents at Loc Hung, 50 local police officers from different forces in Ward 6 of District Tan Binh showed up at the garden area, demanding the residents to allow them to perform an administrative check. By 1:30 p.m., the police withdrew.

December 29, 2018

The People’s Committee of Ward 6 issued an announcement, stating that they would begin a forced removal of all illegal constructions that were built after January 1, 2018, which also notified the residents that the time for such removal would take place within 90 days from January 2, 2019. It is unclear if all residents received the announcement.

January 3, 2019

During the night of January 1, 2019, the residents announced on social media that the local authorities have brought in barbed wires, frequency disrupting machine, forklifts, and bulldozers to the garden’s area.

January 4, 2019

At daybreak, a group of some 400 people from different police and security forces showed up at Loc Hung and began to block street access to the garden, starting from the Bay Hien intersection to Thanh Thai and To Hien Thanh streets. The removal of some 40 houses lasted from 7:30 A.M. until 6:00 P.M., during which time 20 people were arrested and taken to the Ward 6’s police station for opposing it.

The residents insisted that they had never received any order for such removal.

January 7, 2019

During the night, hundreds of police officers and civil security personnel were ordered to go to Loc Hung where the public speakers – on high volume – were announcing the government would only remove illegally built constructions. Cao Ha Chanh, one of the persons serving on the board of representatives for the families living at Loc Hung, recalled that the removing force still did not provide the people with any legal documents regarding the order to remove before they started to take down the homes.

January 8, 2019

Starting at 5:30 a.m., approximately 1.000 officers from different police forces and others entered Loc Hung garden. Similar to what happened on January 4, 2019, the authorities blocked off the streets leading to the area by putting up the barbed wires. To gain entry, people must show the police their identification. As soon as they arrived, they began arresting those residents identified as “leaders” in the community, including Cao Ha Truc.

Electricity and internet were cut off in the area. By 7:30 A.M., the forklifts and excavators were put to work as the authorities began to tear down the residents’ homes. By the end of the day, all of the houses at Loc Hung garden were demolished. The residents estimated there were about 200 homes.

Among the now homeless people were some 20 disabled veterans who served in the former South of Vietnam’s military who do not have a family and they were being taken care of by the residents and the priests from the Redemptorists Church.

On the same day, Amnesty International – Southeast Asia office – publicly denounced the Vietnamese government’s decision to remove the houses forcefully belong to Loc Hung’s residents.

January 9, 2019

In the early hours of the day, the police released Cao Ha Truc and other residents who got arrested the day before.

The Ho Chi Minh City Police Department’s newspaper was among the first state-owned media reported on the removal of Loc Hung Garden’s houses, which the government estimated to be around 120 in total. Accordingly, the People’s Committee of Ward 6 stated that the removal of the illegal constructions was carried out under proper legal procedures.

January 10, 2019

Tuoi Tre and a few others also reported the story, mostly to allow the District Tan Binh’s authorities to make their argument public, that they have only “enforced the removal of illegal constructions on a public area and not a forced eviction in a land recovery matter.”

Further, the People’s Committee of Tan Binh District confirmed with the media that they had followed the proper legal procedures when organizing the enforcement team to take down a total of 112 construction projects without a permit at Loc Hung between January 4-9, 2019.

January 11, 2019

Chris Hayes, a Labor Party’s member of the Australian Parliament, and a Vietnamese-Australian bishop, Vincent Nguyen Van Long, both called on the Vietnamese government to cease from enforcing the removal of Loc Hung resident’s houses, stating that it is a violation of the people’s freedom of religion and belief.

On the same day, the Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Ho Chi Minh City division, Nguyen Thien Nhan spoke about Loc Hung for the first time.

VnExpress quoted him saying: “there are many things which should be normal, but those who are plotting against the government would still abuse them to incite (others). As seen in a few cases in 2018, the city had learned from our experience so that we would not confront the people, but we will use propaganda activities to let them understand.”

January 12, 2019

The local authorities put up a large panel in the area, announcing a public construction was going to be developed after the removal team had flattened out the entire Loc Hung vegetable garden. On the same day, some of the residents met with a group of lawyers who have expressed interest in providing legal assistance.

January 13, 2019

The Committee for assistance in the development project regarding the public school at Ward 6, District Tan Binh, HCM City (the project to be developed at Loc Hung) announced the assistance policy that the District was going to be provided for those who were farming on the land. Accordingly, on January 10, 2019, the People’s Committee of HCM City approved the assistance proposal for those who have been using the land at Loc Hung garden for agriculture purpose at the rate of 7,055,000 VND/m2.

Attorney Trinh Vinh Phuc published a few photographs of the documents provided by the residents of Loc Hung in support of their claim for legal possession of the land.

January 14, 2019

At 9:00 A.M. a group of religious leaders of the Interfaith Council together with some of the priests from the Redemptorists Church in Saigon went to visit the residents of Loc Hung. In the afternoon, Bishop Paolo Nguyen Thai Hop also came to visit at around 3:00 P.M. During both the morning and afternoon visits of these religious leaders, the local government used loud public speakers to interfere with their prayers and speeches to the residents.

Summary of Factual Disputes Regarding Loc Hung:

The disputed land consists of 4.8 hectares in Ward 6, District Tan Binh, which includes parcels 126-5, 128-5, 129-5, and 131-101-5 according to the No. 12 Map (of the old recordings). The location of the land is as follows: the North West touches Alley 9/24 Cach Mang Thang Tam Street, the South West touches Hung Hoa Street, The South East touches Chan Hung Street, and the North East touches the current existing residence.

The People’s Committee of Tan Binh District claims this land is public because, before April 30, 1975, it was under the management and control of the former Republic of South Vietnam’s Department of Telecommunication and was used as a telecommunication tower. After April 30, 1975, the new government took control of the land according to Decision 111/CP dated April 14, 1977, issued by the Government Council, and continued to use the telecommunication tower.

On the contrary, Loc Hung’s residents claim that the original owner before April 30, 1975, was the Catholics Church of Vietnam who had granted them the right to farm on such land. After April 30, 1975, the residents continued to live and farm on the land undisrupted and without dispute with other people. After the Law on Land 1993 took effect in Vietnam, the residents have been petitioning the government in almost 20 years for the right to possess and usage of the land. However, the government did not respond to their petitions.

(To Be Continued)

References:

Loc Hung Vegetable Garden Continues To Be Harrassed (RFA-Vietnamese)

Loc Hung Vegetable Garden “Devasted after Forced Removal” (BBC-Vietnamese)

Loc Hung Vegetable Garden Under Siege (BBC-Vietnamese)

Forced Removal of 110 Households Was Done According to Law (HCM City Police Department Newspaper)

Forced Removal of 112 Illegally Constructed Houses in The Vegetable Garden (Tuoi Tre)

Tan Binh District Speaks About the Forced Removal at ‘Loc Hung Vegetable Garden’(Vietnamnet)

Australian MP and Vietnamese-Australian Bishop Speaks Up About Loc Hung Incident (RFA-Vietnamese)

HCM City Forced Removal of 112 Houses Built on Public Land (VNExpress)

Tan Binh District Provides More than 7M VND/m2 in Assistance for Loc Hung Vegetable Garden (Tuoi Tre)

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