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.