As details and testimonies slowly emerge from Dong Tam after a surprise government raid early the morning of January 9, tensions between officials and civil society activists continue to mount as the two groups fight to clarify events that led to the deaths of 84-year-old village leader Le Dinh Kinh and three police officers, as well as the arrest of more than 30 villagers.
Compounding tensions is the fact that Vietnam is a one-party authoritarian state in which all official news, press, and media outlets are controlled by a single communist party. Citizen-journalists make ample use of social media to counter the systemic bias, as the general population struggles to establish the facts.
State media announced yesterday that 22 individuals have been charged: 20 for murder, including two of Kinh’s sons, Le Dinh Chuc and Le Dinh Cong, as well as 2 others for obstruction of officials. Murder is among the most serious charges of the Vietnamese penal code, with punishment ranging up to and including the death penalty.
The clash in Dong Tam was the culmination of a land dispute that had been simmering for years over private farmland earmarked for a military airport (Mieu Mon). Experts state that land disputes in Vietnam have become increasingly common, at Loc Hung garden in Ho Chi Minh City most recently, due to the ambiguous laws that the ostensibly “communist” country has enacted regarding land ownership.
According to villager testimonies, around 3 AM the morning of January 9, 2020, approximately 3,000 officers from the police, riot, and armed forces carrying clubs, sticks, guns, shields, and tear gas grenades poured into Dong Tam village (My Duc suburban district, Hanoi), targeting village leader Le Dinh Kinh’s house.
Collecting eyewitness accounts, citizen-journalist and activist Pham Doan Trang explained: “as violent skirmishes broke out, police used an explosive charge to blow a hole into village leader Kinh’s house, all while firing bullets and tear gas. Other officers tightly sealed off all the paths and alleyways in the village and used German shepherds to hunt down ‘culprits’. The villagers responded with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Police completely collapsed the roof of Le Dinh Kinh’s house and more than 30 members of his extended family were taken away.”
Trang reports that the Dong Tam area is currently under complete lockdown and no independent journalists have been allowed in, noting state media outlets simultaneously began reporting the same story January 9, citing a single source: Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security. The brief statement from the ministry stated that a number of officers ‘sacrificed themselves’ in the line of duty, while one ‘hostile culprit’ died.
It was not until January 10 that state media identified the “hostile culprit” as village leader Le Dinh Kinh himself, who was accused of leading a mob of villagers to “obstruct officials” who were working on constructing a wall delineating Mieu Mon Airport. Officials did not explain why this work was being done at four in the morning, nor why 3000 officers were present in the village rather than closer to the Mieu Mon work site, a few kilometers away. Officials handed over Kinh’s body to villagers the same day (January 10).
Luong Tam Quang, deputy head of the Ministry of Public Security, explained at a press conference January 14 that Kinh was shot because he was “holding a grenade” and posed a threat to security forces. Quang, however, confirmed that the Ministry of Public Security did not have an arrest warrant for anyone when police stormed Kinh’s private residence.
Kinh’s wife, Du Thi Thanh, told land rights activist Trinh Ba Tu that Kinh was shot right in front of her, twice in the head, once in the heart, and once in the left foot. A viral video of Kinh’s body on social media showed a single bullet hole near his heart, and an unexplained long surgical scar down his abdomen.
Kinh’s funeral was held January 13, but the area of Dong Tam remained under high security, with the internet cut. Little to no footage of the funeral is available, and supporters were largely prevented from attending.
Public outpouring of support for Kinh has been swift on social media, with many seeing him as a exemplary moral leader who consistently fought for the weak. In his lifetime, Kinh was a peasant farmer, a revolutionary soldier who had fought against the Americans, a Communist Party member at 20, head of police in his village, and both party secretary and chairman of the village’s Party committee in the 1980s.
That the Vietnamese government has killed a model Party member has intellectuals commenting on the inherent symbolism, stating Kinh’s murder represented the communist regime “digging its own grave”.
Kinh’s wife, Du Thi Thanh, herself suffered harsh mistreatment from the authorities, and in a surreptitiously recorded video that has spread on social media, she details how police slapped and kicked her repeatedly to force her to falsely confess to using grenades and petrol bombs.
Her son Le Dinh Cong, adopted daughter Bui Thi Noi, and her grandchildren Le Dinh Doanh and Le Dinh Quang are also likely victims of forced confessions, as their battered images appeared on state television January 13, stoically confessing to making petrol bombs and other weapons to attack police. They admitted they had broken the law, even implicating prominent activist Nguyen Anh Tuan and blogger Le Dung Vova in encouraging “anti-state” activities.
All four subjects were covered in scrapes, black eyes, bruises, and swellings, and looked down as they spoke during the entire recording, appearing to be reading from statements off-camera.
Forced scripted confessions, particularly those aired on state television, are common in authoritarian regimes, like Vietnam, China, and North Korea.
State media also reported that Le Dinh Chuc, Le Dinh Kinh’s second son, is laying in a hospital; his condition is unknown.
The January 14 press conference further identified the three police officers killed in the raid as: Colonel Nguyen Huy Thinh, Captain Pham Cong Huy, and Lieutenant Duong Duc Hoang Quan.
After days of state media reporting that the villagers attacked and killed the officers by grenades, knives and petrol bombs, deputy head Quang admitted that the three individuals had fallen down a four-meter skylight in Kinh’s residence while pursuing suspects. He alleges that Dong Tam residents, upon seeing the officers in the well, poured gasoline and lit them on fire.
All three officers have been given posthumous awards and the honorary title of “martyr” by President and Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong for their service.
Vietnam has cracked down on those challenging the official narrative, and according to citizen-journalist Pham Doan Trang, the government has arrested people in Can Tho, Quang Ngai, and Dak Nong for posting online about the event. She also notes that land rights activists (and brothers) Trinh Ba Tu and Trinh Ba Phuong, who are in direct contact with the Dong Tam villagers and have worked to smuggle information out, are currently at high risk of arrest.
Facebook itself is now complicit in the oppression, activists say , as the government—using a cybersecurity law it passed in 2018—has succeeded in pressuring the company to remove videos and posts regarding the Dong Tam attack; Vietnam’s own online army has succeeded in bringing down some activists’ profiles through coordinated campaigns.
Vietnamese civil society organizations have responded accordingly, organizing several campaigns to bring awareness to the event, as well as pressure the Vietnamese government to address inconsistencies and unknowns in the government’s “evolving” narrative.
Luat Khoa Magazine, an independent journal that covers legal and political issues in Vietnam, has mailed a letter to To Lam, head of Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security with a list of fundamental legal questions for Mr. Lam to answer (English translation here), while a nationwide, weeklong “Pray for Dong Tam” color campaign launched Sunday, Jan 12, calling for calm, mourning, and an objective investigation into what transpired January 9 (English translation here).
Perhaps most significantly, the “Dong Tam Task Force”, an ad hoc organization established by leading Vietnamese activists, launched January 13 to organize, coordinate, and facilitate fact-finding in the Dong Tam attack (English translation here). It also aims to protect the remaining village witnesses from further government harassment and arrest.
Thien An Abbey – 45 Years Under The Government’s Fist
“Thien An” means “heavenly peace”, but the Catholic monks here have never lived in peace.
In the 45 years since Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, the monks of Thien An Abbey have only known hard labor and study, and resistance against forces hell-bent on taking their land by any and all means.
Thien An Hill today is no longer covered by sweeping pine forests; under the government’s fist, the trees have all withered away. The authorities have coercively taken the land by using thugs. The monks defend themselves using the only weapon they have: prayer.
Once sacred and picturesque, the area has now become anything but. How did this come to pass?
Thien An Abbey is born on Thien An Hill
1940 – 1943: The abbey comes into existence
In 1940, Father Romain Guilauma, a French missionary, purchased a piece of land on today’s Thien An Hill. The place resembled a miniature Da Lat and was only about 10 km away from the center of Hue. Father Guilauma built a thatched cottage on the land to receive monks from the Order of Saint Benedict. The land is currently situated in Cu Chanh Village, Thua Thien – Hue Province.
Antonin-Fernand Drapier, the French Resident Superior of the Holy See, said a celebratory mass upon the opening of the abbey on June 10, 1940. The abbey was given the name “Thien An”, meaning “heavenly peace”.
1943 – 1965: Digging Lake Thuy Tien, planting pine forests
During this time, monks expanded the abbey’s footprint, building structures, cultivating the land, and raising livestock to achieve self-sufficiency.
The abbey built a chapel and a three-story building with 28 rooms in 1943. In 1956, the abbey began construction on a second three-story building, with 38 rooms on the upper two floors.
The pine forests on Thien An Hill were almost certainly planted by monks during this time period. Furthermore, according to the Hue Festival, monks also dug two large lakes (Upper and Lower Thuy Tien), which provided water for the entire area.
From then on, these lakes and pine forests became one of Hue’s hidden getaways and the area began to be referred to as Thien An – Lake Thuy Tien.
1965 – 1975: Re-issuing a copy of the “parcel map”
In 1969, Abbot Thomas Chau Van Dang asked the Thua Thien provincial Land Office (under the Republic of Vietnam) to reissue “copies of relevant land registers and maps”, lost after the violent Tet Offensive in 1968.
The abbey stated that the Land Office provided it with “a copy of the parcel map”, that showed an area of 107 hectares.
According to the map, abbey land bordered Upper Duong Xuan Village to the north, Bang Lang and Kim Son villages to the south, Minh Manh Road to the east, and Bara Dam and Cu Chanh villages to the west.
Monks have stated that these 107 hectares of land are predominantly pine forests, punctuated by a fish farm, a dam, an elementary school, an orphanage, Duc Me (Mother Mary) Hill, and Thanh Gia (Cross) Hill.
Four decades of unrest
1975 – 2000: Abbey land is turned into an amusement park and private villas are also built on the site
After the Communist victory in 1975, religious establishments no longer had a voice. They had to follow the orders of the revolutionary government, no matter how backwards these orders were.
In January 1976, the head of Hue’s Office of Agriculture and Forestry asked the abbey to “cede” a school it no longer used to house workers. The office began using the school before the abbey had agreed to cede the property.
Afterwards, the abbey said, the government garrisoned troops on abbey land and asked the monks to hand over its dispensary, orphanage, and one hectare of land. The abbey faced with no choice and had to agree. A fish pond was also later requisitioned.
The land dispute over Thien An Hill took on another layer of complexity when the central government became involved.
In November 1999, the People’s Committee of Thua Thien – Hue Province recommended that the government confiscate Thien An Hill to construct an amusement park. A month after, Vietnam’s prime minister decided to take over more than 49 hectares of the abbey’s land and rent it to the Ancient Capital Hue Travel Company (a state-run business) to build the Thuy Tien Lake and Thien An Hill Amusement Park.
In the process of confiscating the abbey’s land, monks stated, the government wrongly used an order for uncultivated land, which meant the government could confiscate lands without providing the abbey with any compensation or advance notification; as such, the abbey was neither compensated nor notified that the land had been taken.
The abbey petitioned the government regarding the wrongful confiscation of the land, stating that the government lacked jurisdiction according to the Land Law at the time.
Also in 1999, Boi Tran Villa, a restaurant and an exhibition hall for an individual, Ms. Phan Thi Van’s paintings, was constructed. The abbey said that the villa’s land was previously the abbey’s orange grove, which the Tien Phong Forestry School had partitioned off and sold.
The forestry school later became the Tien Phong Forestry Company, owned by the People’s Committee of Thua Thien – Hue Province.
2000 – 2010: The state “does not recognize” the 107 hectares of abbey land
Before the abbey’s petition was even addressed, the Thuy Tien Lake amusement park opened in 2001, with more than 70 billion dong (US$3million) in investment.
In 2002, Vietnam’s State Inspector General addressed the abbey’s petition, responding that: “The State does not recognize Thien An Abbey’s land usage rights for the 107 hectares of land and pine forest on Thien An Hill.”
What’s even more strange is that while the State Inspector General pointed out that “the entirety of the land and pine forest on Thien An Hill” had been given to the Tien Phong Forestry School in 1976, the abbey was completely unaware of this.
The abbey continued to oppose the Inspector General’s conclusion through more of its petitions to the government, stating that such conclusion did not focus on resolving the abbey’s disagreement according to the prime minister’s decision.
The Thuy Tien Lake Amusement Park had begun admitting people from the public in the middle of 2004. However, by 2008, it was suffering heavy losses. The provincial People’s Committee later allowed another company to lease the amusement park.
In December 2008, the government issued a directive for provinces and cities to review and return to religious organizations all properties that were not being used effectively; however, none of Thien An Abbey’s properties were returned.
2010 – 2015: Another villa in the “special-use forest”
The government designated Thien An Hill a “special-use forest” but continued to build villas within it.
In 2010, the Cat Tuong Quan Retreat was constructed. The business venture was pursued by another individual, Ms. Ta Thi Ngoc Thao, aiming to provide a space for rest, meditation, and Zen study. The abbey stated that the retreat’s land was previously the abbey’s orange grove that the Tien Phong Forestry School had partitioned off and sold.
In 2011, the Thuy Tien Lake Amusement Park was closed down due to unprofitability.
Thien An Abbey reported that in 2013, the Thua Thien – Hue Province People’s Committee issued papers certifying Tien Phong Forestry Company’s land usage rights, which included a number of the abbey’s structures, including an internal road, a chapel, a dormitory, and a building that the Hue Office of Agriculture and Forestry had borrowed since 1976.
2015 – 2017: Conflict escalates, a statue of Jesus smashed
From the beginning of 2015, peace was shattered on Thien An Hill as the gentle lands became anything but.
The abbey said that beginning in January 2015, the government proposed multiple times that the abbey accept a measly 18 hectares of land so that their claims would be entered into the official registry. The abbey refused.
In May 2015, monks discovered that a statue of Jesus belonging to the abbey had been smashed and scattered in the wilderness.
At the beginning of 2016, a group that included police, cadres, employees of the Tien Phong Forestry Company, and reporters entered the abbey to investigate the chopping down of numerous pine trees. Afterwards, the monks were rounded up by investigators allegedly for the crime of deforestation. The monks stated that an article in the Vietnam Law Newspaper slandered the abbey, falsely accusing it of deforestation and obstructing officials.
In March 2016, a statue of Jesus that had just been put up was pulled down by a group of women, civil defense officers, and cadres mobilized by the government.
In the middle of 2016, the abbey reported that the Thuy Bang commune authorities led about 200 individuals accompanied by a large excavator to halt road construction linking the abbey to a partially-completed garden. The Thuy Bang Commune People’s Committee afterwards issued the abbey a form stating that it had trespassed on special-use forest land by constructing this road.
In March 2017, authorities continued to mobilize people to prevent the abbey from leveling land in areas the abbey claimed.
That same month, unknown persons carved large V’s into numerous pine trees near the abbey’s dam, causing them to slowly wither and die.
In May 2017, the government continued to allow numerous individuals to arrive at the abbey and disrupt renovation work on the abbey’s claimed land.
At the end of June 2017, a statue of Jesus and the Holy Cross was resurrected only for the government to pull it down again. A number of monks were injured in the incident, but were unable to get to the hospital for treatment because police had set up traffic barriers blocking exit from the abbey.
After that scuffle, the provincial People’s Committee met with abbey representatives, but the conflict remained unresolved. The committee stated that the prime minister’s statement in 1999 and the State Inspector General’s decision in 2002 were “faultless and should remain as is”.
On July 25, 2017, the abbey reported that the provincial People’s Committee had responded to a number of the abbey’s grievances regarding the piney hill:
First, the abbey’s school building was demolished according to the government’s 1976 Decision 188/CP because the school was a “remnant of land possession and colonial exploitation…”
Second, the land which the Cat Tuong Quan Retreat sat on originally belonged to the Tien Phong Forestry School, which transferred it to a residential household in 1984; this entity then passed it onto another household, which then passed it onto the retreat.
Third, the owner of the Boi Tran Villa purchased land for his/her villa by combining purchases from two different households: one from the household that passed the land to the Cat Tuong Quan retreat and the rest from another household.
Fourth, regarding another household that was supposedly using abbey land, the committee stated that this household was sitting on land that the forestry school had granted to the family in 1984 to start a garden and build a house.
The abbey argued that the committee’s explanations were not convincing, especially since land survey records remain conspicuously missing.
On December 18, 2017, commune authorities blocked monks from setting up a Christmas welcome gate on an internal road leading into the abbey.
Approximately one week later, the abbey reported that Phan Ngoc Tho, the vice-chairman of the Thua Thien – Hue Province People’s Committee, proposed that the Order of Saint Benedict and the Provincial Vietnamese Order of Saint Benedict no longer designate Father Nguyen Huyen Duc as the abbey superior and that he should be transferred out of the province.
2018: Year of repeated forest fires
In January 2018, Thuy Bang commune police asked the abbey to provide a list of individuals who resided at the abbey in any form to help with on-site corroboration.
At the beginning of March 2018, after monks felled a tree to prevent a fire, police and traffic officers, forest management, and government cadres all joined forces to obstruct the felling, ultimately confiscating the pine tree. After this event, five incidences of forest fire occurred one after the other.
On March 4, 2018, a portion of the abbey’s claimed pine forest caught fire. After the fire, four other forest fires occurred on May 10, May 22, May 23, and July 4, 2018. The abbey claimed that the fires destroyed about 8 hectares of pine trees that were about 60 years old.
In June 2018, Phan Ngoc Tho became the chairman of the Thua Thien – Hue Province People’s Committee after his predecessor retired early.
On July 18, 2018, the abbey reported that a group of employees from the Tien Phong Forestry Company had entered the burned land on July 4 to plant pine trees but were stopped by the abbey.
In December 2018, the abbey continued to demand the Tien Phong Forestry Company return the school it had borrowed from the abbey.
2019 – 2020: Strains continue to worsen
On the night of April 19, 2019, about three hectares of old pine trees that had grown for more than 60 years burned completely. According to the abbey, Tien Phong Forestry Company regularly claims that it manages the land but it did nothing to stop the burning.
The abbey reported that this fire and the previous five fires were ignored by firefighters and that the government, which has released no public information about the events, failed to carry out an investigation into the damage.
In May 2020, Thua Thien – Hue provincial authorities announced that they would transform the dilapidated Thuy Tien Lake Amusement Park into a “cultural park to serve the community, a state-of-the-art creative space, a sculpture garden.”
About a month afterwards, approximately one hectare of the abbey’s pine forest was hacked to pieces. Many large pine trees were sawed into, leaving deep scars that would kill the trees slowly without felling them.
In July 2020, the abbey continued to send official documents asking for the return of the elementary school that the Tien Phong Forestry School borrowed from the abbey.
Over three consecutive days, from August 10-12, 2020, when the entirety of Thua Thien – Hue Province was on-guard against COVID-19, a crowd of approximately 40 people held up signs and shouted over loudspeakers at the site of a toppled statue of Jesus, demanding the abbots halt their work and return the land to them.
Abbots recognized these individuals as committee cadres, members of the Thuy Bang commune women’s association, and familiar security and surveillance officers.
Protests of this nature cannot be organized without the backing of local authorities. The ongoing dispute between the abbey and the government continues to escalate with no prospects of good results. We will continue to update the latest developments of this dispute in the coming months.
This article was written in Vietnamese by Thai Thanh and previously published on Luat Khoa Magazine. The translation is done by Will Nguyen.
This Land Is Our Land: 100 Years Of Blood Spilled Over Land Rights In Vietnam
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
9. Dang Van Hien, Dak Nong Province
Time of dispute: 2008 – now
Victims: Dang Van Hien and other families
Offenders: Long Son Co.
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.
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
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.
Recap: Sentencing in the Dong Tam Trial
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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