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Dong Tam Incident: “My Husband Was Loyal To The Party Until His Death”

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Photo Courtesy: Luat Khoa Magazine

(This version was updated on September 12, 2020.)

Hoanh Village, a few days before the historic Dong Tam trial, is a place where the green rice fields are flowing beside country roads under the hot autumn sun. Vietnam’s national flag and banners commemorating the 75th anniversary of its National Day crowd the village gate.

I equipped myself quite well before I arrived in Hoanh Village, in both my mind and my technological tools. 

“That place has many security police. Be careful!” – I was warned in a text message.

I have wanted to go to Hoanh Village during these days to be a journalist and practice the most basic ethical responsibility of our profession. I wanted to report the complete story about a historical event that will happen soon. I wanted to learn about the defendants’ families and what they yearned for, besides justice.

The village welcomed me with the typical peaceful beauty that many northern rural villages offer: a traditional market, big old banyan trees, rice fields, and winding roads. It was as calm as if it had never gone through the recent chaos it had experienced. There were no skeptical eyes staring at a stranger when I accidentally met villagers, or when  they wholeheartedly showed me the directions to Mr. Kinh’s house.

They whispered to me, “So pitiful that house now, with only women and children left.”

There were no security police there; at least that was how I saw it. Yet, there were a few surveillance cameras placed on the awnings of opposite houses, which surprised me a little.

I met Mrs. Du Thi Thanh, the wife of Mr. Le Dinh Kinh, and Mrs. Le Thi Thoa, the fourth daughter of the couple, and their group of little grandchildren. In the house, which was pockmarked by police bullets, they told me stories about their father and husband. My questions were overwhelmed by their memories. The  wife and daughter, and at times, both of them, unwittingly reliving stories about their husband and father as a man from their past. They told me the stories in tears, and there were moments of silence, and even some smiles. Before the attack, there were the peaceful times they had spent in the village.

The wall is used to hang Mr. Le Dinh Kinh’s portrait and his medals, as well as the evidence of bullet fire. Photo courtesy: May/Luat Khoa Magazine.

Mr. Le Dinh Kinh’s portrait and the medals that the government and the Vietnamese Communist Party awarded to him were hung on the wall opposite the main door. The same wall was marked by bullet holes, evidence of the attack one dawn last winter. 

“These things, when he was alive, he treasured them so much,” Mrs. Thanh said, looking up at the medals. “He was given an award when he reached his 55th year as a Communist Party member.”

“What are your memories of him?” I asked the two women.

Du Thi Thanh: 

Our house always needed a lot of upkeep, but he always forced me to take him to attend the Communist Party meetings in our ward. Before, he could go by himself, but starting in 2017, after his leg was broken during an assault by the police, he had to use a wheelchair. The first wheelchair was a gift from Mr. Chung (Nguyen Duc Chung – the former chairman of the Hanoi People’s Committee). Later, the Disabilities Association gave him another wheelchair. I remember when he tested out the second wheelchair, which he praised: ‘This one is smoother, my wife,’ he told me. ‘The first wheelchair came from Chung, I heard it was expensive, but the wheels were wobbly.’

I used the wheelchair to take him to his meetings, waited for him, and we would go back home together. People kept talking, one after another, which made me anxious because I could not know when the meeting would be adjourned.

More than that, the people did not obey any rules because when one person spoke, another would go outside to chat with others. It was just like the chatting done in the market. But it was only my husband and a few others who were thorough. I remember that he proposed to do roll calls to make sure the Communist Party’s meetings in our ward would have sound principles.

When we got home I was annoyed, and I told him if the Communist Party’s meetings were just like that, we should not go because we just sat there and did not benefit from anything. I told him that we were old and we should stay home to rest. However, he was angry with me. He said: ‘Why  would  you say that?  I do not care if there were improper people there. I came because I want to be proper and exemplary.’

If you offer comments about his Communist Party carelessly, then you are bound to be berated.. From then on, if he asked me to take him to such meetings, I would go with him, and I stopped asking him to stay home.

Le Thi Thoa:

There are now only regrets…. Our father-daughter relationship had so many fights …. (She cried.)

I was never close to my father when he was alive. Among his children, I was the child that had so many opposite perspectives from him. I could not sit down and have a proper talk with him without us having a clash of opinions because we would fight right away after exchanging a few sentences. My father whole-heartedly trusted the Communist Party, and he believed in the Communist Party’s Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong without condition. I warned him and told him: ‘Father, many officials nowadays have become corrupt.’ But my father scolded me and said we can’t tar the whole brush because the corrupt officials were only a small group and that they were the lower officials that covered their faults and smeared the Party. 

I had wanted him to let go of the land dispute everytime I witnessed my father face grave danger. I cried and told him that I was scared. I stated that the Party had too many factions, and they could turn against each other to eliminate  the opposition. My father responded to me that he was doing the right thing so he should not be afraid. He said the land of Senh field, where we had disputes with the government, belonged to the people of this ward. He also assured me that if he already made a mistake, the Party would have kicked him out a long time ago.

When he was in the hospital in 2017, some people gave him money when they visited him. He then gave the money to a policewoman and asked her to keep it for him. He always said: ‘(Nguyen Duc) Chung already said so (that the government would never prosecute Dong Tam villagers). Or, he would say ‘the people from the city had promised me already (to not prosecute),’ and that ‘things have to be reported to Mr. (Nguyen Phu) Trong because the Party would then be transparent.’ I was so mad, I stopped talking to him, ignoring the old man’s ideology.

From the time when he was still a local official right up until to his retirement, I saw him as a person who spent so much time volunteering for the community. I felt uneasy. He only cared about the ward and the village’s everyday issues, leaving my mother to take care of our household alone.  As years passed , the Mieu Mon land dispute documents passed  through the  hands of many leaders , but he stored them all in his head. He memorized all of them, line by line, without fail, without a  need to look at the papers.”

Mrs. Du Thi Thanh shows the bullet hole in the glass door. Photo courtesy: May/Luat Khoa Magazine.

Du Thi Thanh:

When he was an official, he only focused on his position and worked for the ward and the village. Even when his wife and kids suffered, he took no notice . When he retired, he began to farm the field. I guess he farmed to compensate his family because there had been so many years that he neglected us. The village people passed by our field and would tease him: ‘Oh, Mr. Kinh, Mr. Kinh. You were an official, why are you only now putting your head to the field?’

Le Thi Thoa:

Other people who were government officials had so much land. My father worked at the top positions in this ward, but my family didn’t even have a rice field when he retired. I remember that my parents would come to some undocumented land that nobody cared to claim . From dawn to dust, they would go there to work on that land, clearing, ploughing, digging, furrowing and cultivating the land till it was ready to be used for planting food crops. . They worked so hard and spent so much time on that field only to have their sweat and blood rewarded by a call from the government to donate all the cultivated land to the ward when harvesting time came. Is that reasonable? But then I have never heard my father blame the Party or curse  the government. He only scolded me. (She smiled.)

I was irritated and slightly annoyed at the absurdity when I read online that people cast doubt on the source of money my father received from overseas, indicating it was from the reactionary forces.  Truth be told,  my father would forever continue believing in the Communist Party until his last dying breath.

If he truly believes that something is right and is not against his conscience, my father would fight to protect it till the very end. He used that mentality to protect the Senh field and the Communist Party.

Du Thi Thanh:

Until his last days, even after witnessing so many city officials do an about-face, he still believed in his Party. I worried for his safety, but he chided  me: ‘You do not need to worry about me. I am a Communist Party member. A Party member must stand up and take care of the people. If we ignore the truth and  don’t speak up, we are guilty in front of the people.’

I remember when he was young, he would pedal with only one leg, but he  was incredibly fast. He would bike across the fields to go to the town center for a meeting. He was disabled in one leg, but he was talented so it helped him to become the head of the ward police force. He could only stand up on one leg, but he took care of all of the ward’s work thoroughly. The people in this ward respected and loved him.

Le Thi Thoa:

I recall that he told us he had played soccer when he was young and sprained his leg. Unfortunately, he did not receive proper treatment, which led to a permanent disability later on in life. My father was always so busy with work. When he was riding his Thong Nhat branded bicycle or when he got a ride on a motorbike to go to the district office, he always had to stretch out his disabled leg.  Even having his  meals or a cup of  tea, he could not fold that leg. When he walked, it seemed as if  he was dragging it along.

Du Thi Thanh:

But they shot and blasted his disabled leg.

Le Thi Thoa:

Dad died such an inconsolable death.. What is there left when  all of the men in this house have been arrested. We can only pray to Heaven. We looked up at the sky and cried our hearts out about the injustice. When we fixed part of our home after the assault and repaired the damage caused by the police attack , our mother wept until she passed out because she was so heart-broken that our family now was left with only women and young children. My father’s belief caused all of that. If I knew in the end that our family would be this broken, I would have made more of an effort to stop my dad from disputing the land with the government. You should throw away everything, dad!” (Le Thi Thoa sobbed)

Mrs. Du Thi Thanh shows the bullet holes in the wall. Photo courtesy: May/Luat Khoa Magazine.
Another bullet hole in the home of Mr. Le Dinh Kinh. Photo courtesy: May/Luat Khoa Magazine.

“We will walk (to court) from our village” 

Du Thi Thanh:

My sons, my grandsons, are all in prison. It has been more than eight months, and our family did not receive any news about them. My son Chuc, did the wound on his head heal? Ten days after he was arrested, his wife gave birth to a son. His wife sent him a picture of the newborn baby, but the prison officials did not allow him to receive it. I believe that Doanh got shot in the arm, how is he now? Uy, and then Cong. My sons and my grandsons are all working people.  They each have their own family . Their wives now have to raise their children alone and unsupported. If I knew this in advance,  I’d rather kept my mouth shut . I would have forced all of them to be silent. How could any piece of land be more precious than having a peaceful family life?” 

Le Thi Thoa:

The rental car company did not accept our reservation (or that of any of the villagers) to rent cars to go to the trial. The company told us that the police had forewarned them. An official in our ward advised us to stay home because we would not be allowed to enter the Hanoi courthouse. But regardless, we will go there. We will walk from our village to Hanoi and attend the trial. My mother wants to see her sons and grandsons. The  young  children in our house want to see their fathers; the wives want to see their husbands. No one should be able to prevent us from doing that.

Du Thi Thanh:

What do I expect at the trial? I just want to meet my sons and grandsons. I want them to issue a death certificate for my husband. He passed away more than eight months ago, but we have yet to receive the death certificate. The officials from our ward forced me to state the reason for his death as ‘died at home.’ No. That was not right. Mr. Le Dinh Kinh was shot to death at home. A bullet entered near his heart. Two bullets were fired into his head. His left knee was shattered. That was how my children’s father died. The bloodstain is still in our room, how could they lie like that?

The bloodstain is right here. It is very stubborn though, I could not wash it off.

“Just stay still here, I will go downstairs and get you a wet cloth to help  you  breathe better.” That was my last sentence  to my husband. The fumes were so heavy. I was going back to his side  when someone took my arms and dragged me away. When I came back home, the room was covered in blood. Our home was shattered. Can you see this door jamb protruding out? A bullet is stuck in it.

***

Mrs. Thanh relived the story as she walked me around her house.

I could see the remnants of bullets fired through their glass door. Their closets were also shot up, and the wall had a massive crack. There were  areas of newly patched cement, but others were  left untouched. Evidence of bullets was everywhere, substantial bullet holes, smaller holes, on the first floor and the second floor. They were also in the kitchen and the living room. There were also black stains on the floor, which Mrs. Thanh suspected it came from the tear gas. 

She was walking with her hunched shoulder, her hair all white. Just like her daughter, she doesn’t believe in anyone because “only Heaven could help my sons and grandsons” during the trial starting next Monday. The two women did not say words like “justice”, “righteousness”, or “fairness” when they referred to the trial as I had imagined they might. They did not expect too much, just the simple wish to be able to see their loved ones and to somehow brush each other’s hands at the trial hearing.

I just wanted to write down their stories, documenting ordinary farmers who unfortunately have family members caught in the justice of law and now tried as defendants. Although I guaranteed that I would not write  about the land dispute issues or give speculation on which side is right or wrong, not a single newspaper in Vietnam accepted to publish this article.

On September 7, 2020 when the Dong Tam trial begins, where would we see the faces of the mother, wives, and children of the 29 defendants from Hoanh Village and the Mit Village, both located in Dong Tam Ward?  Broadcast on television? Captured on cameras or on the cover of newspapers? Would the state-owned media specifically describe these women as who they are and not as people from the reactionary force?

I hope that my imagination about their fate during the Dong Tam trial will not turn real. I also hope that there will be a place, a time to safely and freely tell their stories. Their voices have been silenced for so long.

***

The original article was written in Vietnamese by May and published in Luat Khoa Magazine. The English translation was done by Karie Nguyen.

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Land Rights

This Land Is Our Land: 100 Years Of Blood Spilled Over Land Rights In Vietnam

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Photo courtesy: Luat Khoa Magazine

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.

A rural area in Rach Gia Province in the 1920’s. Photo courtesy: Manh Hai/Flickr

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.

Fatalities: 24 

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.

Farmers who were barefooted in Gia Rai District, Bac Lieu Province in the 1920’s.
Photo courtesy: Manh Hai/Flickr

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

Fatalities: 5

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.

Cambodian general Les Kosem who had Cham ethnicity, a leader of FULRO, who were with other Thuong people. Photo courtesy: Documentation Center of Cambodia.

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

Fatalities: Unknown

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.

Mr. Trinh Khai. Photo courtesy: Mai Pham/Facebook.

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

Fatalities: 5

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.

The building of the People’s Committee of An Ninh Ward, Quynh Phu District, Thai Binh Province which was destroyed by protestors destroyed in the night of June 26, 1997, value was estimated at 800 millions dong. Photo courtesy: Bauxite Vietnam.

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

Fatalities: Unknown

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.

Uprising in the Central Highlands in 2004. Photo courtesy: YouTube.

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.

Doan Van Vuon’s land and house were demolished by the government.
Photo courtesy: Thanh Nien newspaper.

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.

Van Giang farmers during the fight for their land. Photo courtesy: Reuters.

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

Fatalities: 2 

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.

From left to right, Dang Van Hien, Ha Van Truong, and Ninh Viet Binh at their trial.
Photo courtesy: Zing. Graphic image: Luat Khoa Magazine.

9. Dang Van Hien, Dak Nong Province

Time of dispute: 2008 – now

Victims: Dang Van Hien and other families

Offenders: Long Son Co.

Fatalities: 3

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.

Mr. Le Dinh Kinh. Photo courtesy: Dong Tam TV.

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

Fatalities: 4

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.

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Recap: Sentencing in the Dong Tam Trial

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All Defendants in the Dong Tam trial at the sentencing. Photo courtesy: Vietnam News Agency

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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The Dong Tam Case: What happens next?

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Photo courtesy: Vietnam News Agency. Graphic image: Luat Khoa Magazine

On September 14, 2020, the Hanoi People’s Court delivered the judgments in the trial of the Dong Tam case.

What will happen next?

First of all, we need to understand this is a first-instance trial and the judgments have not yet come into force. The enforcement of criminal judgments therefore is not yet initiated. 

Appeal

Within 15 days of the first-instance trial’s verdict, which is from September 14-29, 2020, there are two possible scenarios. 

(Note: According to the instruction from the Supreme People’s Court, the time limit for appeal is calculated from the day after the verdict is delivered, which is September 15, 2020.)

1. If the rulings are not appealed, they will automatically come into force on the 16th day after the verdict was delivered, which will be on September 30, 2020. The sentence enforcement procedure will also be initiated on that day. 

2. If the rulings are appealed:

  • Appeal by the defendants: If any of the defendants, victims or their representatives appeal against the rulings, the case will move into the appellate trial phase. The whole trial will be restarted. In this case, the time limit for making an appeal is September 29, 2020. 

If an appeal is filed beyond the 15-day limit, the appellate court can still consider it permissible “on condition that the appellant has been obstructed by force majeure or objective obstacles from lodging an appeal within the time limit as defined by this Law.” (Article 335, 2015 Criminal Procedure Code)

  • Appeal by the Procuracy: If the Hanoi People’s Procuracy appeals against all or parts of the judgments, the case will also move into the appellate trial phase.
  • Appeal by the Supreme People’s Procuracy in Hanoi: according to law, they have a 30-day limit to appeal the rulings after the verdict was delivered.

What is an appellate trial?

According to Article 330, 2015 Criminal Procedure Code, “Appellate trial means that the immediate superior Court re-tries a case or re-considers the decisions passed by the first instance trial, whose judgments and rulings pronounced for the case are appealed before coming into force.”

In other words, all or parts of the rulings will be re-considered by the immediate superior court.

What is the superior court in this case?

The Supreme People’s Court in Hanoi

When will the appellate trial take place?

At the moment, there is no detailed instruction document on how to calculate the time frame to open the appellate trial, but based on the 2015 Criminal Procedure Code, we can estimate a number of markers for what happens next:

  • Within 75 days upon the admission of a case, the Supreme People’s Court in Hanoi has to issue a decision to hear the appellate case. Therefore, we can estimate in case of appeal, that the last day to issue the decision will be December 13, 2020 (Sunday). Since it is a non-working day, the time limit can be extended to December 14, 2020 (Monday).
  • Within 15 days upon issuing the decision to hear the appellate case, the court has to start the appellate trial. Therefore, we can estimate in case of appeal the last day to start the appellate trial will be December 29, 2020 (Monday).
  • Within 10 days upon issuing the decision to hear the appellate case, the court has to send this decision to the Procuracy–which is on an equal level of hierarchy–and to the defense counsels, crime victims, litigants and protectors of legitimate rights and benefits of crime victims, litigants, appellants, persons incurring interests and duties from the appeal. The last day of this time frame will be December 23, 2020 (Monday).
  • The court can delay the appellate trial for no more than 30 days, which means the last day in this case could be on January 28, 2021 (Wednesday).

In practice, however, the court can violate the time limit regulations. The appellate trial therefore can be delayed to a much later time than the above estimated number of days.

While awaiting the appellate trial, what can happen?

  • The Supreme People’s Court can make decisions on changing or terminating preventive measures such as detention. Although practically, there is no possibility some defendants will be released on bail awaiting the appellate trial, yet it is still an available legal option.
  • If the appellants withdraw the appeals, the court will suspend the appellant trial. In practice, this is also unlikely. 
  • The Procuracy, the defendants and their lawyers can submit additional evidence.
  • The lawyers and family members are entitled to meet the defendants. Other individuals, organizations (the media, social organizations, international organization, etc.) can file proposals to meet with the defendants.

In order to better understand this case, we need to study thoroughly the Law on temporary detention and custody.

What are the possible outcomes of the appellate trial?

According to Article 355, 2015 Criminal Procedure Code, the possible outcomes of an appellate trial could be:

  • Reject appeals and sustain the first-instance court’s judgments;
  • Alter the first-instance trial’s judgments;  
  • Annul the first-instance court’s judgment and send the case back for re-investigation or retrial;
  • Annul the first-instance trial’s judgments and dismiss the case;  
  • Terminate the appellate trial if the appellants withdraw their appeals.

In case of altering the first-instance trial’s judgments, if the appeals are filed by the defendants, the appellate court cannot deliver a harsher sentence than what has already been given to the defendants.

In case of altering the first-instance trial’s judgments, if the appeals are filed by the procuracy or the crime victims, the appellate court can deliver rulings that are disadvantageous to the defendants.

What may happen after the appellate trial?

The rulings from the appellate trial will come into force immediately.

If the appellate court sustains the first-instance trial’s judgments, or alters the judgments but sustains the sentences, the enforcement procedure will be initiated. The defendants become convicts (serve jail sentences, face death penalties). In this case, one must study thoroughly the Law on execution of criminal judgments.

The convicts with death sentences still have a chance to file pardon petition for commutation of death sentence with the state president (within 7 days after the appellate rulings were delivered), petition for a cassation trial, or file for a retrial of the case.

If the appellate court chooses to delivers other outcomes, then there are corresponding legal options for each scenario.

***

This article was written in Vietnamese by Tran Ha Linh and previously published on Luat Khoa Magazine. The translation is done by Y Chan.

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