Land Conflicts In Vietnam: Causes, Effects, And Solutions

Dat Le

Background

Since the adoption of robust economic reforms in the early 1990s, more commonly known as Doi Moi, [1] Vietnam has transformed itself from a war-torn Soviet-style economy into what we know today as one of the region’s most promising rising stars.

Nonetheless, modern Vietnam’s path towards prosperity has been blemished by sometimes violent land disputes and land-related conflicts between government officials, non-state actors, and conventional land users.

The land has become a much-valued resource for the Vietnamese government’s development plan as the country seeks to maintain steady economic growth.

The need for land because of socio-economic “development purposes” has also been associated with the country’s fast-paced modernization and growing population. These factors make the land a hotspot for conflicts.‌‌

The rendering of an urban development project in Ho Chi Minh City, where Vietnam’s largest conglomerate, Vingroup, is the developer. Photo: Nikkei Asia.

Meanwhile, the land acquisition process, which is often marred by forced confiscations, unfair compensations, and misappropriations, has become a source of frustration and discontent among land users in the country.

A more insightful and detailed outlook into the current situation of land conflicts in Vietnam can be found in a research article titled “Land Conflicts in Emerging Suburban Areas in Vietnam: Causes and Effects” [2] published 2020 by Huyen Thanh Do, a policy and programme analyst at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Vietnam. Huyen also presented her work [3] at the ISEAS Institute in Singapore, where she provided some comprehensive solutions to the ongoing conflicts.

In her research, Huyen states that her findings suggest that more work needs to be done to improve land development transparency for the Vietnamese people and create a more level playing field in land governance to mitigate future conflicts.

Regarding the country’s legal framework for land ownership, Vietnam introduced its tenure protection mechanisms on land ownership in the 2003 Land Law, which came into effect in 2004 and was amended in 2013. The land reform law’s introduction resulted from history-long conflicts related to land in the country, alongside Vietnam’s bid to enter into the world economy and the government’s desire to legitimize the regime.

Nonetheless, as the research author argues, the land as mentioned above tenure protection “[has] rarely been implemented,” which often resulted in a rising number of violent clashes among land users, the government, and businesses, both in terms of their scope and scale over the past decade.

There have been over 20 significant cases of land conflict that have taken place in Vietnam, according to a dataset from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) in 2020. [4]

Among these conflicts, seven have taken place in the capital city, Hanoi, including the notorious clash between residents and police in the suburban village of Dong Tam, [5] which consequently led to four deaths. Other land-related disputes have occurred in the economic hub of Ho Chi Minh City, [6] Hai Phong, [7] and other industrial provinces, such as the southern province of Binh Duong and the northern province of Bac Ninh.

Protests over land rights erupted in Dong Tam in 2017, when local villagers were displeased over the authorities’ confiscation of farmlands. Photo: Getty Images/ BBC News.

Meanwhile, there is no private land ownership recognition in Vietnam. Under the 2003 Land Law and the 2013 Constitution, Vietnam defines land as a type of “public property, owned by all the people, represented and uniformly managed by the State.” The Constitution further indicates that the State has the authority to “allocate or lease [...] and recognize” the land use rights of organizations and individuals. [8]

On the one hand, Vietnam’s amended land laws and its Constitution embrace a free market economy by applying land use rights certificates (LURCs) that allow citizens and businesses to use, lease, sell, exchange, or mortgage land for economic activities. Yet, the ambiguity of land ownership has made it “challenging for both individuals and organizations to feel secure about their property rights,” the author claims.

Land conflicts: Causes and effects‌‌

The author’s paper defines “land conflict” as “involving competing claims to large areas of land by groups” which are “not easily resolved within existing law.” The parties involved in the conflict, she says, “may have quite different understandings” regarding the nature of the conflicts.

According to her analysis, the causes of land conflicts in Vietnam can be classified into four different dimensions: political, institutional, economic, and social.

More specifically, political and institutional factors may contribute to the rising number of disputes over land rights due to the vague definitions of land ownership and the lack of transparency in land management. Also, the bias of provincial authorities in favor of economic growth, alongside widening social gaps between the urban and rural classes, is likely to worsen the ongoing problem.

These factors can lead to both immediate and long-term effects on the country’s political stability, economic growth, and social harmony, Huyen explains.

Meanwhile, land disputes, resulting from the shortcomings mentioned above in Vietnam’s governance system, often entail complex issues and involve different conflicting parties.

Asia Foundation, a nonprofit international development organization, categorizes the disputes into five main types, varying from land acquisition and compensation issues to issues associated with land use rights. [9]

Among those issues, disputes regarding land acquisition, compensation, support, and resettlement attract most complaints and discontent from citizens. At the same time, land disputes between local inhabitants and state-run agencies are seen as the most sensitive. They are likely to result in potential conflicts if not resolved carefully.

Most notably, between the nine years from 2011 to 2019, the annual percentage of local citizens reporting residential land seizures had gradually decreased from 10.7 percent in 2011 to only 2.3 percent in 2019. At the same time, the percentage of farmland owners experiencing land expropriations reportedly increased and outnumbered residential landowners in 2018 and 2019.

The percentage of citizens reporting residential and farmland seizures (2011 - 2019). Source: Vietnam Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index (PAPI).

The data used in the research was obtained and analyzed by the Vietnam Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index (PAPI), a collaboration between the Vietnam Union of Science and Technology Associations (VUSTA) and the UNDP in Vietnam. [10]

Conversely, businesses have reported that the state’s risk of people having their land taken decreased over the same period, from around 2.6 percent in 2011 to 1.75 percent in 2019. It shows a consistent trend regarding the land seizure process. While the Vietnamese government has been giving more preferential treatment to firms rather than private landowners, more farmland is also being converted into industrial zones and new urban areas.

Meanwhile, bribery in the procedure of obtaining LURCs has remained relatively unchanged over the years. In 2017, around 20 percent of citizens claimed to have paid bribes to get a LURC, while 32 percent of domestic firms and 17.5 percent of foreign firms reported the same problem. In 2019, these numbers were at 22 percent of citizens, 36 percent of domestic firms, and 10 percent of foreign firms.

Other worrying trends include the growing dissatisfaction among businesses and private landowners regarding the compensation for their confiscated land over the years; the low percentage of landowners who are informed or involved in local land use plans; and the lack of residents’ access to the information regarding land planning procedures – especially in the industrial provinces with high numbers of migrant workers.

Most importantly, local citizens’ discontent with the government’s low compensation has remained a longstanding struggle in the chronicle of land conflicts.

Thu Thiem residents protest in front of government offices over corruption and mismanagement at the Thu Thiem New Urban Area project. Photo: citizens/ RFA.

‌In her presentation at the ISEAS Institute, Huyen mentioned the case of Thu Thiem New Urban Area, a plot of land exclusively allocated for high-end residential development in Ho Chi Minh City, as the prime example of this conflict.

For years, Thu Thiem residents have been protesting over the low compensation rate for their seized lands, about 18 million dong ($797) per square meter, Huyen said in her presentation. It is much lower when compared to the average market price of 97 million dong ($4,294) per square meter in January 2022. Even more outrageous is that at an auction in December 2021, a Vietnamese real estate company offered a hefty 2.4 billion dong ($106,242) for a square meter of Thu Thiem land, which is more than 130 percent of the amount residents were initially compensated. [11]

Solutions

In the conclusion of her presentation at ISEAS, Huyen provided some insightful solutions to the contentious disputes over land rights in Vietnam.

First and foremost, she said she believes that the ideal model for future land governance in the country could be achieved through “strong, sound, and fair policies,” in which the state “treats society and the market equally.” [12]

Huyen also mentioned that Vietnam’s future land policy reform needs to include “enhanced transparency of land plans and compensation schemes, appropriate land pricing, and business responsibility and integrity.” Local citizens should also be more informed about their land rights, the use of lands in their locality, as well as land prices and compensation, Huyen added.

The author also suggested that the upcoming 2022 amendments to the 2013 Land Law should ensure equal access to land use rights and equal bargaining power for every stakeholder while a lobbying law on land access is also needed.

References:‌‌

[1] Nguyen, S. (2022, January 1). The Vietnamese Communist Regime: 35 Years Since Doi Moi Reform. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/12/the-vietnamese-communist-regime-35-years-since-doi-moi-reform/

[2] Do, T. H. (2020). Land Conflicts in Emerging Suburban Areas in Vietnam: Causes and Effects. Local Administration Journal 13(4), 319–346.

[3] Do, T. H. (2022, January 13). Webinar on “Land Conflicts in Suburban Areas in Vietnam: Causes and Effects.” ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. https://www.iseas.edu.sg/media/event-highlights/webinar-on-land-conflicts-in-suburban-areas-in-vietnam-causes-and-effects/

[4] Ibid., [2]

[5] Nguyen, W. (2020, January 9). Long-simmering Land Dispute in Hanoi Suburb Explodes in Violence, Killing 4. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2020/01/long-simmering-land-dispute/

[6] Tran, Q. V. (2019, January 5). Land-Grabbing In Vietnam Gets Serious In Urban Areas. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2019/01/land-grabbing-in-vietnam-gets-serious-in-urban-areas/

[7] Asia Sentinel’s Correspondent. (2012, February 14). Vietnam’s Contentious Land Law, part 4. Asia Sentinel. https://www.asiasentinel.com/p/vietnams-contentious-land-law-part-4

[8] Ibid., [2]

[9] Ibid., [2]

[10] Ibid., [2]

[11] Ibid., [3]

[12] Ibid., [3]‌‌‌‌

Human RightsLand RightsLand ConflictsThu ThiemDong Tam