Land disputes in Vietnam: the social networks mobilise

Land disputes in Vietnam: the social networks mobilise

Pagoda of Lien Tri, near Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon) city centre, April 2016. The Buddhist monk Thick Khong Tanh, who for years ignored the orders of the Ho Chi Minh City Council to take away his pagoda, was removed by force and the temple was demolished to leave the way clear for a new financial district.

(Eric San Juan)

An extraordinary incident occurred in Vietnam last April. Dozens of residents of the My Duc neighbourhood on the outskirts of Hanoi held 38 police officers and civil servants hostage in protest against the authorities’ behaviour during the expropriation of the land that had been theirs for the last 26 years.

They barricaded themselves into their neighbourhood for a week, blocking up the entrances with logs and rocks, ready to repel any attempt by the police to enter. Negotiations with the mayor of Hanoi finally led to an agreement, according to which the appropriation of 50 hectares of land for the telecommunications Company Viettel (owned by the army) is to be re-evaluated and those who took part in the riot will not face any criminal charges.

The incident, both spectacular and exceptional, above all because it was resolved without police violence, illustrates a problem that the Communist Party of Vietnam, the legal owner of all the country’s land, has not been able to resolve.

In a State where any form of dissidence is silenced through intimidation and imprisonment, in which the press is controlled by the government and in which politics is of secondary importance, despite the slow awakening of recent years, land disputes have been one of the few causes of social unrest.

The strong economic growth of the last quarter of a century has led to increasing demand for land for industrial and commercial complexes and new housing. The government and the investors share the profits between them and the losers are often the Vietnamese farmers who by handing over the land also lose their home and their livelihood, for financial compensation well below market value.

In a survey carried out in 2015 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), one quarter of citizens interviewed said they were worried about land disputes, with half saying that nothing was being done to resolve the problem.

A longstanding problem

Before the My Duc incident, one of the most notorious cases was that of Doan Van Vuon, a man who in 2012 confronted the authorities with home-made weapons to try to stop them tearing down his house. He was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison, even though his eviction was declared illegal by the then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.

In the same year the police used force to repress a protest by hundreds of rural Vietnamese in a northern province against forced expropriation. Others tried peaceful resistance, such as the Buddhist monk Thick Khong Tanh, who for years ignored the orders of the Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon) City Council to take away his pagoda.

Last August, however, he was removed by force and the temple was demolished to leave the way clear for a new financial district. All the neighbours in the area had been removed years ago and their homes had been swallowed up by the building company’s machinery.

Tran Thao is a 60-year-old woman who had to leave the neighbourhood she had lived in all her life:

“We had to go and live more than 10 kilometres away in the apartments the government sent us to, but the compensation they gave us only allowed us to buy a small apartment, whereas before we all lived in houses several stories high,’’ she told Equal Times.

’’There are families with seven or eight members who live in apartments of 57 square metres. Some tried to resist but it was pointless because they were forced to go anyway.”

The government did try to improve transparency and to bring compensation closer to market prices with a new law approved in 2014, but there has been no change to one of the root causes of the dispute: the land belongs to the State, which grants concessions for its use and allows the local authorities to fix the prices in the event of eviction.

“Before 1980, the law recognised different forms of land ownership, but after that it was stipulated that the land belongs to the whole population” explains Phan Xuan Son, a professor at the Vietnamese Political Academy, in an article for Political Theory magazine. The expert warns that “in many cases the State is used as a source of unconditional support for the investors” and argues that the vagueness of the law on land management enables the local authorities to interpret it “in their own way”.

Johan Gillespie, a researcher at the University of Monash (Australia) argues in an article on the East Asia Forum portal that under the new law “the authorities continue to set low compensation rates”. His colleague at the same university, Toan Le, notes in a recent analysis on The Diplomat portal “the unlimited opportunities for state officials to misappropriate land in a non-transparent manner”.

Hope thanks to social networks

These last two experts agree however that the peaceful resolution of the My Duc incident proves that citizens have a new ally in their confrontation with the authorities: social networks.

As usual when something is not to the liking of the Communist Party, the traditional media pay little attention to the news and side with the government, but that doesn’t matter anymore: the residents and the handful of activists who used the opportunity to discredit the government recorded videos of the event and images of the barricades and the resistance spread like wildfire across social networks, particularly Facebook, which has 35 million users in Vietnam.

Toan Le believes the dissemination of information through these channels played a fundamental role in the negotiated resolution of the dispute and the lack of repression by the anti-riot police.

“Social networks are without a doubt weakening the government’s ability to control the narrative and public opinion. This has become obvious in the change from an oppressive approach to a gentler more conciliatory one” he notes.

Gillespie however warns of the risk of overstating the importance of social networks, but does say that using them “enables people with minimal journalistic and technical skills to disseminate text and images on the network that reactivate the opposition and present an alternative account to that of the government”.

Anh Chi, an activist and blogger who has spent years following land expropriation cases, knows from personal experience the ability of social networks to propagate awkward information, but he never expected it to force the government to negotiate a solution to a dispute such as My Duc.

“It was a surprising case. After taking the police and civil servants hostage, the residents were able to negotiate as equals with the local government. It was a big change” he told Equal Times.

He doesn’t know if this will set a precedent for future disputes, but he is convinced that they shouldn’t let up now. “Public opinion can put pressure on the government because it is afraid of stirring up the people’s wrath.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.