Vietnam Farmers Hold Policemen amid Standoff Over Land Dispute

by Nhan Quyen • [Human Rights]

Radio Free Asia, April 17, 2017

A group of farmers in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi on Monday continued to detain at least 20 people—including riot police—in a situation sources described as “heated,” after a land dispute led to a rare incident of violence between residents and authorities over the weekend.

On the morning of April 15, police clashed with residents of Dong Tam commune, in Hanoi’s My Duc district, who say the government is seizing 47 hectares (116 acres) of their farmland for the military-run Viettel Group—the country’s largest mobile phone operator—without compensating them.

Police arrested several farmers for allegedly causing social unrest, and other farmers responded by detaining at least 20 police officers and threatening to kill them if security personnel attack again, according to social activist La Viet Dung, who was able to visit the area on April 16.

“On arriving in My Duc, I saw that the situation was ‘heated’ and that local villagers are very determined,” Dung told RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Monday.

“If any of the detained riot police had shown any resistance, he might have been beaten to death and whoever committed the act would never be known. The villagers are so upset—to an extent that I rarely see.”

The Associated Press cited Dung in a report saying that the farmers are currently holding more than 30 people, including more than 20 riot police, as well as local policemen and officials. Relative peace had returned to the area as the standoff continues, the report said.

Hanoi’s government has demanded that the farmers release the detainees and gradually increased a security presence around Mieu Mon village, where they are being held. Electricity and wireless phone networks have been cut off in the area, leaving residents unable to communicate with the outside world.

The farmers want authorities to release those who have been arrested and for the government to give up its plan to take their farmland without compensation.

Activists around the country have called on Hanoi to withdraw security forces from the area, for the farmers to release the police officers, and for both sides to settle the dispute peacefully.

State media reported that the farmers say they are treating the detainees well, though rights group Defend the Defenders said in a statement Sunday that the farmers were keeping them in a closed room and were prepared to “burn them with petrol” if authorities attack the village.

Lawyer Tran Vu Hai, who is advising the farmers, told RFA that representatives had spoken to Hanoi mayor Nguyen Duc Chung for one hour on Monday, and Chung had also met with a senior resident of Dong Tam commune surnamed Kinh who was arrested on April 15 and later released.

Hai said Chung told him that the remaining six farmers who had been arrested were released and that the mayor plans to visit Dong Tam commune on Tuesday to meet with local farmers, who he noted have their doubts about any negotiations because of past dealings with the government.

“The villagers tell me that they have been cheated many times with promises, but if Kinh and Chung come here together, that would earn their trust,” he said.

“Otherwise, the villagers will fight to the last breath, since they do not have any other options left.”

Land activist questioned

Also on Monday, a land activist named Trinh Ba Phuong who had advised farmers in Dong Tam told RFA he was forcibly taken from his home in Hanoi’s Duong Noi district and questioned by police in connection with the land dispute.

“At 7:00 a.m. they raided my house while I was in bed, forced me into a car and brought me to the Duong Noi district [government] office,” Phuong said, after being released at 4:00 p.m. that afternoon.

“They asked me to admit my wrongs and say that I incited the My Duc residents … [but] I said I would only work with them if they listed their own crimes on paper.”

According to Phuong, an inspection team from the Hanoi city police came to the Duong Noi office to assist in questioning him, at which point he began shouting about how Vietnam had become a “police-run regime” and the “illegal arrest of citizens” by authorities.

“At that point, they released me … without saying anything,” he said.

In November, a court in Hanoi upheld the conviction of Phuong’s mother Can Thi Theu on public disorder charges for protesting government-sanctioned evictions used to clear the way for commercial development in Duong Noi, sending her back to prison to serve a 20-month term imposed two months earlier.

It was the second time Theu, 54, had been convicted for opposing land grabs. In 2014 she was sentenced to 15 months in jail for her role in a similar protest.

While all land in Vietnam is ultimately held by the state, land confiscations have become a flashpoint as residents accuse the government of pushing small landowners aside in favor of lucrative real estate projects, and of paying too little in compensation to those whose land is taken.

Many petitioners who seek justice and demand adequate compensation for their land have been beaten and imprisoned by authorities on allegations of causing public disorder under Article 245 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.