Festive air muted as violence-hit village limps back to normalcy

By Hoang Phuong, Gia Chinh, Vo Hai   January 20, 2020 | 08:08 pm PT
The gloomy aftermath of a fatal clash between police and civilians in a Hanoi village is casting a pall over locals' Tet preparations.

Ten days after resentment over a land dispute erupted into a deadly clash that left three policemen and a civilian dead in Dong Tam Commune, My Duc District, villagers are wearily and warily returning to life as usual.

Offices in Vietnam are closed on weekends, but the committee's office as well as the commune’s police station were open Sunday.

On Friday, barriers that had cordoned off and restricted entry to the commune were taken down, but the pall of gloom over locals is evident.

The deadly clash between protesters and law enforcement officers took place a week after some units of the Ministry of National Defense, in collaboration with local authorities, began building a fence for the Mieu Mon Military Airport at Hoanh Village in Dong Tam.

The encounter was the first time in decades that violence over a land dispute had claimed the lives of both law enforcers and civilians.

The incident disrupted normal life and preparations for the Lunar New Year, Tet, as they have begun much later than usual.

The country will enjoy a seven-day holiday for the Tet festival this year, staring January 23.

Work on the fence for the Mieu Mon Military Airport has been completed. The steel wire fence carries no trespassing signs in Vietnamese and English.

As life returns to normal, strangers to the commune are still eyed with some suspicion by the locals.

The wall around Mieu Mon Military Airport has been completed, January 19, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Phong Van.

The wall around Mieu Mon Military Airport has been completed, January 15, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh.

It’s just not the same

Near the Dong Tam People's Committee stands a market that sells peach blossoms and kumquat plants, which are traditionally used as Tet decorations in all households to invite good luck and prosperity in the new year.

Across the street from the office, fashion and convenience stores are open for business. Hair salons are functioning at full capacity keeping up with locals' grooming needs to have a fresh look for the holiday.

Nguyen Van Huong, President of the Dong Tam Veterans Association, said they would start cleaning the commune streets and decorating them with flowers and Vietnamese flags.

Dong Tam officials were planning to organize several traditional games, tug-of-war contests, talent shows, and a football tournament featuring 14 teams from different residential areas.

"But with what has just happened, we had to cancel the plan," Huong said.

Party members and commune officials at Dong Tam have been taking turns to be on duty at the headquarters for the last couple of days. They are only absent when they go home to eat. The lights in the offices are on throughout the night and local security forces are kept on alert.

Pham Hong Sy, Vice Chairman of the Dong Tam People's Committee, said that on January 9, the commune’s radio station had announced that authorities had been met with retaliation while doing their job, that the protestors have been arrested and locals are advised not to spread false information and incite people on social media.

Sy also said that the presence of the police and their security booths in and around the village had not affected people's movement. Outsiders presenting sufficient personal identification papers at the booths could also enter and go freely around the commune. The booths were in place for a week until Saturday, when they were removed.

'Non-standard actions'

Sy also said that commune officials had informed the locals that the disputed land was subject to military use. Commune leaders had met with Le Dinh Kinh, the civilian killed in the clash, and others when they voiced opposition to the inspectors' conclusions on the land under dispute.

However, some people did not accept the conclusions and resorted to "non-standard actions," he said.

"I personally and many other commune leaders were harassed and intimidated at several meetings...," Sy said, adding that evidence of this was in videos shown on social media.

Kinh has been identified as the mastermind behind the acts of causing disturbance and resisting the authorities over the long-standing land dispute, according to a statement issued by the Ministry of Public Security on Monday last week.

Protestors have said they were not properly informed that the land was transferred to the military at some point, while officials maintained that the land belonged to the military all the time.

Tensions rose and came to a boil in February 2017, when military-owned telecom giant Viettel started work on building the airport. Upset villagers then took 38 police officers and government officials hostage in a communal house to protest the move.

The standoff was resolved, but a subsequent conclusion that the land in Dong Tam Commune in My Duc District has always belonged to the military angered the protestors who rejected it.

Sy said that the Air Force agency under the Ministry of National Defense had notified the commune's leaders about construction of the fence on December 23 last year, 16 days before the clash. The commune officials were asked to facilitate completion of the task, which was completed on Tuesday last week.

Sy said that among the commune’s population of 9,400 people, the recent incident only involved a small group and that the commune as a whole should not be identified with it.

Subdued ambiance

After the security forces left, Nguyen Van Su, a Dong Tam resident, began arranging around 300 flower pots for sale at the commune center.

Nguyen Van Su, a plant merchant arranges pots for sale for Tet celebration. Photo by VnExpress/Phong Van

Nguyen Van Su arranges flowering plants for sale at the commune center in Hoanh Village, January 19, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh.

Before the incident, traders would crowd the place and secure favorable spots to sell their items. The road that runs several kilometers from the village gate to different parts would be dotted with flowering plants of various kinds and kumquat trees of varying sizes.

However, the deadly clash of January 9 has altered the scene completely. There were just four plant vendors who ventured to set up shops and their sales were meager compared to normal Tet business.

Bui Van Giang, a welder in Dong Tam, had not worked for the last 10 days. He decided to begin preparing for the Tet holiday just three days earlier, making the banh chung (square sticky rice cake), the main traditional Tet dish.

The 58-year-old man decided he wouldn't buy any flowering plants this year, partly because his income has suffered and partly because "the atmosphere of the commune is like this, it would be embarrassing to show off to my neighbors."

It has been a tradition among Giang and 21 other families to chip in for a Tet feast. They would also use pooled money to buy lanterns and multicolored flags to decorate their neighborhood. This tradition has been shelved this year. The money collected will be held in reserve.

In Giang's recollection of the clash, he woke up to a banging sound. He ran up to his rooftop and saw lots of police forces lining up and covering the street. Frightened, he got back in the house and locked the door.

Giang said he felt cooped up in his own village in the following days. The police were present whenever he went out. Nobody dared to take out their phones and snap pictures nor did they gather in groups and chat.

Hoanh Village was isolated.

There were no markets to go shopping to. Butchers sold meat at their homes. Giang and his wife managed to eat whatever they found in their house. His farm, not far from their house, was full of vegetables and fish, but he couldn't get any.

His phone couldn't connect to the internet. He didn't watch TV and was oblivious to what was happening.

Today, he is relieved that peace has returned.

A glimpse of Hoanh village on the afternoon of January 19, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Phong Van

Hoanh Village on the afternoon of January 19, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh.

On the night of the clash, Nguyen Thi Chuyen, another Hoanh villager, was wide awake. She lay on her bed listening to the sounds of feet thumping on the ground and the banging sound that started at 3 a.m. and lasted for an hour and a half.

Her home is about 700 meters from where the clash happened. Before the incident, Chuyen'd overheard some gossip among villagers about going out to "save Senh field land." This was where the airport was going to be built.

She thought that if there was some confrontation, it would take place on the field, not inside the village.

When the sun rose the next morning, Chuyen didn't open her grocery store for business as usual, but did so in the afternoon. In the following days, there were very few customers. She closed at 7 p.m., three hours earlier than usual.

On Sunday afternoon, distributors of candies and soft drinks began moving around in the village, restocking shop shelves. But the amount of goods is just half of previous years.

The dead civilian

On January 13, Chuyen closed her shop at 8 in the morning and joined the mourners at Le Dinh Kinh’s funeral.

She said they were not blood related, but Kinh and she had greeted each other whenever their paths crossed.

In the countryside, it is a custom to pay respects to the elderly when they pass away.

Trailing Kinh’s wailing family, the mourners walked in silence as the coffin was taken from his home to his grave.

In the deceased's house, the grief was deep.

A basin of coal was placed in the middle of the front yard. For warmth, some households still burn coal to heat their homes.

Sitting by the basin, Du Thi Thanh, Kinh’s wife, wore the mourner’s white headband. At Vietnamese funerals, direct relatives wear white from head to toe.

The 10th day ceremony after death had just been completed.

Kinh, 84, is survived by two sons and six daughters. Only his daughters were at the funeral. His sons Le Dinh Cong, Le Dinh Chuc, and grandsons Le Dinh Doanh and Le Dinh Uy were absent.

They were arrested on January 13 and placed under criminal investigation for resisting law enforcement officers, along with 16 other people.

All the suspects are residents of Dong Tam Commune.

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