Hanoi police urge protesters implicated in dramatic land dispute to turn themselves in

By Dien Luong   October 13, 2017 | 11:03 am PT
Hanoi police urge protesters implicated in dramatic land dispute to turn themselves in
A police officer thanks villagers after the hostages, who were originally held by the villagers in a land dispute, were released in Dong Tam, outside Hanoi, Vietnam April 22, 2017. Photo by Reuters/Kham
But perhaps the most salient question has been glossed over: What will happen to the villagers if they don’t heed the police call?

Six months after promising not to prosecute any of the protesters involved in a headline-grabbing land dispute on the outskirts of Hanoi, the police have called on them to turn themselves in, portending a lingering quandary that has pitted ordinary Vietnamese against the authorities for years.

On Friday, police in Hanoi said they had sent out letters to individuals held responsible for “vandalism” and the “illegal detention” of policemen and officials in the land dispute last April in Dong Tam Village, 40km (25 miles) south of the capital. The standoff has been considered one of the most dramatic confrontations in recent years in a country where land-related grievances remain a major source of social tension.

The latest move by the Hanoi police has all but highlighted how the authorities are tiptoeing around this minefield, analysts say.

"Government has to be careful on land issues," Zachary Abuza, a Washington-based analyst, said. "I truly can't think of a single issue that is more sensitive and pits them against the people."

In mid-April, Hanoi police detained four people from Dong Tam Village for what authorities called breaking land-use regulations.

Disgruntled villagers then took 38 police officers and government officials hostage in a communal house.

The standoff was not completely resolved until a week later, when Nguyen Duc Chung, Hanoi’s chairman, visited the village to talk locals into releasing the final 20 officials. Several days earlier, the villagers had already released fifteen of the officials and another three managed to escape.

According to the authorities, the case has lingered for years and become heated since February this year, when military-owned telecoms giant Viettel started work to build an airport in the disputed area. Some locals have been fighting for what they believe is their agricultural land, but officials have said the land belongs to the military.

After speaking with villagers and listening to their complaints, Chung promised a thorough investigation into the dispute and a response within 45 days. He also signed a handwritten letter stating that none of the protesters would be prosecuted for holding the officials hostage.

But since then tensions have always lurked beneath the surface.

In mid-June, the police launched a criminal probe into the dispute, focusing on what they called the illegal detention of the 38 officials and deliberate vandalism committed by Dong Tam villagers.

In early July, local government inspectors, wrapping up their investigation, announced that the land in Dong Tam Village in My Duc District has always belonged to the military. They ordered the commune and district officials to review why the dispute started in the first place, and to “take strong measures to force citizens who had illegally seized military land to return it”. The inspectors also asked Hanoi police to work with the defense ministry to punish individuals for wrongful management and use of military land.

Another inspection later in July also reiterated that the capital city was within its rights to take back military land claimed by local farmers. Dong Tam villagers bristled at such findings, saying they would not budge on fighting the decision.

The villagers have maintained that if the land had been transferred to the military at some point, the residents should have been properly informed. They said in such a case, locals would have followed the order.

In their Friday letter, the Hanoi police asked the villagers involved to “not miss a chance to get leniency and muster up the courage to face the truth.” The police also promised not to arrest anyone who surrenders and ensure their legal and legitimate rights and interests.

Under Vietnam’s penal code, anyone found guilty of illegal detention can face up to five years in prison, while intentional vandalism is punishable by up to a life sentence.

But the police stopped short of addressing perhaps the most salient question in their letter: What will happen to the villagers if they don’t heed the call to surrender?

Dong Tam villagers said they had already been informed of the call on Wednesday through the public loudspeaker in the commune. The police also came to question the individuals involved, according to the villagers.

The bottom line is “there is no way that the government is not going after the perpetrators,” Abuza said of the Dong Tam incident. “If they didn't they would be inviting similar actions.”

In 2012, land grievances accounted for 70 percent of all complaints lodged against the government, according to a parliamentary report. It was also in that year that seven police officers in the northern port city of Hai Phong were injured after a local farmer resisted eviction with homemade shotguns, triggering a nationwide outpouring of support. It also prompted the then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to step in, dismissing the eviction as “illegal” and promising to prosecute corrupt local officials.

Vietnam does not technically allow private land ownership but grants land-use rights, which confer the same rights as freehold status. But because land-use rights are not always clear or protected, they remain a lucrative commodity sought by groups who put business benefits before anything else, experts say.

After Chung, the Hanoi’s chairman, pledged immunity for the Dong Tam protesters, David Brown, a retired U.S. diplomat and expert on Vietnam, wrote in a Nikkei Asian Review article in May: “Simply being nicer to protesters won't be enough. A better outcome would be to implement reforms that actually reduce opportunities for local corruption.”

“Dong Tam is a good place to start the cleanup. The land-use system is broken there and in every other village where economic growth has driven up the value of property for nonagricultural uses,” Brown wrote.

“The obvious solution is to relieve local officials of their role as middlemen between developers and farmers, a role that offers many opportunities to line their pockets.”

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