01/20/2012 05:27 am ET Updated Mar 21, 2012

Vietnam's Land Struggle: Tension Between Farmers And State

By John Ruwitch

HANOI, Jan 20 (Reuters) - The case of a family of farmers in Vietnam who used homemade landmines and guns in a bid to stop local officials taking their land this month has sparked rare open criticism of the authorities' strong-arm approach, forcing the government to act to limit the damage.

Coverage of the issue in state-backed media has cast a spotlight on a potential flashpoint in this one-party state, which has attracted foreign investment in part because of relative political stability under Communist rule.

"Over recent years Vietnam has witnessed a rise in violence directed against state authorities by aggrieved citizens," said professor Carlyle Thayer of the University of New South Wales.

"Their frequency is an indication that the avenues to adjudication and redress are not available."

As in China, where land grabs sparked a revolt in the southern village of Wukan that lasted for months, land issues are a leading source of friction between the public and officials. All land is owned by the state and usage rights are not always clear or protected.

On the outskirts of Vietnam's third-largest city, Haiphong, the land dispute that erupted violently on Jan. 5 had simmered for over four years, according to newspapers and websites.

Six police and soldiers were injured, and four people -- farmer Doan Van Vuon, his brother and two other relatives -- were arrested.

Critics, including a former state president, were quick to decry the local authorities' heavy-handed bid to reclaim the land that Vuon had converted for aquaculture, saying the use of security forces was inappropriate and illegal.

"Eviction is wrong. Moreover, deploying the army and police to evict someone is even more wrong," Le Duc Anh, Vietnam's president from 1992-1997 and a senior army general, told the newspaper Vietnam Education.

Dang Hung Vo, a one-time deputy minister of natural resources and the environment, said the decision to take the land "was both against the law and ethics, intentionally stripping them of their rights", the online news portal reported.

Supporters in Hanoi donated 60 million dong ($2,857) to Vuon and his brother, 6 million to the injured security officers, and had some 200 million more, blogger Nguyen Xuan Dien said online.


Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung responded this week by ordering the Haiphong city government to investigate.

But getting the true story may prove difficult.

"Shooting at police is wrong, and they will be jailed for sure," a Vietnamese reporter following the case said on Friday.

"But what the press want to know is what drove these people to such a reaction. Whether the local authorities will admit they were wrong is open to question ... In the provinces, authorities may think they can do what they want."

Thayer said there was no independent means to adjudicate land use disputes. "The local government is free to manipulate the facts of any given case to suit its purpose," he said.

A zooming economy has driven up land prices, tempting officials to move farmers off their land to make way for lucrative projects such as apartments and industrial zones. Local officials said Vuon's land would become an airport.

The Foreign Ministry said local authorities turned down a Reuters request to visit the site. Foreign reporters must obtain government permission to report outside of Hanoi.

Vietnamese media reported that in 2007 district officials sought to reclaim land from Vuon and a neighbour, but the families sued. Arbitration followed and in 2010 the families dropped the lawsuit in exchange for extensions to their leases.

Not long after, though, local officials said the deal was invalid and began pushing anew to repossess the land.

What brought things to a head is unclear. Vuon was not at the scene but is suspected of having planned the ambush.

Shortly after the clash, a family-owned house where the gunmen took refuge was reduced to rubble. One government official reportedly said security forces were behind the demolition. Another later said they were not. (Editing by Alan Raybould and Ed Lane)