On January 9, 2020, thousands of police entered the Dong Tam commune in Hanoi. A clash erupted, leading to the killing of three policemen and a civilian later named as Le Dinh Kinh. Once a veteran soldier and chief of police, the 84-year-old Kinh had become a leader of the Dong Tam people in a longstanding land dispute with the government. He died defending land that he and other villagers fervently believed was their own.
Although the dispute is complex, three primary issues lie at its heart. First, this was a contest over who has the right to access land. The government argued that the villagers were squatting on state-owned land. The villagers argued that the land was “ancestor’s land” that belonged to them.
Second, this was a dispute about whether the government’s compulsory acquisition of land was just and moral. The government stated it was acquiring the land for public purposes to build a military airport, but villagers do not believe this claim.
And third, this episode reflects the limits of grassroots democracy in Vietnam to regulate and resolve conflicts between the state and society.
Vietnam’s access rights to private land are deeply connected to communist rule. When France colonized Vietnam in 1862, the government introduced a land tenure regime that benefited the rich over the poor. Disenfranchised peasants eventually joined the Ho Chi Minh-led political movement to topple French rule, mainly because they were promised that land owned by the French protected class would be redistributed to them. After the Communist Party took power in 1945 in North Vietnam, the 1946 Constitution guaranteed the right to private land ownership.
But land collectivization and communal farming were introduced in North Vietnam soon after the revolution. Then, in 1980, a new constitution abolished the right to private land ownership in the now united Vietnam.
Given the long history of private land ownership and private land rights in Vietnam, the Vietnamese people never completely acceded to the notion that the government should exclusively manage all land as state property. Farmers resisted collective agriculture, which led to a serious economic downturn. This prompted the government to grant land use rights to the people.
The 1993 Land Law granted land rights to the people that resembled ownership rights — but the government could still acquire land for “public interest” purposes. When the government expanded its power to acquire land for “economic development purposes” in 2003 and for “socio-economic development purposes” in 2013, many local governments acquired land for projects such as the construction of golf courses and eco-parks.
This has led to large and violent public land disputes such as the EcoPark dispute of 2012. In this case, people argued that local governments were conniving with big business to “steal land” under the guise of economic development. Also in 2012, a farmer named Doan Van Vuon was jailed for injuring policemen who came to evict him. In 2018, Dang Van Hien received the death penalty for shooting three employees from a land development company when they entered his land to commence construction activities.
In all three cases, people have perceived that socialist land tenure law is unjust.
The villagers in Dong Tam penned a public letter to the government on December 31, 2019 in relation to their dispute. In addition to arguing that the land belonged to them, they claimed that the land was acquired in order “to sell to the Ministry of Defense’s commercial telecommunication group, Viettel.” The letter implied that the land was being acquired for private gain, even though the land user is a public entity.
The villagers also argued in the public letter that local and national governments had not genuinely engaged in dialogue with them and that there had been a systemic “cover up.” When 38 anti-riot police officers were detained and then released by the villagers in 2017, the then Hanoi mayor Nguyen Duc Chung promised to investigate and consult with the people about the state’s land use in Dong Tam. At the time, I commented that the conciliatory nature of Chung’s statements and those of other state officials such as Nguyen Si Dung was a promising sign for grassroots democracy.
But the tragic outcome in Dong Tam indicates that grassroots democracy is not being implemented effectively. There has been little progress towards constructive dialogue, even though the first grassroots democracy decree became an ordinance over a decade ago. In a continually tense situation, Kinh’s widow, who witnessed his death, has petitioned the central government to account for her husband’s death and to clear him of accusations of wrongdoing.
The Dong Tam saga illustrates the failure of both land law reform and grassroots democracy governance regulation. Many ordinary Vietnamese still believe they have quasi-ownership rights to land that must be protected in cases of public land acquisition.
Although people do not tend to object to the government acquiring land for public purposes, past instances in which government officials have abused this power have affected their trust in the system. Restoring that trust requires removing the power to acquire land for “socioeconomic” purposes to more closely reflect the community expectation of a just land tenure system. It also requires an institutional environment in which true deliberation can take place — where the people’s case is genuinely considered and judged by independent adjudicators.
Toan Le is a Lecturer in the Department of Business Law and Taxation at Monash University.