In Vietnam, rage growing over loss of land rights

Faced with a group of farmers refusing to give up their land for a housing project, the Communist Party officials negotiating the deal devised a solution: They went to a bank, opened accounts in the names of the holdouts and deposited what they decided was fair compensation. Then they took the land.

The farmers, angry at the sum and now forced to compete for jobs in a stuttering economy, blocked the main road connecting the capital to the north of the country for one day in December. In a macabre gesture, some clambered into coffins. Police who came to break up the demonstration were pelted with rocks. Several people were arrested.

“This is an injustice,” said Nguyen Duc Hung, a rice farmer forced to give up 2,000 square meters (215,000 square feet) of land he had worked for more than 15 years. “The compensation money will help us to survive for several years, but after that, how can we make our living?”

Forced confiscations of land are a major and growing source of public anger against Vietnam’s authoritarian one-party government. They often go hand-in-hand with corruption; local Communist Party elites have a monopoly on land deals, and many are alleged to have used it to make themselves rich.

These issues unite rural and urban Vietnamese in a way that discontent over political oppression tends not to.

Land disputes break out elsewhere in Asia, notably next door in China, but they have particular resonance in Vietnam, where wars and revolutions were fought in the name of the peasant class to secure collective ownership of the land.

The farmers who blocked the road quoted the country’s revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh, in the banners they posted at their camp. “Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom,” said one. “We would rather die than lose our land,” said another.

The government recognizes that the anger coursing through the countryside threatens its legitimacy, and has pledged to revise land laws this year to make them more equitable.

But establishing clear property rights and enforcing laws to protect them comes with ideological complications in a country still publicly committed to state ownership of the land even as it embraces free-market capitalism.

Vietnam abandoned Soviet-style collective farming in the 1980s and began its embrace of capitalism. In 1993, it passed a revised land law that gave citizens the right to use land for 20 years, but stopped short of allowing private ownership. Local Communist party officials can forcibly acquire land, not just for public interest projects such as bridges and roads but also on behalf of private investors building housing estates and industrial and recreational facilities.

Complaints about corruption when rezoning agricultural land to accommodate expensive industrial plots are widespread. So are allegations that the government pays farmers one-tenth the market value of their land, or less.

“Compensation rates are very low and those who take the land profit greatly,” said economist and former adviser to the prime minister Pham Chi Lan. “The land laws have many loopholes which have created fertile ground for those who, with the support of local governments, take the land from people for their personal benefit.”

Small groups of farmers, many of them women, routinely demonstrate in Hanoi outside government buildings about forced confiscation of land. They welcome people taking photos of them or trying to talk, but security forces immediately shoo visitors away from the scene.

Disputes have been commonplace for years, but are increasing in frequency as farmers become more aware of their rights and economic development increases demand for industrial land. Many 20-year leases granted in 1993 are expiring this year, bringing fresh opportunities for rezoning of the land — and more opportunity for conflict.

Government figures reported to parliament in November showed public complaints had risen to 4,200 in 2011, more than twice the total number of complaints received from 2005 to 2009. National assembly deputy Ho Thi Thuy acknowledged that corruption among local party officials was a problem.

“Some people have abused the state policies to profit illegally,” she said, according to state-run media reports at the time.

The government has sought the assistance of the World Bank in revising the land law to reduce conflict. The World Bank and other outside institutions have called on the government to allow forced evictions only for works that benefit the public, not commercial projects, and to make the process more transparent and equitable.

Communist Party officials in Quang Ninh province, some 90 kilometers (56 miles) east of Hanoi, allowed an Associated Press team to visit Kim Son village. The journalists were escorted by party officials in the village. They spoke to opponents in phone interviews

Officials insisted they had followed the rules when acquiring the land for the housing project, which they said is aimed at upgrading the small village to a township.

“We are working together to build a more prosperous Kim Son,” said Vu Van Hoc, chairman of the local people’s committee.

He said the project used land that had been owned by 852 families, and that less than 10 percent of them disagreed with the government’s compensation rate of around $6 per square meter. He said just seven families were continuing to refuse the deal.

Villagers now allege the land has been resold for $310 per square meter. Hoc denied that, saying the land had yet to be sold.

He said he hoped that by depositing the money into bank accounts in the villagers’ names, “the issue could be resolved.” He dismissed the protest in late December as the work of “village extremists who had managed to persuade others” to join.

Video of the protest was recorded by people on their cellphones and posted on the Internet by dissident groups, which seek to capitalize on the public anger generated by the conflicts.

For two minutes, police cowered behind riot shields as young men hurled rocks and bits of concrete at them, but officers eventually regained control.

State media reported that 12 people were arrested. The police chief refused to identify them, or to say whether they were still in detention weeks later.

The local communist party bused in five villagers who had no complaints about the compensation package to speak to the visiting reporters and briefly showed them the land, on which a local company is already constructing roads and drainage. Unlike those protesting the compensation, the villagers appeared to have significant holdings elsewhere, or younger families with jobs.

Mac Thi Thuc, a 50-year-old who attendant the protest, and whose family is among the seven holdouts, said authorities cut off irrigation to her land in 2010, making it impossible to farm. She said the investors in housing scheme should have negotiated with her directly, not the government.

“Over the past two months, my husband and I have had no work,” she said. “We have been trying to look for jobs, but no one hired us because we are old. We have no money and we are going hungry and we don’t know how we can survive in the months ahead.”

There is one potential source of funds: the money local officials deposited as compensation. Thuc says her family isn’t touching it.

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