Government shows restraint over farmers’ revolt

The six day siege ended with handshakes and a promise that no legal action would be taken against the villagers. Photo courtesy AFP

For nearly a week villagers rose up and openly defied government authority, in a district just 40 kilometres from the capital, Hanoi.

The confrontation, over a long simmering land dispute, came to a peaceful end on Saturday, with the residents of Dong Tam Commune releasing their remaining 19 hostages. The authorities agreed not to prosecute those responsible.

But the extraordinary revolt by farmers in the Communist party heartland of the Red River Delta will have deeply unsettled the leadership in one of East Asia’s most authoritarian states.

The government’s decision to settle the standoff peacefully, and its promise to address the demands of the villagers, signals a recognition that at least some of their grievances were valid.

Land disputes across Vietnam have emerged as one of the most explosive issues confronting the communist authorities.

The leadership appears to have concluded that too heavy handed a response, especially in an age of social media when information can no longer be easily suppressed, could severely undermine the party’s legitimacy.

Public anger at rampant corruption, and widespread suspicion that officials are complicit in many lucrative land deals, means that many citizens will instinctively side with the farmers in such a dispute.

Remaining hostages released

The Mayor of Hanoi, Nguyen Duc Chung, personally intervened to reach an agreement with the people of Dong Tam.

After a number of false starts, he finally sat down with farmers and their representatives on Saturday morning, and secured the release of the remaining 19 police and other officials who were taken captive last Sunday.

There were scenes of jubilation as the officials walked free, some hugging the villagers who had fed and looked after them during their six days in captivity.

Mr Chung promised a comprehensive investigation into the land dispute and promised a response within 45 days.

He acknowledged that the hostages were treated well and said no-one would be prosecuted for holding them captive.

The dispute came to a head in February this year when the military run telecom operator, Viettel, began work on a military airport in the district.

The land had been farmed for generations by villagers, who said their complaints about the development project were systematically ignored.

The uprising came on Sunday, the day after police moved in to arrest four leaders of the protest.

Inadequate compensation

Residents drove out police, seized 38 police and officials as hostages, and built barricades to seal off the district.

A number of officials were released during the week as the standoff continued.

Under Vietnam’s socialist system all land is owned by the state, but farmers acquire rights to farm their own plots.

The problems occur when companies seek to develop land, often on the outskirts of cities, and the local authorities take the land from families that may have farmed it for decades.

Many dispossessed farmers in Vietnam complain that they are offered inadequate compensation, while they suspect officials get kickbacks in cosy deals with developers.

The communist authorities have taken a hard line with farmers’ leaders who attempt to organise nationally to resist land seizures.

However, the central authorities have shown some sympathy for individual farmers who have clearly been unjustly treated by local officials.