Dong Tam death sentences dim hopes for land rights reform in Vietnam

The Dong Tam case once offered a glimmer of hope for those advocating for land rights reform in Vietnam. But with the conviction and sentencing to death of two men this month, the Communist Party has reaffirmed its grip on land and power

Jake Black
September 28, 2020
Dong Tam death sentences dim hopes for land rights reform in Vietnam
A local villager holds flag while waiting for the arrival of Hanoi People's Committee Chairman Nguyen Duc Chung (not pictured) before a meeting at Dong Tam commune, My Duc district over a land dispute protest on the outskirts of Hanoi, Vietnam, 22 April 2017. Photo: EPA/STR

A long-running land dispute in Hanoi reached a violent climax earlier this year, and this month saw two brothers sentenced to death by a court in Vietnam’s capital for their involvement in the incident. 

In a country where government authorities have far-reaching powers to seize land from citizens, the opaque nature of the trial and the severity of the punishments handed down do not bode well for activists hoping for land rights reform in Vietnam, with a case that once offered a glimmer of hope now cementing government authority.  

In the early hours of 9 January, thousands of police officers descended on the village of Dong Tam, 25 kilometres southwest of Hanoi’s city centre. Before long, four people were dead. Police had shot and killed Le Dinh Kinh, the 83-year-old village leader, whom they allege was holding a grenade. Three police officers were also killed, allegedly doused with petrol and set alight by villagers.

It is Kinh’s sons, Le Dinh Cong and Le Dinh Chuc, whom police allege masterminded resistance of the police raid and who this month were sentenced to death on murder charges for the deaths of the three police officers. Cong’s son, Le Dinh Doanh, was sentenced to life in prison, also on murder charges, and 26 other defendants were sentenced to between 15 months and 16 years in prison on various charges.

In Vietnam, a one-party state ruled by the Communist Party of Vietnam, all land technically belongs to the state. The 1993 Land Law granted limited land rights to citizens that do not equate to full ownership rights, with the government able to seize land for “public interest” purposes. Amendments to the law further expanded government powers to seize land, with “economic development” purposes added in 2003 and “socio-economic development” purposes added in 2013.

It is no surprise that the Land Law, which gives the Communist Party extensive powers at the expense of citizens’ rights, has made Vietnam one of the global hotspots for land disputes. Many of these disputes happen on the fringes of urban areas, where the Communist Party sees the greatest potential for economic gain. Official figures show that land disputes are behind more than two-thirds of all complaints received by government authorities.

The Dong Tam dispute began in 2015 after residents of the village, located in Hanoi’s My Duc district, complained that 59 hectares of land was being unfairly seized by the government for the construction of a wall surrounding a military airport in neighbouring Mieu Mon. The seized land was handed to Viettel Group, a military-run communications company.

In April 2017, the dispute attracted international media attention when Kinh, the village leader, refused a police order to leave the seized land. Officers forcibly removed him, allegedly breaking his leg when they pushed him to the ground, before driving him away in a car. Villagers responded by seizing and holding hostage 38 police officers and other officials. The week-long standoff ended without any additional violence after the local government promised to investigate the grievances of villagers and not seek charges against the hostage takers.

That the standoff could end without bloodshed and with no charges laid in a one-party authoritarian state is indicative of just how delicate the situation was in the eyes of the Communist Party. With activists and media in Vietnam and abroad paying close attention to the developing situation, taking an aggressive stance could have created an even larger spectacle and damaged the legitimacy of government authorities at a time when they were also juggling a number of other land disputes across the country.

The 2017 incident and its conciliatory conclusion created hope that the Communist Party may be open to a greater level of dialogue between governments and citizens over land rights. Toan Le, a lecturer at Monash University and an expert on land reform in Vietnam, expressed at the time a cautious optimism that the resolution of the Dong Tam standoff could serve as a model for similar land disputes elsewhere in the country.

But on 31 December 2019, villagers in Dong Tam, frustrated with what they said was a lack of genuine dialogue with the local and national governments in the two and a half years since the standoff, wrote a public letter arguing that the land belonged to them, and that by handing the land to state-owned Viettel Group, government authorities had in effect seized it for private gain.

With the public letter, the villagers demonstrated that government authorities had failed to temper emotions, and the dispute was set to reach boiling point. Less than two weeks later, the Dong Tam residents were awoken by the sound of heavily armed police entering their village. That deadly raid, and the trial that followed, substantially changed the course of what is now Vietnam’s most notorious land dispute.

Hanoi’s Mayor Nguyen Duc Chung (3rd R) is greeted by villagers at Dong Tam commune, My Duc district in Hanoi on April 22, 2017. More than a dozen police and officials held hostage by Vietnamese villagers over a land dispute were released on April 22, ending a week-long standoff that had gripped the country. Photo: STR/AFP

Any hope that the Dong Tam dispute would be a positive force for land rights reform in Vietnam surely disappeared as the guilty verdicts were read out on September 14. After the villagers lost their leader in January, his two sons Cong and Chuc now face execution.

The official handling of the January incident and the subsequent judicial process have been roundly criticised by activists in Vietnam and abroad.

For several days after the incident, state media reported that the three police officers had been killed by grenades, knives and petrol bombs, only later issuing corrections that they had been doused with petrol and set alight after falling down a well.

A video shared by activists in the days after the incident shows Du Thi Thanh, Kinh’s wife, claiming that she had been beaten by police and forced to sign a false confession. Several other relatives of Kinh, including Cong, one of his sons who now faces execution, and Doanh, Cong’s son, appeared on state television with visible bruising on their faces, confessing to making weapons to attack police.

What began as hope for progress in land rights reform after the peaceful resolution to the 2017 standoff has turned to despair as the dialogue sought by the villagers of Dong Tam failed to materialise

With media largely controlled by the state and no truly independent bodies to provide checks on their power, there are few avenues through which to demand accountability for an unfair judicial process in Vietnam.

This month’s trial, which was initially scheduled to last 10 days, ended after only four days when the Hanoi People’s Tribunal returned guilty verdicts for all 29 defendants. Activists say that during the trial, defence lawyers had limited access to their clients, calls to summon witnesses were rejected by the judge, and journalists received documents from the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Committee with instructions on how to cover the trial.

The suppression of information about the case means that the exact events of 9 January are impossible to independently verify. But the carefully choreographed and remarkably speedy trial is indicative of the Communist Party’s desire to put an end to the Dong Tam villagers’ resistance effort and silence growing calls for reform.

What began as hope for progress in land rights reform after the peaceful resolution to the 2017 standoff has turned to despair as the dialogue sought by the villagers of Dong Tam failed to materialise. Now, after a violent police raid, and an opaque judicial process that concluded with two death sentences, the villagers’ resistance effort is crippled.

This cycle of hope and despair is a recurring theme in the battle for land rights reform in Vietnam. Prior to the introduction of amendments to the Land Law in 2013, the Communist Party opened up the process to an unprecedented amount of public consultation and discussion. In the end, no substantive changes occurred, and the state retained its unchecked power to seize land, albeit with slightly more transparency.

In the Dong Tam case, Cong and Chuc have both said that they will appeal their death sentence. The case is set to move to the Supreme People’s Court later this year or early next year, but given the handling of the first trial, expectations are low for any reprieves.

While the Communist Party seems willing to make the occasional concession, or at least appear to do so, to temporarily calm the anger of those resisting land seizures, hope for an end to state-backed land grabbing and full land ownership rights has once again fallen to a low ebb in Vietnam.

Jake Black is a graduate of the University of Melbourne, having recently completed a Master of International Relations degree with a strong focus on the Indo-Pacific region.

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