Le Dinh Kinh still suffers from the blows inflicted on his 83-year-old body by security forces last April. He can barely walk anymore. And the winter months of northern Vietnam bring even more pain to the community leader.
Kinh, a retired government official in Dong Tam commune on Hanoi’s rural outskirts, was protesting at a communal farm plot locked in a land rights dispute between local villagers and the Vietnamese military, and when he refused a police order to leave the field, claims he was shoved to the ground so violently that his leg broke. He was then thrown into a car and driven away.
“They bound my hands and put cloth in my mouth,” recalled Kinh of his arrest by Hanoi security forces on 15 April 2017, which he characterised as a kidnapping.
With their community elder hauled off violently, the villagers responded with a fury almost unheard of in Vietnam: 38 police and other officials were seized and held hostage in what turned into a week-long standoff that proved to be one of the Communist party’s worst political headaches in years.
Kinh is an unlikely Vietnamese protest icon. A lifelong member of the Communist party, he served two terms as both chairman of Dong Tam and local party boss. The red flag of Vietnam, a staunch communist symbol loathed by dissidents, flies in front of his house.
But Kinh said the dispute with the government over 59 hectares of farmland flew in the face of the party’s proclaimed egalitarian values.
While the military maintains the land is rightfully theirs – and no one in Dong Tam has paperwork clarifying the status of the land – Kinh said corrupt party cadres had plotted with military officials to appropriate the 59 hectares to sell for their own gain.
“Truong Tan Sang declared in the mass media that corruption is the enemy of the people,” said Kinh, referring to the former Vietnamese president, who served from 2011 to 2016.
“I followed his announcement to fight against the enemy, the corruption, the enemy of the people,” he added.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said land rights continue to be one of the biggest sources of human rights violations in Vietnam.
“Over the past 20 years, disputes over land, often fuelled by corruption of officials in connivance with land speculators, have continued regularly with no sign that the authorities have the political will or interest in resolving the situation,” he said.
The military has owned land in Dong Tam since the 1980s but, aside from an airbase the military built, the area remains mostly undeveloped. By some accounts, the villagers of Dong Tam had been allocated portions of the land by the government, although the details are in dispute. In 2015, however, the land was legally transferred from the military to Viettel, a military-owned telco, for an unspecified “defence project”, according to state media reports.
While the residents of Dong Tam do not dispute the military’s claim to 47 hectares out of a total of 106, the rest, they have argued, which they use to grow corn and peanuts, is rightfully their own.
How, exactly, such a large group of riot police, some armed with shotguns, were taken hostage by villagers with sticks and rocks remains a mystery – and the Vietnamese government has never elaborated on exactly what happened.
When news of the situation broke, social media rumours swirled that the police were in immediate peril. The communal house where the hostages were being held had supposedly been doused with gasoline and was ready to be lit with the police inside it in the event of a rescue attempt, according to word on Facebook at the time.
But Viet Hieu, a 75-year-old local activist and community leader who was part of the clash, said the police were never in danger. They had not even been kidnapped, he said. They had instead been unwilling to put up a fight and voluntarily surrendered their weapons and feigned being kidnapped to avoid following orders they found objectionable.
“[We said] you should come with us and wait for the government representatives to come make dialogue,” said Hieu, recalling what was said to the police. “And after hearing that, the riot police followed them to the communal house. No one fought the riot police, and they followed the villagers to the house.”
None of the police involved have spoken publicly about their ordeal, and the villagers’ claims that the officers surrendered willingly could not be independently verified.
Regardless of the circumstances of the hostage situation, Kinh was released shortly after the standoff began and sent to hospital for treatment.
“The Hanoi government wanted me to vanish,” said Kinh, but added that officials changed their minds once they heard the villagers’ version of events.
After a week of on-and-off talks, Nguyen Duc Chung, chairman of the People’s Committee of Hanoi, negotiated directly with the villagers. He promised to investigate the circumstances of Kinh’s arrest and the villagers’ underlying grievances, and vowed to not press charges against the hostage takers. The standoff ended and all eyes were on the authorities to see if they would keep their promises.
A year after the standoff, no villagers have been arrested and the land remains undeveloped. Although a criminal investigation was opened in June, the multiple summonses that have been issued to alleged participants have thus far gone ignored and the government apparently has not pressed the issue.
“They threatened us, but no one has come to arrest us,” said Hieu.
The government initially determined in July that the land in question did in fact belong to the military and that a lease to local villagers had expired in 2012. The case is ongoing, however, with a team of five lawyers arguing the villagers’ case pro bono.
Private ownership of land in Vietnam officially does not exist under the law, although de facto ownership through usage rights is allowed. The law is less clear on the concept of communal ownership, a problem that arises more often in remote rural minority villages.
Kinh’s son, Le Dinh Cong, said he is confident the villagers of Dong Tam will ultimately prevail.
“Absolutely 100% we will win, it is our true land,” he said. “They don’t scare any of us, because we think we are right.”