Thursday, February 2, 2012

Vietnam's Contentious Land Law

• This is the first two of a three-part series on corruption in Vietnam's land confiscation, which in many ways rivals China's, by David Brown, a retired diplomat with the US Foreign Service who served in several posts throughout Southeast Asia.
When Vietnam veered onto the capitalist road a quarter century ago, there was hardly a hint of pushback by the officials and apparatchiks that had, until then, been entrusted with the enormous – and futile – task of building socialism. To the contrary, many enthusiastically set about to exploit the opportunities that doi moi, or reform, brought to hand.

It turned out that one of the surest routes to wealth in contemporary Vietnam lies in expropriating farmers and converting farmland to more immediately profitable uses. In January of this year, the attention of the nation was riveted by two stories with that theme.

The first, beginning on Jan. 5, concerned a sensational shootout on the outskirts of Haiphong City. The incident, which is discussed in part 2 of this three-part series, followed local authorities’ demand that a fish farmer surrender land that he and his family had reclaimed and made profitable after 14 years’ hard work. Some reports say the tract was under consideration as the site of a new airport.

The second story, reported on Jan. 20, concerned the end of a three year effort to put Tran Ngoc Suong in jail, allegedly for embezzlement but, it seems well-established, actually for resisting the takeover of her flourishing agribusiness venture, the Song Hau Farm.

Land conversion was what the Party brass in Can Tho City and nearby Co Do District had in mind when in 2005 they proposed to take over the Song Hau Farm. With the cooperation of Korean and American investors, they planned to build a ‘new town’ bordering the city’s planned modern airport on the former collective farm’s 4000 hectares.

First, however, they had to deal with Tran Ngoc Suong. Suong, then 56, had been director of the farm for seven years. Before that, she was chief assistant to her father, a demobilized Viet Cong officer who had been assigned in 1978 to create a collective farm from a vast expanse of swamp deep in the Mekong Delta. The success of the father-daughter team in the endeavor is legendary in Vietnam, one of the few brilliant achievements of the grim years following the end of the ‘American War’ and the nation’s reunification.

By 2005, the Song Hau Farm was selling rice and fish profitably to home and overseas markets. Though reconfigured as a joint stock company in 1991, the farm had remained remarkably true in important respects to its founding ideals, providing reliable income and social services for some 3000 farm families. Suong wasn’t going to let them down.

“[Song Hau] is the last true example of agricultural production following socialist principles,” Suong says she told the local Party chiefs at a meeting in October 2007. “I personally have never taken a penny that wasn’t due me. You call me ‘behind the times,’ comrades, too backward to lead such an enterprise. Well, I’m ready to hand over leadership to the people I’ve trained over the years.

“You want to turn Song Hau over to somebody else – are they going to regard the farm as their own flesh and blood? Song Hau is a highly productive farm community. If they turn Song Hau Farm into an industrial zone, what’s going to happen to our people?”

Can Tho’s power elite wasn’t a bit concerned by the social costs that Suong foresaw. Perhaps they reasoned that the dispossessed farmers could find work in the new factories or on the golf course they expected to spring up on the former rice paddies and fish ponds. And they had a Plan B.

If it’s deemed necessary to punish someone, Vietnamese law provides any number of possibilities. A staggering number of activities are technically illegal but routinely tolerated because to enforce the law would cause the system to freeze up. However, they can be invoked to force a dissident into line.

In September 2008, Suong was indicted in the local Co Do District Court on charges of embezzling 9 billion dong (US$428,857 at current exchange rates) from Song Hau Farm. When the case came to trial in August 2009, she was convicted of running an illegal slush fund and sentenced to eight years in prison. Four subordinates drew lesser terms.

Suong appealed. The appeals court in Can Tho City upheld the lower court’s verdict.

When it looked as though Suong might actually serve time in prison, her case became front page fare in Vietnam’s national press. A platoon of aging revolutionaries, prominently including Mme Nguyen Thi Binh, once the Viet Cong foreign minister, rallied to Suong’s defense. Supporters argued that setting up an unreported fund for social welfare purposes was an entirely ethical way of dodging red tape and in any event, was not illegal when it was established many years earlier.

Former Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, a hero to Vietnamese reformers, had already connected the dots in a May 2008 letter to the Can Tho Party Committee. “I understand that it was your idea, not the public prosecutor’s, to bring criminal charges against [Suong], Kiet wrote. “She’s made great contributions to the agricultural progress of the region, and if there was wrongdoing, it should be dealt with in a reasonable way.” Further, wrote Kiet, “I can’t support your plan to take the collective’s land to set up an industrial zone.”

Moved by photos of the frail but unbowed Miss Suong in the dock, public opinion was overwhelmingly on her side. In Hanoi, impatience with the Can Tho authorities was manifest, the center’s typical reaction when the actions of ham-handed local officials stir up public unrest.

In May 2010, after central prosecutors found procedural violations, Vietnam’s Supreme Court threw out the verdict.

Seemingly unfazed, in February 2011 the Can Tho Police reported that further investigation had found fresh evidence pointing to Suong’s guilt. In August, prosecutors filed updated embezzlement charges against Suong and her subordinates.

Suong’s friends did not give up. Their chosen instrument was Vietnam’s ‘Fatherland Front,’ a Communist Party-dominated amalgam of groups that purports to ‘represent the entire people.’ On the heels of the new indictment, the Front urged administrative remedies for Suong’s wrongdoings, if truly there were any.

Its own investigation, the Front advised the Supreme Procurator in a public letter, showed that Suong was blameless. The welfare fund was established in 1994, it reasoned, was established well before Suong became the farm’s director and was not at that time illegal. Further, harrumphed the Front, “the investigation is sullying the name of a farm that has a fine reputation among senior government officials and has gained outstanding achievements.”

And finally, it appears, the Can Tho authorities have agreed to drop the charges. It’s not because they agree she’s innocent, they said on Jan. 19. It’s “because of the contributions made by Suong and her family to the state.”
Part Two
Shootout in Tien Lang
This is the second of a three-part series on corruption Vietnam's land ownership by David Brown, a retired US Foreign Service official who served in several posts throughout Southeast Asia.

Early last month, the Vietnamese public, weary after a year of high inflation and slow growth, was turning its attention to the Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday only a few weeks off. In the far south of Vietnam, the long ordeal of labor hero Tran Ngoc Suong was about to end – local authorities had decided to drop charges that she had embezzled funds from the nation’s last thriving collective farm.

Then an extraordinary report from Tien Lang district, on the outskirts of Haiphong, a port city east of Hanoi, sent a shock through the body public. A fish farmer and his family had resisted a large force moving in to enforce an eviction order. With an improvised mine and muskets bought on the black market, they’d wounded two soldiers and four policemen, including the local police chief.

As in the Song Hau Farm affair, it was local authorities’ determination to wrest control of rich agricultural land that provoked the incident.

In 1997, Doan Van Vuon moved to Vinh Quang Village and leased nine hectares of coastal wetlands from the village People’s Committee. Trained as an engineer, Vuon began to build the dikes, sluices and ponds needed to raise fish and shrimp. No one expected Vuon and his family to succeed, but after several years of effort and experimentation, the fish farm turned a small profit. Other pioneers followed Vuon’s example. By 2004, some 20 families in Tien Lang district were developing fish farms covering approximately 250 hectares of previously worthless land. Vuon himself had reclaimed a further 11 ha from the sea, increasing his family enterprise to 20 ha of ponds altogether.

In 2005, however, the fish farmers of Tien Lang received a shocking notice from the district administration. The swampland that they had rented would be repossessed when their leases expired, it said. There would be no compensation for improvements.

All land in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is owned by the state. Since 1993, however, individuals and enterprises have been granted ‘land use rights.’ For most farmers, that meant that they were allotted a piece of their former collective farm for a 20 year period.

Vuon, for reasons still unclear, had been given only a 14-year lease backdated to 1993. He was ordered to vacate by 2007.

Vuon and the other fish farmers say they had believed – in accordance with rural custom – that their leases on the land they’d improved would be routinely extended. Further, like all farmers, they expected that if the local government took a piece of land back for some public purpose, they’d be compensated for the improvements they’d made.

The fish farmers protested. The district authorities wouldn’t budge. The district court upheld the authorities’ order to vacate. The farmers appealed to a higher court in Haiphong City.

As is common in Vietnam, the Haiphong court referred the appeal to an arbitrator, a local magistrate, in hope that the dispute could be resolved informally. The procedure resulted in April 2010 in a “memorandum to create conditions for mutual agreement on resolution of the matter.”

Reportedly, the Tien Lang district agreed to extend the fish farmers’ leases when they expired and the farmers agreed to withdraw their complaint. The document was signed by Vuon and other representatives of the fish farmers and, representing the district government, by the chief of the Tien Lang district office of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. The magistrate then affixed the appeals court’s vermillion stamp.

Undeterred, the district authorities reneged on the bargain. No sooner had the farmers withdrawn their complaint than the district declared the local court’s ruling still valid. Again it pressed Vuon to hand over his fish farm. Driven to desperation, Vuon resolved to fight back. When police, reinforced by soldiers – 80 armed men altogether – moved in on his farm on the morning of January 5, Vuon and his family fired the shots that roused the nation.

It’s not so clear what will happen next. Vuon’s fish farm was devastated, three houses bulldozed and a quarter million dollars’ worth of mature fish looted by strangers. Vuon and his brother are in jail, charged with attempted murder of police officers who were carrying out their duties.

To Vietnamese public opinion, however, the brothers are heroic figures.

Dang Hung Vo, a retired high official, comments that “it’s possible to see the recent incident at Tien Lang as a climactic demonstration of the faults in our Land Law and how it is implemented at the local level. A good farmer, pure, simple and hard-working, who’s driven to defend his right to his land with home-made weapons – what misery! Everybody believes that there’s such a thing as justice and that the law ensures it. Certainly that’s what the farmers who built the fish ponds at Tien Lang believed. They went to the court expecting fair play, but the simple truths they understood proved elusive. The hopelessness of their situation drove them to take desperate measures.”

Vo and other experts on land policy have blasted the Tien Lang officials and the Haiphong deputy province chief who defended them for fundamental errors in the interpretation and execution of the law, but that’s not what’s really at issue here. It’s really a question of common sense and decency, of respect for a farmer’s bond with the land he’s worked – or so many commentators say.

Prime Minister Dung has ordered the Haiphong City authorities to explain how the shootout at Tien Lang came to pass, and how they intend to repair the situation there. Probably a few heads will roll; Vietnam’s public clearly hopes that Farmer Vuon’s won’t be among them.

It’s Dung and his colleagues in the government and Communist Party politburo who must deal with the larger problem, however. Vietnam’s current land law is a time bomb set to go off in 2013 -- without fundamental reform, the sort of tragedy that overtook Dang Van Vuon threatens half the nation’s population.

Tomorrow, Part 3, The Wisdom of Farmers.
By David Brown can be reached at

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