Even after Doan Van Vuon and his brother Quy were indicted for attempted murder in January 2013, it seemed reasonable to hope that they would catch a break from Vietnam’s courts. Vuon, a Vietnamese farmer, was after all a popular hero.
In the time since, the Doan family has been compared to a family of peasants whose desperate resistance to colonial gendarmes in 1926 (the Noc Nan incident) won them a niche in socialist Vietnam’s pantheon of heroes.
But capturing the popular imagination didn’t save Vuon. Justice was dispensed a few weeks ago to the Doan family and to the officials who had conspired to take their land. Vuon and Quy got five years jail time for ‘attempted murder’ while their wives and brothers drew lesser sentences. The deputy chairman of the district, meanwhile, drew a 30-month sentence for ‘destroying property’. Four more local officials were dealt suspended jail terms. Others drew reprimands from their Communist Party and government superiors. As for the destroyed property — a house levelled and a quarter-of-a-million dollars’ worth of market-ready shrimp and fish stolen — the Doan family is apparently out of luck when it comes to compensation.
The outcome of the case is another clear signal that Hanoi isn’t going to make radical changes to the way it manages land in the ‘socialist market economy’. The Vietnamese Constitution says that the state manages land on behalf of the people. To a point, the system has worked. Village administrators deal out 20-year leases on a fairly equitable basis. A family of farmers can generally expect that its lease will be renewed as a matter of routine. But problems arise when someone wants the land for another purpose. If a developer is eager to build a housing estate, a factory or a golf course, local administrators will take on the job of persuading villagers to accept trivial compensation in exchange for their plots. Throughout Vietnam, farmers are pushing back. The courts are clogged with lawsuits and the nation’s newspapers are full of stories about anti-eviction demonstrations. Coincidentally, both Vietnam’s Land Law and the Constitution are being revised. For several months, while it still seemed that substantial reform might be possible, non-party and NGO experts vigorously promoted the radical notion that the free market, not local officials, should decide what farmland is worth when it’s about to be converted to some other purpose. If developers were required to bargain directly with farmers, argue the experts, ‘land clearing’ would bring benefits to both sides. The developers could break ground in half the time or less.
But not everyone would profit. Local officials would no longer pocket hefty ‘rents’ from developers for setting low prices for prime farmland and evicting farmers who hold out for fair compensation, and it seems they have won.
Since late 2012, reports in the Party press have made it clear that Vietnam is not getting rid of the Party/state middlemen any time soon. A free market approach to land clearing might be good for economic development and socially just but it would undermine the Party’s ideological foundation. So instead of allowing farmers to negotiate for themselves, the government has decided to instruct local officials in greater detail on how to set ‘fair prices’.
The last year has been tough for Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. He’s kept his job but his wings have been clipped by Politburo rivals. It’s possible, therefore, that the prime minister has been overruled — maybe he meant it when he called for justice for Doan Van Vuon. Perhaps he really wanted to send an unmistakable message to local officials who connive to extort land at less than reasonable value. Or, possibly, the prime minister never meant what he was reported to have said.
Either way, things have changed, especially since Vuon’s family fought back. News travels quickly now. Sixteen years ago, when tens of thousands of Vietnamese farmers marched on a provincial capital demanding better treatment — to the extent that word got around at all — it took months for the people of another province to realise anything was going on. In the age of the internet and mobile phones, word of resistance to the forcible taking of farmland spreads instantaneously.
‘Peasants’ have been the backbone of the Communist Party regime. Workers were few and far between when Ho Chi Minh and his comrades led the revolution. Three generations later, Vietnam is relatively prosperous, but the rising tide hasn’t lifted all boats. Not in Vietnam. Half of Vietnam’s population is still on the land, and relative to city people they remain impoverished and exploited. Ironically, it’s no longer cruel landlords or greedy imperialists who are exploiting the peasants — it’s the party that pledged their liberation.
David Brown is a retired American diplomat who writes on contemporary Vietnam.