UPDATED at 11:08 A.M. ET on 2020-01-09
Three policemen and a civilian were killed Thursday as farmers threw grenades and petrol bombs at police in the latest flare-up of a long-running dispute over a military airport construction site near Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, state media said.
"On Thursday morning, some people resisted, using hand-grenades, petrol bombs and knives to attack police forces, fighting officers on duty and disrupting public order," the online VN Express quoted the Ministry of Public Security as saying.
“As a result, three policemen and a civilian died, and another person was injured,” it said, adding that “authorities have launched an investigation into the case and have arrested the lawbreakers," the ministry said.
VN Express quoted To An Xo, a spokesman for the ministry, as saying Dong Tam commune was under control and police forces remain at the scene to maintain stability.
A woman who had just escaped from Dong Tam told RFA's Vietnamese Service police were destroying the house of an elderly farmer who had been at the center of the land dispute and arresting his relatives.
“They [police] threw explosive charges, pepper spray and everything," she told RFA. "Now they are breaking down Mr. Kinh’s house and arresting people inside.”
Kinh, in his mid-80s, was among the farmers taken into custody in the initial arrests in April 2017 that sparked a hostage showdown.
"There are about 20 people at Mr. Kinh’s house, but his grandchildren and his two sons and daughter-in law have also been arrested," she added. “Le Dinh Quang, Mr. Kinh’s son, was trying to run away, but he was arrested and kicked by police with sniffer dogs.”
Lawyer Ngo Anh Tuan, who has worked to protect the interests and rights of Dong Tam residents, told RFA Thursday that he has repeatedly cautioned villagers against engaging in a violent confrontation with the government.
“For years, I have advised them not to engage in extremist acts and instead to maintain dialogue with the government with the aim of resolving the land dispute over the long term," he said.
"I've told them not to use violence, because there is no way they could deal with a government response without weapons."
Tensions over the Mieu Mon military airport in Dong Tam village, 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Hanoi had simmered for nearly three years.
Farmers in Dong Tam say the government is seizing 47 hectares (116 acres) of their farmland for the military-run Viettel Group—the country’s largest mobile phone operator—without adequately compensating them. The farmers say their families had tilled the land for generations and paid taxes and fees to the government.
Scene of 2017 hostage standoff
In April 2017, police arrested several farmers for allegedly causing “social unrest” during a clash between authorities and commune residents over the 47 hectares of Dong Tam land.
Other farmers responded to the arrests by detaining 38 police officers and local officials, threatening to kill them if police moved against them again.
The standoff lasted a week and ended after police freed jailed farmers and the farmers freed the officers and officials, following a pledge by the Mayor of Hanoi, Nguyen Duc Chung, to investigate their complaints and not prosecute the villagers.
In July 2017, government inspectors in Hanoi ruled that the disputed land should be administered by the military and, in October, police ordered the farmers involved in the incident to turn themselves in.
In August, a Hanoi court sentenced 14 officials to between one and a half and six and a half years in prison for abusing their authority to manage land deals in Dong Tam commune.
VN Express quoted the security ministry as saying Thursday’s violence came a week after the Ministry of Defense and local authorities began building a fence for the Mieu Mon military airport.
“While land disputes are not uncommon in Vietnam, it is the first time in years that policemen have been killed in one,” the state news website said.
Call for accountability
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), urged Vietnam to hold accountable those who used violence and permit access to Dong Tam by journalists, diplomats, U.N. agency officials and other impartial observers.
"Vietnam's national authorities must launch an impartial and transparent investigation of these events that gets to the bottom of what happened, who is responsible for the violence, and whether police used excessive force," he said in a statement.
In the Dong Tam dispute, the authorities maintain that the farmers have illegally occupied land earmarked for the military nearly 40 years ago, which was allocated to Viettel in 2015 to build a defense-related project.
While all land in Vietnam is ultimately held by the state, land confiscations have become a flashpoint as residents accuse the government of pushing small landholders aside in favor of lucrative real estate projects, and of paying too little in compensation to those whose land is taken.
"Unfair and arbitrary land confiscation for economic projects, displacing local people, has been a major problem in the country for the past two decades," said Robertson of HRW.
"Vietnam government officials need to recognize the importance of carrying out dialogues and negotiations with farmers to solve land disputes like Dong Tam in a peaceful manner rather than using violence," he added.
The U.S. State Department detailed numerous reports of clashes between local residents and authorities at land expropriation sites in Vietnam during 2018 in the latest edition of its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, noting that “disputes regarding land expropriation for development projects remained a significant source of public grievance.”
Additional reporting and translation by RFA's Vietnamese Service.