A group of farmers locked in a standoff with authorities over a land dispute in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi have released one of 20 officials held for nearly a week, citing health concerns, state media reported Friday.
Dang Van Canh, deputy head of the Publicity and Education Committee in My Duc district—where the showdown is underway some 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of central Hanoi—was released by the farmers in Dong Tam commune “owing to my health,” he told the official Vietnam News Service.
“I was treated well during the last few days; the villagers treated decently all the other people that they held hostage,” Canh said.
“I wish the locals would keep calm,” he added.
The Dong Tam standoff was sparked by an April 15 clash between police and the farmers, who 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.
Police had arrested several farmers for allegedly causing social unrest, and other farmers responded by detaining 38 police officers and local officials, and threatening to burn them alive with petrol if security personnel attack again. Local media said that the farmers who were arrested have since been released.
By April 17, villagers freed 15 police officers, while three other detainees managed to escape by themselves. Nineteen people are still being held in Dong Tam, where farmers have erected barricades to prevent anyone from entering, and authorities have said that those responsible for detaining them will be dealt with according to the law.
Hanoi mayor Nguyen Duc Chung invited the farmers to the My Duc district People’s Committee building on Thursday to resolve the situation, but the farmers have said they want Chung to meet with them in Dong Tam because they fear arrest if they leave the area.
Instead, Chung told district officials at the People’s Committee building that the city government will investigate the land dispute and called on villagers to assist with the inspection, which is expected to take 45 days. He promised that the issue would be addressed “properly,” unlike previous instances when residents submitted complaints to no avail in recent years.
Chung also urged the farmers to remove blockades and release the detainees, assuring them that authorities will not launch an attack.
On Friday, Tien Phong newspaper reported that Chung might visit the commune on April 22 to speak with the farmers as part of a bid to secure the release of the remaining detainees, citing an anonymous source. RFA was unable to confirm the report.
In the meantime, the mayor has ordered Viettel to cease construction on the disputed land until a resolution is reached.
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.
The farmers believe the land is zoned for agricultural, rather than military, purposes and say Viettel has no right to use it. They have suggested that they will vacate the land if the central government confirms it as military-zoned—provided they are adequately compensated.
Call for dialogue
Observers on Friday questioned Chung’s approach, saying the mayor should give the farmers a reason to trust that their grievances will be heard and the standoff will end peacefully.
Hanoi-based activist Nguyen Khac Toan told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that the farmers were right to boycott Thursday’s meeting.
“The Dong Tam villagers’ refusal to talk with Chung at the My Duc District People’s Committee headquarters has merit,” he said.
“Chung must go to the site to listen to villagers and see [the situation] for himself. Doing so would demonstrate his good will and if the government demonstrates good will, [resolving things] will be very simple.”
Toan said the standoff is a matter of “conflict of interest,” but advised the government to find a solution to the dispute that would benefit all stakeholders.
“If this hotspot is not contained and becomes contagious, it would be very dangerous for the regime,” he said.
Blogger Nguyen Lan Thang told RFA that the mayor must show that he—and by extension, the government—is capable of understanding the needs of the people.
“Chung must be sincere in listening … not simply in settling the crisis at Dong Tam,” he said.
“[This is why] Chung should have gone to Dong Tam in an official capacity and sat down to talk with the residents.”
Also on Friday, around 50 civil society groups and 40 activists published an open letter stating their support for the Dong Tam farmers and suggesting that a poor system of land ownership in Vietnam and “arrogant behavior” on the part of the authorities were responsible for the April 15 clash.
“We activists and groups that struggle for democracy in Vietnam want to share support and encouragement for our compatriots in Dong Tam amid their current fight for justice and legal rights,” Do Nam Hai from the pro-democracy group Bloc 8406 told RFA of the decision to release the letter.
Hai said that the letter’s signatories had been monitoring the situation in Dong Tam and were in agreement with the farmers’ decision to reject Thursday’s meeting at the My Duc District People’s Committee building.
“We are closely watching how the government behaves in this case,” he said.
“There will be more announcements and calls for assistance [for the farmers] to come from people both inside and outside Vietnam, as well as from progressive organizations around the world.”
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 landowners aside in favor of lucrative real estate projects, and of paying too little in compensation to those whose land is taken.
Many petitioners who seek justice and demand adequate compensation for their land have been beaten and imprisoned by authorities on allegations of causing public disorder under Article 245 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.