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Trial Highlights Vietnam’s Persistent Land Rights Problem

Brothers Trinh Ba Phuong (L) and Trinh Ba Tu pictured in a cafe the evening before their parents' trial, Hanoi, Nov. 24, 2014. (Marianne Brown for VOA)
Brothers Trinh Ba Phuong (L) and Trinh Ba Tu pictured in a cafe the evening before their parents' trial, Hanoi, Nov. 24, 2014. (Marianne Brown for VOA)

In Vietnam, the state owns the land and leases it to the people for a limited time. As the country’s economy has grown, the issue of who owns the rights to farm or develop land remains a difficult problem, with occasional protests over illegal seizures of land, otherwise known as “land grabs.” In Hanoi, the latest trial of land rights protesters highlights lingering issues with the system.

This week, a group of people gathered near a court on the outskirts of Hanoi to show their support at the appeal trial of four land rights activists who were arrested while protesting an alleged land grab earlier this year. They were sentenced to between 12 and 20 months for disturbing public order.

Both of 31-year-old Trinh Ba Phuong’s parents were on trial. Although the court reduced his father’s sentence by three months, he said he was very disappointed with the result. He said he believes the trial was a “tool for oppression and land grabs.”

He said local authorities first announced plans to take the land in 2008. The compensation offered was too low, and 356 families have refused the payment. He said officials did not attempt to negotiate with the residents.

Video footage allegedly showing attempts to take the land by force in April has been widely circulated on social media, with over 150,000 views on YouTube.

​In one video, streams of people wearing conical hats cross a field pursued by men wearing green police uniforms and official red arm bands.

Phuong’s younger brother, 25-year-old Tu, said because many of the farmers now have no means to make a living from their land, they are facing great economic difficulties.

Protests of this kind are not new, and in many ways the case typifies the chronic issue of land rights in Vietnam, where the state retains ownership of the land but allows farmers to lease it for a limited period of time. Lessees do not negotiate directly with developers and although prices are supposed to be set according to the market value, that does not happen in practice.

According to a report to the National Assembly in October 2012, the number of complaints involving land acquisition and compensation made up 70 percent of all complaints to governmental agencies from 2004 to 2011.

Jonathan London, a Vietnam analyst at City University Hong Kong, predicted more protests in the future.

“The state so far has not addressed some of the root causes of these disputes and in the absence of more effective institutional solutions to this problem these kinds of street level or spontaneous uprisings are likely to persist because of course the supply of land is not increasing and when people are displaced or when they claim that they are the victims of injustice then the legal system is not frequently seen as a promising option,” said London.

The use of video and social media has become a common tool for protesters to voice their grievances, London said.

“People in Vietnam are increasingly becoming social movement entrepreneurs.

They are trying to call attention to issues, they are trying to frame issues. While we shouldn’t exaggerate, this is nonetheless impressively skillful attempt by people with relatively little power to bring influence to bear on those who have power and have so far been unresponsive to these people’s claims,” said London.

In 2012, the eviction of a well-respected farmer in Tien Lang district who used homemade bombs to repel police attracted international headlines. Some hope that a revision of the Land Law would address some of these problems.

Donors said the revised law, which came into effect in July, would improve transparency and land administration and, if implemented well, would help minimize conflicts and delays in infrastructure.

Jairo Acuna-Alfaro, Policy Adviser on public administration reform and anti-corruption for the United Nations Development Program, said under the new law land use plans will be discussed at the district and provincial level.

“The assumption is there will be a bit more scrutiny at the higher levels than at the lower levels… There will be more power to make decisions and make a judgment,” said Acuna-Alfaro.

However, he said, it is too early to make assessments on the impact of the law.

Part of the problem is that the law itself is not making a difference in these cases because it is not changing the motivation of public officials, he pointed out. That would have to be seen through the lens of other laws, like the Criminal Law.

In the meantime, Phuong and his brother have become established members of the activist community in Hanoi and say they are determined to continue fighting for their parents' freedom.