Lie of the land

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After decades spent on reclaiming wasteland, farmers reacted violently to authorities seeking to revoke land


Police officials and soldiers checking for mine at on the farmland of Doan Van Vuon in Hai Phong City's Tien Lang District. Vuon's relatives reportedly set mines and shot at police officials and soldiers revoking their farmland under a controversial decision..

Land grabbing by political elites has been a simmering problem for decades, but an agricultural engineer's protest against the takeover of his land with guns and mines has highlighted serious land management problems nationwide.

Experts have accused authorities in Hai Phong City's Tien Lang District of wrongly taking land of Doan Van Vuon, 49, who had turned an area of coastal swampland into shrimp farms in Vinh Quang Commune 20 years ago.

Officials from the Tien Lang People's Committee, who have avoided answering the media about the case over the past several days, have rejected the accusations. Their actions are based on a 1993 allocation of land to Vuon for a period of 14 years. Experts say the allocation was not in accordance with the land law.

"I think it is a type of class struggle between the bureaucratic class and the people," said David Koh, a Vietnam analyst at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"We have a proper household who was engaging in a business of production, into which a group of ordinary people had poured much blood and sweat over many years. Surely the bureaucrats in Tien Lang had not thought of this," he told Vietweek.

Vuon began reclaiming land in Tien Lang since the 1980s when he was called a fool by many for carrying soil to fill the seaside wasteland.

Vu Van Hien, his neighbor, said Vuon had coped with the Mother Nature and natural disasters to complete a job that a team of youth volunteers had failed - building a dike at the river mouth and turning the wasteland into farming ground.

Many residents said they used to run deeper inland during storm seasons but were no longer worried about dire impacts after Vuon and his brothers set up farms even nearer to the sea.

The latest incident happened on January 5, when the Tien Lang People's Committee sent more than 100 officers and soldiers to the land where Vuon's family was living to force them to return dozens of hectares of aquaculture land.

During the approach, four policemen and two soldiers were injured after a mine exploded and they were shot at with some self-made guns from inside the house.

Police forces approached the house several hours later to arrest Vuon and five others, including his brother Doan Van Tinh, his nephew Doan Van Ve, his wife Nguyen Thi Thuong, his son Doan Xuan Quynh and Pham Thi Hien, the wife of Vuon's younger brother Doan Van Quy.

Quy turned himself in on January 7. On January 10, police released Thuong, Quynh and Hien on bail and said they were still tracking down two other suspects. They are looking to charge the arrestees with attempted murder.

Several breaches

Dang Hung Vo, former deputy minister of Natural Resources and Environment, pointed out several breaches to the Land Law by the Tien Lang People's Committee in Vuon's case.

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According to the Land Law, all land in Vietnam belongs to all the residents and are under the government's management. People can lease land and pay rent as well as buy land use rights (land title) for limited or unlimited time depending on land use purposes.

In 1997, the committee issued a decision to allot Vuon 19.5 hectares of land to use for 14 years. The time was to be calculated from October 1993 the time when he was allotted another 20 hectares.

Vo said this is against the Land Law that stipulates the fixed period to confer title for aquaculture land is 20 years and the time has to be based on the date of the decision, meaning Vuon should able to use the land until 2017.

"There is no problem if the land had been leased. The period can be 14 years or even less. However, the land was allotted and thus, they have to follow relevant regulations," he was quoted by Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper as saying.

However, Tien Lang People's Committee has allocated land to Vuon and several others for between four and 14 years, which is shorter than the period regulated by law.

Vo said the district authorities also infringed required procedures in revoking Vuon's land because they did not declare the purpose of the revocation, calculate affected properties, plan compensation and resettlement and collect residents' opinions.

Vuon and his neighbors had requested the district authorities to modify the decision and extend their land use period to 20 years as per the law but the request was denied.

After the Tien Lang authorities issued a decision to revoke their land, the residents filed a lawsuit against this decision at the district's People's Court.

In 2009, the district Court of First Instance issued a verdict against the residents, which prompted them to appeal the verdict at the Hai Phong City People's Court where judge Ngo Van Anh held a meeting in April 2010 to mediate between district authorities and the farmers.

Anh made a note of the meeting that said the Tien Lang People's Committee has reached an agreement with the farmers. The district authorities would let the farmers hire land for farming if the latter withdrew their complaint against the former.

Under the law, the defendant has 15 days to appeal a verdict issued by the Court of First Instance and it will be reviewed by the Court of Appeals. If there is no complaint during the two week period, the verdict will take effect.

The farmers withdrew the lawsuit on October 24 2010, and the district authorities went ahead and tried to revoke their land, irrespective of the agreement witnessed by Anh.

Nguyen Hong Bach of Hanoi Bar Association said the farmers might have been confused by judge Ngo Van Anh because actually it is the verdict that is the legal document and not the agreement.

"The agreement has no legal effect," he told Dan Tri newspaper a publication of the Vietnam Farmers Association, adding that Hai Phong People's Court had violated procedures when stamping the document.

"The commitment made by the district in the [actually ineffective] agreement have misled the farmers that they would be allowed to continue using land, so they withdrew their complaint against the verdict.

"Concerned authorities should protect the proper rights of those who have their land revoked besides investigating the charges of opposing government officials on duty," he said.

In another land dispute that broke out in the adjacent Kien Thuy District in Hai Phong in April 2010, two men ended up stabbing a commune chairman and deputy police chief on being asked to halt construction on a land plot in Doan Xa Commune.

Vu Van Ban, 55, of Kien Thuy District, had earlier ignored requests to stop building a house on a plot that Doan Xa Commune authorities said was public land.

During an inspection, Pham Hong Cuong, chairman of the Doan Xa People's Committee, asked Ban to stop construction. All of a sudden, Ban stabbed him in the neck with a knife.

Pham Van Oanh, deputy chief of commune police, who was accompanying the chairman, rushed to help but was in turn stabbed in the stomach by Ban's 19-year-old son, Vu Thien Thap De Nhat.

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