A group of farmers engaged in a standoff with authorities over a land dispute in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi boycotted a meeting Thursday with the city’s mayor, who was ordered to negotiate the release of 20 police officers and local officials the farmers detained during a clash over the weekend, state media said.
Mayor Nguyen Duc Chung traveled to the My Duc district People’s Committee building, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from central Hanoi, to discuss the hostage situation, but the farmers wanted Chung to visit with them directly in My Duc’s Dong Tam commune, according to a report by VnExpress.
“I’ve invited the villagers today but they didn’t show up,” the report quoted Chung as saying, adding that “the invitation remains open.”
Thursday marked Chung’s first visit to My Duc since an April 15 clash between police and Dong Tam 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 kill them 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. Twenty people are still being held in Dong Tam and authorities have said that those responsible for detaining them will be dealt with according to the law.
Dao Duc Toan, deputy secretary of the Hanoi Communist Party Office, announced Wednesday that Chung had been ordered to hold a dialogue with the farmers and acknowledged that the land situation in Dong Tam was complicated by "lax management."
On Thursday, Chung told local officials that the city government will investigate the land dispute and asked villagers to assist with the inspection, which VnExpress said is expected to take 45 days. He promised that the issue would addressed “properly,” unlike previous instances over the past four years.
Chung also urged the farmers to remove blockades and release the detainees, assuring them that authorities will not launch an attack.
VnExpress also quoted Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang as saying that Hanoi authorities are “dealing with the situation in accordance with the law, ensuring the legal interests of all parties involved.”
Agence France-Presse on Thursday cited a female farmer who said her group would resist any rescue attempt by the authorities, adding that residents had sealed off the area with barricades made from logs, sandbags and bricks after spotting signs a day earlier that police might be planning to enter.
The woman, who spoke with AFP on condition of anonymity, said farmers had poured oil around the building where the 20 detainees—including two senior local officials—were being kept, adding “we will make our move if the police attack us,” suggesting the farmers might set fire to the structure.
Meanwhile, she said, the hostages were being treated well and were being fed three meals a day.
Some farmers have expressed concerns that they may be arrested if they leave Dong Tam to meet with authorities.
Chung’s visit to My Duc came as reports emerged Thursday that hundreds of security personnel carrying riot shields and wearing helmets forcibly evicted a hamlet in Yen Trung village, in the northern province of Bac Ninh’s Yen Phong district.
A group of policemen initially entered Vong Dong hamlet on April 19 and informed residents that the eviction would take place early the next morning, an account posted on the Facebook page of Thai Van Duong said.
When residents refused to leave, local officials invited them to negotiate, but hundreds of officers moved into the hamlet shortly after without prior notice, as a video added to the Facebook posting purports to show.
Sources told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that some residents were injured during the eviction and others were detained for filming the incident.
“I heard that they sent about 1,000 policemen to carry out the eviction,” said one witness, who asked not to be named.
“The villagers had erected their tents on the land a few days before. They also brought coffins and lit incense sticks [in protest]. Police injured one elderly person, broke another person’s arm and arrested some people who recorded it.”
According to Duong, Vong Dong hamlet includes a 5,040-square-meter (54,250-square-foot) paddy field, with one of the highest yields in Yen Trung village.
Officials in Yen Trung demanded that residents hand over the land in exchange for 21,000 dong (U.S. $0.92) per square meter, but the residents refused because they believe the compensation is too low, Duong said.
It was not immediately clear what authorities plan to use the land for.
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.
Economist Pham Chi Lan told RFA that land ownership has become one of the most controversial issues in Vietnam today, and one in which farmers often find the deck stacked in the government’s favor.
Lan recommended farmers be recognized as land “owners,” rather than “users,” saying that while land users are provided with rights, “they are not guaranteed, because the government still has the right to take the land back.”
Land appropriation can be carried out at several levels of government, and there is a higher likelihood that it will not be done in accordance with the law when initiated by lower ranked officials, due to lack of oversight, he said.
Lan also suggested removing a clause in the land law allowing appropriation of land for “socioeconomic development projects,” which he said is too vague.
“It is too large in scope and doesn’t make clear what can lead to a situation where the farmers’ land is taken and given to a company,” he said.
“In this situation, farmers are offered compensation at much lower rates than the real value of the land, and that leads to lawsuits throughout the country.”
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.