UPDATED at 2:10 P.M. EDT on 2017-04-19
The mayor of Vietnam’s capital Hanoi has been assigned to end a standoff over a land dispute between farmers and authorities, now in its fifth day, and secure the release of 20 police officers and local officials the farmers detained during a clash over the weekend.
Speaking to reporters late on Tuesday, deputy secretary of the Hanoi Communist Party Office Dao Duc Toan said Hanoi mayor Nguyen Duc Chung had been ordered to hold a dialogue with the farmers from Dong Tam commune, in the city’s My Duc district, to resolve the ongoing stalemate.
Toan did not provide details of what Chung will discuss with the farmers or when the meeting is expected to take place.
The deputy secretary acknowledged that the land situation in Dong Tam had been complicated for years because of "lax management," and said authorities of Hanoi and My Duc district had removed one official from his post and reprimanded 10 officials in the commune.
He told reporters the authorities are pursuing talks to resolve the problem, but said their first priority was to ensure the safety of those detained by the farmers.
The two sides have been locked in a standoff since the morning of April 15, when police clashed with the 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 compensating them.
Police had arrested four 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. The farmers who were arrested have since been released.
By Tuesday afternoon, 15 police officers had been freed by the villagers, 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.
Lawyer Tran Vu Hai, who is advising the farmers, initially told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that mayor Chung had spoken with the Dong Tam farmers by phone and pledged to visit the commune on Tuesday, but later said Chung had denied promising to do so.
On Wednesday, lawmakers Duong Trung Quoc and Le Thanh Van joined a growing number of observers who have called for the two sides to hold dialogue and settle the conflict peacefully.
Meanwhile, blogger Dung Vova, who grew up near Dong Tam, told RFA that negotiations were underway Wednesday to release six more detainees.
“At this point, the farmers continue to detain the remaining , and among those the Hanoi authorities have asked for the release of six riot police who belong to the City Unit,” he said.
“Villagers responded by asking City Unit representatives to come and sign papers certifying the number released, in order to prevent losses or any legal issues in the future. But [as of 6:00 p.m. in Hanoi] no representatives have shown up.”
Vova told RFA that he had streamed a live video calling on Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to consider the proposal, “lest we end up with prolonged tensions.”
“The villagers need to work to earn a living,” he said, suggesting that a quick resolution to the standoff would be to the benefit of all stakeholders.
Over the past five days, Vietnam’s state media reports have largely cited statements from the Hanoi Communist Party’s Propaganda Unit, which claim that the farmers illegally occupied land reserved to build a military airfield in 1980 that was recently awarded to Viettel to build a defense-related project.
Only the online Vietnamese news service VnExpress quoted the farmers as saying that they want the dispute settled “in accordance with the law” and to “avoid creating social disorder.”
On Tuesday, Ha Noi Moi newspaper reported that “outside forces,” including lawyers and civil society workers, were working to incite the Dong Tam farmers by posting information about the standoff on social media “in the name of democracy.”
Blogger Vova dismissed the claims, saying netizens should have the right to post updates about the situation and discuss it without having to worry about being accused of provoking unrest.
“Those who go online to socialize [such as myself] … are often called ‘pro-democracy activists,’” he said, adding that authorities had also labeled him a member of Viet Tan, a U.S.-based pro-democracy organization banned by the Vietnamese government.
Vova said local officials have also accused him of stirring up trouble in the commune because of his online activities.
“The elders there tell me that local authorities are even putting out propaganda that I am a member of ‘reactionary’ forces,” he said.
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 Vietnam Service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.