A female shop owner is in critical condition after self-immolating over the weekend in protest of an official decision to tear down her marketplace in central Vietnam, according to fellow merchants she had represented in negotiations with the government.
Nguyen Minh Tan, 45, set herself alight at around 8:00 a.m. on Jan. 31 in Quang Nam province’s Dai Loc district out of desperation as local officials were pushing forward with a plan to evict shop keepers and build a new market, a witness to the self-immolation told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“I saw the fire but when I tried to go to her [the authorities] surrounded the area and we could not get close to the site,” said a woman surnamed Van, who is also a friend of Tan.
“I saw her on the ground—her skin was burnt and peeling off, but they did not let us go near her. Only policemen and the market chairman could go in. We could not even record the scene,” she said.
Van said Tan held the protest on behalf of the merchants of Dai Loc’s Dai Hiep village, who say authorities have ignored their pleas to maintain the current marketplace.
“[The local government] has already sold the land of the old market,” Van said.
“The merchants do not want to a new market, but the authorities forced them to accept it, so Tan burned herself in protest.”
Another witness named Le Duc Triet told RFA that Tan, who is unmarried with an adopted child, had been taken after her self-immolation to a hospital in Dai Loc’s capital Ai Nghia, which was quickly surrounded by police and security personnel.
“An ambulance took her to Dai Loc hospital and [the authorities] blocked all the routes to the building—none of the merchants were allowed to leave the market to go to the hospital,” she said.
“They confiscated any phones used to film or take pictures. There are about 200 uniformed policemen around the market and there are so many at the hospital that I don’t know the exact number.”
Triet said Tan had acted as a representative of the merchants at Dai Hiep and traveled to Vietnam’s capital Hanoi for around three months to lodge a complaint about the market with the central government.
She said Tan had also obtained a letter from the office of the National Assembly, or parliament, ordering the Quang Nam People’s Committee to end eviction of the market, hold a consultation with the people, and send a report to the central government before proceeding with the project.
But by the time she returned home, Triet said, Tan found that the majority of merchants in Dai Hiep had already signed agreements with the local government to vacate the market.
“As far as I know, the police had been looking for her because they accused her of inciting the merchants to protest. She was on the run in [neighboring] Da Nang [municipality] when she met with me,” Triet said.
“I told her the merchants had already agreed to move, so there was nothing she could do about it—it was just a waste of her efforts. I don’t know why she decided to burn herself [on Saturday]. I heard that her injuries are very serious and she might not recover.”
Nha Trang protest
Tan’s fiery protest came a day after some 300 merchants in the southeastern Vietnam’s Khanh Hoa province shuttered their shops to demand local authorities reverse a plan which would also see their decades-old marketplace razed in favor of a new store complex.
A schoolteacher who lives in the coastal city of Nha Trang told RFA that she had been walking home from class on the morning of Jan. 30 when she encountered a large police presence at the historic Dam market.
“I was teaching, but at 10:30 a.m. I went into Dam market and I saw that about 99 percent of the stores in the main market were closed and there was no electricity,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“I asked some bystanders and they said [the authorities] plan to demolish the market and told any merchant who wants to continue their business in the new market that they will have to pay about 62 million dong per square meter (U.S. $2,900 per 11 square feet).”
The teacher said that each merchant would only be able to run a shop of four square meters (43 square feet) in the new market, compared to their current shops of up to five square meters (54 square feet), and would be expected to pay 248 million dong (U.S. $11,620) for a new shop, when many still had loans of up to 300 million dong (U.S. $14,100) to pay off for their current shops.
“[The government] does not want to pay compensation for the existing stores, while they are already demanding advances for the new stores,” she said.
“The merchants said they would rather die and will definitely not leave their stores.”
Promise of resolution
She said that a female representative of the government ordered the merchants to disperse from the protest on Friday and promised that the vice director of the provincial inspection office would resolve the dispute.
The protesters agreed to wait a week to see what solution would be offered, but pledged to resume protests if they were unsatisfied with the government’s proposal, the teacher said.
The merchants of Dam market say the plan to demolish their market, which was built in the early 1970s and has become a major tourist attraction in the region, is a waste of resources.
In August 2013, the local government approved a plan to build a new three-story market complex at the site with a total area of 21,000 square meters (226,000 square feet), including a 1,400-square-meter (15,000-square-foot) area for fresh produce.
Construction on the market is set to begin in early 2014 and be completed by 2020.
In Vietnam, all land belongs to the state, with people having only the right to use it, and expropriation has been linked to several high-profile incidents of unrest.
Reported by Mac Lam for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.