A government promise to forgo legal action against a group of farmers in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi and investigate their land dispute in exchange for the release of 19 police and officials over the weekend is extremely rare and due in part to social media scrutiny of the situation, observers said Monday.
A standoff between authorities and the farmers from Dong Tam commune in Hanoi’s My Duc district ended Saturday with the farmers freeing the remaining 19 hostages they had held for a week after winning the city government’s pledge to investigate their complaints and not prosecute the villagers.
Hanoi mayor Nguyen Duc Chung emerged from two hours of talks with 50 farmers promising a "comprehensive investigation" into the decades-old dispute that would produce a response in 45 days, according to state media and a copy of the written agreement seen by RFA's Vietnamese Service.
He also said that those who took dozens of police officers hostage since April 15 would not be prosecuted and thanked villagers for treating the captives well.
Chung then signed an agreement and accepted the handover of the 19 police and officials who made up the last of 38 hostages taken the previous weekend.
On Monday, a My Duc resident who gave his name as Hoa told RFA he was pleased by Chung’s resolution of the standoff, which he said was a largely unprecedented show of restraint by the state in Vietnam.
“I’m quite surprised by this solution, which the people have expressed agreement with, because I have never seen such behavior from the government before,” he said.
“I think social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube played a very important role in the Dong Tam case. It brought the news to the public as it occurred. More importantly, it helped the people understand the truth about what was happening there.”
The Dong Tam standoff was sparked by an April 15 clash between police and the 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 burn them alive with petrol if security personnel attacked again.
By April 17, villagers freed 15 police officers, while three other detainees managed to escape by themselves. Nineteen people were still being held until Saturday's talks in Dong Tam, where farmers had erected barricades to prevent anyone from entering.
Vo Van Tao, a journalist based in the Khanh Hoa province city of Nha Trang, told RFA on Monday that Chung had resolved the standoff in a “humane” way, but also suggested that the situation in Dong Tam had “forced him to do so” because the solution he came to was the best option the government had.
He also praised the farmers of Dong Tam, who he called “determined, clever and flexible” in the way they had appeased the government, but remained tough on their demands.
“I have seen some bad precedents, but I think the likelihood of the government changing its mind is quite low this time and they are more likely to keep their promises,” he said.
Tao put the likelihood of the government upholding its pledges to investigate the land dispute and refrain from pursuing legal action against the farmers at “60 to 70 percent.”
“The situation is not like what we saw at Thai Binh before—back then there was no Internet and the civil movement was not as strong as today,” he said, referring to a May-September 1997 period of unrest in the province, when several thousand villagers openly protested against local corruption, land disputes and economic policies.
“[This time] I was impressed by the role of social media and the people who gave their suggestions to the government. Social media was instrumental in this case, though I don’t think it played the decisive role in resolving this issue.”
Due to severe press restrictions during the Thai Binh unrest, it is unclear how many arrests, charges and cases were brought against protesters in the region.
Social media role
During the Dong Tam standoff, the Hanoi government gradually increased a security presence around the commune, while electricity and wireless phone networks were cut off in the area, leaving residents unable to communicate with the outside world.
Vietnam’s state media reports largely cited statements from the Hanoi Communist Party’s Propaganda Unit, which claimed 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.
Other official newspapers reported that “outside forces,” including lawyers and civil society workers, worked to incite the Dong Tam farmers by posting information about the standoff on social media “in the name of democracy.”
But netizens widely dismissed the claims, saying the public should have the right to post updates about the situation and discuss it without worrying about being accused of provoking unrest.
On Monday, blogger Doan Trang took to her Facebook account to praise the role of social media in ensuring that daily developments were made available to all during the Dong Tam standoff.
“Blame must fall on the government for limiting the freedom of press and censuring the media,” she wrote.
“Had social media not covered the standoff through comments and analysis … the events of Dong Tam could have been squashed just like those in Thai Binh and [other incidents of unrest] in past years.”
Reported by Anh Vu for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.