Land Disputes Stir Political Debate in Vietnam

    Jul 24, 2012

    Numerous large-scale land disputes and standoffs with officials over land have erupted in Vietnam in recent years, and the number of incidents appears to have increased since the beginning of 2012. At least part of the impetus for this increase is the expiration of the 20-year land use leases granted by the government that will expire in 2013. The National Assembly is in the process of drafting a new land law that is slated to go into effect next year. Land issues in Vietnam are more sensitive now than at any time since the ruling Communist Party launched its economic reforms (doi moi) in the late 1980s. The government’s ability to resolve these land issues will play a critical both in determining Vietnam’s future political atmosphere and its relations with the United States.

    Q1: What is the state of land ownership in Vietnam, and what efforts are being made to introduce land reforms?

    A1: Land in Vietnam is the property of the people (or government), and there is no legal concept of private land ownership. Under the country’s 1992 Constitution, the government is responsible for the allocation of land to individuals and organizations and allows land users to transfer land use rights. The land law promulgated in 1993, after the Communist Party had launched economic reforms and abandoned agricultural cooperatives, gave farmers 20-year land leases and 7.4 acres of land per farmer for production purposes. But the law also said that farmland was to be returned to the government for reallocation after 20 years. The rationale behind the limits on agricultural land was to allow the government to allocate land to new farmers, given that roughly 60 percent of the labor force still works in agriculture.

    The National Assembly began to review the land law and land policies in 2011. Prior to this, the law had undergone minor amendments in 1998, 2001, and 2003. The goal of the National Assembly is to complete the new land law and seek the approval of the prime minister by the end of 2012 for implementation in 2013. The ruling party’s Central Committee is heavily involved in providing guidelines and directions to the National Assembly in the drafting of the new land law.

    Q2: What is happening on the ground related to land issues?

    A2: One of the highest-profile land disputes this year took place in the northern city of Haiphong. Alleging that farmer Doan Van Vuon had encroached on neighboring land without permission and had failed to pay taxes since 2007, local government officials with help from the military forcibly evicted Vuon and his family and demolished their house. Vuon, who resisted with homemade land mines and rifles, was detained for attempted murder and opposition to government officials. Vuon quickly reached hero status in the media and blogs, and his case triggered widespread sympathy nationwide. For two months, Vietnamese state-owned newspapers ran daily articles that criticized the government’s treatment of Vuon. Eventually, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung intervened and ordered local authorities to return the confiscated land to Vuon’s family.

    Another major land dispute took place in Van Giang, near the capital city of Hanoi. Farmers have been protesting for several years against the construction of a satellite city called Ecopark Project. At one point, farmers protested in front of the prime minister’s residence in Hanoi. The villagers claimed the government had given their land to developers without proper consultation and adequate compensation and accused officials of corruption. Local authorities in April 2012 deployed about 3,000 policemen to pacify approximately 1,000 Van Giang villagers, turning the dispute into the biggest land confrontation in Vietnam. This case has not attracted coverage in the state-run media, but is widely covered by Vietnamese bloggers.

    Similar incidents have erupted in cities and urban areas. In May 2012, the failure of local authorities in the central coastal city of Danang to arrange resettlement for households moved to make way for a new residential project prompted a large protest at the construction site for several days. In 2010, the demolition of the historic Eden commercial and residential center in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City without consultation with the residents resulted in protests over forced evictions and the government’s alleged disregard of public opinion and the city’s historic landmarks.

    Q3: What is the significance of land reform to the political system and people of Vietnam?

    A3: Seventy percent of complaints filed nationwide against the government and officials are related to land. Three major underlying factors make land reform a hot-button issue in Vietnam.

    The first and most contentious is the issue of land ownership. For some time, the overhauling of the land law generated speculation that the government would allow private land ownership. Land reform was the main topic of discussion in May 2012 at a party Central Committee meeting during which party leaders agreed to retain the state’s right of land management and continue to treat land as the common property of the people. This means that the National Assembly only has the freedom to amend areas of the law other than land ownership. For those calling for the introduction of private property as critical to political reforms and a requirement for sustainable economic development, the party’s conclusion was a major disappointment.

    The second issue is the role of farmers in a changing Vietnamese society. More than three-fifths of the population still works in agriculture. Since the late 1980s, farmers have played an important role in turning Vietnam into one of the world’s top exporters of rice, coffee, cashews, and pepper. Senior officials at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment want land use rights to be extended for another 20 years (until 2033) or completely abolished, as long as farmers wish to continue farming. In March 2012, the Government’s Office, a consultative body for the prime minister and the government, ruled that land would not be revoked for reallocation from farmers who have complied with all aspects of the land law. Therefore, it appears that current land reforms will not lead to mass reallocation of land from farmers.

    Conflicts over land clearance and compensation have driven a significant wedge between farmers and the Communist Party over the years. To maintain strong economic growth, the government must provide land for new development projects while appeasing the rural population. Under current law, after the government approves a project, district-level officials have the authority to use coercive measures to clear a site if users of the land refuse to relocate at any cost. As a result, there have been a string of cases of forced evictions, often with the use of military forces, especially in rural areas. Prime Minister Dung in February 2012 ordered all levels of the government to cease the use of force of any kind in land evictions, although there are still no clear policies and guidelines for forced evictions.
    The third issue is the state’s record of managing dissent. As Vietnam embraces a more open economy, the government’s control of land has met with resistance in recent years not just from farmers and land users, but also from intellectuals and the media. While local leaders and police often tend to adopt a high-handed approach in land disputes, the press and the general public in most cases tend to sympathize with evicted residents and protesters against resettlement. Like with the problem of corruption, the issue of land has the ability to unite people against the Communist Party and the government.

    Q4: What are the implications of the land issue for U.S.-Vietnam relations and Vietnamese politics?

    A4: The land issue has two major implications for U.S.-Vietnam relations. First, in recent visits to Vietnam, both Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear that closer U.S.-Vietnam relations are contingent upon Vietnam’s improvement of its human rights record. Some view the government’s handling of land disputes as at least sometimes violating the international standards of human rights. Unless Vietnam is willing to adopt a legal framework on land that takes into consideration public opinion and sentiment, it could run into more contentious disputes and face stronger opposition in the future. If this happens, Washington could be constrained in its foreign policy options toward Hanoi, and this could slow efforts to negotiate the U.S.-Vietnam strategic partnership in which both sides have expressed an interest.

    Second, the question of land reform has exacerbated dissonance among Vietnam’s political elite on the question of political reform. On one side, the Communist Party, which is extremely concerned about its survival and wary of closer U.S.-Vietnam relations, is seeking to affirm its authority by dictating guidelines for new land policies. On the other side, reformist leaders hope to use land reform as a means to empower the people. The extent to which each side is able and willing to maneuver on land policies and reforms will have a significant impact on the future evolution of Vietnamese politics.

    Murray Hiebert is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Phuong Nguyen is a researcher with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.

    Critical Questions
    is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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