Land grabs rile Vietnam’s farmers

April 11, 2013 6:23 am

Land grabs rile Vietnam’s farmers

By Nguyen Phuong Linh in Haiphong

Fish farmer Doan Van Vuon was jailed last week for five years for shooting at police and local officials when they tried to confiscate his land near the northern port city of Haiphong last year. Those like him who oppose the powers-that-be in Vietnam, an authoritarian Communist state, are usually shunned by a fearful public.

But Mr Vuon has become a folk hero, symbolising popular resentment against land grabs by local officials, a problem that is also rampant in China, Vietnam’s fellow Communist neighbour.

On Wednesday, one of the officials responsible for Mr Vuon’s eviction was jailed for 30 months for destruction of property but Vietnam’s increasingly vocal bloggers and land activists were less than impressed.

“There was no justice in this trial, it is a joke,” says Vu Van Luan, another fish farmer from Mr Vuon’s village of Tien Lang.In Vietnam, all land still belongs to the state but the Party started allowing people to acquire “land-use rights” as part of the reforms that helped transform the Vietnamese economy from the late 1980s onward.

Tensions are high at present because large swaths of farmland that were given to farmers on 20-year leases in 1993 will revert to the state this year.

Despite farmers’ worries the Party is split on how to respond, with some reformers calling for the constitution to allow private ownership of land while hardliners oppose such steps.

Land reform is just one of a number of issues being discussed as part of a consultation on constitutional change that has stirred up a rare public debate about the role of the Communist Party in Vietnam.

Le Dang Doanh, an outspoken party reformist, argues that the leadership has lost its way and has been captured by vested interests. “The current party takes the land off the farmers at an unreasonable price and sells it to investors at a much higher price, instead of taking land from landlords for farmers like before,” he says. “This trial is extremely important because it’s a measure of the authorities’ attitude toward not only Mr Vuon’s family but farmers throughout the country.”

Mr Vuon and three family members were convicted of attempted murder for fighting back against a local government eviction team with homemade guns and explosives.

After the first time he was asked to move in 2009, Mr Vuon petitioned the provincial authorities, but the local courts dismissed his case. Several more attempts at legal action failed. So, in January 2012 when local officials came to take his land by force, he and his family decided to fight back.

During the four-day trial in Haiphong, which was held amid tight security, Mr Vuon said he had invested in his land to build a fish farm and still had the right to use it. “We had to react like that because we had no other choice,” he told the court.

Vietnam must reform its confused land law if it is to mend its ailing economy, says Tran Huu Huynh, head of the legal department at Vietnam’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“With state ownership, farmers don’t feel assured because they are not the owners of that land, so they don’t want to invest and work hard,” he says. “With this fragmentary land situation, they can’t develop their business, extend scale or invest in high technology so their products are not very competitive.”

James Anderson, a governance specialist at the World Bank’s Vietnam office, says that the current situation often leads to a lose-lose outcome for farmers and investors.

“Rather than facilitating voluntary negotiations, the state is afforded a special role in determining compensation prices and strong powers to use compulsory processes to reallocate land. Naturally, this can lead to difficulties for either side, with those losing land unhappy with the compensation package, and the investor facing delays as it takes longer for the land to be cleared.”

According to Huynh Phong Tranh, the head of the government’s anti-corruption watchdog, land complaints made up 80 per cent of serious, unresolved graft cases in 2012.

Last year, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung admitted that Haiphong local government had made some “mistakes” in handling Mr Vuon’s case and disciplined some leaders.

Speaking after the sentencing, Pham Thi Bau, Mr Vuon’s sister-in-law, said he would appeal against this verdict, which she said was too harsh.

But, according to one of the family’s lawyers, they would stand up for their rights again if given the chance – a sentiment shared by many aggrieved farmers in Vietnam.

“As Mr Vuon said, they had no other choice,” he says. “I’m sure if they could go back to the past, they would still do the same because that’s a question of react or die.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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