Once loyal – defiant farmers question party leadership

A defiant return from prison: Mrs Can Thi Theu, pledged to fight on for her land

A defiant return from prison: Mrs Can Thi Theu, pledged to fight on for her land

In her late teens Mrs Hao used to mop floors for the French Foreign Legion and hope for a Communist victory.

Now, at the age of 80, she comes to Hanoi from her village each week to protest outside government buildings.

She is from one of nearly a thousand farming households who had their land repossessed by local authorities in one of Vietnam’s most bitter and protracted land disputes.

Despite years of violence, arrests and bitter recriminations in her village she has still not lost faith in the party and its revolution, which improved the lives of many Vietnamese peasants and still counts them among its most loyal supporters.

“The Communist Party can do wrong,” said Mrs Hao in an interview.

Her anger is focused on what she calls the “land robbers”.

“The local authorities are corrupt and greedy. The compensation they offered us is too little and they will sell the land to developers at a big profit,” she said, during one of her regular visits to Hanoi with other protesters from the beleaguered village of Duong Noi.

Farmers in town to petition the government over their lost land.

Farmers in town to petition the government over their lost land.

Mrs Hao was the daughter of a landless peasant family as the war between the French colonial army and the Viet Minh raged through the Red River Delta in the early 1950s.

“I was conscripted to work as a maid at the barracks for French soldiers. They were white and some were black and they had Vietnamese troops with them too,” she said, remembering the war of independence.

“We hated the soldiers because they used to loot and steal and take our crops.”

Her happiest memories are from after the Communist victory in the North in 1954 when land was distributed to peasants for the first time.

“There had been famine and we never had enough food, but then we were given land for the first time. We were actually given the titles. We were so joyful at that time. There were so many celebrations.”

But Duong Noi, now on the fringes of the rapidly expanding capital, is virtually a battlefield once again.

Some farmers settled and accepted compensation from the local government. But more than three hundred households are refusing to accept it and are demanding a better settlement.

“It’s like a tinderbox. The tension is so high and violence can explode at any moment,” says one of Mrs Hao’s neighbours, 60-year-old Nguyen Van Su.

Bulldozers backed by police and civil enforcers first came in 2010 and levelled large parts of the land around the village for development.

In Hanoi to petition the government, Mrs Hao, on the right, has not lost faith in the Communist Party

In Hanoi to petition the government, Mrs Hao, on the right, has not lost faith in the Communist Party

They came back in 2014 and there were violent clashes as villagers tried to block them. Seven people were arrested and sentenced to terms of imprisonment of up to 15 months for resisting officials.

“I’m not scared of the police at all, ” says Mrs Hao. “They are wrong. They evicted me and since then I have lost fifteen crops.”

Villagers say the seized land has been sealed off and is protected by fences and security guards. The land has gone to waste, including a cemetery that was cleared by bulldozers, but no building work has begun.

Duong Hoi is one of scores of land disputes that have flared up in recent years during Vietnam’s rapid growth as an industrial economy.

The complaints of the farmers are similar across the country. They say the compensation they are offered is derisory and amounts to only a tiny fraction of the value of the land.

The older farmers may retain some faith in the Communist Party and its ability to help them, but many of their children and grandchildren have reached a different conclusion.

“The government’s actions are illegal. It is obliged under national laws to give adequate compensation, resettlement and vocational training so farmers can develop another livelihood”, says Trinh Ba Phuong from Duong Noi.

The 30-year-old is leading the campaign of Duong Noi villagers and is trying to build links with other disaffected farmers across Vietnam.

His mother, Can Thi Theu, was one of those arrested in 2014 and has just completed a 15 month jail term for filming the violence from a watch tower when the police entered the village.

She was given a joyous welcome home by fellow villagers and made clear that her determination to fight on had not been diminished by her time in jail.

“(The authorities) are getting increasingly repressive and increasingly radical in the way they affect our lives. They are only inflaming hatreds and the struggle of the people to rise up against them,” she told a crowd of supporters.

The farmers are trying to increase their influence by linking up with embryonic civil society organisations that operate despite close monitoring, harassment and occasional arrest by the police and their civilian auxiliaries.

They are eager for legal training and help with organisation so they can confront the judicial authorities and campaign at the national level.

The land disputes get barely a mention in Vietnam’s official state controlled media. But the sight of angry and defiant farmers petitioning outside government offices has become a familiar one as more and more land is swallowed up by expanding cities and industrial parks.

There has also been widespread coverage and discussion on social media networks which tens of millions of Vietnamese now rely on for their information.

Bloggers and Facebook networks crackle with the latest eyewitness reports, videos, photographs and rumours of trouble in the villagers.

The threat from angry farmers, and other disaffected groups, has so far been easily contained by Vietnam’s sprawling state security apparatus.

The petitioners from Duong Noi tell stories of how they’ve been threatened and intimidated by gangs of “civilians” armed with knives during their protests in Hanoi.

Decisions by the authorities on when to crack down and when to ease off are carefully calibrated – conditioned in many cases by international pressure.

But the Communist Party has lost its long held monopoly on information.

The plight of the farmers and their supporters can no longer be hidden – from the Vietnamese public or from potential economic and diplomatic partners overseas.