Return of farmer who battled nature – and the government

Vuon (left) and his younger brother Quy on their return from prison. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Xuan Dien blog.

Vuon (left) and his younger brother Quy on their return from prison. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Xuan Dien blog.

Doan Van Vuon is a hero to farmers across Vietnam for the desperate resistance he put up when the police came to evict him from his land. He and his family caused a national sensation in 2012 when they fought back with home-made shotguns and improvised explosives to defend their fish farms from seizure by the local authorities. Released from prison under the recent National Day amnesty, he received a hero’s welcome at his home village in Tien Lang near Haiphong. Doan Trang reports on the former soldier who first fought to reclaim his land from the elements and then battled armed police and soldiers to hold on to it:

When Doan Van Vuon started building the dyke to prevent the sea from flooding the typhoon-prone land of Tien Lang, he did not expect local fish farmers to revere him so much that some of them swore they would dedicate a shrine to him as ‘The Conquerer’.

Vuon fought long and hard to reclaim the swampland south of Haiphong. Photo by Nguyen Dinh Ha.

Vuon fought long and hard to reclaim the swampland south of Haiphong. Photo by Nguyen Dinh Ha.

Nor did he expect that 17 years later, the land that he fought for would be seized in one of the most controversial repossessions in recent Vietnamese history.

It marked the beginning of a series of violent land evictions and growing conflict across Vietnam over the laws relating to land.

Vuon, 52, looks like a typical farmer in northern Vietnam with suntanned skin, a square face and broad shoulders. Like many other people in the north of the same age, he served in the army in the early 1980s and later returned to his country town in rural Haiphong.

In 1987 he became a student at the Hanoi University of Agriculture, where he specialised in agronomic pedology, the science of soils and erosion.

Tien Lang, a district in the outskirts of Haiphong, had been hit at that time by a series of storms and floods. Local people had become familiar with evacuating their homes in panic and abandoning their land. Poverty appeared to be their destiny.

Vuon, whose family ran a business in the region, was acutely aware of the problems. He had done his dissertation on geological conditions in the flood prone area.

Vietnam liberalised its economy in the early 1990s, and in 1993 the local authorities in Haiphong started to call for private investment in “developing the economy.” The government, however, maintained the public ownership of land with “the state as people’s representative in land managing.”

Vuon had returned to Haiphong to find that all the best land had been let to other farmers.

So he asked and was granted permission to rent 21 hectares (or 210,000 sq meters) of land for “producing sea products” in the high risk flood-prone zone where very few people were willing to invest.

His initial attempts to build a dyke to protect the area were discouraging, with most officials rejecting his proposals. They told him the project was too costly and impractical. “Actually they were afraid of taking responsibility,” Vuon said in his account of the story, with a smile on his face.

Only one man, the Vice-Chairman of the Tien Lang People’s Committee, accepted the audacious idea, saying that more young people should have ambitions like him.

Commencing February 1994, Vuon deployed 12 vessels to transport rocks and earth to the place and build the historic seawall. Once the 2-kilometre long dyke was completed, he began work on planting a barrier of trees to provide additional protection from the elements.

Police were backed by troops as they moved in to seize the land. Photo courtesy of the Nguoi Lao Dong.

Police were backed by troops as they moved in to seize the land. Photo courtesy of the Nguoi Lao Dong.

He was all set to become the first man in Haiphong to raise tiger shrimps.

The deadly swamp at the mercy of typhoons had now become productive land shielded by a solid dyke.

The once abandoned land became known in the area as “Vuon’s pond.”

The duration of Vuon’s land contract with the local authorities was 14 years beginning in 1993, yet it took him nearly a decade to establish himself as a fish farmer. In 2001 when his first batch of tiger shrimps was about to be harvested, a tropical storm tore through the area and swept them all out to sea.

It was the same terrible year that his nine-year-old daughter drowned in one of the ponds. Vuon and his wife had been out tending the fish and they returned home at the end of the day to find her body.

“It’s time to return the land !”

The 21 hectares of land seemed insufficient for Vuon and his family, and during the struggle with typhoons, the farmers reclaimed a much larger area, including the 60-hectare protection forest.

In 1997, Vuon asked to rent the reclaimed land as well. Local authorities consented to lease 19.3 more hectares to his family, adding to the 21 hectares already rented.

The whole contract was due to expire in 2007, but in December 2004 when the Tien Lang People’s Committee issued “Plan 58”, allowing land seizures without compensation, Doan Van Vuon knew what was lying ahead.

He strongly opposed the new directive, saying it was just a document at the district level and was not approved by the upper Haiphong People’s Committee as stipulated in Article 26 of the 2003 Land Law.

The Tien Lang authorities, however, ordered that they would seize the entire 40.3 hectares of land used by Vuon’s family.

The brothers are given a hero's welcome on their return from prison. Photo courtesy of the Zing.vn

The brothers are given a hero’s welcome on their return from prison. Photo courtesy of the Zing.vn

He filed a legal complaint to the district but received no response.

So Vuon went further and filed a lawsuit against the Tien Lang government to the local courts in early 2010. The upper court, Haiphong People’s Court, tried to act as a mediator, persuading Vuon that if he agreed to drop the lawsuit he would be granted permission to continue renting the land.

Vuon agreed. But just three days later, on April 22, 2010, the Haiphong court threw out the case and the local People’s Committee insisted that Vuon return the land.

On November 24, 2011, the Tien Lang authorities issued the Decision of Seizure to “take back” all the land that Vuon’s family had been using. In his last ray of hope to reverse the decision, Vuon sent another complaint which never received a response.

Thursday, January 5, 2012 is remembered as “black Thursday” by Vuon and the other fish farmers in his neighbourhood. Hundreds of policemen, backed by soldiers and members of special task forces, equipped with rifles and German Shepherd dogs, were sent to Vuon’s pond.

Vuon recounted how the first teams pulled back when they saw the improvised defences he had set up with his brother, Doan Van Quy. They had rigged up domestic gas canisters near the house. “The tanks were actually empty,” he said, “but those policemen were terrified.”

Members of the eviction forces hit the ground and opened fire at the wooden house with automatic weapons The two-storey house burnt to the ground.

Vuon had left the house previously. But Quy and two other family members were inside and they fought back with improvised shot guns, injuring some soldiers and policemen. They managed to get away by slipping into the ponds and hiding in the mud.

Vuon ran to the local prosecution office to denounce what he called “intentional murder and land robbery.” Nobody was there. He was told that all the officials had gone to Tien Lang in the early morning to take part in the land eviction.

phien toa

The brothers were sentenced to five years in prison.

The next day Vuon, Quy, and their wives were arrested. Vuon and Quy were charged with “attempted murder” while their wives, Thuong and Bau, were accused of “resisting people performing official duties.”

Vuon and Quy received sentences of five-years imprisonment. Quy said he was brutally tortured during interrogation.

The two women were given suspended sentences.

The Tien Lang case attracted huge media attention. For the first time both the mainstream media and the blogging community gave full coverage, carrying news, analysis and commentaries.

The Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung himself got involved.

He said all the decisions made by the Tien Lang authorities to let and then take back land from Doan Van Vuon were wrong in law. He ordered that the case be referred to court with mitigating factors taken into consideration.

The Haiphong police department, which was involved in the land eviction, tried to fight back. Do Huu Ca, the Chief of the City Police, in an interview given to the VnMedia on January 8, 2012, three days after the incident exulted in what he evidently saw as a highly successful raid.

“When I deployed more troops to the site, those criminals had evacuated. It was fortunate that they had left, otherwise we would have taken stronger action and the consequences would have been worse,” the police chief said.

“On that day, I, and four deputy chiefs, all were present at the site to lead the fight. We had prepared for the worst case scenario, so we had prepared sufficient arms and ammunition. When I arrived, unaware that those criminals had evacuated, all combat plans were being implemented…”

Vuon remains defiant. He will resist all attempts to take the land.

Vuon remains defiant. He will resist all attempts to take the land.

“That attack failed to arrest the criminal Vuon, but succeeded in suppressing him. I must admit that the combined operations were extremely splendid. I told you, there has never been any exercise as successful as this. That the mobile force employed boats to approach the site is unheard of in our textbooks, that they had to use bamboo crafts to secretly move in and encounter the criminals, that they staged a diversion with a direct encounter.”

Back to freedom

In a mass amnesty granted to mark National Day of September 2, Vuon and Quy were released after 3 years, 7 months and 3 weeks in prison.

They went back to the pond and were greeted by the villagers like returning heroes. They were applauded and showered with confetti. Mainstream media, once more, reported to a large extent on the return of the Doans, but none of them referred to them as “heroes.”

They went back to see the shattered remains of their old house, but the land remains in the hands of the farmers. No more evictions were made after their case.

Also, they got to see different faces on the People’s Committee. The Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Committee, who were in charge of the land eviction, were removed from their position at the end of 2012.

There were different faces, too, in the police force which has kept a tight watch upon Doan Van Vuon and his family since his release.

Squads of police surround the area, keeping a close eye on visitors.

“We are still concerned about the future, because the root of the problem has not been resolved yet: public ownership of land,” Vuon told Vietnam Right Now.

“But I will not give up. Never. I will sue them, again.”