Vietnam’s Land Rights: Ideologically Torn

Police tries to confiscate Mr Vuon's land

Police tries to confiscate Mr Vuon’s land (source: vtc.vn)

The communist state is hesitant to break its rooted ideological pillar. To pursue economic development and ensure social stability, however, there is not much choice left.

In early this April, international media turned their eyes on a trial against a farmer and his family in Hai Phong, a port city in the North Vietnam. The case, known as Tien Lang incident, is extraordinary in a strictly controlled autocracy: the farmer, Doan Van Vuon, welcomed a land eviction from the local authorities by a guerrilla-style response with shotguns and homemade bombs, injuring six before managing to escape a hundred of armed police from the site.

The incident certainly rocked the peaceful orderly society, which made Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung order an immediate investigation. State investors then concluded that the eviction was illegal, while Vietnamese media allegedly accused greedy local officials of trying to rob Mr. Vuon’s increasingly valuable land, which his family had restlessly built up from uninhabited swamp areas in roughly 20 years.

Mr Vuon, though charged with attempted murder, was then widely praised as a public hero, who dared to challenge unjust land seizures from authorities that happen regularly elsewhere in Vietnam. Mr Vuon’s uprising and his trial come at no better time: Vietnam’s National Assembly is supposed to discuss about amendment of its controversial land law on this May.

Not only farmers are interested: under the current law, not a single citizen in Vietnam actually owns a property except the state. That means, like Mr Vuon’s case, whatever hardship and money you spend on your land, the state always reserve the right to confiscate it whenever they feel necessary.

A Communist promise

The contemporary history of land rights in Vietnam is rather complicated. In order to seduce peasants- who accounted for some 90 % of the population at the time-to their side in the wars with the French and then Americans, the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) raised the flag of “Farms to the Cultivators.”

Yet as soon as the war was over, farmer soldiers came home only to find that all of the land was now at the hand of the state through collectivization. The then communist experiment of collective farms was a disaster, which nearly drove millions of people into hunger.

Amplified by the collapse of its big donor Soviet Union and positive changes in China, the Vietnamese government had to make an ideological concession afterwards by granting private farmers the usage right of land lasting for 20 years, while maintaining its state possession status.

The action brought almost immediate success: within several years, Vietnam not only manages to self-sustain its 90 million people population but also rises to be the second world-largest rice exporter until now.

Opening up with the market-oriented economy, however, does not mean the communist authority automatically abandons its Marxist doctrine. The ruling VCP is hesitant to give up state ownership of land, which they consider as the core on the road to socialism. The state, both central government and at some point local government, preserves the power to confiscate land from the people for “public interest” projects.

The dispute here is that what should be considered as “public interest” is sometimes questionable: a large number of seized lands are served for business projects to enhance “economic development,” which in some cases ends up being skyscrapers or five-star resorts belonging to wealthy property developers.

Confiscated citizens are somehow compensated, yet under the scheme which the state decides and which is usually unfavourable for them. This is the big hole that is open up for corruption and bribery on one side, and voiceless and impoverished farmers on the other side.

Despite the country’s recent economic downturn and massive falls in property market, this problem has become more serious and caused wide public’s distrust against the state. According to the recent report by Vietnam Government Inspectorate and the World Bank (WB), land management was considered as the second most commonly corrupted areas, only after traffic police.

The distrust does not stop at purely opinions. Some have already broken out as big social riots, which are extremely rare in Vietnam. Two months after the Tien Lang incident, a big demonstration of evicted farmers, whose whole land was expected to use for a private property project, broke out angrily in Hung Yen province, requiring more than 2, 000 anti-riot police to repress.

In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Nguyen Quang A, an outspoken economist and former president of the Institute of Development Studies, warned of violence similar to the Arab Spring if the government fails to address land disputes. “The party and those in power need to understand the issues to avoid society having to pay a very high price,” He told Bloomberg.

Black or white

All of the recent incidents have made strong impacts on the discussion of the draft on Land Law, which is supposed to be ratified in Vietnam’s National Assembly on this May.

The most important article -the property rights of land-will however remain unchanged, partly because the state ownership of land is written in the Constitution, and mainly because of VCP’s unwillingness to deteriorate its Communist ideology.

Instead, the regime is expected to take a careful step to extend the land lease period for farmers to 50 years, a big leap from the previous 20-year lease. The draft also suggests allowing farmers to acquire more land, maximum at 30-50 hectare per household. The current law bans farmers to acquire more than six hectare of paddy land, which at first aims to avoid landlordism and equalize the rural society, but now becomes a huge obstacle for the country’s ambitious rural industrialization program.

The plan is workable and might help cool down recently heated land disputes. Nevertheless, unless the rooted cause of the land ownership problem is solved, the country will have to carry on its permanent threat of instability.

In addition, economic development would still have to base on its shaky foundation: no one would dare to invest hugely in their land, given the threat of confiscation while they have no proper right to bargain with the State.

“The Constitution declares that land naturally belongs to the people, represented by the State. Yet in fact, land is also a product of labour, why aren’t its cultivators allowed to possess then?” said Professor Dao Cong Tien, former president of Ho Chi Minh Economic University and a veteran government advisor.

The question sounds right, and it is unlikely that the communist authority does not see the obvious. Yet it is the resistance to deteriorate their ideological root, which then erodes its political monopoly, that prevents the necessary change.

Economic policies, however, do not accept gray area: they must be made as clear as black and white. Refusing this fact might endanger VCP’s political power more quickly than they expect.

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