This Land is Our Land

Published September 21, 2015 in Episode 22

In April of last year, a middle-aged woman, with a round face and soft features, stood among makeshift tents made from tarp, by the side of a busy road. Wearing a black blouse, she addressed a small group of mostly women with weathered faces, gray hairs and conical hats. The woman’s hair was neatly tucked into a bun, her blunt bangs as straight as her back.

In her hand she held a cell phone. She held it up for the crowd to see.

“The folks from Bình Dương province sent us a camera to help us petitioners from Dương Nội record all the crimes the authorities, the police have committed against us in these past six years,” she told them.

Behind her, a hand-painted banner read: “Oath ceremony to hold on to our land until death”.  

Her name is Cấn Thị Thêu and she is 53 years old. She became a resident of Dương Nội, a village just outside of Ha Nội, after marrying a local farmer. In late 2007 the family lost their land to the government, and she became a land rights activist.

“Dương Nội is where I lived,” she tells Loa. “I want my children to have a home. When I lived in Dương Nội, I was a successful farmer. I owned 40 to 50 buffalos, fruit and vegetable gardens, fish ponds. We did well. But when they came to ‘take it back”, they destroyed everything, the sheds, the ponds. We lost our livelihood. Now, life is very difficult.”

Thêu uses the word “take back” because in Việt Nam - the land does not belong to the farmer, or technically anyone. The economy of Socialist Republic of Việt Nam is largely agriculture-based and land is considered the “people’s property”. Individuals have usage rights, but they never own the land. That means a city dweller must give up part of his front yard to become a street if the government demands it. A peasant family can have its fields confiscated, even after they have farmed it for generations.

The government is the administrator of its usage. With Việt Nam propelling towards rapid economic development in the past three decades, and rice fields making way for new developments, the tenuous system is beginning to crack.

“They paid us only 200,000 đồng ($9 US) per square meter, but on the market, they sell it at a starting price of 31 million đồng per square meter. That’s almost 200 times what they paid us,” she says. “With this unfair price, and with people unable to find new jobs, so many people are driven into poverty and unemployment. That’s why we oppose the repossession of our land. These prices are robbing us blind.”

Cấn Thị Thêu, her husband and two sons, are just one of more than 350 families in Dương Nội alone who have been taking their case to local authorities to petition for redress.  

“There are probably thousands and thousands of them,” says Dũng Mai, an artist from Hà Nội. He has been running a group called Cứu Lấy Dân Oan (Assistance for Land Petitioners) since 2012.

“I used to go on many volunteer missions to the rural and remote mountainous parts to help minority groups like the Hmong or the Hà Nhì, people that are living in poverty,” he recounts. “Then I noticed that right here in Hà Nội, there were poor people all around us. These people would wander the streets, carrying stacks of petitions to different offices, like the constituent services offices of the Party’s Central Committee, or the National Assembly. I observed and I started asking them, ‘So what are these grievances really about?’ And I realized, sometimes, we can be really ignorant. We don’t even realize there are people who are suffering all around us.”

Mai and the volunteers of the Assistance Land Petitioners use private donations to provide daily necessities for these petitioners while they are camped out in Hà Nội. He says some are able to find odd jobs, like washing dishes, while they are in the capital, but many just barely survive.

“They don’t have any jobs, any home,” he says. “Just recently, we had to buy canvasses to shield them from the rain and sun, so they can find some shelter by sidewalks, trees or on the side of houses with big roofs for shade. We bought them canvasses to lie on. The ground gets very cold and without a canvass, they would get wet. It’s very hard for them.”

According to a recent report from the Corporate Social Responsibility in Asia, an estimated 80 percent of all complaints filed by aggrieved citizens to the authorities are related to land disputes and unfair compensation.

That number is growing and women seem to make up a vocal majority.

Gina Alvarado, a sociologist at the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), says, industrialization and confusing land laws are hitting the most vulnerable the hardest.

“In the field work, what we saw a lot was that it was very clear for people at the commune level that these processes of rapid industrialization are affecting them,” Alvarado says. “Now there is less land for farmers, for small farmers in particular. Who loses usually - and that has happened everywhere in the world - is the poorest and the least powerful. Who are they? Rural people, any minorities, women. Rural women in particular.”

It’s perhaps because these disaffected women, and men, have nothing left to lose, that they are willing to risk everything.

Hundreds of farmers staged weeks-long protests in front of the Việt Nam Communist Party's Petitions Office near Mai Xuân Thượng Park in June of 2012. Radio Free Asia reported that “nearly 100 of the farmers had said they were willing to lay down their lives to protect their land, with some even threatening self-immolation.”

In January of 2012, a farmer by the name of Đoàn Văn Vươn went to the extreme of fashioning hand-made explosives and firing his shotgun at police who were forcing his eviction.

While victims rarely resort to such violence, they have become more versed in the methods of civil disobedience.

Amateur videos taken of land grabs show beatings perpetrated by men in uniform and thugs who farmers allege are undercover police.

Thêu remembers one confrontation well.

“On April 25, 2014, about a thousand security police and civil defense forces came to raze the land, which we hadn’t gotten paid for yet,” she says. “We were empty-handed, but they had sticks, batons and guns. I was standing on a hut that we built to look over the cemetery. I was just standing there to film the scene, the oppression from the authorities against us.”

“They arrested people down below, they beat them savagely. I just filmed. Then they came for me. They took my camera, they beat me. I don’t know when I fell unconscious. When I woke up, I was inside police quarters in Hà Đông district.”

Both she and her husband were beaten and arrested, she says. She spent the past year in prison, charged with “resisting persons in the performance of their duties” under Article 257 of the penal code. She says her sons have been beaten bloody on other occasions as well.  

After having spent almost eight years fighting, she was again found on the front lines last week with several dozen Dương Nội neighbors and fellow petitioners from afar, sleeping overnight in front of the police inspector’s headquarters. They denounced recent police intimidation and smear campaigns.

Thêu says the group scored a victory when -  after negotiating the timing and attendees of the meeting - the next day an official told her that the people have a right to petition without interference, that they were allowed to receive money donations, and wear protest t-shirts.

Dũng Mai says these shy peasants, over their years as unsuccessful petitioners, have evolved to become vocal land rights activists - and protests have become a necessary, but peaceful, method of resistance.

“As recently as 2013, 2014, these claimants, especially those from the South, were very timid,” he recalls. “They came and went quietly, submitted their complaint to this office or that office, and didn’t dare to speak to anyone. They were scared, because, as you know, Việt Nam is run by the security police. They just hoped and waited, and then went back to their village. One person I know comes to Hà Nội from Tây Ninh province (in Southwestern Việt Nam) every year, once or twice, for nine, ten years.”

Mai says petitioning to the authorities sometimes results in a higher office telling the provincial authority to resolve the situation. In any case, he says, it’s like asking the robber to stop stealing. He says people are now seeking each other out and banding together for support.

“I think they are seeking justice through protests. No more walking alone. They are uniting, they walk together to raise awareness, not only from the authorities, but also from the international community, about their plight,” he says.

Gina Alvarado from the ICRW sees a different approach to chipping away at the problem of land disputes.

“If there is some frustration at the commune level, then the only other mechanism that you see is go to Hà Nội and protest,” she says. “However what we want to do is actually to strengthen the commune level, so that people do not have to go all the way to capital to exercise their rights, because that’s extremely complicated.”

Alvarado directs a USAID-funded pilot program in two villages, Hưng Yên in the North and Long An in the South, that seeks to address the gender inequalities that accompany these land disputes. The program partners with the Institute for Social Development Studies, a state-registered non-profit, to build knowledge and capacity at the local level.

“The idea is to strengthen the ability of people at the commune level, and not only just women farmers or farmers in general, but also people that belong to the unions, so that they can exercise their rights better, because these organizations exists at commune level,” Alvarado explains. “hat happens is they lack knowledge of the law because this so complicated body of law that has been developed. So we are trying to help them understand the law better and also help them collect their data to make their claims legitimate.”

Alvarado says it’s a grassroots approach that she hopes will trickle “up” by building a civil society of empowered citizens and knowledgeable legal assistants and union workers, who can effect changes to laws -- in short, a functioning civil society.

Cấn Thị Thêu says, whether it’s through petitions, protests or local empowerment, she won’t rest until her land is hers again.

“They can kill all five of my family members. But I think, you live only once and you die only once. So I will live in a way that they will see that  their brutality will never threaten our will to fight. We land petitioners will hold on to our land until the end.”

Meanwhile Thêu's old property still remains abandoned and undeveloped, almost eight years after her eviction.