At 4am on 9th January 2020 police, in coordination with local ground forces, cordoned off the Dong Tam commune and forcibly reclaimed 59 hectares of land from villagers using it for farming. A clash between police and Dong Tam villagers ensued, which resulted in the death of village leader Le Dinh Kinh and three police. Fighting Over Senh Field: A report on the Dong Tam village attack, published by the Liberal Publishing House and edited by the Dong Tam Task Force, the latter newly established in response to what it describes as a ‘violent government attack’, documents the event, concluding that it was ‘possibly the bloodiest land dispute in Vietnam in the past ten years’.
The disputed land, located 3 kilometres away from Dong Tam, is claimed by the state for expansion of the site for Mieu Mon military airport. An hour before the police operation in the early hours of 9th January 2020 began, villagers, who had heard it was impending but had not been officially informed, declared that they would “fight to the death” to hold on to the land. About 3,000 police burst into the village using grenades filled with plastic ball-bearings, shooting rubber bullets and firing tear gas. Social media reports by citizens said that internet and telephone lines were cut off in advance of the attack.
Witnesses said all pathways were blocked off and described indiscriminate beatings of villagers, including women and elderly people. Video and photographic evidence of police mistreating citizens was posted on social media. Police descended upon the house of community leader Le Dinh Kinh, an 84 year old man. He was fatally shot; several witnesses described bullet wounds to his heart, head and leg. A video posted on social media showed Kinh’s wife, Du Thi Thanh, speaking about being tortured by police into giving a false statement that she had used hand grenades to attack law enforcement officers.
State-controlled media quoted a statement from the Ministry of Public Security that villagers had attacked police with grenades, Molotov cocktails and knives as officials attempted to erect a wall delineating the boundaries of the Mieu Mon military airport site. The statement accused Dong Tam villagers of obstructing official duties and disturbing public order. On 13th January state media released photos of some of the 22 villagers who had been arrested – covered in scrapes and bruises - and announced criminal proceedings against them. Two of Kinh’s sons, Chong and Chuc, were charged with murder and ‘obstruction of officials’.
The Fighting Over Senh Field report raises several points of contention countering thenarrative about the event promulgated by the government and its supporters. The report details many inconsistencies and contradictions in the story that the police acted in response to being attacked by villagers who posed a ‘terrorist threat’. Questions are raised over the police attack on Dong Tam village, contradictory information on the deaths of three police officers, why due process was not followed in the claimed discovery of lethal weapons in Le Dinh Kinh’s residence and over his death. Police reported that Kinh was killed holding a grenade, but pro-democracy Facebook users expressed doubts that a disabled 84-year old man could lead a terrorist attack against a force of 3,000 police officers three kilometers away from his home.
Background to the ‘Senh Field’ land dispute
Protracted land tensions led up to the deadly clash on 9th January 2020. The Dong Tam land dispute involves two contiguous pieces of land: the Eastern Part, covering 47.36 hectares and the 59 hectare Western Part, also referred to as ‘Senh Field’. The Eastern Part was earmarked for Mieu Mon airport in 1980 and consensually transferred from Dong Tam residents to the government. The planned airport did not materialize and the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) rented the land to local people for farming. But disputes began when PAVN reclaimed the Eastern Part to transfer it to Viettel Corporation, a military-owned telecommunications firm. PAVN attempted to also claim ownership of the Western Part.
Authorities insist that the lands are allocated for defence purposes. In 2016 Hanoi People’s Development Committee issued Document #2590 to four bodies - Hanoi Department of Natural Resources and Environment, the City’s Directing Board for Site Clearance, the People’s Committee of My Duc District and Viettel – stating that the latter should ‘pay relocation compensations’. Dong Tam villagers insist that Senh Field is their agricultural land and insist that they must be compensated at the appropriate rate as required by the law. Villagers complained that the land was being taken away from farming but successfully fended off attempts to acquire the land from late 2016 until February 2017.
On 15th April 2017 Hanoi Police invited Dong Tam community representatives to measure the border between land designated for military purposes and agricultural land. Four people arrived only to be arrested and detained without written warrants. Le Dinh Kinh was
brutally beaten and one of his legs broken. Local people came to the rescue leading to a clash with police. Additional police were deployed to disperse an angry crowd, then 38 police officers were held hostage. On 22nd April Hanoi Mayor, Hguyen Duc Chung brought a delegation to Dong Tam to negotiate with villagers and the hostages were released. Police launched a criminal investigation into the Dong Tam farmers despite previous promises by the Mayor not to prosecute any of them.
The Hanoi Inspectorate issued a draft of their conclusions on the Dong Tam land inspection on 7th July, declaring that the entire area of land was for national defence purposes. A Dong Tam representative’s disagreement, stating that they inherited Senh Field from their grandparents during French colonial times, was dismissed by Hanoi authorities which insisted that no Vietnamese land should be owned by any previous generation as all the country’s land is owned by the Vietnamese people. The Hanoi Inspectorate confirmed its Dong Tam land inspection conclusions on 25th July 2017.
In August 2019 it was announced that the Ministry of Defense would soon begin building a fence to protect its ‘defense structures’ at Mieu Mon Airport and that, in order to reach consensus with people of Dong Tam the Government Inspectorate planned dialogue but did not specify when it would take place. At an information session on 27th August the Hanoi People’s Committee presented a map created in 1992 purporting to show the Mieu Mon Airport land area. The Ministry of Defense, collaborating with local agencies, began building the fence (wall) to protect the Mieu Mon Airport site on 31st December 2019. Protestors involved in the deadly clash on 9th January 2020 said they were not properly informed that the land had been transferred to the military. Many generations of Dong Tam villagers cultivated crops on the disputed land, for which they said they had paid land-use fees and taxes to the government.
Support for Dong Tam villagers
Defend the Defenders, an organization working throughout Vietnam to systematically document and report serious human rights violations, reported that authorities in Hanoi had charged 20 Dong Tam residents with murder and two others with ‘resisting law enforcement officers’. Among them are two sons and two grandsons of Le Dinh Kinh. After the killing of Kinh several activists called upon people in Vietnam and abroad to help his family with financial aid, sending donations to a Vietnam Joint Bank of Commerce (Vietcombank) account established to work on behalf of prisoners of conscience and activists at risk. Within two days donations totalled USD22,500 but, on 17th January, the bank refused a withdrawal request saying the account had been frozen. In response hundreds of activists across Vietnam announced they would withdraw their savings from Vietcombank and pledged not to use its services in future. Several human rights defenders established the Dong Tam Task Force which works to collect information regarding the incident. The Fighting Over Senh Field report, released on 16th January 2020, is the first report from the task force.
Deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Phil Robertson, urged the Vietnamese government to hold those who used violence in the Dong Tam conflict to account, and to permit access to journalists, diplomats, United National agency officials and other impartial observers. He said: “Vietnam’s national authorities must launch an impartial and transparent investigation of these events that gets to the bottom of what happened, who is responsible for the violence, and whether police used excessive force.” He added: “Unfair and arbitrary land confiscation for economic projects, displacing local people, has been a major problem in the country for the past two decades…Vietnam government officials need to recognize the importance of carrying out dialogues and negotiations with farmers to solve land disputes like Dong Tam in a peaceful manner rather than using violence.”
Amnesty International reported on the Dong Tam land conflict and censorship which had led to arrest of activists and dozens of Facebook users experiencing restrictions on their activity, condemning the ‘intensifying assault on peaceful criticism – including arrests and widespread social media censorship’. Nicholas Bequelin, Southeast Asia Regional Director said: “The Vietnamese Government’s heavy-handed efforts to censor discussion of this land dispute are the latest example of its campaign to assert control over online content...Social media, particularly Facebook, is increasingly being weaponised by Vietnam to go after those who peacefully speak their mind.”
On 17th January Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen of Parramata, Australis, Chair of the Bishops Commission for Social Justice, sent a message of solidarity with the people of Dong Tam Village. He urged authorities ‘to refrain from acts of violence, terror and repression against the people towards whom they have a duty to protect’ and called upon the Australian government and people inside and outside of Vietnam to ‘support the victims of the land seizure in their struggle for justice and dignity’.
The 88 Project, which works to support freedom of expression in Vietnam by sharing the stories of Vietnamese activists persecuted for peaceful dissent, along with seven Vietnamese human rights organizations, sent a joint letter to Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) urging them to postpone ratification of the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) until the Vietnamese government improves its actions relating to the human rights of its citizens. A letter drew specific attention to the state’s human rights violations in the Dong Tam incident, namely brutality, arbitrary arrests, land rights failings, censorship and freezing of private bank accounts intending to assist the victims. The other seven organizations signing the letter are: Defend the Defenders, Duong Noi Land Grab Victims, Green Trees, Free Viêt Labor Federation (Liên Đoàn Lao Động Việt Tự, The Independent Journalist Association of Vietnam, Viet Labor Movement (Phong Trào Lao Động Việt) and VOICE.
On 21st January a group of more than 30 prominent Vietnamese intellectuals officially denounced the killing of Le Dinh Kinh. Six people filed their denouncement, by delivering it to the Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam and the Hanoi Police Department. They also called for a transparent investigation into the killing. One of the group, Nguyen Quang A, said people must demand accountability from their government, saying that “[the] government must cooperate with an independent investigation under the surveillance of the press, social organizations, and Vietnamese citizens.” He added: “We know the fight for justice for Dong Tam will be long and drawn out, but we are determined to see it through to the end.”