Farmers resist land grab, put up barricades, and seize police agents

Land in Mỹ Đức, a suburban district in the capital, is at the centre of the dispute. For days, residents have held 20 cops and local officials as hostages. The authorities sent Hà Nội mayor to mediate, but protesters refused to meet him. Instead, they said they are ready to set the hostages on fire in case of armed intervention.

Hà Nội (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A group of farmers in a standoff with Communist authorities over land rejected talks with Hà Nội mayor and still hold 20 hostages, including police agents and local officials.

Protesters decided to resist the threat of force and sealed off the village. They also poured fuel around the building where the prisoners are being held, threatening to set them on fire in case of an attack.

The dispute began last Saturday in Mỹ Đức, a suburban district of Hà Nội, when local officials clashed with residents over land seized for sale to a military-run telecommunications company.

In a country where private property is not recognised and land and assets can be easily seized, local residents put up fierce opposition, setting up barricades with logs, sandbags, and bricks to stop outsiders from entering the village.

In addition, protesters made not so subtle threats against the hostages. In case of a police action, they said they were ready to set fire to the building holding police and local officials.

A woman, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Wednesday that villagers took a series of "preventive" measures against the police after spotting signs that the latter were planning to intervene.

She added that farmers had poured fuel around the building where the 20 detainees are kept. “We will make our move if the police attack us,” she said, suggesting the farmers might set fire to the structure.

So far, the hostages have been treated well and receive three meals a day. Initially, there were 38 of them, police officers and local officials, but whilst three managed to escape, another 15 were released on Monday. Twenty people are still held, including "two top local officials".

Under government instruction, Hà Nội Mayor Nguyễn Đức Chung tried to mediate, in vain. The farmers asked for a face to face meeting at the Đồng Tâm municipal building. The authorities instead proposed a meeting at a building at a distance from the disputed area.

Some 47 hectares of farmland are at the centre of the dispute. The military-run Viettel Group, the country’s largest phone operator, wants them for its own use.

Local media have given the affair limited coverage, perhaps under government orders. Some articles published in recent days on some newspaper websites disappeared after a few hours.

Le Luan, a lawyer and activist who came to the area to act as a mediator, said that residents "just want to engage in dialogue with the authorities.” However, "It is difficult to foresee how the authorities will act to settle the issue."

Land is a major issue in Vietnam as a result of repeated abuses and grabs against individuals and community. What is more, it is not only a legal and constitutional problem, but also a brake on the country’s economic development.

Social tensions sparked by land disputes risk keeping foreign investors away, thus undermining growth prospects. For its part, the Vietnamese Bishops 'Conference has stood on the side of ordinary people.

In recent years, the Vietnamese Church and the Catholic community have repeatedly clashed with authorities over land. On several occasions, the bishops have intervened on behalf of church members as well as the poor, who are often abused by the authorities.