HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — When local police arrived in riot gear to evict the Vuon clan, family members were ready with homemade land mines and improvised shotguns. In a guerrilla-style ambush reminiscent of a Vietnam War battle, they wounded six officers.
But instead of drawing public condemnation, last month’s rare violence by fish farmers trying to hold onto leased land in the northern port city of Hai Phong has made a national hero of family ringleader Doan Van Vuon and ripped open a debate about heavy-handed seizures by local governments.
Though Vuon and three of his kin remain under arrest for their role in the attack, retired military generals and a former president have weighed in on his behalf.
The case has attracted so much attention that Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ordered an investigation, ruling Friday that the eviction was illegal and those who ordered it should be punished. He also encouraged local authorities to renew the family’s land lease.
Many Vietnamese see Vuon as a symbol of the country’s millions of farmers, many of whom are fed up with losing property or anxious about how new land rights laws will affect them as the government debates 20-year land grants that are due to expire next year.
Vuon stands accused of organizing the attack and trying to kill police, but state-run media have openly sympathized with him in investigative reports. Their dispatches have alleged that Hai Phong officials lied about details of the eviction. They also have said the family was cheated in 1993 when they were given a lease of only 14 years instead of what should have been 20 years.
Nguyen Thi Thuong, Vuon’s wife, remembers returning home from dropping her kids at school on Jan. 5 to find a mob of armed police in riot gear surrounding her farm house. She heard gunfire and explosions erupt before ambulances rushed in and medical workers began carrying wounded officers out on stretchers.
“Our family was cornered,” Thuong told The Associated Press by telephone. “We put all our efforts and money into our farm, but the authorities evicted us without compensation. It’s very unjust.”
Even before the standoff, Vuon’s neighbors considered him a local celebrity.
The college-educated agricultural engineer spent 18 years and his life’s savings turning 40 hectares (99 acres) of useless coastal swampland into a viable aquaculture farm. His daughter and nephew drowned in the process, but he pushed on and eventually built dykes capable of protecting the coastline from tropical storms.
Vuon, 49, had long been at odds with local authorities, and some legal experts say his 14-year grant agreement was illegal from the start. State media have reported that the surrounding area was slated to be developed for housing and an international airport.
Vuon and fellow farmer Vu Van Luan filed a lawsuit in 2009 challenging the proposed land seizure. Luan said the court had agreed to let them stay if they dropped the suit. But when they did so, the eviction order went ahead anyway.
That’s when Vuon allegedly planned the attack on more than 100 police and soldiers. According to media reports, he was not at the scene when the violence erupted. The farmer and several members of his family are now under investigation for assault or attempted murder.
After the raid, two houses on the family’s land were burned and bulldozed, forcing Vuon’s wife to take shelter under a plastic tarp. Local officials first took responsibility for the destruction, but later denied involvement – fueling rage among many following the case nationwide who have vented their frustration online.
In Vietnam all land belongs to the state, but sweeping economic reforms in the 1980s led to the 1993 land law that offered conditional 20-year land grants to many farmers. Legal experts say those leases will likely be extended when they expire next year, ensuring farmers quasi-private usage rights. However, other questions hover over clauses in Vietnamese law that allow authorities to seize land for national security or defense, economic development or the public interest.
In some cases, that translates into highways or industrial parks that bring jobs to the poor. But in an increasing number of cases, it means grabbing fish farms or rice paddies for swanky golf courses and resorts only accessible to the rich.
Most farmers accept compensation and move on, but a growing number have been resisting by filing lawsuits, holding protests or, in rare cases, battling police with sticks, stones or weapons. Millions of Vietnam’s poorest workers struggle to make ends meet as the communist country battles Asia’s highest inflation rate.
Farmers are typically compensated according to the land’s agricultural value, not the amount developers pay. As property values climb and financial stakes increase, land rights disputes are growing “increasingly public and angry,” said Mark Sidel, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin who consults on legal reform in Vietnam.
With popular frustration mounting against “rapacious developers and their allies in local governments,” he added, “Hanoi deals with these disputes with some care.”
And while Vuon’s case alone will likely not push the country into making sweeping changes to its land laws, it also cannot be ignored, especially since more than 70 percent of the country’s 87 million people still live in the countryside.
“Land issues affect the party’s legitimacy because they pit the local power structure against farmers on a playing field that is tilted in favor of the former,” said Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra.
In the Hai Phong case, Vuon’s struggle has won favor with some who see indiscriminate land seizure as a symbol of greed and corruption. A Hanoi-based blogger has raised about 223 million dong ($10,600) for the family’s legal fees, and former President Le Duc Anh has lauded Vuon as a model citizen.
“He should be encouraged, but instead he was evicted,” Anh told Giao Duc (Education) newspaper on Tuesday. “It’s so merciless.”
Vuon’s neighbors now worry they might be next to lose their farms. Prior to the attack in their sleepy seaside fishing community, they had planned to erect a statue in honor of the man who reclaimed swampland and tamed threats that wind and waves once posed to their coastline.
“The villagers considered him a hero,” said Luan, who filed the lawsuit with Vuon.
But now that Vuon is in jail for attempted murder, their plans for the monument have been put on hold.