For years residents of Dong Tam, a village on the edge of Vietnam’s capital, have fought for the right to continue tending farms on land earmarked for military development. Their patience evaporated in April, when authorities arrested a group of elders whom they had chosen to press their case with the government. The villagers overpowered dozens of policemen who had been sent to secure the settlement, holding them captive in a municipal hall (pictured above). Supporters blocked nearby lanes with rubble, and at least one hothead threatened to set the hall on fire.

The week-long siege that followed marked a new escalation in Vietnam’s endless battles over land—the primary cause of complaints in the country and one of the ruling Communist Party’s biggest headaches. Vietnamese followed the drama on social media and, eventually, in the state press. But just as startling was the government’s capitulation, negotiated in person by Hanoi’s mayor. Authorities secured the hostages’ release by promising not to prosecute the villagers, and by pledging to re-examine their complaint.

Vietnam’s zippy economy, growing at more than 6% annually, demands ever more room for roads, bridges, dams and industrial parks. Each year swelling cities must find space for a million new arrivals. The total area of farmland lost to development over the past two decades is difficult to quantify. One certainty is that it far exceeds the acreage that changed hands during violent upheavals in the 1950s, when the Communist rulers of North Vietnam forcibly redistributed farmland.

Transformation on this scale would provoke ire anywhere, but it is especially problematic in Vietnam, a one-party state where the government grants usage-rights but insists all land belongs to the state. Compensation for forcible acquisitions is far below market rates. Consultations can be superficial, and courts rarely entertain appeals. Evicted residents sometimes complain of collusion between local officials and developers. Spotty registries make it hard to adjudicate competing claims, as seems to be the case in Dong Tam.

Paddy-bagging

These foibles distort Vietnam’s development. For one thing, the cheap price of land on the fringes of cities has encouraged sprawl. Last year the World Bank warned that by building outwards rather than upwards urban authorities are raising the cost of providing public services, and negating efforts to build zesty business clusters. But far more worrying for the party is the visceral anger that forced relocations and weak land rights can unleash. Official figures suggest that land disputes of one sort or another lie behind more than two-thirds of all the complaints made to bureaucrats. Unhappiness among country-dwellers undermines support for the Communist Party in its core constituency.

Too often authorities have resorted to roughing up hold-outs in land disputes, even when resistance is peaceful. In September a court in the capital handed a 20-month jail sentence to Can Thi Theu, a well-known land-rights campaigner who has been banged up once before. But lately the party has also been re-examining its rules. A new land law passed in 2013 failed to recognise private ownership but did extend by 50 years a slew of leases that were about to expire. It re-centralised some decision-making over land use (in part to restrain corrupt provincial officials) and required party bigwigs to use stricter tests when evaluating projects that would require mass displacements. It also gave officials more discretion over compensation, to allow more generous settlements.

The results are mixed. An annual survey published by the UN finds that the total number of land seizures has fallen over the past three years. But a third of those affected still report receiving no compensation, and another quarter think their pay-outs unfair. Cadres in Hanoi have been slow to issue the guidelines needed to make the new rules effective. John Gillespie of Monash University says that so far the reforms have added up to “very little”.

Petitioners are at least finding it ever easier to draw the public’s attention to their problems. Although journalists in Vietnam remain shackled by censorship, the party has neither the will nor the wealth to sanitise social media. Facebook has become an outlet for popular anger about all sorts of unfairness (posts on the platform are still helping to sustain outrage over a toxic spill that poisoned miles of coastline last year). Had the dispute in Dong Tam happened ten years ago “no one would have heard about it”, says a local. The government’s surrender was probably inevitable given online attention.

Two months on, the government is still trying to close the case without setting precedents it may regret. Inspectors have yet to release their report into the villagers’ claims, which they had promised within 45 days. Campaigners lambasted what looked like a U-turn on June 13th, when police announced that they would, after all, mount cases against some of Dong Tam’s residents. The party has presumably decided that doing nothing risked encouraging other aggrieved citizens to resort to attention-grabbing violence.

One theory in the capital is that the courts will pass relatively lenient sentences, and that some kind of quiet compromise will be found to save face. But even if the government finds a fudge for the dispute in Dong Tam, lots more farmland will be paved over before Vietnam’s galloping urbanisation runs its course. Expect more battles to come.

The Economist - June 15, 2017