It remains unclear what exactly transpired this month in an incident that killed three Vietnamese police officers and one elderly protestor over a long-running land dispute at Dong Tam commune outside of Hanoi.

According to reports, an estimated 3,000 police in riot gear attempted a dawn raid to evict residents and erect a fence around 59 hectares of land for a planned military airport at the commune, the scene of a 2017 conflict that saw dozens of police taken hostage by residents in a similar eruption of tensions.

Police were reportedly met by angry residents who retaliated with low-grade grenades and Molotov cocktails, according to state media reports on the clashes. An unknown number of villagers have been arrested, with some charged with murder.

The state versus people clashes mark the latest in a rising number of combustive grass roots protests against the Communist Party-run government and its centrally imposed development plans that frequently lay claim to villager claimed land. By law, all land is owned by the one-party state.

The violence has also attracted international attention, with rights groups claiming authorities used excessive force and “weaponized” social media in a bid to suppress coverage of the incident.

That international criticism comes at an inconvenient time for Vietnam, with the European Union (EU) set to vote on a new free trade agreement and rising US congressional criticism of the country’s rights record.

VN Express, a state-run news site operating in the country’s highly censored context, noted that while land rights protests are common, “it is the first time in years that policemen have been killed in one.”

The Ministry of Public Security has claimed that villagers first attacked the police, while information on social media contends that the police instigated the clashes by opening fire on the house of Le Dinh Kinh, 84, the elderly representative of the protestors.

An hour before the dawn raid, village representatives posted a video on social media saying they would defend their land at any cost and called for help from other communities to repel “giac noi xam”, which can be translated as “invaders” or “internal aggressors.”

It is a term often used by Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, the country’s most powerful politician, to critically brand Vietnamese pro-democracy activists and corrupt officials.

According to the military and state officials, the land in question has belonged to the army since 1968 and villagers have been illegally squatting on it for decades.

Residents, however, say they cultivated it since at least the 1980s and have paid duties and taxes to the government for its use.

Killed protest leader Kinh was among several arrested in April 2017 as villagers protested against plans to confiscate their land to make way for a manufacturing factory to be built by Viettel, a military-run conglomerate.

This motivated commune villagers to take 38 policemen and local officials hostage for a week, a standoff that ended peacefully through the intervention of Hanoi People’s Committee’s chairman, Nguyen Duc Chung.

But the dispute has continued to smolder. In July 2017, Hanoi courts ruled in favor of the military’s claim while last October authorities yet again ordered villagers to accept a paltry compensation offer to vacate the land.

However, months earlier, another Hanoi court sentenced 14 officials to lengthy prison sentences for abusing their duties in managing Dong Tam land deals. Yet authorities are predictably laying all the blame on protesters for the recent clashes.

Telephone and internet cables have reportedly been cut in the vicinity of the commune, while outsiders have been blocked from entering the site by a police cordon, which remains in place.

Activist Nguyen Chi Tuyen, also known as Anh Chi, has reported that a lawyer who previously helped the villagers in their disputes was prevented from entering the area by the police.

Videos circulating on social media purportedly show Kinh’s wife in bandages after being attacked and interrogated by the police. She says that her husband was shot four times by the police, twice in the head.

Meanwhile, news reports said authorities blocked the bank account of another activist who had raised money for Kinh’s family after his killing.

Deputy Security Minister Luong Tam Quang claimed Kinh’s sons and brothers received fund from foreign opposition elements and foreign groups, without providing evidence for the claim.

International scrutiny of the incident is rising.

Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, a rights group, has called for an impartial and transparent investigation into the incident to ascertain what exactly happened and whether police used excessive force.

On January 13, Hanoi police announced they will open investigations into 20 residents of the Dong Tam commune on charges of murder, including Kinh’s son, Le Dinh Cong, who has also acted as a representative during the lengthy dispute.

“Vietnam’s decision to prosecute as many as 20 villagers on murder charges while saying nothing about the actions of thousands of security forces… raises serious concerns that only one side of the dispute will be held accountable for violence, perpetuating the sense of injustice and creating a new group of martyrs for grievances against the Vietnam government,” Robertson told Asia Times.

Authorities are clearly sensitive to how this apparent latest episode of state brutality plays out in the public sphere, as Vietnam has witnessed increasingly combative protests in recent years. The latest clash comes as the Communist Party prepares for its National Congress in early 2021, when a new national leadership will be chosen by Party delegates.

Grass roots instability is the last thing the Party wants amid the transition. Vietnam was rocked by nationwide protests in 2016 after a Taiwanese-owned steel mill spilt tons of toxic waste in Central Vietnam waters, poisoning vast areas of the sea, waterways and land.

In June 2018, the largest demonstrations seen in decades took place across the country in protest against a planned law on special economic zones many saw as opening the way for Chinese purchases of Vietnamese land.

On January 10, a Facebook user identified as Chung Hoang Chuong (alias Lucky Chuong) was arrested in Can Tho City for posting news about the Dong Tam police raid, while Radio Free Asia’s Vietnamese service reportedly received a “strike” notice from YouTube on January 11 for breaking “community guidelines” after reporting on the issue.

In recent years, internet firms like Facebook and YouTube have been willing to censor content flagged by Communist Party authorities in order to work around a new draconian cybercrime law introduced in early 2019. Failure to censor content deemed critical of the Communist Party would severely affect the profits of international social network firms active in Vietnam.

Indeed, RFA reported that a state-run newspaper, Hanoi Moi, on January 11 quoted a Ministry of Information official as saying that Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube, have been positive in removing “fake” content from their platforms in Vietnam in recent weeks.

But analysts predict that the Dong Tam clashes won’t mark the end of violent land rights issues, by far the most politically sensitive and socially combustive issue in Vietnam today.

Last year, for instance, saw minor protests after the authorities demolished 112 houses in Ho Chi Minh City’s Loc Hung Garden area, a parcel of land claimed by the Catholic Church and home to many disabled South Vietnamese veterans.

“More land disputes involving public projects or projects for which the state recovers land on behalf of state-owned enterprises like the Dong Tam case should be expected in the future,” Le Hong Hiep, a fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, wrote in the wake of the clahses.

How Vietnam handles the issue could impact its access to foreign markets and key security relations including with the US.

The European Parliament votes next month on whether to ratify the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA), a major breakthrough for Hanoi as the European Union is one of its largest export markets.

Though the deal has passed the European Commission, a number of parliamentarians are known to be hesitant about rewarding Vietnam with better trade terms without substantial democratic reforms or human rights progress.

The United States, which now counts Vietnam as one of its main allies in Southeast Asia, has turned a blind eye to Hanoi’s repressive tactics since the Barack Obama administration.

Yet in recent years a number of US congress representatives have demanded that Washington take a tougher stance on Vietnam’s domestic politics, with some openly calling for financial sanctions on Party members involved in rights abuses.

By David Hutt - Asia Times- January 2020