On Trial and Split Apart, Vietnamese Farming Clan Defiant
By Chris Brummitt 3 April 2013
VINH QUANG, Vietnam—The broken bricks and roof tiles of Doan Van Vuon’s house, bulldozed by Vietnamese authorities trying to evict him, lie next to his relatives’ new home, a shack of bamboo and corrugated iron that testifies to their perseverance.
Vuon and three male relatives have been detained for more than a year and are now on trial, accused of protecting their prawn and fish farm with shotgun blasts and homemade mines that injured seven police and army officers.
They became folk heroes of a sort in this nation of autocratic rule, limited land rights and steep inequities. Their defiance is still heard in the voices of the women they were forced to leave behind.
“No one wanted to cause such a mess,” said Vuon’s wife, Nguyen Thi Thuong. “But we had to resist. We had no other way but fighting back for what rightfully belongs to us.”
Forced evictions such as the one the Vuon family fended off in violent fashion are a leading driver of anger against the one-party Communist state. The government has admitted making mistakes in the family’s well publicized case and has allowed Vuon’s relatives to stay on the property, but it also has been stepping up prosecutions of those who oppose its grip on power.
Outside court Tuesday in the northern city of Haiphong, the force of the state was on display.
Hundreds of police ringed the courtroom, ripping down posters held up by demonstrators supporting the family. Officers dragged away at least six people. Plainclothes security officers forcefully deleted recordings from the camera of an AP Television cameraman. Buses carrying protesters were stopped from even reaching the city.
Pham Hong Son, a well-known dissident and former political prisoner, led protesters who were stopped around 100 meters from the courtroom.
“I always support people who are suffering injustice,” he said. “This is an example of this.”
Vuon and three male relatives are accused of attempted murder, and have been in detention, unable to meet their families, since soon after the Jan. 5, 2012, incident. Thuong and the wife of a second male suspect face lesser charges of assault.
The trial, closed to the public and with limited media access, is expected to last four days.
Inside the courtroom, a few reporters were given access to the proceedings via a closed circuit feed of the trial, a way of giving authorities control of what is reported. The feed can be stopped when testimony becomes sensitive.
Under cross-examination, Vuon told the court he had constructed the improvised explosive devices and shotguns made from iron pipes to resist the police and army who came to evict them from their houses.
“The eviction decision was illegal. I was pushed into a corner and I had no other way,” he said. He added that the weapons and mines were intended to give police “a warning so they will realize it was dangerous. I didn’t intend to hurt the eviction forces.”
Members of the Vuon family say they were given the 41 hectares (101 acres) by authorities in 1993, when it was swampland that had been badly damaged by a typhoon. They transformed it into a fish and prawn business. In 2009, authorities said they wanted the land back without compensation.
“All of my extended family members worked on the shrimp farm and it was the only source of income for us,” said Thuong, who spoke with AP reporters on Monday evening at their home in Vinh Quang village, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Haiphong.
Disputes between farmers and authorities often break out in Vietnam, where the state owns all land but gives citizens the right to use it. The conflict between the Vuon clan was different because they fought back in such spectacular fashion, and because the injustice was perceived to be especially grave.
Vietnamese authorities are allowed to seize land for national security or defense, economic development or the public interest. In some cases, that translates into industrial parks that bring jobs to the poor or roads and bridges. But in an increasing number of cases, it means grabbing fish farms or rice paddies for golf courses and resorts only accessible to the rich.
The Vuon family’s resistance set the Internet alight in Vietnam, where an increasing number of citizens find uncensored news and comment. After a few days, state media also reported the story sympathetically, uncovering details that contradicted initial reporting.
The government was put on the defensive. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ruled that the eviction was illegal and called for punishment for those who ordered the destruction of the family’s house.
More than 50 officials in Haiphong have been disciplined, according to state media reports. Five are due to stand trial next week on charges of destroying the house.
With the men of the family in jail, Thuong and the wife of a second suspect, Pham Thi Bau, have had to take on more responsibility. They moved into the shack, now home to three adults and four children, a month after the eviction.
They have been unmolested by authorities since Dung’s order, though the status of their land is still unclear. They have also begun small-scale fish farming again.
The shack is perched on a strip of land between ponds that stretch for hundreds of meters. Flying above it: a Vietnamese flag.
“We have the flag up to keep in our mind that we will be protected by the law,” Bau said.