When around 100 police and local officials came to seize their land outside the northern port city of Haiphong, the family of farmer Doan Van Vuon was ready and waiting, with shotguns in hand and improvised explosive devices planted in the ground. Six security officers were injured in the ensuing shoot-out on January 5, the culmination of a long-running land dispute between Mr Vuon and the local government. Foreign diplomats say that the government is concerned about the potential for such disputes to spiral out of control, at a time when it is facing other threats to social stability such as the record number of labour strikes and soaring food prices.
Jairo Acuña-Alfaro, a policy adviser on the United Nations Development Programme in Hanoi, says that disputes over land use rights were “perhaps the largest source of corruption nowadays in Vietnam”, with many Vietnamese complaining that local authorities often set compensation prices for land too low.
Following the path laid out by China, Vietnam embarked on its first steps toward a market economy in the late 1980s. In 1993, Vietnam allowed citizens to acquire “land use rights” but the state has retained official ownership of all land. As Vietnam’s economy boomed over the last decade, that ambiguity has led to an increase in the number of disputes over land between residents, on the one hand, and developers and local governments, on the other. The case echoes similar land disputes in neighbouring China. In December, a confrontation over land sales turned violent in the southern village Wukan after the local government sent in paramilitary troops to quell demonstrations.