Vietnamese authorities are pushing murder charges against 25 protestors after three police officers died in a violent police raid on the village of Dong Tam over a land conflict. The case reflects how militarized policing drives conflict and can uncover volatile imbalances in power.
As protests against police brutality continue around the globe, authorities in Vietnam are reportedly charging a group of 25 civilians with murder over the deaths of three police officers who died during a raid on a community outside Hanoi in January.
In the early morning of January 6, 3,000 police officers entered the village of Dong Tam. The government said they were sent to protect the public from allegedly armed and violent protestors who were trying to stop a military land grab for an airport. Local residents say what followed was a barefaced case of police brutality.
“Witnesses describe ‘thousands of police officers rushing into the village’ using flash grenades, firing tear gas, shooting rubber bullets, blocking off all pathways and alleys, and ‘beating villagers indiscriminately, including women and old people,” according to a report released by a group of journalists and activists one week after the raid.
The report released in January said the Dong Tam assault was “possibly the bloodiest land dispute in Vietnam in the last ten years.”
With demonstrations across the world calling for an end to police brutality, the Dong Tam case offers a window into the dynamics of a particular kind of police violence in Vietnam. It points to patterns in how militarized policing drives violence and escalates conflict, especially in cases of structural imbalances of power.
The conflict has prompted demands for transparency and accountability for the police as well as calling attention to the state institutions that drive land disputes like Dong Tam. The public outcry and debate over the January raid show how citizens build calls for reform around their own narratives of “public good”, within a limiting, single-party political context.
Police push murder charges but leave calls for accountability unanswered
On June 12, police investigators announced in a report that 25 Dong Tam residents arrested in January will be charged with murder. Since before the January raid, authorities have maintained that the residents presented a terrorist threat, collecting lethal weapons and declaring their intent to launch an armed resistance.
Activists and journalists have continually pointed out inconsistencies in police accounts of the raid, from the purpose of the assault, to the deaths of the police officers and the allegations against the Dong Tam residents. Many people in the Dong Tam area reported that, just prior to the raid, their internet, electricity and phone lines were cut.
There has also been no news about accountability for the killing of village leader Le Dinh Kinh, shot by police at his house during the raid. Kinh, who was 84 years old, allegedly resisted police and was found holding a grenade. His family members have reportedly been forced to sign false statements about his death.
Kinh was a former head of the local police and a member of the Vietnamese Communist Party for almost 60 years. The officers who died reportedly fell through the skylight of Kinh’s house and were burned by his family members.
There is little chance of accountability for other cases of police brutality during the January raid—the beatings, the gasings and the use of rubber bullets. The narrative pushed by authorities has labeled the Dong Tam residents as terrorists, with state-sponsored “opinion shapers” on social media condemning anyone who questioned the official account or sympathized with the protestors as soon as news of the raid appeared online.
One of those facing murder charges is Bui Viet Hieu, a Dong Tam resident who was shot in the abdomen and foot during the raid. As with Kinh, there are no reports of accountability for his case in the English language media.
Protests call for compensation, transparency in development project outside Hanoi
The land conflict in Dong Tam began with a government move in 1980 to reclaim land in the commune for the Mieu Mon Airport project. The military claimed possession of over 200 hectares of land but as the airport was delayed, the military rented the land back to the farmers.
In 2014, the Ministry of National Defense then gave the land to Viettel, a military-owned telecommunications company, to build a factory. The Dong Tam residents objected, saying that either the company or the military must compensate them for their agricultural land.
The local community says the ensuing back-and-forth with the military, Hanoi authorities and Viettel has raised questions about the justification behind the land grab and the residents have demanded their legally-mandated compensation.
Private land ownership has been banned in Vietnam since 1980, when the country adopted its current constitution. The 1993 Land Law, however, introduced private land use rights but preserved the government’s authority to acquire land for “the public interest.” According to the residents of Dong Tam, their land is being taken for private gain, not public good.
Dong Tam is the latest in a pattern of land confiscation conflicts
There is a history of conflicts over Vietnam’s land tenure law: in 2012, thousands of police evicted hundreds of farmers who were protesting the confiscation of their land near Hanoi to build a new development called “EcoPark.”
In a separate case that same year, a former soldier and his brothers in Hai Phong used land mines and homemade shotguns to fight off security forces when they tried to evict the family from their land. Then-prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung called the eviction illegal, but a court later sentenced the family to five years in prison.
January’s raid was also not the first instance of violence in Dong Tam. In 2017, police arrested four villagers, beating one. When the community protested, fighting broke out between demonstrators and police, ending when residents took 38 police officers hostage for a week.
The latest raid shows how a power imbalance, like that between the Dong Tam farmers and the military or police, can turn land and resource disputes into violent conflicts.
“This event is the largest peacetime land dispute in Vietnam in terms of troops deployed, as well as one of the deadliest; it also highlights concerns about police brutality, abuse of power and the contradictory concept of the ‘people’s ownership of land’ in Vietnam,” read the report written after the raid.
As resistance to police brutality continues to grow worldwide, the ongoing cases against protestors and the continuing defiance from Dong Tam activists offer key lessons for how state and public campaigns for accountability develop in the Vietnamese context.