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VIETNAM: Officials Grab Land, Evict Peasants

Tran Dinh Thanh Lam

HANOI, Aug 8 2006 (IPS) - As this communist country opens its economy to the outside world, it is witnessing a curious phenomenon – misappropriation of land by powerful officials and large-scale evictions of peasants and poor people from their holdings in the name of development.

Forcible evictions, to make way for roads and development projects, are now triggering social unrest and turning into an embarrassment for a country that is seeking entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and inviting foreign investment in property.

Street protests by peasants, who have been deprived of their land, are now commonplace in large urban centres like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

On Jul. 19, hundreds of people living along Khuat Duy Tien Street in the outlying suburb of Thanh Xuan demonstrated in front of the People’s Council of Hanoi hoping to compel local authorities to fulfill promises of compensation for land acquired from them to make way for a road.

Defying standing orders against unlawful assembly, the demonstrators ran a month-long sit-in at Thanh Xuan that began early June after authorities issued orders that houses were to be cleared to make way for ‘Road-Belt No. 3′. Officials made no mention of a clear compensation policy.

‘’We have been living there since 1993 and our land has already turned residential. But the authorities will only pay for 60 sq m of land and consider the remaining area as farm land,” they said, adding that the deputy chairman of the Hanoi People’s Committee, Le Quy Don, had originally promised that all land acquired for the road would be treated as residential and compensation paid accordingly.

Official compensation is 13 million VNDong (around 820 US dollars) for each sq m of residential land against 225,000 VND (14 dollars) per sq m of farm land.

Pham Thanh Xuan, a local official, said that the master plan for the planned road already existed in 1981 and, therefore, people who settled in the area after that year would only be eligible for compensation equal to the value of 60 sq m of residential land.

‘’With that kind of assistance policy, we will have nothing left,” Phan Ba Tuat, one of the protestors, told IPS.

Protestors argue that the master plan was kept secret. Also, they claim to have been given official rights – residential as well as other usage- for their land. ‘’We only want those rights to be respected,” they said.

Don admitted that the problem was partly caused by local authorities, and that some amicable solution could be found. He has ordered local authorities to settle the issue by Aug 5.

Compensation and corruption around land transfers have become critical issues that could turn easily into widespread social unrest, and harm the socio-economic development of Vietnam, observers say.

Decision makers are trying their best to soften the situation by providing acceptable solutions and arresting trouble-makers; but in too many cases the root causes are left intact.

Protestors now gather daily before the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) offices and at ‘meet-the-people’ sessions on Mai Xuan Thuong Street in the capital. This place became famous in 2005 after an old woman named Tran Thi Thu burnt herself to death to protest against the injustices perpetrated on her family by officials.

In April, thousands of people living in the three southern provinces of Can Tho, An Giang and Kien Giang sent an open letter to the VCP and the government accusing local authorities of grabbing their land.

Land problems were also the main topic discussed on the first day of the HCM City’s legislative assembly session early this month with deputies criticising complicated land regulations as providing ‘fertile soil’ for corrupt officials.

According to Trinh Xuan Thu, deputy director of the security department, some 1,300 officials involved in various land scams have been arrested over the past five years. ‘’Fifty percent of them were charged after their victims complained against them,” Thu said.

The ‘Lao Dong’ (Labour) newspaper on Jul. 24, reported that officials in Tay Ninh province had grabbed hundreds of hectares of state land to divide among themselves. The newspaper also accused Tran Hoan Kiem, an official at Tay Ninh Sugarcane Company, of misappropriating some 141 hectares of land.

Illegal land dealing has become so widespread that the real estate market in Vietnam is now reckoned as one of the worst in the world in terms of transparency.

A Chicago-based real estate services provider Jones Lang LaSalle recently rated Vietnam’ real estate transparency index (RETI) as the lowest among the 56 countries surveyed (4.69). Low RETI (from 4.25 to 5.00) indicates a lack of transparency and shortage of information.

At a conference organised in May in HCM City to attract foreign investment to Phu Quoc, Vietnam’s resort island, many investors said: ‘’How can investors take part in the development of Phu Quoc when all the land is in the hands of real estate speculators?”.

Early this year, several officials at Phu Quoc were arrested for illegally dealing in land. Following investigations, it turned out that these officials had misappropriated vast areas of beach and sold it to speculators.

Nguyen Huu Tho, general director of ‘Saigontourist’, the country’s leading hotel and tourist firm, said his company faced problems in land clearance on two resort and golf projects. ‘’Clearly, illegal land acquisitions have posed challenges and have caused investors like us to miss business opportunities, hindering development of the island,” he said.

Tho noted that when Saigontourist began seeking investment in Phu Quoc several years ago, Thailand’s Koh Samui was still an isolated island. Today, the Thai island has become a popular destination, drawing more than two million tourists per year, while Phu Quoc is languishing.

Like Tho, several international investors are ready to invest in Phu Quoc but fear land sharks. They believe the island, an hour’s flight from Ho Chi Minh City, could outperform other premier beach holiday destinations in South-east Asia.

The French group Victoria Hotels and Resorts is said to have reached an agreement with provincial authorities to lease 20 hectares of land for a 12 -million dollar resort project, while the U.S.-based Rockingham Asset Management LLC is seeking to build a 1.5 billion dollar resort.

However, current problems including illegal land speculation, red tape, poor infrastructure and inadequate zoning are making such investors reluctant to commit serious money. ‘’Investors will always be wary and slow to invest until adequate public utilities like electricity, water, drainage, roads and airport are provided,” said Dean Nguyen, president of the ‘Travel-to-Vietnam Corporation’.

Louk Lennaerts, director of ‘Life Resorts Development’, said authorities should draw up a detailed master plan for the island, so as to regulate land deals and limit substandard construction. ”Authorities should introduce world-class building standards to ensure that the environment of Phu Quoc is not harmed.”

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