The Dong Tam hostage crisis: issues, interests and social media
8 May 2017|

The Dong Tam hostage crisis in Vietnam’s north recently was a familiar mix of issues: possible corruption, land grabs, furious farmers, and a citizenry watching avidly from Facebook sidelines (they don’t trust their newspapers for this sort of stuff). However, the ending was a new one: the possibility of a fair resolution by the government.

It began as an argument over a patch of agricultural land in Dong Tam, a village of 6,000 just outside Hanoi. The land was given to Viettel, the army-owned telco giant, by the local government. This began in 2014; the government says it was for defence-related purposes, but the villagers said otherwise. After lengthy smaller scuffles and arguments, and intimidation, protests erupted properly in April, along with immediate negative media coverage that accused the villagers, in a phrase often used to quell the protests of the angry, of ‘disrupting the social order’.

Things escalated. After an octogenarian was publicly beaten by security forces, the public responded more forcefully: they took 38 hostages, including police. At this point, things have generally got far worse.

Such events are, if not common on a weekly basis, increasingly recurrent this decade. The government, whether provincial authorities or the central government in Hanoi, has struggled to deal with these crises and with petty and not-so-petty corruption. Land disputes stretch back decades. In banned book by author Duong Thu Huong, Paradise of the Blind, set in 1980s Hanoi, a village woman kills herself after the local fat cat expropriates her land. There were violent land disputes in the 1990s, and serious ones in the Central Highlands among ethnic minority groups fighting the government.

However, people are now more aware of their rights, and the internet means that many of these disputes are publicised and debated. The internet has ensured that such events are no longer localised and spread via haphazard word of mouth, but filmed and shared. There have been two very high-profile land stand-offs this decade: in one, a fish farmer turned folk hero and his family held back police with homemade weapons; in the other, 3,000 police and 1,000 villagers faced off over the loss of the villagers’ land to develop the $8 billion Eco Park on the outskirts of the polluted capital. This being Vietnam, cell phones were to hand, the footage quickly ended up YouTube, and, being Vietnam, the government first pretended that the footage wasn’t there and then countered that the whole thing had been faked by ‘hostile forces’. Eco Park went ahead and is now a ‘green’ luxury development for the wealthy and health conscious on the outskirts of the polluted capital.

Losses of homes and protests have occurred in cities, too, but not with the same frequency. One of the more famous cases involved residents being evicted from the historic Eden building in the centre of Saigon. Residents fought hard to stay, but the faded wartime beauty finally met the wrecking ball and was replaced by yet another shopping centre.

Farmers have been brutally treated by the central government and provincial governments in the past, and from all reports the treatment of the villagers leading up to this latest outbreak was aggressive, threatening and coercive. However, the hard-done-by farmers are a little like the ‘deserving poor’: as long as they protest, however angrily, but don’t engage in political activism there’s a chance that the full force of the law may not affect them.

Actual activists engaged in a strategic game don’t often get much leniency from the government, which sees them as a direct threat to its legitimacy. The Dong Tam farmers were engaged in a battle against corrupt local government, rather than the state itself. As it happened, the higher echelons of government stepped in. This common enough communist narrative—the powerful state disciplining the decadent provincial government to protect honest farmers and peasants—is often seen in China, too.

Social media is the driver behind much of this, though there’s little new there. The internet has been used by activists since it first came to Vietnam and blog laws were introduced a decade ago. However, platforms such as Facebook make sharing content and reposting viral memes that much easier.

There was a memorable event during the 2010 Hanoi Millennium celebrations, when the cache of fireworks meant for the last night of the celebrations blew up early and killed four people. Newspapers were told to pull the story the same day, but photos did the rounds on Facebook immediately (though the giant mushroom cloud was also a bit of a giveaway, too). A fish-kill saga, in which Taiwanese steel producer Formosa let toxic wastewater into the sea, resulting in an estimated 100 tonnes of dead fish on the central coast’s shores, mobilised people across the country to ‘choose fish’ online. And, before that, young activists banded together to stop the city felling Hanoi’s ancient trees.

In the case of Dong Tam, social media has now been kind to the government. Bloggers and Facebookers are pleased that Mayor Chung personally travelled to the village to negotiate. This has been seen as a bright spot and a change, but it will be worth watching what comes out of the review in a month and a half, and to see whether stronger interests will win out.