Farmer Le Dung and his fellow villagers stockpiled rocks and petrol bombs to battle police trying to take over their land for a luxury property development near Vietnam’s capital city.
However, their most powerful weapon turned out to be the equipment they had set up with the help of Internet activists to record and broadcast the confrontation, which was ignored by the state-controlled media.
Within hours of the fight on a clear April morning, video of several thousand policemen firing tear gas and beating farmers in the Van Giang District just east of Hanoi had gone viral.
The unlikely alliance between farmers and urban Internet activists illustrates a rapidly evolving challenge to the Vietnamese Communist Party’s authority as Vietnamese grow bolder in their protests over issues ranging from land rights to corruption and China’s expanding regional influence.
The government has responded with a crackdown on bloggers that has earned it the title of “Enemy of the Internet” from media freedom group Reporters Without Borders, which says only China and Iran jail more journalists.
Censors in the one-party state routinely block Facebook and other social networking sites, although a nimble Web activist community often finds ways around them, illustrating the enormous challenge facing the government in a country where a third of the 88 million population is online.
“At first, we didn’t understand how it could help us, but now we see the value. Our struggle was published to the world,” said Le Dung, who fought in Vietnam’s 1979 war against China, as he sat under a framed picture of former Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh. “If we hadn’t used the Internet the authorities may have killed us; now they know they have to be careful.”
The Van Giang incident and other land disputes covered by bloggers have triggered an unusually heated national debate over how the government should reform Vietnam’s land laws before the expiry of farmers’ 20-year public land leases next year. Rapid economic growth has put pressure on farmers as industrial estates, houses and roads have expanded, leading to a rash of violent land conflicts. Farmers complain the compensation offers for their land are far too low from companies that often have ties to influential politicians.
Fish farmer Doan Van Vuon was catapulted to hero status early this year after he organized armed resistance to local authorities trying to take over his land near Hai Phong city, a case that was covered by official media as well as bloggers.
Bloggers are linking land with other causes they say have a common theme — a government that is beholden to powerful economic interests and unresponsive to popular demands.
“The blogging movement is growing stronger,” said Nguyen Van Dai, a lawyer and rights activist who was jailed for four years for using the Internet to call for democracy and who remains under a loose form of house arrest in Hanoi.
“The government can’t keep secrets like it could before,” Nguyen added.
One influential activist, who goes by the pseudonym Boris and works at a state-owned firm, helped educate the farmers at Van Giang about their rights and taught them how to send pictures and videos through cellphones. Although about 1,000 families there have so far failed to stop the 500-hectare Ecopark project, Boris said wide publicity from the incident had prevented other land developers going ahead with similar plans.