Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet
1 February 2020
“January 9, Violent Conflict Near Hà Nội” is an article written for US-Vietnam Research Center’s Blog. Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet is an Emeritus Professor at the Department of Political & Social Change, School of International, Political & Strategic Studies, Australian National University. He is the author of Speaking Out in Vietnam: Public Political Criticism in a Communist Party-Ruled Nation (Cornell University Press, 2019).
The morning of January 9, about two weeks before the height of the Tết lunar new year season, numerous heavily armed troops entered Đồng Tâm, a subdistrict of Mỹ Đức, a rural area about 40 kilometers southwest from the central Hà Nội. The troops included police and other armed units all under the command of officers in the nation’s public security police.
A few hours later, three of the armed policemen and one villager were dead and several police and villagers were injured. Authorities had also arrested 22 villagers and later charged most of them with murdering the three police, possessing illegal weapons, and interfering with officials carrying out their duties. No one was charged with killing the villager.
Beyond this undisputed account of the conflict are numerous disputed claims about what occurred in Đồng Tâm on January 9 and subsequent days and why the troops were there. More information is slowly surfacing; eventually a clearer picture will emerge. Here I want to synthesize available material to date. I organize it under two headings: government sources and non-government sources. First, though, some essential background.
The core issue concerns agricultural land, which has been central to numerous conflicts in rural and peri-urban parts of Communist Party-ruled Vietnam since the late 1990s as urban zones and industrial parks proliferated. In Đồng Tâm, the contested land is 59 hectares that local families farmed and have been trying to retain. In most land conflict cases, villagers struggle against local government authorities and commercial enterprises that want to take their fields. In Đồng Tâm, however, villagers are pitted against Vietnam’s national government, specifically the Ministry of Defense, which claims those 59 hectares. Since 1980, the Ministry says, it allowed local people to farm that land but now its telecommunication company Viettel needs to construct facilities on it. Villagers insist that the land belongs to Đồng Tâm. If, they say, Viettel wants it, the company must negotiate with Đồng Tâm residents.
These claims and counter-claims have persisted since 2016, with each side presenting arguments and documents. The most prominent and effective spokesperson for the villagers has been Lê Đình Kình, a retired local official and, at the age of 84 in January 2020, a 58-year member of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Occasionally, the conflict turned physical. During an altercation in April 2017, villagers held several officers hostage for a while and police beat Mr. Kình, breaking one of his legs. Thereafter, because the leg never healed properly, he needed a wheelchair in order to move around.
In late December, several soldiers were assigned to build a wall along one side of the disputed 59 hectares. As the soldiers labored, villagers harassed them, disrupting the project. Armed troops went into Đồng Tâm the morning of January 9 to protect those soldiers. As troops entered, officers ordered some squads to guard Đồng Tâm’s government offices, a gasoline station, and other spots where villagers might create trouble to distract troops from protecting the wall project. As they dispersed, residents threw spears and gasoline bombs (Molotov cocktails) at them. When troops approached the entrance to Hoành village within Đồng Tâm, residents threw rocks, spears, gasoline bombs, and two grenades. One grenade was a dud; the other exploded but caused no injuries. Officers, shouting through megaphones, ordered the crowds to desist. When troops advanced, people fled into alleys, yards, and homes.
As troops pursued, three policemen fell through a skylight into a hole about four meters deep. Villagers then dumped gasoline into the hole and set it alight, burning the men to death. That is when troops started firing their guns. The villager who died had been holding a grenade but was shot dead before he could activate and toss it.
Within about a half hour, troops had arrested 22 villagers and restored order. Many troops remained in Đồng Tâm for several days to maintain peace and protect the wall-building project. Most of the arrested villagers were charged with murdering the three policemen and other crimes. Vietnam’s top leaders bestowed the nation’s highest distinguished service medals on each of the deceased policemen and deemed them national martyrs. The three policemen, who were so burned their bodies looked like coal, were buried January 16 in the presence of numerous dignitaries.
The deceased villager was Lê Đình Kình, the main leader of the assault on the troops. Terrorist groups had helped him and other villagers make and buy weapons. Hence, authorities embargoed a bank account, which outsiders created to assist Mr. Kình’s family. Officials claimed the money is associated with terrorists.
Since late December, soldiers had been intimidating Đồng Tâm residents. Then, a few days before January 9, authorities cut cell phone and internet coverage to the area, established roadblocks, and screened people entering the subdistrict. At around 2:00 a.m. January 9th, villagers woke up to sounds of vehicles and large numbers of marching armed men. Later they heard sounds like fireworks, which turned out to be gunshots, grenades with rubber pellets, tear gas canisters, and explosives collapsing brick walls. Hearing that the homes of Mr. Kình and his sons were being assaulted, many residents ran toward that area but encountered armed troops who ordered them to go home. Some did. Others scattered here and there, not knowing what to do or where to go.
By about 5 a.m., the gunfire and explosions had ended. Armed troops, though, remained for several days. They numbered more than a thousand; some villagers said over three thousand. Troops prevented most villagers from going to their fields, to school, to stores to buy food, etc. and stopped unauthorized non-residents from entering the area. Internet and cell phone services remained blocked. The only news media residents could get were state-owned radio and TV stations, which reported that authorities had repelled Đồng Tâm residents who had attacked soldiers building the wall and the troops by throwing gasoline bombs and other projectiles, killing three policemen. One villager also died, but the state media didn’t give a name. Fairly soon, residents learned from neighbors that Mr. Kình had been killed.
Several days later, Mr. Kình’s family managed to tell what they experienced. His wife and one of his daughters said he was shot at least four times – twice to his head – and died instantly at about 5 a.m. Police took his body away. They also interrogated his elderly wife, slapping her several times because she refused to say she had handled gasoline bombs and grenades. Among the 22 arrested were Mr. and Mrs. Kình’s two grown sons and two grandsons. The Kình family is not sure if those men are alive or dead. More than a day later, family members were able to retrieve Mr. Kình’s body but only after authorities compelled them to sign a statement saying he died on the disputed 59-hectare field that “belongs to national defense.” As sobbing family members examined his body, they saw bullet holes, bruises, and a long incision from his throat down past his waist. Authorities had operated on the body.
On January 13, hundreds of residents, rigidly monitored and constrained by armed troops, buried Mr. Kình in Đồng Tâm.
Numerous Vietnamese citizens and groups have publicly petitioned and in other ways called for independent investigations into a numerous issues regarding the January 9 conflict in Đồng Tâm, especially what exactly happened, why and how four people were killed, why did authorities use armed troops, and why did they abandon legal measures and negotiations regarding the disputed land.
Accounts from, and sympathetic to, villagers who criticize authorities actions in Đồng Tâm deny that villagers attacked the troops. The troops, they insist, attacked the villagers. Not clear from non-government accounts, however, is whether villagers threw gasoline bombs and other weapons at troops at all, perhaps in self-defense. Also I have found no account in non-government sources directly addressing whether or not some villagers were involved in the death of three policemen. Some non-government commentaries do question the authorities’ claim that the three men burned to death in gasoline fires ignited by villagers. Those accounts argue that it is virtually impossible for residents to have been able to dump enough gasoline on the men trapped in a hole to turn their bodies black. Moreover, even if a fire had started, why didn’t other troops rescue their comrades? More likely, these commentaries suggest, is the policemen died from other causes – maybe brick walls collapsing on them or other police mistakenly shot them during the melee. In any event, authorities have yet to show evidence for how the policemen died.
Vietnamese authorities appear to be hiding a lot about what occurred and why. They are vague about what hour in the morning of January 9 troops swarmed into Đồng Tâm. Non-government sources, including statements by Đồng Tâm residents, say the troops entered long before daylight. That would put a lie to authorities’ claim that troops were sent to protect the wall-building project. No construction was being done in darkness. Authorities say Mr. Kình died in the field. It seems unlikely, however, that a wheelchair-bound 84-year-old man would be in a field three kilometers from his home before daybreak. Neighbors said that troops surrounded his home and that of many others. The troops then entered several houses, including his. Mr. Kình’s family say troops shot him inside that house. Physicians who examined the photos of bullet holes in his corpse concluded he was shot at close range, 7-20 centimeters. That makes it improbable that he intended to throw a grenade. It would have blown up his wife and other relatives standing nearby. Also, if he held a grenade and was ready to use it, he wouldn’t have let armed troops get so close. Government accounts of January 9 events depict Mr. Kình as someone trying to destabilize the political system. They do not mention his military service or his Communist Party membership for nearly 60 years; nor do they report that he was a former policeman, vice chairman, and party leader in Đồng Tâm.
Authorities have also not explained the long cut on his corpse. Why was his body cut open? Some non-government sources speculate that authorities did that to remove bullet fragments so that no one could use them to analyze how he was shot.
Why authorities ordered hundreds, allegedly thousands of troops to enter Đồng Tâm is itself a mystery. The official explanation, to protect a wall-building project, lacks credibility. Perhaps, as several non-government sources said, the primary purpose was to arrest Mr. Kình and others, such as his sons, who were key leaders of villagers struggling to retain the disputed land. In the process, soldiers shot Mr. Kình. Or, as other commentators speculated, maybe the main purpose was to kill him.
Either of these two explanations puts the January 9 event far beyond the norm of how Vietnamese authorities have used troops in previous land conflicts in recent years, at least in the lowlands. (Land conflicts in mountainous areas are different for numerous reasons.) Most lowland land conflicts have been resolved with little or no police or military forces getting involved. When they are involved in large numbers, there are two patterns. One is troops, usually not heavily armed, enter fields – not village neighborhoods – during daylight hours to take control of land farmers have refused to surrender after a lengthy standoff. The second is police, again lightly armed, surround and then disperse large crowds of aggrieved villagers protesting outside government buildings or at other public sites. The only case I know that comes somewhat close to what happened in Đồng Tâm is that armed police and soldiers in Hải Phòng province in early January, also during Tết preparations, attacked two homes of an extended family fighting to keep their farmland. That encounter, however, occurred during the day, involved only a few dozen troops, resulted in some troops and villagers being injured, and a couple of the family members being arrested and eventually imprisoned. No one was killed.