A deadly land dispute in Vietnam has led to a crackdown on social media posts, a sign of growing heavy-handedness by authorities as rising demand for land spurs more conflicts across the country, analysts and human rights activists said.
Four people were killed, and dozens arrested last week in the northern village of Dong Tam near the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, as a long-running land dispute flared after a dawn raid by police.
Authorities said villagers attacked the troops with hand grenades, petrol bombs and knives, and were responsible for the deaths of the three policemen and a village leader.
Dong Tam residents said the police used excessive force.
This week, authorities said 22 of those arrested would face murder charges and clamped down on social media posts about the clashes. Several activists have also been arrested for posts related to the incident, according to Amnesty International.
“Social media is absolutely critical to land rights in Vietnam,” Amnesty’s regional director Nicholas Bequelin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Jan. 17.
“With neither independent media nor an independent judicial system, it is the only way to create significant pressure outside the community,” he said, adding that the censorship was an “unacceptable” attack on freedom of expression.
A spokesman for Vietnam’s ministry of information and communications did not respond to requests for comment.
The ministry of public security previously said it had launched an investigation into the clash.
Vietnam’s cybersecurity law that went into effect last January has been criticized by human rights activists for giving authorities the power to censor expression and requiring service providers to take down any content deemed to be offensive.
For several years, Dong Tam’s residents had protested what they said was the unfair seizure of land for a military airport.
Three years ago, villagers held dozens of local officials and policemen captive for several days after the arrest of several protesters. At the time, authorities had vowed to look into the dispute.
Social media “played an important role in mobilizing public support” for the villagers back in 2017 said John Gillespie, a professor at Australia’s Monash University, and an expert on land conflicts in Vietnam.
The government appears to have moved quickly to prevent it from happening this time, he said.
“This case shows a worrying escalation in the level of force the government is prepared to use to suppress local objections to public infrastructure developments,” Gillespie said.
Conflicts over land are common in Vietnam, where farmland was forcibly redistributed in the 1970s during Communist rule in the north.
Since the ruling Communist Party launched its economic reforms, or doi moi, in the late 1980s, more farming land has been taken to build highways and large industrial zones, sparking conflicts despite recent legislation aimed at protecting vulnerable communities.
Reporting by Rina Chandran for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change.