What happened during the deadly land dispute clash in Dong Tam, Vietnam?

Security footage showing numerous riot police marching through Dong Tam, early on the morning of January 9. Source: Trinh Ba Tu's Facebook

This article was originally published on Loa, a news website and podcast on Vietnamese news by Viet Tan. An edited version is published below as part of a content-sharing agreement. Reporting by Chris Lê and Kiên Trịnh.

On January 9, 2020, Vietnamese authorities deployed thousands of police to Đồng Tâm village on the outskirts of the capital Hanoi to solve a land dispute. A clash between residents and authorities followed, and three police officers and two civilians were killed.

The government has barred all independent media from entering the area, leaving state media and social media as the main sources of information. Many netizens are trying to piece together what happened. The Loa team also got together to make sense of what went down. Here's what we have:

The raid

As 5,000 police and armed forces stormed the village of Hoành in Đồng Tâm commune in the middle of the night of January 9, loudspeakers blared messages to residents — which it referred to as “retaliating forces” — warning them not to “go over the limit with their actions.”

The police's first stop was the home of Lê Đình Kình, referred to as cụ Kình in his community, a respected 84-year-old village member who long led a local protest movement against corruption. According to the South China Morning Post, a live stream recorded by land rights activist Trinh Ba Tu reported that “[Kinh] was shot twice in the head, once in the heart, and once in the foot. He was shot in front of his wife.”

Police raided Dong Tam village on 9 January 2020. Photo from Twitter post of @AnhChiVN

The military airport

Things weren’t always strained between the government and the people of Đồng Tâm, but tensions began to with the construction of a military airport near their village in 2017 by Viettel, Vietnam's military-owned telecom company.

All land in communist Vietnam belongs to the state, so technically the government can use it for whatever purposes it wants. But locals say they have farmed the land for generations and were not being properly compensated, the BBC reports.

Even during this contentious time, locals of Đồng Tâm still continued to show support for the government. A photo featured on BBC Vietnamese shows signage created by the community that read “The people of Dong Tam completely trust and believe in the Party vision.”

In fact, cụ Kình, the elder who was killed by the police, has been a Communist Party member for more than 50 years, and also served as the head of the village’s police force.

However, in April 2017, the relationship took a turn for the worse after local authorities started to section off 59 hectares of land for the Viettel project. In a confrontation, the police attacked and broke cụ Kình’s leg which resulted in local residents converging and holding 38 officials and police officers hostage for a week.

The chairman of the People’s Committee of Hà Nội, Nguyễn Đức Chung met with local residents to promise no reprisals and to resolve the land dispute peacefully.

However, in December 2019, Chung issued an order further pressuring the people of Đồng Tâm to relinquish the land.

Village leaders released a call to action weeks before the raid

Residents of Đồng Tâm organized a town hall meeting in late December 2019 and accused Nguyễn Đức Chung of dishonesty and corruption. During the meeting, cụ Kình declared that the people would stand their ground and protect their land.

I’d like to inform everyone: Nguyễn Đức Chung is two-faced, a person who distorts the truth, and because of this we the people of the Đồng Tâm commune must be strong and determined. Even if Nguyễn Đức Chung is lying, the people must still consider the land of Sênh to be the agricultural land of the region, and we must protect it to the end. Anyone who purposely threatens or violates this — any dishonest people who comes to steal this land, we must be determined to fight, even if we bleed, we will be ready. Though 59 acres of land is not a lot, but the integrity, the honor of our Dong Tam people as a heroic community is much larger than the land.

Lề Đình Kình was deeply respected by the members of the community. After he was killed on the January 9 raid and his body returned to the commune, hundreds of people gathered to grieve him.

Villagers live-streamed the raid

In a video published at 3 a.m. on the night of the clash, three village leaders, including Lê Đình Công, the son of Lê Đình Kình, helped paint a picture of what was happening. In it, they called for the attention and support of the Vietnamese people.

The Hanoi government has sent in so many troops, police forces, vehicles carrying barbed wire and fencing to Ba Thạ, which is three kilometers from Đồng Tâm. It is 3 a.m here. We want to let everyone in the country know to be ready to fight against invaders — the invaders have repeatedly attempted to seize our land and failed, but now they have deliberately sent troops in to oppress us and rob our land. We hope that the people of our country are watching, are concerned, and will support us.

Công and 19 other villagers were arrested and charged with murder.

Three officers and two civilians dead

Authorities shut off the internet and phone connections in Đồng Tâm and blocked roads leading to the village. As a result, there has been a media blackout surrounding the events of January 9, and most information remains unverified, including how three officers were killed during the raids.

Radio Free Asia reported that YouTube issued a strike against its channel regarding a webcast that included news about Đồng Tâm for unspecified violations of the video-sharing platform's community guidelines.

State media outlet Hanoi Mới quoted a Ministry of Information official stating that Google and Facebook were responsive in government requests to take down content deemed as “fake or inciteful” over the past two weeks. The three Vietnamese policemen who died have been buried with honors in Hanoi. The government blamed the officers’ deaths on “rioters.”

In the end, outlets across the board have extremely restricted access to what happened in Đồng Tâm, leaving more questions than answers.

Listen to the podcast to learn more about the issue:

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