The social unrest in 1997 was triggered by a range of grievances common to much of Vietnam's rural population, including local corruption, loss of land, depressed rice prices, and taxation.

Of these grievances, the question of rampant corruption among local officials has provoked the most anger among the peasants. Government and party bureaucracy at provincial and district level is excessively bloated and official salaries are meager. A district-level cadre earns an average U.S.$20 per month. With the flourishing of private enterprise and the influx of investment has come the opportunity for graft and extortion by those in positions of authority. In any village in rural Vietnam the most substantial and modern building is invariably the office of the People's Committee, the Communist Party organ at provincial and district level, while the shabbiest are usually the school and health clinic. Peasants are seeing virtually no returns for their hefty tax payments, rural infrastructure is in decline, land-use rights are often abused, and local officials are widely perceived to be ignoring the needs of the peasants in their pursuit of short-term economic gain.

Another growing source of conflict in Vietnam is land disputes. As industrialization gathers pace in pockets of Vietnam, the question of land-use rights is becoming one of the most pressing problems facing peasants. All land belongs to the state, but individuals are allowed to buy and sell land-use rights. The legal framework for such transactions is extremely weak and guarantees little security for the holder of the land-use certificate. Over the past five years, local authorities have acquired vast swathes of agricultural land for commercial development, sometimes forcing farmers to sell, sometimes buying from indebted peasants at prices far below market value.10 Farmers' loss of livelihood, inadequate payment for land, and confiscation of property by local authorities have fueled peasant anger in recent years.

In cases of compulsory land sales, farmers frequently receive inadequate compensation after local officials have taken their cut. This has sparked repeated protests, such as in late 1996 when hundreds of peasants in Kim No village outside Hanoi clashed with police over land purchased by Daewoo, a South Korean conglomerate, for building a golf course. Near to industrial and export-processing zones, such as in southern Dong Nai province, many indebted farmers have chosen to sell their land, often at artificially low prices, for short-term economic gain. Vietnam is witnessing the reemergence of landless peasantry, reminiscent of the feudal system which existed during the French colonial period, against which the Communists protested so vehemently before independence. According to the state-run Farmers' Union, over 83,000 farming households in the Mekong Delta are now landless.11 These peasants have little choice but to work as tenant farmers or occasional hired labor for more prosperous landowners, with no labor rights or legal associations to represent their interests.

The government is trying to curb urban migration through a tight control on residence permits (ho khau). Peasants who drift into the cities invariably end up working illegally for menial wages as rickshaw drivers or day-hire laborers. The escalating problem of rural unemployment has been acknowledged at the highest level. In a commentary in the official party daily, Nhan Dan, in July 1997, Nguyen Van Linh, former party secretary, described the farmers' situation in the Mekong Delta as "critical," with much of the countryside in the hands of the prosperous minority.12

A further grievance for farmers is the price of rice. The rice trading system discriminates against farmers in favor of middlemen and state-owned rice exporting companies. The Ministry of Trade operates an export quota system which is dominated by a handful of state-owned companies, such as Southern Food General Corporation, better known as Vinafood II. The farmers are paid depressed prices for their harvests for which they bear the entire risk, while the exporters reap the profits. According to Ministry of Agriculture figures, a farmer will typically make $5 profit per ton while the quota-holding company makes around U.S.$30 per ton.13

Taxation has caused massive discontent in rural Vietnam. With a policy of partial deregulation of taxes, ample opportunity has arisen for abuse and corruption by poorly-paid local officials. Peasants must pay numerous local financial "contributions" on top of already onerous national taxes. A 1996 study by Oxfam UK and Ireland on basic living standards in northcentral Ha Tinh province revealed that peasants are required to pay eight types of tax set by Hanoi, for agricultural land use, fishing, salt making, slaughter, among others, and a further six local "contributions" ranging from national defense and public security funds to disaster preparedness funds. 14 In September 1997 the party mouthpiece Nhan Dan reported that peasants in Thai Binh province face up to thirty kinds of locally imposed "contributions" on top of national taxation.15

The peasants' grievances over unfair taxation have been exacerbated by the unpopular decree introduced by Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet in 1996 on compulsory labor "contributions.". Under the slogan of "the state and the people working together", citizens are required to contribute ten days' labor to national infrastructure projects, such as road-building. Many Vietnamese have noted parallels with the corvée labor used by the French colonial authorities in Indochina, another key focus for the Communists in the 1930s to mobilize peasants in their struggle for independence. Most urban dwellers pay off local authorities rather than undertake the labor, but few poor peasants can afford to buy their way out, contributing to their resentment against local authorities.

10 "Cuu Long farmers sell their land to survive," Vietnam News, July 2, 1997. 11 Associated Press, October 15, 1997. 12 "Ex-Party Chief calls for Mekong Delta rethink," Vietnam Investment Review, July 28 - August 3, 1997. 13 "The Trouble with Rice," Vietnam Economic Times, October 1997. 14 Oxfam UK and Ireland, "Report on the Financing and Delivery of Basic Services at the Commune Level in Ky Anh, Ha Tinh," March 1996. 15 Vietnam News Agency, September 8, 1997.