Isolated incidents of peasant protest have occurred since the late 1980s. Peasants from the Mekong Deltademonstrated in Ho Chi Minh City in 1988, in northcentral Ha Tinh and Thanh Hoa provinces in 1991-2 and 1994 respectively, in central Quang Nam Da Nang in 1994 and outside Hanoi in 1996. The military newspaper Quan Doi Nhan Dan published a long article on September 15, 1997 analyzing the problem of a decade of social unrest in Military Region IV, encompassing six northcentral provinces from Thanh Hoa to Quang Binh, historically the cradle of the revolution.16 In the report, the paper's "political and military correspondents' group" claimed that popular dissatisfaction with maladministration, misappropriation of funds, and inaction by corrupt officials had led to "worsening political stability." It also claimed that in some cases "Buddhist and Catholic followers were lured into illegal activities against the party and the state's line and policies." No specific details are given. The report concludes that under the leadership of the party and guidance of the military and public security forces, these "complicated incidents" of unrest can be solved. By placing most of the blame for the unrest on local civilian authorities for exploiting the "adverse effects of the market economy," the military are tacitly claiming the moral high ground as regards maintaining social order.

In 1997, Vietnam experienced the most serious sustained rural unrest for decades, primarily in Thai Binh and Dong Nai provinces where thousands of peasants took to the streets to protest against rampant corruption among local party and government officials whom the peasantry see as ignoring their fundamental economic grievances.

Thai Binh Province

Starting in May 1997 with a 3,000-strong sit-in in Quynh Phu district People's Committee office, peasant protest spread to six out of seven districts of Thai Binh province, and continued for over six months on a variable scale. Sporadic protests were also reported in neighboring provinces, including Thanh Hoa. The peasants' anger was provoked by endemic corruption among local officials, land disputes, punitive taxation, unfair rice prices, and compulsory labor contributions to national infrastructure projects.

Protests turned violent against local officials in some districts, with reports of isolated cases of arson and physical assault and makeshift "courts" established by the local people to bring corrupt cadres to book. On November 25, Reuters reported the release of twenty local officials who had been unlawfully detained by protestors some months earlier. In August the government dispatched around 1,200 special police to control the demonstrations. Senior Politburo member responsible for mass organizations Pham The Duyet was sent to intervene in the potentially explosive situation. In a Hanoi-directed attempt to clamp down on abuse of power by local authorities, over fifty police and People's Committee officials were arrested and are to be brought to trial on specific charges of corruption. The Vietnamese press has also reported that over one hundred "bad elements" among the protestors were also arrested and detained, charged with "threatening the national security." Human Rights Watch/Asia understands that they have probably been detained under Administrative Detention Decree 31/CP, with no legal recourse to a trial.

There was a national press blackout regarding the Thai Binh protests from May to September. The five-month official silence probably indicates Hanoi's indecision as to how to exercise damage limitation and isolate the disturbances. The so-called "bad elements" among the protestors were paraded on provincial television to deliver self-criticisms as a warning to other protestors. National coverage of the unrest was largely confined to the Communist Party's official daily, Nhan Dan, and the Army newspaper, Quan Doi Nhan Dan, in September. The articles acknowledged the legitimate grievances of the farmers and criticized widespread corruption amongst grassroots cadres but provided no detailed information about the scale of the protests and number of subsequent arrests and charges. They failed to mention that among the organizers of the protests were former Party members, war veterans and war heroes' mothers. The involvement of these traditional party stalwarts indicates the scope of discontent with local authorities. In their press reports, both the party and the military mentioned the need to allow for citizens' rights, without defining those rights. Both placed more emphasis on the need for heightened social and political control:

[The cadres] must consistently enhance their political background, strengthen their combat readiness, heighten their vigilance against the "peaceful evolution" schemes of the hostile forces, and stand ready to firmly defend our national integrity and regime.17

No foreign journalist has been granted permission to go to Thai Binh since major unrest broke out in May. According to press regulations that came into force on December 1, 1996 after the disturbances in Kim No village outside Hanoi, foreign journalists must submit written requests to the Foreign Ministry Press Department for permission to travel outside of Hanoi five days in advance. Repeated requests from Hanoi's foreign press corps to visit Thai Binh have been refused on the grounds that a visit at such a time would be "inconvenient."

Dong Nai Province

Violent unrest broke out in Dong Nai province on November 7, 1997 and continued for three days, with a majority of women and children reportedly at the forefront of the demonstrations. Protests by several thousand peasants were apparently sparked by the confiscation by local authorities of Catholic church land in Tra Co commune, Thong Nhat district. Hundreds of demonstrators also blocked Highway One, the only artery joining the north and south of the country. Police were mobilized very swiftly to break up the protests, and several police and demonstrators allegedly sustained serious injuries. The area remains off-limits to journalists and few independently confirmed details of the events are available. While basic economic grievances remain the same as in Thai Binh, two added dimensions complicate the issue of the Dong Nai protests: religion and ethnicity.

With regard to religion, Thong Nhat is a predominantly Catholic district within Xuan Loc, the largest diocese in Vietnam with 700,000 Catholics, many of whom relocated from Thai Binh and surrounding provinces when Vietnam was divided in 1954. The historical antipathy of the southern Catholics towards the Communist authorities was stoked in April 1997 when the People's Committee of Dong Nai issued a directive (1216/UBT) declaring illegal and disbanding all church groups sanctioned in Bishop Nguyen Minh Nhat's diocese "Guide for Religious Ministry" of March 1993. These groups included the Holy Mother's group, the Catholic Mother's group, the Holy Communion Youth group and the Head of Families group. No information is available as to why the bishop's circular, and activities listed therein, were not declared illegal until four years after being distributed. This directive violates the right to assembly as defined in Article 69 of the Vietnamese constitution and Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantee the right of assembly and association.

Directive 1216/UBT provoked an outcry amongst the Catholic community in April, and Pham The Duyet of the Politburo, the earlier mediator for Thai Binh, was dispatched to Dong Nai to placate the situation through dialogue with Bishop Nhat. Although relative calm was restored, tension was still high in Xuan Loc diocese, which would explain why violent protests erupted so suddenly in Thong Nhat district after confiscation of church land in early November. The government was quick to play down any religious dimension to the disturbances but nevertheless called on Bishop Nhat to appeal for calm among the protestors, as well as sending a Catholic mediator from the National Assembly to the area. This strategy amounts to a tacit acknowledgment by Hanoi that southern Catholic communities look to the church rather than the state as their respected symbol of authority. It may also explain why police were mobilized so much more quickly than in Thai Binh to control the demonstrations.

The second factor, ethnicity, may have contributed to latent hostility between the local community and the authorities. Tra Co commune has a high percentage of nung ethnic Chinese, who migrated south from the Chinese border in 1954. Many Special Forces soldiers were recruited from this ethnic group by American forces during the war for carrying out protection duties. Tens of thousands of nung Chinese fled as boat people from 1979 onwards.The ethnic Chinese communes of Dong Nai are strikingly poorer than neighboring kinh Vietnamese (the majority ethnic group in Vietnam) communes, and, according to nongovernmental organizations's research, educational levels and employment rates are lower than provincial averages. From accounts available so far, there is no evidence that the protests were in any way ethnically motivated, but historical tensions likely contributed to the rapid escalation of popular anger in Tra Co commune.

The party and government leaders have publicly acknowledged the legitimate grievances of the farmers and demanded increased probity among local officialdom. Former Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet issued a decree (89/CP) in August 1997 ordering government ministry staff and People's Committee cadres at all levels to be available to hear citizens' complaints on a regular basis.18 The rhetoric is certainly promising, but it is too soon to assess the extent of its application. Concretely, the civil unrest has provoked only ad hoc reflexes by the government until now. Human Rights Watch/Asia is concerned that the arrests or dismissal of a number of corrupt local officials may be a largely cosmetic measure to placate the peasants. In isolation it does not address the fundamental structural problems facing the rural population, and does nothing to nurture the development of civil society.

16 Quan Doi Nhan Dan, Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB), September 15, 1997 17 Quan Doi Nhan Dan, September 20, 1997 18 "Government urges agencies to meet citizens more often," Saigon Times, August 12, 1997.