Catholics in Vietnam fight evictions
IN JANUARY 2019, OFFICIALS IN HO CHI MINH CITY’S TAN BINH DISTRICT DEMOLISHED 503 HOUSES in the vegetable garden of Loc Hung. They accused locals of having built houses without proper permits. The residents, most of them Catholics, were evicted from their homes and became homeless, although they had legal papers stating they owned the land where they had lived and cultivated crops for 65 years; officials refused to recognize the documents. Peter Hoang Cong Minh, one of the victims’ 13 representatives in dealings with the government, spoke to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about the residents’ legal battle.
“We are descendants of the 124 Catholic households who moved from the northern provinces to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1954 after the north came under control of communist forces. We were given land to reside and cultivate crops by the local Church. Then authorities borrowed a small piece of land to erect an antenna for military purposes, but the land’s ownership still belonged to one of us.
“After 1975, when the country was reunified under communist rule, we registered our lands at the request of local authorities. We paid our taxes on our properties, but we were banned from selling the land.
“Vietnam had no land law until 1993, when the first-ever land law was passed by the National Assembly. The private ownership of land is not allowed in Vietnam. According to the land law, we should be granted certificates of the right to utilize the land since we had used our lands for more than 20 years without dispute with anyone. However, the authorities refused to give us the certificates and accused us of having taken public land illegally. They confiscated the piece of land where the old antenna stood and granted it to some officials to build houses along with certificates of the right to land usage.
“In 1999, Tan Binh District’s authorities granted our land to a company reportedly run by some of them. We rejected the low financial compensation for our properties by the company. In 2008, the district failed to evict us from our properties. We filed numerous petitions to the city agencies, asking them to recognize the land as ours, but they turned a deaf ear to our requests.
“On Jan. 4 and Jan. 8, 2019, more than 1,000 people including public security officers forcibly tore down 503 houses; they accused us of building houses without government permits in the vegetable garden, where they said they planned to build public schools and parks. They cut power supply and internet services, blocked all streets leading to the scene, and arrested many people who protested the land grabbing. I prevented a bulldozer from razing houses by lying down in front of it on Jan. 4 that year. One of the destroyed houses was operated by Redemptorist fathers for 18 war veterans who lost limbs in the Vietnam War.
“Most of us turned down the district government’s offer to pay us 7 million dong ($300) per one square meter of farmland. Only a few households accepted the payment out of fear the government. There was no warning and we had no time to salvage our possessions. We must now live in rented housing. After their seizure of our land, authorities forced rental owners of rental properties not to providing housing to force us to accept their compensation offer.
“We were deprived of all sources of livelihood, including jobs. We had previously rented out our houses, ran shops and grew vegetables on our lands to make a living. We were not given financial aid for the impact of COVID-19 by the government last year. Many of us are suffering from mental disorders and depression—all caused by the illegal land-grabbing.
“At Christmas time 2018, police and security officials also destroyed nativity scenes and statues we erected on the seized land. We have traditionally erected nativity scenes for decades. We were accused of fighting against the government, and appropriating public land and dwellings without government permits. The parents of some students were also denounced by teachers at schools.
“Although we have petitioned then-Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, then-State President and party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, and even the Government Inspectorate Committee four times since the seizure of the land, we have seen no response. So far, the district has not begun any new construction on our lands yet. We demand the government recognize our right to utilize the land, directly negotiate with us on development plans for public facilities on our lands and proper compensation payment.
“Many local priests and two bishops have visited us and called on people to offer us spiritual and material support while five lawyers volunteered to give us legal advice. Every night we gather to recite prayers in front of a Marian statue left on the seized land that is guarded by militiamen around the clock. Authorities did not dare to pull down the statue our ancestors erected in 1958.
“We pray to God to give love, peace, unity and solidarity to our community. We also pray for government officials to enforce the law properly, and respect and bring happiness to the people. We believe Mother Mary protects our life and legal properties. We try to fight for our legal right to the lands until our last breath. Please pray for our hard, long legal fight.”