HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- Residents and visitors in this city were startled in early November by two days of street demonstrations -- the first in the former capital of South Vietnam, then known as Saigon, since the end of the war in 1975.
Police dealt with the demonstrators -- several busloads of farmers from the Mekong Delta -- cautiously, keeping them separated from curious onlookers. They confiscated film from a number of people who tried to photograph the demonstration, but made no arrests.
The caution was understandable, for the farmers -- dressed in their most tattered work clothes and carrying signs that said, "Long Live Ho Chi Minh," "Long Live Nguyen Van Linh" (the Communist Party chief) and "Give Us Back Our Land" -- were decked out in medals showing they were veterans of the revolution.
Several days later, the Communist Party daily Nhan Dan described the demonstration euphemistically as a gathering which had "caused an abnormal situation and the loss of order and security in the city."
The farmers were demanding the return of their land because, now that Vietnam has abandoned its efforts to bring all the country's farmers into cooperatives, the government has said southern farmers should have the right to use the land that belonged to them before 1975.
But in many villages, local officials and Communist Party leaders have taken the best land for themselves.
Local and even provincial officials have been unwilling or unable to resolve the disputes. So delegations of farmers have brought their complaints to officials at the Ho Chi Minh City office of the Council of Ministers -- the Cabinet.
One group of 200 from Cuu Long province, 55 miles south of Ho Chi Minh City, descended on the office in August with stories of local officials who had used threats, intimidation and imprisonment to force them to give up their land.
One woman said she was threatened with being sent to a reeducation camp, according to an account in Truyen Thong Khang Chien -- Traditions of the Resistance -- a magazine-size paper published in October by a group of Ho Chi Minh City war veterans.
A 74-year-old woman filed a complaint that said her son had been run off their land at gunpoint. The same evening, she said, a party official from her hamlet had come to her house and threatened to arrest her.
Not only had her complaint not been resolved, she said, but one official who had taken her land was promoted from party secretary in the village to party secretary for the district, an administrative division equivalent to a county in the United States.
The government warned, in the Nhan Dan article, that these disputes should be solved at the local level, not brought to Ho Chi Minh City. And it said "bad people hiding in the ranks of the farmers" who provoked them to come to the city would be severely punished.
But the government did assign two high-ranking representatives to meet with the farmers to help resolve their disputes.
If the November demonstration illustrates a new boldness in exercising freedom of speech, the government's reaction shows that such freedoms -- though guaranteed in the Vietnamese Constitution -- still make officials uncomfortable.
Official hostility to organized opposition was demonstrated more dramatically in late September, when a Ho Chi Minh City court sentenced two Buddhist monks to death and 19 other defendants to lesser sentences for "activities aimed at overthrowing the people's government."
The indictment in the case described an elaborate conspiracy to set up secret jungle bases and mount attacks on major transportation routes into the city.
The group called itself the "Free Vietnam Force," the indictment said. It was said to have bought 15 guns and published 50 copies of a newspaper. But its jungle bases had been discovered, and it had not actually carried out any acts of sabotage.
Vietnamese who are actively concerned about human rights believe the charges of setting up a military organization were fabricated. And they criticize the government for holding some of the defendants in prison for as long as seven years before bringing them to trial.
In November, an appeals court commuted the death sentences to 20 years in prison and reduced the sentences of other defendants.
The reconsideration followed protests by the Australian government, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations. Leaders of Vietnam's Buddhist Congregation had also appealed for clemency in the case.
Text copyright © 1989 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida
Published Jan. 14, 1989
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