Farmers raise voice for democracy

Democracy movements in this communist country appear to have got a sudden fillip through solidarity from hundreds of farmers making their presence felt on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City over the past month. Last Thursday, though, Hanoi’s reaction took a predictable turn when a large police force swooped down on the peaceful demonstrators, tearing down banners and signs, and arresting some of them, states Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based global rights lobby.

“Police surrounded the area, jammed cell phone reception, and carried the demonstrators into waiting vans,” added Viet Tan, a pro-democracy group in the South-east Asian nation, in a statement released shortly after the July 19 crackdown. It estimated that “over a thousand uniformed and plainclothes police” were used to clear the area of “about six hundred protestors.” This act of suppression appears to have been timed to avoid further embarrassment for the Communist Party, which has enjoyed a monopoly on power since the end of US war in Vietnam in the 1970s. Thursday marked the opening of a fresh five-year term for the newly-elected National Assembly, based in Hanoi. The farmers had staged their protest outside the building of the legislature’s southern office in Ho Chi Minh City.

The farmers took to the streets on July 26 to demand compensation for lands that they allege were seized by authorities for development plans. Officials were also accused of rampant corruption during the protests that had attracted close to 2,000 people, according to some estimates. The farmers who had come from at least nine southern provinces in the Mekong Delta clearly showed preparedness for a long-drawn battle, since they put up tents on the pavements close to where they were making their demands.

“Protests for land rights is not unusual because (farmers) have protested for more than a decade. What is unusual is the scale of the protest. It is larger,” says Robert N Le, president of the Vietnam Human Rights Network, an independent group based in the US state of California, where many Vietnamese who fled the country during and after the war live. The regime believes that land belongs to the government, “not the people; people have no ownership of land.” Such protests excite the nascent pro-democracy movement in the country due to the repressive political environment that prevails, he added. “Currently there is no space for opposition groups to operate.”

The initial reaction by Hanoi to such opposition voices was not harsh, says the South-east Asia researcher for Amnesty International, Brittis Edman. Such accommodation was attributed to the country being in the glare of the international media having gained accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2006 and hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit the same year.But since the APEC summit last November “there has been a serious crackdown against lawyers, trade unionists, religious leaders and Internet dissidents, who have been detained or imprisoned, harassed, or been under surveillance,” Edman reveals. “The rights to freedom of expression and assembly are denied individuals and groups that the authorities — at their whim deem intolerable.” — IPS