Old Story: Farmers, Peasants In Vietnam Staging Protests -- The Poor Suffer As Corruption And Land Disputes Continue

DONG HUNG, Vietnam - In the impoverished central provinces - the birthplace of Vietnam's communist patriarchs - the peasants are bristling at inequity.

About 55 miles south of the capital, Hanoi, a wave of protest in recent months has resulted in the arrest of hundreds of villagers.

Security forces have been deployed for months in Thai Binh province, which is now veiled behind a curtain of secrecy.

Accounts from human-rights groups, former residents of Thai Binh and official newspaper reports say dozens of communist officials have been stripped of their party membership while several local governments have been disbanded.

Corruption within village governments and the lack of official response to the growing unrest led to the purges in Thai Binh, the central government has said.

The underlying causes are as old as Vietnam: poverty, institutional corruption and an abundance of natural calamities.

"Poverty, abusive officials, contending claims to land, heavy taxes and other levies have a long history in Vietnam, as the Communist Party knows better than most," said Benedict Kerkvliet, a professor at Australian National University.

In central Vietnam's Dong Hung district lies the tomb of their fallen lord, Quan Man, the district mandarin who fell victim in the late 1700s to one of Vietnam's peasant rebellions.

Two centuries later, the peasants and farmers - the poorest of Vietnam's poor - are again angry about economic disparities.

With close to 80 percent of Vietnam's population living off the land, it is a potentially explosive problem.

When Ho Chi Minh's communist forces drove the French from northern Vietnam in 1954, all land was placed under state control. Under collectivized farming, peasants remained poor - but equal.

A shift in economic policy in 1988 and later accelerated in 1993 allowed for private control of farming land.

The result has been an improvement in output. But the influential, the wealthy and the connected reap a large share of the benefits.

Dong Hung's province, Thanh Hoa, was wracked with rural unrest until 1992. Local officials were accused of embezzling village tax receipts, financing private construction projects and ignoring community grievances.

"The leaders still somehow feel repentant about the losses which could never be recovered, namely the people's trust in the party committee and the administration," the state-controlled People's Army newspaper said.

Cracking down on both village protesters and local officials, the central government in Hanoi quelled the unrest with a delicate balance of force and reform.

Money was allocated to help the province expand its industry from agrarian to include food processing and limestone polishing.

But while protests are in check, officials concede the roots of discontent still simmer in Thanh Hoa.

"It's natural to have economic growth hand-in-hand with the development of social vices," said Dong Hung's district chief, Le Dinh Bang.

Villagers now working in limestone cutting and processing shops make the equivalent of $43 a month - five times what the vast majority of farmhands make.

With rice yields soaring and Vietnam now the world's second largest rice exporter, the people who plant, pick and thresh the crops by hand make little more than $150 to $250 a year. Their urban counterparts in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City earn on average between $700 and $1,500.

According to a recent study, 57 percent of rural Vietnamese live below the World Bank's poverty line. In southern Vietnam's Mekong Delta region, more than 83,000 farming households are landless, the Vietnam Farmers Association says.

The Communist Party's leader, Secretary-General Do Muoi, has taken to touring the country's rural and poorest provinces, trying to rally support.

"It is the people who push the boat - and it is also the people who can overturn the boat," he recently told farmers in northern Vietnam.

The poor who benefited from early land reforms are now suffering under the Communist Party's change of policy and its contemporary program of economic reform called "doi moi."

"When they talk about doi moi, the countryside hasn't seen much change," said a farmer who quit his tiny land holding in Thai Binh province to find work in Hanoi. Fearing reprisals from the government, he gave only his given name, Duc.

There has been modest change: One-room, thatched-roof houses in the countryside now are made of brick. Diet has improved, though not for all. At least 45 percent of Vietnamese children younger than 5 are malnourished, the World Bank says.

The life of a peasant or farmer in Vietnam is still one of subsistence.

"The farmers and people who work in the fields have been forgotten in the drive to modernize the country," Duc said.

In Thanh Hoa province during the early 1990s and now in Thai Binh, protests fueled by disparity and corruption spread.

Arson, brick-throwing and near-riots in Thai Binh have been cautiously disclosed recently by state-controlled news media.

But while official histories praise uprisings against the French, today's protesters in Thai Binh have been portrayed in state media as "bad elements who abuse the situation and excite the people."