restricted access 7. Local Government in the Exercise of State Power: the Politics of Land Allocation in Black Thai Villages

From: Beyond Hanoi

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Local Government in the Exercise of State Power 167© 2004 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore 7 Local Government in the Exercise of State Power: the Politics of Land Allocation in Black Thai Villages Thomas Sikor Vietnam’s National Assembly passed a new land law in July 1993. The government and western observers heralded the law as cornerstone of a new rural policy. In the past, collective and state units had legal control over land, the primary productive resource in rural areas. The land law provided the basis for households to receive legal land use titles for land. Furthermore, the law mandated the state to implement the legal change through a nation-wide process of land allocation, including registration and certification of land holdings. The expectation was that land allocation would be finished within a few years — a formidable task considering Vietnam’s total area of thirty-three million hectares. So far, land allocation has produced a diversity of outcomes. It proceeded smoothly in some areas, but has not been completed in others.1 Where the state has implemented land allocation, it followed different practices. In some areas, local authorities reassigned land to historical Reproduced from Beyond Hanoi: Local Government in Vietnam, edited by Benedict J Tria Kerkvliet and David G Marr (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2004). This version was obtained electronically direct from the publisher on condition that copyright is not infringed. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the prior permission of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Individual articles are available at 168 Thomas Sikor© 2004 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore owners. For example, Tay people in Bac Can province successfully reclaimed wet rice fields that they had cultivated up to the 1960s. Dao and Kinh people ended up without wet rice fields, even though they had received those in the course of state-sponsored sedentarization and resettlement programmes in the 1960s and 1970s.2 Local authorities in other areas distributed land to households currently living in a village. Yet they applied different formulae for dividing agricultural fields to households, including distribution on a per capita basis, distribution based on household labour capacity, allocation to economically strong households, and various types of bidding systems.3 These are just a few examples to illustrate a general point: land allocation has witnessed a perplexing diversity of local processes and outcomes. Three explanations come to mind as to why the Vietnamese state has not been able to implement land allocation and enforce new land legislation in a uniform manner. First, the state may not possess sufficient means of enforcement. Financial constraints and low-skilled cadres prevent consistent implementation of national directives. Second, the implementation of land allocation may suffer from inter-ministerial differences, as it involves the cooperation of several line agencies. Depending on which agency is in charge, allocation may follow different procedures. Third, variation in land allocation may be due to cleavages between the central government and local authorities. This is the explanation that I want to explore in this chapter. It resonates with the significant level of influence attributed to local forces in Vietnam studies. For example, Adam Fforde (1989) finds that villagers turned statesponsored agricultural cooperatives into protective layers shielding them from central government intervention. Benedict Kerkvliet (1995) suggests that local resistance against collective agriculture was a primary cause of decollectivization. I use the findings of in-depth research on land allocation in Black Thai villages of northwestern Vietnam to explore the relations between central and local governments. My inquiry into local–central state relations was prompted by the observation that land allocation had exerted virtually no effect on land relations in the villages. Villagers had resisted land allocation vigorously, employing various forms of everyday and open resistance.4 They wanted to retain the land distribution that they had developed locally in the early 1990s, in the wake of decollectivization. District cadres had in response Local Government in the Exercise of State Power 169© 2004 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore accommodated their demands, not only by ignoring apparent discrepancies between land legislation and local practice, but also by not implementing key elements of the new policy. My findings suggest that cadres had accommodated villagers’ requests because horizontal linkages within the district were stronger than the vertical linkages between district and central authorities. Also, district cadres shared ethnic identity and notions of legitimate authority over land with local villagers. Finally, villagers and cadres had prior historical experience of significant levels of...


Subject Headings

  • Local government -- Vietnam.
  • Vietnam -- Politics and government -- 20th century.
  • Decentralization in government -- Vietnam.
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