By Stuart Grudgings
HANOI (Reuters) - Farmer Le Dung and his fellow villagers stockpiled rocks and petrol bombs to battle police trying to take over their land for a luxury property development near Vietnam's capital city.
But their most powerful weapon turned out to be the equipment they had set up with the help of Internet activists to record and broadcast the confrontation, which was ignored by state-controlled media.
Within hours of the fight on a clear April morning, video of several thousand police firing tear gas and beating farmers in the Van Giang district just east of Hanoi had gone viral.
The unlikely alliance between farmers and urban Internet activists illustrates a rapidly evolving challenge to the Communist government's authority as Vietnamese grow bolder in their protests over issues ranging from land rights to corruption and China's expanding regional influence.
Vietnam has responded with a crackdown on bloggers that has earned it the title of "Enemy of the Internet" from media freedom group Reporters Without Borders, which says only China and Iran jail more journalists.
Censors in the one-party state routinely block Facebook and other social networking sites, although a nimble Web activist community often finds ways around them, illustrating the enormous challenge facing the government in a country where a third of the 88 million population is online.
"At first we didn't understand how it could help us but now we see the value. Our struggle was published to the world," said Le Dung, who fought in Vietnam's 1979 war against China, as he sat under a framed picture of late Communist leader Ho Chi Minh.
"If we hadn't used the Internet the authorities may have killed us; now they know they have to be careful."
The Van Giang incident and other land disputes covered by bloggers have triggered an unusually heated national debate over how the government should reform Vietnam's land laws before the expiry of farmers' 20-year public land leases in 2013.
Rapid economic growth has put pressure on farmers as industrial estates, houses, and roads have expanded, leading to a rash of violent land conflicts. Farmers complain the compensation offers for their land are far too low from companies that often have ties to influential politicians.
Fish farmer Doan Van Vuon was catapulted to hero status early this year after he organized armed resistance to local authorities trying to take over his land near Hai Phong city, a case that was covered by official media as well as bloggers.
CHINA RESENTMENT SPURS BLOGGERS
Bloggers are linking land with other causes they say have a common theme -- a government that is beholden to powerful economic interests and unresponsive to popular demands.
"The blogging movement is growing stronger," said Nguyen Van Dai, a lawyer and rights activist who was jailed for four years for using the Internet to call for democracy and who remains under a loose form of house arrest in Hanoi.
"The government can't keep secrets like it could before."
One influential activist, who goes by the pseudonym Boris and works at a state-owned firm, helped educate the farmers at Van Giang about their rights and taught them how to send pictures and videos through cellphones. Although about 1,000 families there have so far failed to stop the 500-hectare Ecopark project, Boris said wide publicity from the incident had prevented other land developers going ahead with similar plans.
Boris, who boasts he could bring 1,000 people onto Hanoi's streets at a day's notice, said he had also played a key role in organizing regular protests against China's territorial goals in the South China Sea -- a claim backed by other bloggers. The government allowed anti-China protests to go ahead last year, but soon clamped down on them after it became clear they could be a lightning rod for broader discontent.
Some activists exhibit a boldness that is startling, considering the stiff jail terms that have been handed down to others for "anti-government propaganda".
Alfonso Le, a 42-year-old blogger who writes the "Homeland Arise" blog, spoke to Reuters at a tiny Hanoi cafe within earshot of a green-uniformed police officer across the room.
"Now that social networks are more popular, it's not so easy for the police to arrest people," said Le, using his Facebook nickname. "If the police make trouble, I just send a status message on Facebook and a lot of people will come."
His activism has come at a price. He said he has been arrested three times and divorced his wife after she gave information to the police.
Another blogger, who asked not to be identified, also occupies the world of tolerated blogging. She believes she is safe as long as her writing stays within certain "red lines". In her blog, a protest march might be described as a "parade" or a "walk".
Still, she is sometimes followed by police and was arrested at an anti-China protest this month and kept for a day at a rehabilitation camp for "drug users and prostitutes".
"They (the authorities) are scared to death after what has happened in Burma and the Arab Spring," she said.
Former military officer Le Thanh Tung became the latest online activist to be punished this month, receiving a five-year sentence after a trial that lasted an hour, according to Reporters Without Borders. That came less than a week after blogger Dinh Dang Dinh was handed a six-year sentence.
The trial of three other high-profile bloggers was postponed this month after the mother of one of them committed suicide by setting herself on fire.
Washington has voiced concern to Vietnam over a proposed new decree that would require Internet users to register with their real names, enabling the government to track its online critics more easily.
But Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said the government's attempts to control the Internet were probably futile given the web's deep penetration and bloggers' talent for sidestepping technological barriers.
Vietnam has among the world's fastest-growing rates of Internet use, according to market-research firm Cimigo.
Internet penetration in Hanoi and the southern commercial capital Ho Chi Minh City has risen above 50 percent.
"It is a battle I don't think the Vietnamese government is going to win," Thayer said.
The thorny problem of land rights, which goes to the heart of the Communist Party's legitimacy in its traditional power base of more than 10 million farmers, is where the bloggers have had the biggest impact.
In the wake of the Van Giang and Hai Phong violence, some lawmakers and academics have called for private land ownership to help protect farmers -- an unthinkable proposal until recently in a country where the state's ownership of all land is enshrined in the constitution.
Nguyen Duc Kien, the vice chairman of the National Assembly's economic committee, told Reuters the country's Land Law would be revised and that farmers would be allowed to remain on their land after 2013. Literally interpreted, the current law allows the state to take back farms without any compensation at the end of the lease period.
"Land is an issue that is a potential cause of tension in society," he said.
Nguyen's and other comments from officials have convinced blogger activists that the leases will be extended, although that in itself will not resolve the problem of land grabs by private developers backed by the state.
"The bloggers were a big part of that," said the blogger Le. "We told a different side of the story. We showed that the ruling party's words don't match its actions."
(Editing by Jason Szep and Paul Tait)