Erik Harms, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Yale University

Rights Gone Wrong on Saigon’s Edge

This paper discusses the story of Ho Chi Minh City residents who have been evicted from their homes in order to make way for a new master-planned urban development called the Thủ Thiêm New Urban Zone. Facing eviction, residents mobilized a strong and unambiguous language of “rights” to support their cause. On one level, their example clearly shows how an emerging “rights consciousness” can inspire new forms of agency and collective action. But on another level, I show how this emergent rights consciousness has also operated as a fetish that distracts many residents from achieving tangible goals. By focusing on property value, legal documents, petitions, and other artefacts central to the bureaucratic expression of rights, residents have participated in the proliferation of abstract rights that are not in fact realized in practice. In the Thủ Thiêm case, after the dust settled and the bulldozers finally retreated, these residents found themselves dispossessed from house and home. Their evictions were made final at precisely the moment that they had so forcefully managed to understand themselves as rights-bearing subjects.

Erik Harms is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Yale University, specializing in Southeast Asia and Vietnam.  Since 2000, he has conducted urban anthropological research in repeated visits to Ho Chi Minh City, where he has focused on the social and cultural effects of rapid urbanization on the city's fringes. His first book, Saigon’s Edge: On the Margins of Ho Chi Minh City (University of Minnesota Press), is a study of periurban social life, and his published articles have explored the social and political transformation of Vietnamese urban life. Harms recently completed a book called Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in the New Saigon (University of California Press) about the demolition and reconstruction of the urban landscape in two of Ho Chi Minh City’s New Urban Zones.

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