They were alarmed by Vice Defense Minister Do Ba Ty's July letter to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. He directed the center not to expand further and to find an alternate site in partnership with local officials. He wrote that the Chat Dau Valley is of "strategic importance to national defense."
"The expansion of the bear rescue center in this valley will have direct impact on military projects," the letter said, according to a copy given to the Associated Press by the sanctuary's nonprofit operator, Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation. The letter did not explain why the land was of strategic importance.
Seven Democratic U.S. representatives urged Dung to protect the sanctuary in a Nov. 5 letter. "The claim that the land is an area of national defense significance is questionable," they said, noting that the bear center has operated since 2005 and the park has welcomed tourism since 1996. The lead signer was Rep. Sam Farr of California.
Animals Asia says an eviction would leave 104 rescued bears homeless and waste its $2 million investment, which was funded entirely by international foundations, corporations and private donors. It says after an initial trial period, the prime minister in 2008 approved its plan to build facilities on about 11 hectares (27 acres) inside the roughly 39,000-hectare park, and that the center has so far expanded to half those 11 hectares.
The group rescued bears that were being used to produce bear bile, which has historically been used in China and other Asian countries to treat fevers, pain, inflammation and other ailments. Bears are typically captured in forests and transported to farms, where the green bile is sucked from their gall bladders in a painful process that sometimes kills them.
In recent weeks, Animals Asia has waged a public relations campaign alleging park director Do Dinh Tien has a personal stake in an ecotourism venture proposed for the park by the Hanoi company Truong Giang Group.
Animals Asia's Vietnam director, Tuan Bendixsen, said he believes the ecotourism project would be built on the undeveloped half of the bear center's 11 hectares. Documents show the company in March sent a team of surveyors to evaluate that parcel and other park land for development.
"He wants to take half the land, and he can't get it, and that's why he's creating all this trouble for us," Bendixsen said of the park director.
In September 2011, Do Dinh Tien asked the agriculture ministry to approve separate plans by three companies, including Truong Giang, to develop ecotourism in Tam Dao's national park, according to documents given to the AP.
Documents show that days earlier, Truong Giang had asked Tien for permission to lease 48 hectares of land in Tam Dao for an "ecological tourism and entertainment project." Truong Giang's registration papers list Tien's daughter, Do Thi Ngan, as one of its four shareholders.
Ngan and officials at the agriculture and defense ministries declined to comment.
In an interview, Tien declined to discuss his daughter's relationship to the company, saying he has not yet discussed the matter with her. But he insisted he has never lobbied for the company's interests.
"From my perspective, the bear center can go ahead if it follows procedures," Tien said recently at park headquarters. "But I can't speak for the Ministry of Defense."
State media say the agriculture ministry is working with the central government to resolve the dispute. The prime minister has final say over the bear center's fate.
National Assembly Deputy Duong Trung Quoc was quoted by online newspaper Vietnamnet Wednesday as saying evicting the bear center could anger the international community.
"It would do harm to our country's image," he said.