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North / South

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Saigon in 1965. A propaganda poster in the city centre exalts people to "Unite, to defend the South and liberate the North!" Photo courtesy: Warren G. Reed Collection.
  • The Vietnamese would like to thank the author, Mr. Will Nguyen, who has given us permission to republish his article, North/South, which was first published in New Naratif.

April 30, 2018|I’ve always been into the idea of counterparts—“separate but equal”, to borrow the politically dangerous phrase. Captain PlanetSailor MoonThe Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers—these shows were always particular favourites of mine as a child because each contained an episode or arc where analogues to the good guys arose: Captain Pollution and his team of toxic “planeteers”, the Four Sisters of the Black Moon, or the Dark Rangers. I find the inherent sense of balance in counterparts intensely satisfying, like yin-yang writ large.

As I’ve grown older, this affinity for correlates extended to international politics, in particular, ideologically-opposed, directionally-split countries, i.e. North and South Korea, or East and West Germany.

The time when the modern Vietnamese nation-state existed as two separate entities naturally possesses a particular gravity in my mind, as I’m sure it does in the minds of many overseas Vietnamese. After all, that pair’s existence, its mutual antagonism, and one’s annihilation of the other is single-handedly responsible for the dispersal of Vietnamese people across the globe, a burst of human photons in one of many collisions between communism and anti-communism.

I was born in America; unbeknownst to me at the time, all the Vietnamese I ever encountered were former citizens of the Republic of Vietnam (i.e. South Vietnam) or as I’d known it, Vietnam. There was no alternative, no other. The yellow flag with three red stripes were ubiquitous and the only representation of Vietnam I knew.

The “right” and “wrong” anthem

Encarta Encyclopedia 97 provided me the first hint of another truth, of another “Vietnam” – the “evil” one, I would quickly learn. I remember doing a project in fifth grade which required us to produce a “country profile” on a nation of our choosing. I referred to the CD-ROM encyclopedia and, without giving it much thought, copied out the red flag with yellow star, Vietnam’s official flag as listed within the country’s entry.

My grandmother was the first to “correct” me, scolding me as Encarta played “Tiến Quân Ca”, the national anthem of North Vietnam from 1945-1975, and after the war, the official one of all Vietnam. That was not the “real” anthem, she told me. The information in that article was “wrong”. When I asked her what the real anthem was, she hummed “Tiếng Gọi Công Dân” – the national anthem of South Vietnam from 1948–1975 – a tune I was much more familiar with.

As I finished up my project, I asked my mother to look over my work. What she did, whether intentional or not, resounds with me to this day. Rather than make me remove my drawing of the yellow-starred red flag, she had me draw South Vietnam’s red-striped yellow flag next to it, presenting both flags as equally valid.

It took me at least another two decades to realise this, but my mother’s simple gesture was both an extremely powerful teaching moment and a representation of my intellectual angst with the overseas Vietnamese identity. It was my first taste of the concept of contradictory but co-existing truths.

Growing up, I never gave that distant land of Vietnam too much thought; the framework for that place and its people had been set up for me. We (the southerners) were the good guys; they (the northerners) were the bad. Everything we said was true; everything they said was lies. I never wondered why we were the ones living in another country.

College, membership in an active Vietnamese student association, and a kind-hearted Vietnamese professor ushered in a new era of knowledge for me. I began taking my first steps toward balance, and further steps towards the truth… or rather, truths.

North to South

In Vietnam, “nam tiến”, literally meaning “march to the south”, refers to the expansion of Vietnam southwards, from the Red River Delta down to the Mekong River Delta. This development shapes Vietnam’s long-standing stereotypes between northerners and southerners. Contrary to people who like to compare the shape of Vietnam to a bamboo yoke or the letter ‘S’, I like to think of the state in more metaphysical terms: a past-oriented north that flows to a future-oriented south.

Photo courtesy: Wikipedia.

 

The Red River Delta is held up as the “birthplace” of Vietnam, the traditional seat of culture and politics. The northern region and its people are perceived as conservative, ascetic, and prone to resource and food shortages. This has bred a northern character that prizes resilience, indirect communication, the concept of “face” (linked to the concept of one’s honour and prestige), and a muted cuisine that uses fewer herbs and spices.

As the state advanced into Cham and Khmer territory, a separate centre of power began developing in the south, attracting those drawn to “frontier” life and a multi-cultured existence. By virtue of self-selection, Vietnam’s expansion south drew the free-wheeling, the forward-looking, the liberal, the cosmopolitan. The south was more abundant in food and resources; Saigon – formerly known by its Khmer name Prey Nokor and currently by its Sino-Vietnamese name Ho Chi Minh City – drew traders from the world over, and life was on the whole, easier and more prosperous.

These historical circumstances have defined what it means to be a southerner: we speak with a relaxed drawl and in a straightforward manner, we cook flavourful, vivacious, eclectic dishes, and we possess a progressive, open outlook that embraces global trends. It was no surprise that the south Vietnamese eagerly adopted American dress, customs, and culture during the 1950s – 1970s.

But it isn’t just a matter of character traits and cuisine; regionalism in its extreme form has repeatedly led to Vietnamese killing Vietnamese. Historian Huy Duc describes Vietnam as a home “whose walls are made of flesh and blood”. It’s not just a metaphor.

North versus South

A civil war in the 17th century proved to be an eerie foreshadowing of events three centuries later. The north and the south were split into two separate polities: “Đàng Ngoài” and “Đàng Trong”, literally the “outside” and the “inside”. The Trinh lords ruled over the north, the Nguyen lords the south. In 1802, the southern Nguyen lords ultimately triumphed over their northern Trinh rivals, uniting the country under its Southern aegis. Inklings of this contentious period still remain in our language: to this day, Vietnamese still say they are going “out” to Hanoi and “into” Saigon.

The 20th-century civil war between North and South was a reverse iteration. The 1954 Geneva Accords split Vietnam into directional counterparts once more – a communist north versus a democratic south – with nationwide elections set to unify the country in two years’ time. Ho Chi Minh was predicted to win. Knowing this, Ngo Dinh Diem declared the formation of an independent southern republic that technically was not signatory to the Geneva Accords and thus un-beholden. The United States supported the non-communist South Vietnamese government, pouring in financial aid. The northern victory in the Vietnam War in 1975 unified the country once more, but different perspectives persist. Depending on who you talk to, 30 April 1975 – the day the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong captured Saigon – is described either as a liberation or an invasion.

Depending on who you talk to, 30 April 1975 is described either as a liberation or an invasion

My mother regularly reminds me I’m from the south. When I first began taking Vietnamese language classes in college and started pronouncing my v’s, qu’s, and final consonant n’s, she and my eldest aunt jested that I’d “become a northerner”. In class, I quickly learned that much of the Vietnamese I spoke at home was heavily marked by southern vocabulary used pre-1975. The enormous amount of South Vietnamese who had transplanted themselves in the 1970s and 1980s had led to the creation of communities that were essentially living time capsules.

The southernness of my spoken Vietnamese comes and goes depending on how inebriated I am, but the pride is palpable. On the first day of my advanced Vietnamese class at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences in Ho Chi Minh City in 2012, the professor asked me where I was from – “Will là người gì?”

Without thinking, I responded, “Will là người nam (I’m a Southerner).”

Taken aback but pleasantly surprised, the professor said that, in her 30 years of teaching, she’d never heard such a response from a “foreign-born”. I quickly corrected myself – “Will là người Mỹ gốc Việt (I’m a Vietnamese-American)” – but the identity ambiguity persists.

Conversations

My investigation of the history between the north and south often involved prodding fellow southerners with sensitive topics. Once, I asked my Vietnamese professor in college in the United States about one of the war’s alternate names in Vietnam – “Chiến tranh chống Mỹ cứu nước (The war to resist America and save the nation)” – which heavily implied that we southern Vietnamese were imperialist collaborators. (For the record, the first South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem, and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were both assassinated with tacit American support for not being compliant enough.) It was a mind-blowing experience to later see the phrase in propaganda posters on the streets of Saigon.

I had, of course, to thoroughly research the other side as well; I read numerous books and watched countless interviews from individuals on the Communist side, both those based in Hanoi as well as those hidden away in the jungles of South Vietnam.

On my first trip to Vietnam in the summer of 2007, I took liberties during my research project on gay culture in Saigon to randomly ask locals their thoughts on the war, on life post-1975, on their current government.

A propaganda poster displayed in Da Nang. Similar posters can be found in Ho Chi Minh City and other Vietnamese cities. By Dragfyre [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

“These colorful billboards… on every corner. They’re so strange, aren’t they?” That was how I broached the topic with the motorcycle drivers. Casual. Open-ended. The propaganda signs, with their blocky, solid-colored, Soviet-style imagery, were a genuine curiosity to me. They were government-sanctioned, overtly political signs, exalting the Communist Party’s leadership in history, in the South’s “liberation”, in developing a “modern”, civilised Vietnam. And they were literally everywhere. As we drove by the myriad signs peppered around the city, I would use the occasion to ask the moto-drivers their opinions of the political status quo.

“They’re a bunch of liars.”

“They don’t really care about the people.”

As one driver zoomed past a particularly large mansion, he told me that it was the residence of a prominent Communist Party member. There was a consistent sense of cynicism among these working class motorists.

An older, southern woman’s story was particularly interesting, as she was old enough to have experienced the “liberation” and the years that followed. I met her through a family friend of my mother’s. (My mother had been terrified for my safety; I was the first family member to return to Vietnam since they fled, and I would be traveling completely alone as the child of a “collaborating” family.)

Upon arriving at the house, I was impressed by how large and modern it was. It had granite countertops, hardwood floors, and classic, imposing cherrywood furniture. This was luxury by Vietnamese standards; with at least four motorcycles sitting in the spacious courtyard, it was clear this family was relatively well off.

Auntie and I were sitting in the living room having a casual chat about our families, when the conversation turned to what life was like immediately after 30 April 1975.

At this point, she got up to close all the doors and windows, drawing the curtains. She whispered for the rest of the conversation. Her family had been businesspeople during the Republican era, accumulating a good deal of wealth. After the Communists came to town, local party members, aware of the family’s affluence, found an excuse to confiscate the house. It was impossible to dispute the move, so the family decided to work within the new system, establishing enough political connections to eventually reclaim the house within a decade or so. There was a healthy dose of disdain for the powers-that-be in her stories, but her family’s resilience, tenacity, and resourcefulness overshadowed all else for me. It was an injustice corrected through cunning manipulation of an alien political system. That she was still paranoid about being overheard 20 years later speaks volumes of the pervasive and oppressive surveillance state the Vietnamese live under.

A different perspective came in the form of a Northern shopkeep at a propaganda poster shop. She’d noticed my many visits to her shop, and figuring out that I was Việt Kiều (overseas Vietnamese), took the initiative to engage me in conversation about history and politics.

I was taken aback but excited by her friendliness and eagerness to help me understand Vietnam. She told me to ask her anything I wanted. Aware that I was part of a Southern family that had fled after the war, she knew I’d been served a healthy dose of skepticism regarding Communism and the current political regime, and tried her best to argue for the other side. She’d moved to Ho Chi Minh City, she said, after its liberation.

“When you work against the victors, you are naturally apprehensive when they arrive”

I got straight to the prickly issues. Why had so many people from the South fled? What of the re-education camps? How can the powers-that-be call the current system “democratic” when there’s only one party in charge?

“People fled because they feared retribution,” she said. “When you work against the victors, you are naturally apprehensive when they arrive.”

The re-education camps, she went to on say, were not all that bad: “The ones I visited even had nice gardens and flower beds. And in any case, you have to understand the situation that the new government was in. You had an entire population grow up under an enemy’s regime. When you come to power, you have to make sure this group cooperates, you have to make sure this group is educated in the ways of the new regime.”

Her answers started to waver, though, when it came to the current “democratic” system. “We have elections. We have voting. We have representatives who form a national assembly,” she said.

“Yeah, but all that stuff doesn’t really matter when you can only pick representatives from one party,” I argued back. “If everyone is forced to follow the same ideology, the same ideas, choice is a moot point. True democracy involves multiple parties.” She disagreed, insisting that because the organs existed, democracy existed in Vietnam.

Conviction and democracy

To be sure, truth is a sensitive topic on both sides; I’d had just grown up entrenched in the anti-communist camp rather than the anti-capitalist one. Various attempts to remedy the situation have led to some rather awkward moments. I remember a conversation between my aunt and my mother where my mother said she had to give credit to the Communist government for keeping the country together and growing the economy at an appreciable clip, but my aunt quickly retorted that my uncle – who had served in the South Vietnamese army – would have maimed her if he heard her talking like that.

I’m still researching today, adopting a less polarised, more nuanced approach to the war and its competing ideologies than perhaps my mother would like. During a BBC interview, southerner Nguyen Thi Binh, former foreign minister of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam and prominent Communist figure at the Paris Peace Accords, was asked for her thoughts on Vietnamese dissidents and their desire for a better nation. She retorted: “How are they any different from me?”

The dichotomy of “good versus evil” had been so deeply ingrained in the narratives of north and south that, until I heard that comment, I’d never really thought of it that way. These people, these Communists, laid down their lives for their ideals, for their country, and perhaps most meaningfully, for their countrymen. Can, or should, we cynically believe that those who fought on the northern side sacrificed the spring of their lives, and sometimes their lives altogether, simply to gain power at the expense of their fellow Vietnamese?

What, on the other hand, was the South fighting for? Trudging through American history books, one would be hard-pressed to find any real, fleshed-out answer beyond “the domino theory”, a theory that argued that the fall of one country to Communism would lead to a domino effect among its neighbours. Reading such material, it was hard not to buy into the (Hanoian) idea that South Vietnam was a propped-up American creation. In fact, the more I researched, the more I realised that it was a deep sense of ambivalence among the southern population that lead to South Vietnam’s embarrassingly quick demise.

When asked why they were fighting and what they were fighting for, South Vietnamese soldiers often turned out not to be very firm believers in their own cause. Boots and uniforms stripped off and abandoned in place by soldiers deserting on 30 April 1975 testify to that fact.

The wartime South Vietnamese population might not have been able to answer the question of “what are we fighting for?”, but the next few decades of economic mismanagement and political oppression after unification would provide a resounding answer, especially for those not able to escape the country.

By the early 2010s, after nearly a decade of research and reading, my viewpoint had matured from “acknowledge that our side may have been ‘wrong’, and then find out what happened on both sides” to “never lose sight of the fact that democracy as the South attempted to espouse it trumps the totalitarian communism adopted by the North.” Both were foreign, imposed ideologies, and the fact that one conquered the other has no bearing on virtue. As the Vietnamese author and political dissident Duong Thu Huong so eloquently put it: “Beauty does not always triumph.”

Though film and media are thoroughly dominated by northerners, southern defiance is coming to the surface. “We only learn how to cherish things when we’ve already lost them,” the 2017 trailer of Cô Ba Sài Gòn (The Tailor) begins. The southern voiceover is immediately followed by a close-up of Saigon’s city hall, with the camera focused squarely on the flagpole – there the flag of South Vietnam flutters. Yellow with three red stripes. It is subtle but perceivable for those who look for it.

But of course, if that is too subtle for you, you can always rewind a few seconds and there staring you in the face from the very moment the trailer starts is the flag on the áo dài. The tailor’s hand gently caresses a swath of yellow with three red stripes. Genuinely ask yourself if this is all coincidence. Of all the patterns in the world that the filmmakers could have featured on the dress, why this one? And why does the voiceover make the statements she does as this pattern is displayed?

A slow zoom-out, followed by shots of economic prosperity and vibrant displays of traditional áo dài to emphasise the blossoming of Vietnamese culture under a “fascist”, “puppet” regime. That these scenes managed to make it onto the big screen directly undermines the communist narrative of Saigon needing to be “liberated”. A particularly salient question asked among dissidents, both in and outside the country, is “who liberated whom?” Did the impoverished North really liberate the wealthier South? Or was it the other way around? Moreover, what exactly did the South need liberating from? A comfortable, prosperous, peaceful life?

The film champions the preservation of the áo dài – the traditional Vietnamese outfit – over Western fashions in 1960s Saigon, but the subversive message, wrapped in the garb of an innocent movie about fashion, is unmistakable. For South Vietnam, the loss is more political than cultural: no longer do citizens possess freedom, democracy, and a vibrant civil society. Even if imperfectly practised in South Vietnam, greater freedom of expression brought prosperity and a society of better quality than what Vietnam has today. Many Vietnamese, unable to express dissatisfaction with the status quo at the ballot box, vote with their feet. Leaving the country is the dream for those who have means to do so; Hanoi readily acknowledges that Vietnam suffers from brain drain.

Even so, it must be acknowledged that the war was a manifestation of North and South both wanting the best for the Vietnamese people while choosing drastically different paths. It would be unforgivably cynical to believe otherwise, to view either government as monolithic entities not made of Vietnamese individuals who loved their country. The root of the conflict stemmed from both sides competing to be the only good. Both the North and the South had causes they believed to be just – a fact which native and overseas Vietnamese have yet to fully accept.

On paper and in diplomatic circles, there is only one “true” Vietnam. Although the Republic of Vietnam ceased to exist after 30 April 1975, it lives on in the hearts and minds of millions of Vietnamese who abhor communist totalitarianism. It lives on in its enforced absence within Vietnam’s national discourse. A silent, de facto ban of the yellow flag with three red stripes, of any positive mention of the southern republic, of anything related to the former state is, in a way, perpetuating South Vietnam’s existence. And if history is any indication, the South remembers.

About the Author:

  WILL NGUYEN

Will Nguyen considers himself a “Schrödinger’s cat” of East and West. He is Vietnamese or American, depending on who’s looking. Will graduated from Yale University in 2008, with a Bachelor’s in East Asian Studies. He is currently completing his Master in Public Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (NUS), where he has pursued topics of Vietnamese history, culture, and politics.

Opinion-Section

Vietnam: Social Media Successfully Forced Government To Leave Traditional Fish Sauce Alone (For Now)

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Traditional fish sauce production. Photo credits: baonghean.vn

Social media in Vietnam carries quite a force when it comes to having a say in public affairs, and the government is well aware of that. The effect of the new cybersecurity law of 2018 and its attempt to reign in the people’s power remain to be seen. However, the vibrant online civic space in Vietnam just recently proved how effective it could be in fighting against illogical and unreasonable governmental regulations.

This time, it was all about the fish sauce which for the majority of Vietnamese people, could very well be the essence of their souls. If anything could cause an uprising in the country, interference with the people’s consumption of their fish sauce might very well be it.

Three years ago, when the disastrous Formosa marine pollution erupted, the fear of not being able to have a safe supply of fish and salt (the main ingredients for making the fish sauce) prompted thousands of Vietnamese to take to the streets.

So for this reason alone, one would assume that it must take a very gutsy governmental department to take on a fight against the producers of this national treasure.

To everyone’s surprise, the Bureau of Production and Market Development for Agriculture Produce (Bureau) in Vietnam emerged in early March 2019 as the one who was willing to put on the hat of such a fierce fighter.

The Bureau proposed a new set of rules and regulations, detailing the practical steps that all who wish to produce fish sauce in the country must follow.

This particular bureau might have underestimated the outrage from not only the fish sauce producers but also the Vietnamese people at large when the proposed regulation went public.

It could partly be that the making of fish sauce is quite diverse and supposedly done according to the unique traditions and techniques in each region in Vietnam.

Similarly, not many of us would imagine instructing all French winemakers how their bottles of wine should be made or telling the whole Italian cheesemakers that they must follow their government’s detailed steps to produce their mozzarella.

More importantly, for years, the traditional fish sauce producers in Vietnam have been fighting against a few large food corporations who had created a monopoly which mass-produced not fish sauce, but its substitutes.

It turned out that there were two kinds of sauce involved in this battle.

The traditional fish sauce is organically made from fish and salt, and it takes longer to yield the final products.

The other is a chemically induced sauce that may smell like fish sauce but catered to an entirely different taste.

This non-traditional fish sauce substitutes, however, have dominated the market in Vietnam during the past two decades because they are considerably cheaper.

Nevertheless, the traditional fish sauce continues to survive throughout this battle even though their products cost more than those manufactured by the big factories.

Perhaps, because, in recent years, Vietnamese people begin to favor the traditional taste both for health reasons and for protecting the keepsake of their national identity.

I remember this one time when attending college in California, as I was passing by an apartment complex near my school, I suddenly felt the presence of my motherland and nostalgically yearned for my mama’s cooking while the distinctive aroma filled the air from one of the studios.

I am probably not alone in having such an experience where one associates fish sauce with memories of her homeland, making it an essential part of who she is.

And there it went, in the last few weeks, the Vietnamese people were not shy in expressing themselves on social media and letting the government knows that they were firmly against the proposal to regulate the traditional fish sauce’s production.

Their outpouring anger was enough for the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology to quickly announce on March 12, 2019, that the proposed regulation for fish sauce production would be halted indefinitely.

But the abrupt halt did not calm down the public and the traditional fish sauce producers. For the people, the attempted regulation seemed to disproportionately favor one corporation in particular, Masan Group, who had dominated the fish sauce substitutes market in Vietnam.

Almost three years ago, the traditional fish sauce producers had suffered a different attack from another controversy allegedly concocted by a Public Relations firm – T&A Ogilvy – who worked with major food corporations, including Masan.

Back in December 2016, mass media in Vietnam picked up a story from the survey sponsored by T&A Ogilvy where it claimed that 95% of all fish sauce samples collected nationwide contained an alarming amount of arsenic content.

The story was later proven to be entirely false, and the Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, himself ordered an inquiry into the survey’s claims. Nevertheless, the traditional fish sauce producers already suffered losses when consumers panicked and avoided consumption.

This time around, the Vietnamese public seemed to believe that the latest proposed governmental regulation just proved that Masan would not give up on this ambitious dream of becoming the only producer for fish sauce in the country and that the government chose to stay on the corporation’s side.

Because fish sauce is not only a staple in many people’s diet but also a part of their identity, they came to doubt the government’s actual intention for attempting to regulate the production of such caused them.

On social media, people alleged that this whole incident just showcased the intricately entwined relationship between the Vietnamese government and the conglomerates – such as Masan Group.

To have such an allegation coming from its people should be a worrying sign for a regime that has been trying to maintain its dwindling legitimacy like Vietnam. And while the battle is not quite finished, social media will continue to be the much needed civic space for Vietnamese people to voice their concerns and exercise their rights.

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Opinion-Section

Vietnam-China Border War 1979: When Vietnamese People Refused To Forget

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The people's symbol for Remembering the Border War: "Sim flower" - a type of rose myrtle - in Vietnamese literature and music often is being associated with loyalty in a relationship, a type of "forget-me-not" flower. 

Foreigners often assume – wrongfully – that the last war the Vietnamese people remember fighting was the one where the Americans were involved.

It is not.

Foreigners also often do not fully understand why a large number of Vietnamese people would protest when China acts aggressively in the Southeast Asian Sea or South (of) China Sea.

Is it because the Chinese colonized us Vietnamese for one thousand years and continuously fought us during our entire history?

It is not, not entirely.

It is true that from our earliest history until this century, China’s aggression towards us has never ceased to exist.

But, we were forced to resist primarily because our government in the past almost three decades, as it attempted to be closer to their ideological big brother, tried to blur our past conflicts with China.

We were forced to remember because we felt that there has been an attempt to erase this collective memory from us.

Ever since Vietnam signed a treaty with China to end the decade long Border War after their secret negotiations in Chengdu in 1990, our history books spent only a few paragraphs discussing the recent battles between us and China.

Until very recently, writing about China’s aggression and the bloody history between the two countries in the 20th century was strictly forbidden by the Propaganda Central Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP).

Those journalists and bloggers – such as Osin Huy Duc, Pham Doan Trang, Mother Mushroom, The Wind Trader, and Trung Bao – who dared to lead the way almost a decade ago on writing about the restricted contents have paid a hefty price. For some of them, their professional life ended, and for some others: jail time.

The people’s attempts to commemorate these battles and those who died were faced with arrest, detention and physical assaults by our police force every year.

Remembering the dead during the anniversary of their passing – or Ngày Giỗ – is a staple ritual in the Vietnamese culture.

Remembering those who had given up their lives to protect our lands is seen as a responsibility which the people expect from their government.

When our government chose silence over commemorating those who died to protect our sovereignty, as Vietnamese, we refused to forget.

We refused to forget the 74 soldiers of the Republic of South Vietnam’s naval force whom we lost in the battle of January 19, 1974 – the day China invaded Paracels Island.

We refused to forget the 68 soldiers from the People’s Army of Vietnam who died resisting China’s attack at the Johnson South Reef on March 14, 1988, in the Spratly Islands.

And every February, we could not forget the most gruesome memory of the massacre in the Northern provinces during the Border War of 1979, which many witnesses could still recall today.

We saw the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the VCP has trenched in the blood of innocent lives.

Thousands of Vietnamese people and soldiers died at the hands of the Chinese PLA during the Border War.

One research paper entitled China’s War Against Vietnam, 1979: A Military Analysis conducted in 1982 by King C. Chen and published by the School of Law of the University of Maryland in 1983, had estimated that each side lost about 30,000 soldiers from February 17, 1979, to March 5, 1979.

Vietnam estimated the number of lives it had lost during the Border War was around 60,000 people.

Has it not been for the internet that was roaming free in Vietnam since the early 2000s until now, the younger generations of Vietnamese would not be able to learn about our history.

It was also because of the internet, Vietnamese people learned about the Tiananmen massacre, and the plight of the Tibetans and the Uyghurs under China’s occupation.

We fear the day that Vietnam would be the next Tibet or East Turkestan if China’s aggression continues.

When our National Assembly tried to pass the Special Economic Zones in June 2018, our government reaffirmed this worst fear that Vietnam could be under the direct control of the most terrible dictatorship in the world.

Naturally, thousands of people turned to the streets as they did in 2007/2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and so forth.

The June 2018 protest, however, was estimated to be the most massive demonstration in contemporary Vietnam’s history after April 1975, and it was not organized by any groups of dissidents.

It was probably an automatic response to China’s aggression, a force of resistance that might have been ingrained in most of our genetic makeups.

The majority of Vietnamese people do distinguish the CCP as the main culprit, not all people of Chinese descent.

In 2014, there were reports of riots burning down Chinese-owned factory, but the identities of those rioters were dubious to the public.

Some suspected that the “riots” was part of the police’s tactic to suppress the peaceful demonstration against China for bringing their oil rig – Haiyang 981 – into Vietnam’s waters at the time.

Regardless, Vietnamese people quickly denounced the riots, as well as any call for violence against Chinese people and their property.

This year, 2019, it was the first time that all of Vietnam’s major newspapers published the detailed historical events to commemorate the February 1979 Border War with China.

However, few trusted that our government has truly meant to give the dead their well-earned respect after 40 years.

Last night, a document stamped “Secret” was circulating Facebook in Vietnam, allegedly came from the VCP’s leaders in Ho Chi Minh City, asking the local authorities to not letting self-organized groups – such as the Le Hieu Dang Club – to organize their events commemorating February 17, 1979.

This morning, social media reported that the local police forces were arresting dissidents who went to Ly Thai To statue in Hanoi and Tran Hung Dao statue in Ho Chi Minh City to commemorate the event.

Among the arrested were blogger Anh Chi Tuyen (Nguyen Chi Tuyen), poet Phan Dang Lu, Facebookers Dang Bich Phuong, Le Hong Hanh, and Hong Ha.

The people often chose the statues of Ly and Tran as the commemorating locations because they were our national heroes who fought off the “enemies from the North” in our history.

In Ho Chi Minh City, the local authorities were quite “creative” when they used a forklift to take away the giant incense burner (lư hương) so that no one could offer the incense to the dead, effectively stopping any commemoration activity at once.

While the good faith of our government again was being called into question today, February 17, 1979, had already become a historical event that the contemporary Vietnamese memorialized because we, the people, refused to forget.

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Opinion-Section

Not Just Football, Some Vietnamese Do Care About Human Rights, Political Pluralism, and Democracy

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Vietnamese CSO's representatives at UPR pre-session. Photo Courtesy: UPR Info

Throughout 2018 and up until yesterday, January 24, 2019, the world continued to witness Vietnamese people’s love of football exploded, and the South Korean coach, Park Hang-seo, solidified his status as the country’s new, de-facto national hero.

Images of people stormed the streets or “đi bão” – literally means “ride the storm” in Vietnamese – across major cities after each team’s win seemed to reaffirm that belief.

While it may be fair to conclude that the majority of Vietnamese cares more about a football match than the other political issues in the country, we probably should pay attention to a different side of Vietnamese society that a foreigner may not see quite readily in recent days.

Two nights before the last football match against Japan during the Asia Cup, from 8:30 P.M. to midnight of January 22, 2018, there was another international event concerning Vietnam: its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) cycle.

This particular UN mechanism – which only came into play on the world stage during the past decade – is where a state would undergo peer-review put on by other countries regarding its human rights’ records every 4.5 years.

It is doubtful that the word UPR is popular, even in the West.

But the January 22, 2019 event had attracted over 90,000 Vietnamese to tune in and watched to date, with over 4,000 comments and over 1,000 reactions on a live-stream posting by the Facebook page UPR Vietnam.

UPR Vietnam is a collective effort of independent CSO workers in the country who want to bring more awareness of the human rights conditions in Vietnam to its people.

Of course, comparing the number of people who went online to watch a UN’s human rights event to a football match does not mean much. But it is only fair if we put it within the context of Vietnam’s political background so that we could see why this group of viewers does show a different side of the country.

Vietnam is probably a mini version of China with more free internet. That is one of the simplest ways – yet quite correct – to envision the country and its political structure.

For almost 80 years in the North and more than 43 years in the entire country, the Vietnamese Communist Party ruled the state under a dictatorship.

In Vietnam, there is no other political party. The VCP is the only political force.

Young children would be indoctrinated at an early age when they joined the Communist Youth League.

When they grow up, becoming a member of the VCP could also mean being part of a privileged class because the Party is the leading force that runs the country.

VCP members take the majority in all branches of the government. The decision of the VCP’s Politburo would trump all others.

Ho Chi Minh was taught to be loved and admired, even worshipped as the one hero who liberated his people from French colonization. History books spent 90% of the time teaching only historical events happened after 1945 and about how the VCP came to absolute power.

The intent is clear and simple, to ensure that no one should have even the slightest doubt about the perpetuity of the VCP’s leading role in Vietnam.

Not a single sign of dissent has been tolerated by the regime, especially in recent years.

During the past two years, the political will of the VCP seemed to have hardened with 97 arrests of political dissidents compares to 43 in 2017, and 18 in 2016.

The most significant difference between Vietnam and China is probably the fact that the government has failed to build a “Great Firewall” which let the internet and social media became the much needed civic space where people could come together and discuss current affairs and politics.

That online space is now under threat with the new cybersecurity law that was passed in June 2018 and took effect on January 1, 2019.

Along with the new law, a more rigid approach by the VCP in dealing with its own members also emerged.

At the end of 2018, a well-respected intellectual and a long-time VCP member – Professor Chu Hao – was disciplined by the Party in a series of events which some people have dubbed “the VCP’s waging war against intellects.”

It seemed, however, the Party and its leader, Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong, were only acting in line with their manifesto.

The hope that the Party would reform itself and be tolerable to the ideas of forming democratic institutions and the rule of law which some people might have carried on throughout the past four decades, seemed to have ended bitterly with the former Deputy Minister Chu Hao’s withdrawing himself from the Party.

Getting over the status quo is never easy for any given society, not to mention one that has been under decades of authoritarianism.

The fact that there is still a minority group of people (most of them are under 40-year-old) who – despite being born and grew up in such a political context – still cares about human rights does matter.

It matters because only five years ago, during the last UPR cycle, not a lot of people in Vietnam know much about human rights and could care less about the UPR process.

It matters, even more, when the one recommendation from the Czech Republic to Vietnam during this UPR cycle, asking the government to allow political pluralism and democracy in the country, also became one of the most read news of January 2019 on Luat Khoa online magazine just 24 hours after being published.

Recognizing that there is a small, young sector of the population who is still willing to speak up when faced with harassment and even imprisonment as the government hardened its oppression methods, is, therefore, essential.

It is the other image of Vietnamese that the world needs to take notice because we are more than just a fun, tropical travel destination with good foods and hard-core football fans.

Although a new draconian cybersecurity law went into effect earlier this year, there are still people who refuse to censor themselves or curb their online activism in any way.

Instead, they have continued fighting for what they believe is right.

They are the drivers protesting against BOT An Suong, the lawyers and activists exposing the government’s wrongdoing in Loc Hung vegetable garden’s forced eviction, the environmentalists trying to save the rainforest in #SaveTamDao campaign, and many more.

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