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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.

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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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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The Real Casualty of Loc Hung Garden Incident: The People’s Trust

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When the officials of Tan Binh District in Ho Chi Minh City gathered over one thousands police officers and other forces to bulldoze some 200 houses at Loc Hung garden, they destroyed not only the shelters of a few hundred people but something else much more important.

What also crumbled and got buried deep in the rubbles was the people’s trust, or whatever left of that trust, in the current regime.

“I have to tell you honestly, the trust between the people of this community and the government has totally broken down over the decades. We cannot trust them after so many broken promises. They have told us that they would meet with us and provided us with documents about the projects, the plans. We received nothing. There is no trust.”

Cao Ha Truc, one of the persons representing the 124 households living in Loc Hung garden, spoke to me over the telephone on January 9, 2019, about 12 hours after he was released from the police station and came back to a home that was no longer there.

Truc told me that he was a vegetable farmer until the local authorities engaged in what he called “shady tactics” to stop him and others from continuing farming a few years ago.

In a video clip recorded earlier in the day, he said:

“They oppressed us by cutting off our means of survival, by letting water to flood our vegetable fields, and we could not live (rightly) for eight years.

We could not raise cats and dogs because they would die when the land was submerged in one meter of water. It took one month for the water to drain, but then the environment became polluted. We had to find other means of living.

We have lived here through three generations by farming vegetables, but now we had to flat out the land and built the Level 4 houses to keep on living.”

Truc was refuting the government’s claim that the residents living in Loc Hung were constructing houses illegally when it confirmed that some 112 homes were demolished on January 8, 2019.

Loc Hung garden is a complicated legal issue involving land rights and land possession which began to challenge the Ho Chi Minh City’s government starting in the late 1990s.

The Vietnamese government, in general, had faced more and more legal headaches concerning land disputes over the years, due to the rapid development happening across the country.

Land Disputes Developed with and within Land Development 

Vietnam’s economy grew exponentially in the past three decades after the communist regime decided to “open up” and explored a “free market with socialist characteristics.” In big cities like Hanoi and Saigon, some investment and development projects crashed head-on with the former way of life: farming.

Being an agriculture society for thousands of years, the fact that there were farmers even in the big cities probably should not surprise anyone. However, the clash between the old and new ways of life – coupled with the lack of a clear legal framework – had created long-lasting social, economic, and political problems to date.

Loc Hung garden incident was not the first and definitely, would not be the last of its kind.

In Vietnam right now, there could be hundreds of thousands of land-lost victims who are known as “dân oan” in Vietnamese, often translated into “victims of injustice” in English.

As of January 8, 2018, some may want to add another 124 households from Loc Hung area to this population.

At the same time, the local government has not exactly been transparent about the legal basis to support their claim to the land.

What the public knows thus far includes a still pending, development project for a public school system from K-12 on the land where Loc Hung garden is located, and that this project was postponed numerous times during the last five years.

Before that, both the City and District’s authorities had failed to carry out the other public construction projects they previously proposed for the area.

In report No. 6035/UBND-NCPC sent to the Government Inspectorate dated October 20, 2016, the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City admitted two critical matters:

1) The public school development project has yet to be executed and was still only a prospect, and

2) The land dispute with the residents at Loc Hung garden would have continued to be classified as “complicated and long-term petition” has the project already started.

This report and its conclusion showed that the government has always recognized the land dispute at Loc Hung garden is not a matter of black and white, and that it anticipated a lengthy legal battle with the residents once the project begins.

Information on the pending development project, as well as the proposal on compensation and relocation of the residents, is not made readily available to either the residents of Loc Hung or the public as prescribed by laws.

Was There Due Process?

The official reason for tearing down the hundreds of homes given by the enforcing authorities, the People’s Committees of both the Tan Binh District and the Ward 6, was to enforce the order to remove illegal constructions at Loc Hung garden.

For the enforcement and removal to take place, the law in Vietnam required the authorities to provide three critical documents with sufficient public notice to the violating individuals or entities:

  1. The report conducted by the appropriate authorities on the violation
  2. The decision to penalize the violation, and
  3. The decision to enforce

(Law on Land 2013, Law on Administrative Penalization 2012, Decision 166/2013/NĐ-CP on Enforcement of Judgment, and Decision 102/2014/NĐ-CP on Administrative Penalization Relating to Land – all links in Vietnamese).

These documents also shall be served upon the violating individuals and entities, giving them an opportunity to remove voluntarily.

Cao Ha Truc told me he did not receive any of the three required documents but cautioned me that he could not speak for all others in the area.

The state-owned newspaper that published the story about Loc Hung also did not enclose copies of these essential documents.

When I called the office of the People’s Committee of Tan Binh District and asked for copies of the documents to be provided electronically according to laws, they turned me down. The desk person stated that I would need to show up in person to make my request.

The law prescribes a specific duty to the enforcing authorities, which is to establish that the required documentation exists and that the affected people are duly noticed. When the government has yet to provide them, we cannot conclude that there was due process.

Who Owns the Land in Vietnam?

Land ownership in Vietnam “belongs to the entire people with the State acting as the owner’s representative and uniformly managing land. The State shall hand over land use rights to land users in accordance with this Law.” (Article 4, Law on Land 2013).

I noticed the word “shall” was added in the English translation that I have found online. Its addition would make a significant difference, legally.

The Law on Land 2013, however, provides in details a long list of specific scenarios where the Vietnamese government would hand over the right to use the land to the people. At the same time, it also prescribes another list of situation where the government may perform land recovery and land requisition.

The main legal issue in Loc Hung garden case has always centered on the farmers’ right to possess the land and land use right from 1975 to date.

The government claimed they acquired the land and the other 1.2 hectares nearby from the old regime’s Postal Services under Government Council’s Decision No. 111/CP dated April 14, 1977.

The residents claimed that Decision No. 111/CP only covered the 1.2 hectares because the 4.8 hectares in question have been used for farming during the last 60 years in an undisrupted manner and without any disputes. They also claimed that the 4.8 hectares belong to the Catholics Church and the church gifted it to the farmers in 1954.

The facts that all parties could agree with would probably be the size of the disputed land and that the current government did allow the residents to continue living and farming undisrupted on such real property since 1975 to date.

On January 8, 2019, the Tan Binh District’s division of the Central Propaganda Committee issued a publication, stating that the residents who have been living and farming at Loc Hung garden would be entitled to compensation according to the policy for agriculture lands.

What would be the justification to compensate the residents if there wasn’t any legal basis for them to live there in the first place?

And could there ever be a monetary compensation that is enough to gain back the people’s trust in their government?

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