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June 5, 2011 – The Beginning Of The Longest Anti-China Protest Movement In Vietnam

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Vietnamese people held a protest against China in front of the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam, June 5, 2011. Photo: VOA News

Our newest section on The Vietnamese Magazine, the “On This Day” series, aims to introduce contemporary Vietnamese history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by explaining political events that occurred today in the past. 


What happened on June 5, 2011? 

Public demonstrations and protests are sporadic in Vietnam. But on this day, 10 years ago in 2011, it was the beginning of the longest anti-China protest movement in Vietnam after 1975. 

For almost three months of the summer of that year, a total of 11 protests happened across Vietnam every Sunday, primarily conducted in Hanoi and Saigon, where the Chinese embassy and consulate were placed. Many people call this movement “The Flaming Summer” (Mùa Hè Đỏ Lửa). 

Why were people protesting on that day? 

Since China established the eleven-dash line map (now the nine-dash line map) claiming sovereignty of various regions in the South China Sea, the Vietnamese people have always been angered by China’s claims to the Paracel and Spratly islands, known as the Truong Sa and Hoang Sa islands by the Vietnamese. 

In the summer of 2011, people especially felt provoked by the actions of Chinese vessels in the contested sea. In late May, the news reported that the Chinese vessels were harassing Vietnamese survey vessels and disrupting the Vietnamese vessels’ activities. Later in early June, Chinese ships once again harassed Vietnamese survey ships. 

What was the regime’s response to the protests?

After supposedly tolerating the protests for a short period of time, the regime nevertheless decided to crack down on the protestors. In late August, the police began to detain people who participated in the protests, forcing 40 protestors onto two buses right after the last rally started on August 21. It was confirmed that at least 47 protestors were arrested. The Hanoi local government warned people against protesting any further. 

What is the legacy of the protests during that summer?

The waves of anti-China protests in 2011 were not the first nor the last. Earlier in 2007 and 2008, there were also anti-China protests by many bloggers and pro-democracy activists, which also resulted in the government’s crackdown. Later in 2014 and 2018, there were also new anti-China protests.  

However, the protests in 2011 were significant because of their duration, scope, and effect on Vietnam’s pro-democracy discourse. In many ways, it was an unprecedented movement. 

Compared to other anti-China protests, the 2011 protest movement had the most prolonged duration, lasting the entire summer. The demonstrations were also massive compared to others, with the participation of hundreds of people. Some of the rallies were estimated to have around a thousand people. This fact is exceptionally significant for a country infamously known for repressing protests. 

Although the government repressed the protests, they still demonstrated to the Vietnamese government that the people could disagree with the government and willingly show it. Additionally, the protests also sowed the seeds of government criticism among the people. The movement provoked many intellectuals and highly-credited ex-government officers to speak out against the Communist Party and demand democracy. 

Many participants of these protests, such as The Vietnamese Magazine’s co-founder and editor Trinh Huu Long, would later become pro-democracy activists.

The protests in 2011 were the beginning of “a prolonged civil society movement that still exists nowadays,” said Long. 

On This Day

June 16, 1954: Ngo Dinh Diem Appointed Prime Minister Of The State Of Vietnam

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Photo credit (from left to right): Unknown, Ebay, BBC Vietnamese. Wikimedia Commons (background), Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine

The “On This Day” series introduces contemporary Vietnamese history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by explaining political events that occurred today in the past.


What happened? 

On this day, 67 years ago, Ngo Dinh Diem was tapped to be the prime minister of the State of Vietnam. His appointer was Bao Dai, the chief of state, who also was the last emperor of Vietnam under the Nguyen Dynasty, which ended before the formation of this regime. 

This event could be considered one of the most significant political developments in South Vietnam in the post-colonial era. It was the foundation of a political entity that would later become a fierce rival to the Communist regime in the north. 

What was the State of Vietnam? 

The State of Vietnam was the predecessor of what would later become the Republic of Vietnam. 

Because of the famous Battle of Dien Bien Phu, in which the Communist regime in the north launched a massive offensive against the French colonial government[1], the French decided to sign an agreement to transfer their administrative powers to a government headed by a Vietnamese, the former Emperor Bao Dai [2], who was chosen by the French. 

This move by the French colonial administration is called the “Bao Dai solution,” which presented the French and the Americans with an opportunity to retain their influence in the region amid the rising power of the Communists. [3] 

This new State of Vietnam had been  under the French Union since 1949. However, this regime lived a short life as Bao Dai was stripped of power only a few years later by his own appointee as prime minister. 

Who was Ngo Dinh Diem? 

Ngo Dinh Diem is best known for his role as president of the Republic of Vietnam, the regime in the south of Vietnam that ceased to exist when the Vietnam War ended in 1975. He was a Catholic politician in a country with a Buddhist majority, which many say was one of the prime reasons for his downfall. 

The Communist regime often portrayed Ngo Dinh Diem as an American puppet who led an imperial regime controlled by the United States. [4] The Communist regime also saw Diem’s rise to power as undemocratic and illegitimate. However, it also unexpectedly ignored the ironic parallels between such complaints compared to North Vietnam’s own pile of undemocratic practices. 

However, many foreign-based scholars agree that Diem was much more complicated as a political figure than how the Communist regime portrayed him. Some even argued that Diem was as concerned with American intervention as the Communists were and attempted to create an alternative anti-colonial movement to the Viet Minh, leading by the Communists.[5] 

Prior to being made president of South Vietnam, Diem held a role that was lesser known: prime minister of the State of Vietnam. 

Diem was appointed because Bao Dai believed that the newly formed State of Vietnam would need American support and that Diem’s Catholic and anti-Communist background would be an appealing advantage. This was done despite Bao Dai’s alleged awareness that Diem was fond of Cuong De, a Nguyen Dynasty’s royal descendent who had challenged Bao Dai’s legitimacy. [6] 

Later, Diem would overthrow Bao Dai in a referendum in October 1955, which designated Diem as the new head of state and established the Republic of Vietnam. Though the transition was not violent, it did not happen without smear campaigns against Bao Dai, who was viewed as a collaborator with the French colonialists.[7] 

This is not to praise Diem and his administration. On the contrary, the scholarly consensus seems to agree that Diem’s referendum in October 1955 was staged and undemocratic [8], and many have pointed out the shortcomings of his administration. The shocking self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc was one illustration of the Diem regime’s failure to handle religious affairs, making many Buddhists feel discriminated against compared to Catholics. [9]

However, it is important to remember that Ngo Dinh Diem was a politician and leader of Vietnam in an important historical chapter, and someone who remains a crucial historical figure to study and discuss. To completely demonize him, and to only study him from the viewpoint of the “winning side,” is to ignore a chapter of Vietnamese history that is scarcely discussed in an equitable manner. 

Bibliography 

[1] Battle of Dien Bien Phu. (2019, September 23). History. https://www.history.com/topics/france/battle-of-dien-bien-phu

[2] French Indochina/Vietnam (1941–1954). (n.d.). University of Central Arkansas | Political Science. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from https://uca.edu/politicalscience/dadm-project/asiapacific-region/french-indochinavietnam-1941-1954/

[3] Hess, G. R. (1978). The First American Commitment in Indochina: The Acceptance of the “Bao Dai Solution”, 1950. Diplomatic History (Oxford University Press), 2(4), 331–350. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7709.1978.tb00441.x

[4] Nghiem, K. H. (n.d.). Khái quát về Việt Nam lưu trữ Cộng hòa (1955–1975), Phần 1. Faculty of Archival Studies | University of Social Sciences & Humanities. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from http://luutru.hcmussh.edu.vn/?ArticleId=4939505b-d8e6-43d2-b673-f53151a00181

[5] Miller, E. (2004). Vision, Power and Agency: The Ascent of Ngô Đình Diệm, 1945–54. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 35(3), 433–458. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0022463404000220

[6] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.). Cuong De | Vietnamese prince. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cuong-De

[7] Chapman, J. M. (2006). Staging Democracy: South Vietnam’s 1955 Referendum to Depose Bao Dai. Diplomatic History, 30(4), 671–703. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7709.2006.00573.x

[8] Chapman, J. M. (2006). Staging Democracy, 671-703. 

[9] Nguyen, S. (2021, June 11). June 11, 1963: The Internationally Shocking Self-Immolation Of Buddhist Monk Thich Quang Duc. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/06/june-11-1963-the-internationally-shocking-self-immolation-of-buddhist-monk-thich-quang-duc/

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On This Day

June 11, 1963: The Internationally Shocking Self-Immolation Of Buddhist Monk Thich Quang Duc

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Photo credit (from left to right): Bettmann/GettyImages, Manhai/Flickr, Unknown. Background: Malcolm Browne/Associated Press. Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

The “On This Day” series aims to introduce contemporary Vietnamese history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by explaining political events that occurred on this day in the past. 


What happened? 

On the morning of June 11, 1963, an elder Buddhist monk emerged from more than 300 monks protesting on a busy street of Saigon.[1] As the monks formed a circle around him, the elder monk, whose Buddhist name was Thich Quang Duc, stepped forward and sat down in a lotus position. The other monks poured gasoline on him, and one monk handed some matches to Quang Duc. 

Moments later, in a horrifying scene, the elder monk was consumed by fire. 

The onlookers were horrified, and the police present on the street tried to call fire trucks, but the accompanying monks collectively blocked the trucks. Without a doubt, Quang Duc’s self-immolation was a part of a coordinated protest by South Vietnam’s Buddhist monks. 

In the following months after Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation, at least five other Buddhists committed suicide by burning themselves. His self-immolation also inspired many other Buddhists and bonzes in South Vietnam to do so in the following years. 

As Thich Quang Duc committed suicide publicly, Associated Press photojournalist Malcolm Browne captured the moment. The picture of the burning monk became one of the most circulated and haunting images of the Vietnam War.[2] 

Why did the monk burn himself? 

Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation prompted multiple interpretations. 

The conventional interpretation from the current Vietnamese Communist state sees the self-immolation as an act of protest against the South Vietnamese government, at the time headed by President Ngo Dinh Diem.[3] Though the leaders expressed some empathy with the Buddhists’ frustration, the South Vietnamese government and its supporters mostly saw them as misled by the Communists.[4] The international public saw the act as protesting the ongoing Vietnam War and the American intervention.

It is undeniable that the series of Buddhist protests in 1963 in South Vietnam were triggered by the Ngo Dinh Diem regime’s mishandling of religious issues, which made the Buddhists feel like they were discriminated against while their Christian counterparts were given many more benefits.[5]

However, all of these narratives ignore the fact that the self-immolation and the series of Buddhist protests were a part of the more significant Buddhist crisis ongoing in South Vietnam throughout 1963, motivated by frustration and a unique political ideology. 

According to historian Edward Miller of Dartmouth College, the crisis was the result of not only the regime’s mishandling of religious issues but also because of the Buddhists’ own vision of nation-building for Vietnam, which happened to clash with both the regime in the South as well as the Communists in the North.[6] 

Their political beliefs were neither pro-North Vietnam nor anti-South Vietnam but instead purely Buddhist. They were a part of a more significant movement called Buddhist revival (Chấn Hưng Phật Giáo) that got started in Vietnam at the beginning of the twentieth century. 

Under the belief of Buddhist revival, many monks and Buddhists subscribed to a particular Vietnamese-Buddhist nationalism, which saw Buddhism as the national religion and the only path to Vietnam’s future prosperity. 

Followers of Buddhist revival had a distinctive historical narrative that saw Buddhism as the source of the prosperity of the ancient kingdom Dai Viet, the predecessor of modern Vietnam that flourished around the 10th to the 13th century. The followers of Buddhist revival thought that Vietnam was only weakened and became corrupted due to Chinese colonization and its import of philosophy, from Confucianism to Taoism. Similarly, they viewed both Communism and Ngo Dinh Diem’s Personalist Revolution[7] as Western-imported ideologies that were also unsuitable for Vietnam. 

Thich Quang Duc was a part of this movement. According to Miller, when he came up with the idea of burning himself, Quang Duc understood it as an act of promoting Buddhist reforms and defending his Buddhist revival ideals. 

Therefore, to call the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc either pro-Communist, anti-Ngo Dinh Diem, or anti-American intervention would be insufficient. His self-immolation was highly political and was meant to express more than just opposition to any regime. 

Bibliography 

[1] Miller, E. (2014). Religious Revival and the Politics of Nation Building: Reinterpreting the 1963 ‘Buddhist crisis’ in South Vietnam. Modern Asian Studies, 49(6), 1903–1962. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0026749x12000935

[2] Lindsay, J. M. (2012, June 11). TWE Remembers: Thich Quang Duc’s Self-Immolation. Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/blog/twe-remembers-thich-quang-ducs-self-immolation

[3] Tưởng niệm 50 năm Hòa thượng Thích Quảng Đức tự thiêu. (2013, May 28). vov.vn. https://vov.vn/doi-song/tuong-niem-50-nam-hoa-thuong-thich-quang-duc-tu-thieu-263846.vov

[4] Vietnam’s Faiths Underlie Rising; Buddhist‐Catholic Disputes Sharpened Under Diem. (1964, September 14). The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1964/09/14/archives/vietnams-faiths-underlie-rising-buddhistcatholic-disputes-sharpened.html

[5] Joiner, C. A. (1964). South Vietnam’s Buddhist Crisis: Organization for Charity, Dissidence, and Unity. Asian Survey, 4(7), 915–928. https://doi.org/10.1525/as.1964.4.7.01p1727l

[6] Miller, Religious Revival, 1903–1962.  

[7] Hollingsworth, E. (n.d.). The Church of Ngo: Ngo Dinh Diem’s Personalist Revolution and the Making of Alternative Nationalisms in the Republic of Vietnam, 1954–1963 | MA/MSc in International and World History. Columbia University. Retrieved June 10, 2021, from https://worldhistory.columbia.edu/content/church-ngo-ngo-dinh-diems-personalist-revolution-and-making-alternative-nationalisms

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