Vietnam’s Last Centurion passes on

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Roger Mitton

Roger Mitton

Nothing is more precious than freedom.
I’ve seen major changes in Vietnam; however, there are still problems and difficulties that need to be overcome.
— Vietnamese Hero General Vo Nguyen Giap, 1911-2013

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To understand why the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) is living on borrowed time, it pays to examine the events surrounding the death of revered General Vo Nguyen Giap earlier this month, regarded as one of the military geniuses of the 20th Century.

The diminutive Giap (pronounced Zap) commanded a ragtag band of pro-independence fighters who defeated the French Army at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the biggest military triumph by a subject people over a Western colonial force in the past century.

That dazzling victory made Giap, who joined his first revolutionary group at 15 and was jailed at 19, a patriotic hero beloved by his fellow citizens who had long yearned to be free from French rule.

The avid reader of military history and philosophy, who revered Napoleon and Sun Tzu, then laid the groundwork for an even more astounding triumph: the two-decade campaign to drive American might off Vietnamese soil.

Despite his unprecedented success on the battlefield, however, Giap still had detractors in the senior echelons of the ruling VCP. Being the country’s only leader educated in the West, a longtime schoolteacher and journalist who founded an underground newspaper, many of his colleagues viewed him as arrogant and impetuous.

They were right. Yet those are traits common to many of history’s most famous commanders, from Alexander the Great to George Patton and Douglas MacArthur. And if the son of well-off farmers in An Xa village in north-central Quang Binh province, had not asserted his will against Western and Asian powers, then Vietnam might never have broken its chains of subjugation.

But Vietnam’s leadership did not see it that way and hence their surprise at the outpouring of grief for Giap, which was so immense and spontaneous it was impossible for them to control as they have in the past. For instance, when the Olympic flame, destined for Beijing in 2008, was carried through Ho Chi Minh City, the route was kept secret and only vetted observers with party connections could watch.

Similarly, when former Premier Vo Van Kiet, whose critical comments after retirement made him popular, passed away, his death was kept secret for two days to dampen public displays of sentiment.

But Giap’s extraordinary popularity, coupled with advances in social media, meant the party could no longer do that kind of thing.

His demise was immediately posted on Facebook, and the whole country learned it before party hacks could do anything about it. Similarly, when more than 100,000 people gathered outside Giap’s home in Hanoi for days, many lighting candles and incense, the authorities were overwhelmed.

Nothing like it had been seen in Hanoi since the death of Ho Chi Minh in 1969, and even Giap’s relatives were taken aback.

Aside from crushing the French at Dien Bien Phu, a key reason for his enduring popularity was Giap’s charisma and his inspirational speeches which stood out in the otherwise colorless collective leadership.

As well, he was not regarded as corrupt and self-serving like other party figures. Nor was he viewed as weak in standing up to China over sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea.

And that was not the entire story. The most telling reason Giap was so beloved was because he spoke up when he felt something was wrong. In the 1960s, he supported peaceful coexistence with the West, which was anathema to many in the party’s rigid Marxist leadership.

Thus, control of the “American War” in the south was taken out of his hands, especially after he opposed the 1968 Tet offensive, in which Vietnamese forces suffered massive casualties. He also railed against Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in late 1978, and criticized China, which did not go down well with his VCP colleagues.

Soon after, he was sacked from the party’s ruling Politburo and became a fringe figure – but one that occasionally roared, as he did when he opposed a move to let a Chinese company mine bauxite in the Central Highlands. The regime was mortified, but could do little, given Giap’s age and popularity.

More importantly, his outbursts emboldened private citizens to criticise the government, notably in online blogs which continue to expose corruption and economic mismanagement. The state security forces round up bloggers, but they cannot stop the relentless surge of Internet postings—and Giap would almost certainly be happy about that.

For unlike the state spooks and even the top party apparatchiks, he had another great virtue: he believed in his goal.

As he once said, “An army fighting for freedom has the creative energy to achieve things its adversary can never imagine.”

In contrast, no one in the current VCP really believes in the party anymore. And with the passing of Vietnam’s last centurion, the emperors in Hanoi cannot but wonder if his goal of real freedom for the people will finally come to pass—at their expense.

(Roger Mitton is a Southeast Asia regional consultant and a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore.)

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