Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Revising official view of history in Vietnam no easy matter

History is at times created by the media. So says Le Van Phuong, a lieutenant in the People’s Army of North Vietnam (also known as the North Vietnamese Army) who, riding a tank, was among the first to enter the presidential compound of South Vietnam in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) on April 30, 1975.

Phuong’s tank was provided by China. However, official Vietnamese news stories reported that a different tank made in the Soviet Union was the first one through. After the war, Vietnam’s relations with China soured and it forged closer ties with Moscow. The government-controlled media probably had no intention of changing these reports back to set the record straight and allowing the glorification of a Chinese-made tank.

Revising the official view of history a victor in war has entrenched is no easy matter. And that is especially true in a state like Vietnam that, during the Cold War, was split between North and South, with one side conquering the other by force, and then came under the one-party rule of the Communist Party after reunification.

It has been long known that the main force behind the “liberation of Saigon” was not the National Liberation Front for Southern Vietnam (NLFSV), a diverse group of nationalist forces, but rather the People’s Army of North Vietnam posing as the NLFSV.

The Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam (PRG), a body whose central members came from the Liberation Front, had plans to make the South a neutral party in the war, create a federal state with North Vietnam and peacefully expedite unification.

When the war ended, however, the PRG was dissolved, and the communist government in Hanoi directed the speedy creation of a socialist system. The official historical view is that the victory in the war of resistance against the United States was brought about by the “unerringly correct leadership of the party.” There is no debate in this country over whether unification’s timing or methods were correct or not.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Vietnamese government began emphasizing nationalism more than communism. Even the war of resistance against the United States is talked about solely in the context of national liberation. However, if it was a fight to liberate the people, then it is difficult to explain that after that objective was met, the government excluded the various other nationalist forces and established a one-party system led by the Communist Party.

The contradictory parts of the story have been ignored.

Since the victor’s version of events has become entrenched in Vietnam, there are many facts about the war that have not come to light. The North beat the U.S. military, but no systematic statistics have been released on losses incurred by the NLFSV and the North Vietnamese Army. The communists fully reject any information in records created by the old Saigon government (the former Republic of Vietnam), which they see as having been an American puppet, and there are still many impediments to empirical research on the politics and society of South Vietnam.


The village of Ba Chuc, located in southwestern Vietnam’s An Giang province, sits near the Cambodian border. Here there is an ossuary where a huge number of human bones lie in glass cases. Reportedly, this village, about 7 kilometers from the border, was occupied from April 18 to 30, 1978, by Khmer Rouge (also known as Pol Pot's clique) and 3,157 people were massacred. This incident was one factor prompting the decision to deploy the Vietnamese army to Cambodia.

There are those, however, who argue that the massacre at Ba Chuc was staged by the Vietnamese. They are mostly people from the old South Vietnam administration who fled abroad after the fall of Saigon in 1975. The basis of their view includes: Pol Pot’s forces were not deployed in the border area at the time; the oddity of the villagers, who had experienced a number of attacks from the Cambodian side, not evacuating quickly on that day only; testimony from survivors that the “Khmer Rouge soldiers” for some reason spoke in Vietnamese.

And yet probably the most appalling basis of their argument is that many of those slaughtered were followers of Hoa Hao Buddism. This religion was founded in Chau Doc province (present-day An Giang province) in the 1930s. The order has its own political party and militia, and is opposed to the Communist Party. Soon after the North-South reunification, the government in Hanoi saw the order’s presence as a source of instability in the south.

One former member of the South Vietnamese Army who lives overseas and used to be a follower of Hoa Hao Buddism continues to rail against the mercilessness of the communist system’s religious persecution. There are many others like him who do not recognize the political system in place since 1975 and who will not return to their homeland so long as the communist regime remains in power. The incomplete national reconciliation, even 40 years after the war, is partly the fault of a system that rejects as “historical distortion” anything that runs contrary to the official view of history.

In An Giang province today, the Hoa Hao Buddhist order sanctioned by the Communist Party has built an expansive temple on the holy site of Mount Sam and goes about its activities under a portrait of Ho Chi Minh. Memories of the tragic past fade quickly, and one can see smiling Vietnamese tourists snapping photos in the village ossuary.

The history told here is, of course, the officially approved story fashioned by the media. So long as there is no objective examination of the history, it is unlikely that the souls of the departed, whose bones in the glass cases have become a mere “tourism resource,” will be able to return to sacred Mount Sam and find peace. Ari Nakano, Professor at Daito Bunka University

Ari Nakano is a professor at Daito Bunka University. She did her postgraduate work at Keio University and earned her Ph.D. Her areas of expertise are Vietnamese politics, diplomacy and human rights.

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