April 23rd 2005

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Articles from this issue:


EDITORIAL: Telstra: the latest push for privatisation

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Howard to use Canberra power against states

EDUCATION: Cutting university places in the not-so-clever country

TRADE: Where do we go next with Japan?

FAMILY LAW: 'No-fault' principle undermines marriage

HISTORY: The Vietnam War - 30 years on

STRAWS IN THE WIND: A society of hoons? / The Nobel committee's Syllabus of Errors / The triumph of Roma

ASIA: China's burgeoning naval power

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: Taiwan's high-tech industry: lessons for Australia

INDONESIA: Obstacles to an Indonesian partnership

CLIMATE: Kyoto: why we should be sceptical

BOOKS: FORGOTTEN ARMIES: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945

BOOKS: Despite the Barking Dogs, by Stanislaw Gotowicz

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The Vietnam War - 30 years on

by Quynh Dao

News Weekly, April 23, 2005
April 30 this year marks the 30th anniversary of communist North Vietnam's conquest of South Vietnam, symbolised by the image of a Soviet-built T-54 tank smashing through the gate of the Presidential Palace in Saigon. But, as Quynh Dao argues, many influential Western public figures and media commentators to this day persist in misunderstanding what the Vietnam War was all about.

One enduring myth is that the West became involved in the Vietnam War to prevent communism spreading, but that it turned out to be a civil war involving nationalists who wanted unification. In fact, the Vietnam War was fomented by the communist North. The communist North was instructed and abetted by communist China and supported by the rest of the communist bloc.

This has now been admitted by the Communist Party of Vietnam. In its official biography of Ho Chi Minh, it says: "Ho Chi Minh ... felt the need for active propaganda and organisational work in order to step up the revolutionary movement in colonial countries, including Vietnam. He deemed it his task to spread communist doctrine in Asia in general and in Indochina particularly."

In its internal party directive, the Chinese Communist Party declared its task to be "to assist in every possible way the communist parties and people in all oppressed nations in Asia to win their liberation". That is why, from 1950 to 1978, China gave North Vietnam at least US$15 billion to US$20 billion in economic aid, and sent at least 300,000 military and other personnel during the height of the Vietnam war. The famous battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 was fought largely with Chinese weapons and under Chinese direction. The Soviet Union also poured billions of rubles into Vietnam. By the 1970s Soviet aid amounted to one billion rubles or more annually, without which the Northern communists could not have continued the war.

In his autobiography, Lee Kuan Yew noted that Singapore and other Asian countries were saved from communism by the Vietnam war. He said:

"Although American intervention failed in Vietnam, it bought time for the rest of Southeast Asia. In 1965, when the US military moved massively into South Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines faced internal threats from armed communist insurgencies, and the communist underground was still active in Singapore ... America's action [in Vietnam] enabled non-communist Southeast Asia to put their own houses in order. By 1975, they were in better shape to stand up to the communists. Had there been no US intervention, the will of these countries to resist them would have melted and Southeast Asia would most likely have gone communist."

In the early '40s, Ho Chi Minh founded the Vietminh front, ostensibly to unite all anti-French forces to fight for independence. But in fact it was under the strong influence and direction of the Indochinese Communist Party, whose role was carefully disguised to alleviate the concern of non-communist elements.

The moment independence was within reach, the first people that Ho eliminated were other anti-French nationalist and religious leaders who refused to place themselves under communist command. The method of eliminating these figures varied in its brutality. Many were bound hand and foot and thrown into a river. Some were buried alive. After the declaration of independence in 1945, Ho's troops also placed at least 200 opposition figures in detention camps.

During the Vietnam War, the anti-war movement supported the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam or the Vietcong, thinking it was a national uprising of South Vietnamese dissatisfied with what was perceived by them as the unpopular South Vietnam régime. The communist sympathisers in the West actively promoted it as "quite independent from Hanoi". It was in fact a product of the Communist Party, led by a Party veteran, placed under the Party command and was first mentioned publicly in an address in the Party's Third National Congress by the Party elder Ton Duc Thang. Again, the Party directive was very clear that there would be no mention of communism.

In 1954, Vietnam was divided into communist North and non-communist South. Novelist Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American in 1955 in which he denounced America and non-communist South Vietnam as engaged in acts of terrorism against the Vietnamese people, but was happy to ignore the plight of innocent victims of the communist North.

The first thing Ho did when he took control of the North was to launch his murderous "Land reform" campaign. Under this campaign, people deemed wealthy were summarily executed. In war-torn, impoverished, backward Vietnam, "wealthy" might involve merely owning a few blocks of land, a brick house or a fabrics shop. This campaign was carried out following the Chinese Maoist model, under the directives of Chinese communist advisors, using Chinese statistics, which set a quota of people who must be declared "class enemies". So there were people who were killed just so that the quota was reached. Estimates of people killed in this campaign ranged from tens to hundreds of thousand.

Noam Chomsky, a leading anti-war, anti-American intellectual, and his like-minded admirer John Pilger saw it as their mission to support the Northern communists who persecuted Vietnamese intellectuals, who imprisoned poets and novelists, who silenced anyone who dared to speak out against the Party line. In 1966, when Chomsky passionately avowed "to speak the truth and to expose lies" as a reason for his anti-American, pro-Vietnamese communist stand, North Vietnamese poet Nguyen Chi Thien was imprisoned for doing just that - writing the truth and exposing lies by the communists. For this, Nguyen Chi Thien was imprisoned for a total of 27 years.

Intellectuals in the North had been silenced well before that. In the late '50s, intellectuals within the Communist Party's own ranks - those who fought with the communists against the colonialists, thinking they fought for freedom and national independence - were crushed in a movement known as the Nhan Van Giai Pham affair. Nhan Van and Giai Pham were the names of two literary publications, in which contributors spoke out against the bloody killing during the "Land reform" campaign and the oppression in the North, and were themselves subsequently denounced, terrorised and imprisoned.

The Western media turned what was a military success on the part of the non-communist forces in the South to a political victory for the communists in the crucial propaganda front in the West.

During Tet 1968 (the Vietnamese New Year) the communists conducted a surprise attack in South Vietnam's major provinces and capitals. Arnaud de Borchgrave - at the time Newsweek's chief foreign correspondent and in charge of the Tet Offensive coverage - reported that it was an unmitigated disaster for Hanoi. They lost some 50,000 and at least as many wounded. The South Vietnamese side had some 6,000 casualties.

Yet the Western media publicised the carnage of American bodies to a war-weary home audience. They also showed, ad nauseum, the picture of a South Vietnamese soldier shooting a Vietcong, in civilian clothing, point blank. The message was loud and clear - this is the kind of atrocity that the South Vietnamese army did to its own people, with the backing of America.

The Western media did not report the massacre by the communists of some 4,000 unarmed civil servants and civilians in the old imperial city of Hue, or other similar atrocities. Arnaud de Borchgrave wrote, "Several mass graves were found with some 4,000 unarmed civil servants and other civilians, stabbed or with skulls smashed by clubs."

General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the South Vietnamese soldier in the picture, passed away in 1998. Neil Davis, the courageous Australian war correspondent killed on assignment in Thailand, set out the background to the killing when interviewed for David Bradbury's 1980 documentary, Frontline.

The Vietcong shot by General Loan had, not long before this picture was taken, led a team of communist terrorists in the slaughter of the whole family of a South Vietnamese officer in the process - including his 80-year-old mother, his wife and his small children.

How often is the background of this photo explained? Eddie Adams, the Pulitzer-winning photographer who took that picture, apologised in person to General Loan and his family for the irretrievable damage it did to his honour when he was alive. When General Loan died, Adams praised him as a hero of a just cause.

Another picture comes to mind every time the Vietnam War is mentioned: that of a naked girl running away from a napalm bomb. In her biography, Kim Phuc, the girl in the picture, described how the communist régime brought her on its money-begging expeditions for her value as a perfect live display of American war atrocities and as a guilt trigger for the West. Kim Phuc escaped from Vietnam and now lives in Canada.

General Vo Nguyen Giap, in his memoirs, admitted that news media reporting of the war and the anti-war demonstrations that followed the Tet Offensive surprised him. Communist colonel Bui Tin was among the North Vietnamese delegates who accepted the surrender of South Vietnam. He made clear that "the anti-war movement in the United States, which led to the collapse of political will in Washington, was essential to our strategy". Bui Tin defected to the West and now lives in America. He is now among the most outspoken critics of the Vietnamese communist dictatorship.

When the so-called "Liberation army" of the communists came to South Vietnam, their first act of "liberation" was to conduct mass arrests and mass persecution of South Vietnamese. They put more than one million of their "unified brothers" in concentration camps. In 1979, a BBC news bulletin reported that Vietnam held more political prisoners than any other country in the world.

The "Liberation army" appropriated people's properties, shops and factories, nationalised all means of production and evicted people from their own homes in the name of the revolution. The authorities conducted two surprise money-exchange operations to ensure people were stripped of all their life savings. No matter how much one was worth before the communist invasion, the maximum amount of new money one could exchange in the first money exchange operation in 1975 was 200 Revolutionary Dong or 400 kilos of rice at official prices.

When North Vietnam was put under the control of the communists in 1954, one million people fled the North to the South. When the whole country was taken over by the communists in 1975, nearly two million Vietnamese refugees from both the North and the South fled the country by boat and caused shock waves around the world. An estimated half a million people, or even more, perished at sea in their desperate journey for freedom. I am among the survivors of those perilous journeys.

Before the communist invasion, South Vietnam was far from a fully-fledged democracy, but a framework for democracy was established, with the four governing institutions - constitution, executive, legislative and judicial - operating independently. Society was guided by the rule of law. There were basic freedoms, including freedom of information and freedom of the press. An army of foreign correspondents was given full freedom to cover the war. Political freedom was allowed, a pluralistic, multiparty system was in place, and parties other than the ruling party were allowed to operate.

But a clear line was drawn in relation to communism: communist activities were outlawed and communist elements were harshly dealt with. The Western media did not like this. The communist sympathisers in the West made much of it. The anti-war protesters saw it as an excuse to denounce the South Vietnam government as repressive. They disregarded the fact that South Vietnam was in a life or death battle with a most dangerous and ruthless enemy. Those were harsh but necessary measures in times of war, where national security is of utmost priority. Freedom does not include freedom to engage in terrorism.

Now after 30 years, what has communism brought to the Vietnamese people?

Vietnam has now declined to the rank of one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world. Before the end of the war, South Vietnam was on a par with other developing countries in the region. Its annual per capita income was $500, worth $4,000 in 2004 dollars. Now, after 30 years of "liberation", the annual per capita income has declined to $470. Hanoi has money to send two military divisions to Laos to crush anti-communist uprisings but has no money to feed children. UNICEF has reported an alarming number of Vietnamese children forced into prostitution, some as young as five or six years old.

After 30 years of peace, intellectuals, artists, Buddhist monks, Catholic priests, religious followers, tribal people, and even communist veterans are subject to summary arrests, torture, killing, harassment and imprisonment for their peaceful demands for freedom. During Easter last year, 280 Christian highlanders were killed in a peaceful mass prayer protest for religious freedom and for the return of their ancestral lands appropriated by the authorities.

It was the pressure from the anti-war movement that forced the US administration to pull troops out of Vietnam. Largely because of their action, 80 million Vietnamese people are now doomed to oppression.

50,000 American soldiers, 504 Australian soldiers and 185,000 soldiers from the South Vietnamese army died in a just cause. They are heroes in the hearts of the Vietnamese people. They died to defend the yellow flag with three red stripes, the flag of free Vietnam. Statues to commemorate their sacrifice have been erected in the United States and in Australia by the Vietnamese community.

After so much suffering, the Vietnamese people deserve some happiness. That is why the Vietnamese communities are joining hands with human rights organisations around the world to demand human rights and to continue our struggle to reclaim freedom and democracy for the Vietnamese people. We are fervent believers in freedom and democracy - because we have experienced the alternative.

  • Ms Quynh Dao is a member of the Australia-Vietnam Human Rights Committee. This article is an edited version of a longer feature from National Observer, No. 62, Spring 2004. See www.nationalobserver.net

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