Thursday, 16 September 2010

General Vo Nguyen Giap at 100

Hanoi was awash with birthday wishes this month as Vietnamese authorities wheeled out elder statesman General Vo Nguyen Giap to celebrate his 99th birthday, though he is seen as 100 in Vietnamese culture.

Born in 1911 in storm-ravaged Quang Binh province on the north-central coast to a well-off farming family, Giap was educated through the French system. He entered Hanoi University in 1933 to study politics and law. Giap joined the Communist Party in 1931 after spending a year in jail for political activities.

Giap fled Vietnam for China in 1939 when the French made party membership of illegal. It was here that a close friendship and mutual respect developed between Giap and Ho Chi Minh.

While he was in China, Giap's wife sister, father, and sister in-law were arrested in Vietnam and executed. Giap returned to in 1944 and led Vietnamese troops against the Japanese until their surrender in 1945.

The birthday celebrations were incorporated into Vietnam's 2 September independence day observation, which this year marked 65 years since Ho Chi Minh stood in Hanoi's Ba Dinh Square, now the site of his mausoleum, at the end of the Second World War and announced Vietnam's independence from French rule.

The 1945 celebrations were short lived, as British forces arrived in southern Vietnam and Nationalist Chinese controlled northern Vietnam under an agreement signed by allies at the end of the Second World War. British and Chinese troops left Vietnam in 1946 once the French returned.

The independence movement then returned to the countryside and began an eight-year war of insurgency against the returning French government.This also marked the start of General Giap's illustrious military career. He led the Viet Minh troops in numerous victories against the French, culminating in a 54-day battle in the northwestern town of Dien Bien Phu that ended with the surrender of heavily defeated French forces on 7 May 1954.

General Giap went on to command North Vietnamese troops and insurgent Viet Minh troops in the south during the Vietnam War between 1960 and 1975. Though he is often credited with planning the Tet offensive in 1968, it has recently come to light that he was against the plan. It was pushed through by Prime Minster Le Duan and Vietnam's second military leader, Van Tien Dung.

General Giap left Vietnam for medical treat­ment before the Tet offensive began, only to return after the campaign had started. It failed in its main military objective to instigate a general uprising against the South Vietnam­ese government and American involvement and inflicted heavy losses on Viet Minh forces, which took some years to recover.

The offensive did have a huge political and propaganda impact, however, and for many marked the end of America's support for a continued presence in Vietnam. Despite the apparent disagreement between General Giap and Prime Minister Le Duan, Giap continued to wield considerable influence after the reunification of North and South Vietnam. He became defence minister in 1975 and deputy prime minister in 1976.

Though Giap was replaced as defence minister in 1980 and stepped down from the Politburo in 1982, he remained as deputy prime minister until 1991, retiring from politics at 80. Giap commanded Vietnam's military and insurgent forces for more than 36 years against the Japanese, the French, the Americans, the South Vietnamese, and the Chinese, and finally the Cambodian Khmer Rouge in 1979. Historian Stanley Karnow has described General Giap as ranking with Wellington, Grant, Lee, Rommel, and MacArthur.

In retirement, General Giap has remained vocal and often controversial, using his position as elder statesmen to be openly critical of the party and of development in Vietnam. He issues an annual open letter to the party and the press, using the opportunity in 2007 to criticise the educational system. He asserted that it needed a comprehensive, even revolu­tionary, overhaul as education had 'fallen far behind neighbouring countries.'

In 2009, he entered a more controversial debate when he used his open letter to criticise government plans to develop bauxite mining in the central highlands. Addressing the letter to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, General Giap outlined his support for opponents to bauxite mining, which at the time included Vietnam's scientific community as well as local residents.

Giap called for further study of the proposal, saying that studies going back to the 1980s had shown that bauxite mining could have a "very serious and long-term harmful impact on the environment that could not be remedied".

General Giap's contribution to the debate was not well received by the government and was seen by some as the work of those wishing to discredit Prime Minster Dung. Giap is still a well-regarded figure of the revolution and many make use of his name to support their views.

For more news and expert analysis about Vietnam, please see Vietnam Focus.

© 2010 Menas Associates

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