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The coffin of the late General Vo Nguyen Giap
Mourners gather along a road to pay respects as Vietnamese soldiers transport the artillery cart carrying the coffin of the late General Vo Nguyen Giap in Hanoi October 13, 2013. AFP

Vietnam’s last real hero

To understand why the Vietnam Communist Party is living on borrowed time, it pays to examine the events surrounding the death of General Vo Nguyen Giap earlier this month.

The diminutive Giap, whose name is pronounced Zap, commanded a ragtag band of pro-independence fighters who defeated the French Army at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

That victory made Giap a hero and endeared him to his fellow citizens who had long yearned to be free from French colonial rule. Despite the success, however, he still had detractors in the senior echelons of the VCP.

Being the only leader who had been educated in the West, many of his colleagues viewed him as arrogant and impetuous.

And they were right. Yet those are traits common to many of history’s most famous generals from Alexander the Great to George Patton.

But the leadership did not see it that way and hence their surprise at the outpouring of grief for Giap, which was so big 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 PM 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.

For starters, Giap’s demise was immediately posted on Facebook and the whole country was aware of it before party hacks could do anything about it.

Similarly, when more than 100,000 people gathered outside Giap’s home in Hanoi – and stayed there 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 his triumph at Dien Bien Phu, a key reason for his enduring popularity was the fact that Giap had charisma and was an inspirational speaker who stood out in the otherwise colourless 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.

But that was not the entire story. The real 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.

So control of the “American War” in the south was taken out of his hands, especially after he opposed the 1968 Tet offensive, which caused a massive death toll among Vietnamese forces.

He also spoke out against the invasion of Cambodia in late 1978 and was critical of China, which did not go down well with his colleagues.

Soon after, he was sacked from the 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 that 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 them, 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.



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