HANOI— On Friday, one of Vietnam’s most celebrated war commanders, General Vo Nguyen Giap, died in a military hospital at the age of 102. Despite the nationwide outpouring of grief and tributes, the general’s long career both during and after the war remains divisive, not least among Vietnam’s political activists.
The news of General Vo Nguyen Giap’s death broke on social media sites Friday evening and was quickly followed by varied reactions.
The general is credited with masterminding the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which led to the end of French colonial rule. He is also described as being a key figure in the defeat of South Vietnam in 1975, ending what the Vietnamese call the American War.
The self-taught military strategist is also considered the founding father of the Vietnam People’s Army, and was close friends with President Ho Chi Minh.
For such a historic figure, the attention on his passing shines a great light on Vietnam’s present leadership and its record, says Jonathan London, Vietnam analyst and assistant professor at City University Hong Kong.
“His death in a sense brings attention to the performance and the legitimacy of Vietnam’s current leadership, so there’s a need among the leadership in a sense to manage this affair because of the sensitivities associated with it,” said London.
After the war, Giap raised concerns about the country’s quick adoption of Soviet-style economic reforms and foreign policy. He was later sidelined from Vietnamese politics and retired as deputy prime minister in 1991.
Professor London said Vietnam’s leadership wants to control the official narrative of his passing by focusing on his military victories, but that may prove difficult because of his political stances in his later years.
“A few years ago when General Giap was making his voice heard about several issues, including the bauxite mining in the Highlands and was generally calling for greater accountability with respect to Vietnam’s leadership, there was a great deal of interest among the Vietnamese population in general,” said London.
Some of those who championed the general’s causes were also targeted by the government.
When anti-China protests erupted in Hanoi in 2011, some of those on the march were carrying posters bearing the general’s face.
Nguyen Quang Thach was one of them. He said he believes the Vietnamese people should embody Giap’s spirit, but not just to fight China.
“At the moment our citizens need to transform Giap's spirit into our hearts so that our country can win in many new battlefronts such as economic and educational reforms, military modernization,” says Nguyen Quang Thach.
Not all activists share Thach’s fervor. While Giap remained an influential voice in Vietnam well into his 90s, some say his influence, according to Jonathan London, diminished in recent years while the general was hospitalized and out of public view.
“The general was hospitalized for three or four years so his death has been long expected. In the meantime, I think Vietnam’s own political culture has changed a lot in a very short period of time. So while the general himself just a few years ago was an individual of great interest while those struggling for political reforms in Vietnam by the time of his death, the country had in respect moved on,” London said.
For those who fled to the United States after the war, the reactions to the general’s death are quite different from those in Vietnam’s capital. Many in the diaspora still have strong feelings about the Communist Party, said Duy Hoang, spokesman for the pro-democracy organization Viet Tan, which is banned in Vietnam.
“I think the propaganda inside Vietnam, and also by some of the western intellectuals, is always how Giap threw out the Americans. But I think what they are missing is really that for those 20 years it was a civil war between Vietnamese brothers fighting for different ideologies and ultimately I think the country of Vietnam was the loser for that,” said Duy Hoang.
However, he added that the diaspora should appreciate the role the general played in fighting colonialism.
“We have to recognize General Giap’s role in the independence movement, in the role of Dien Bien Phu, that’s something that not everybody in the overseas community is willing to acknowledge,” added Duy Hoang.
The general’s funeral will take place on Saturday in Hanoi.