Thirty-five years ago this week, Vietnamese fighters aboard ships HQ 604, HQ 605 and HQ 505 and stationed on three reefs in the Spratly Island archipelago faced off against the Chinese navy defending Beijing's claim to the South China Sea outcroppings.
Sixty-four Vietnamese died in the skirmishes over Gac Ma, Co Lin and Len Dao, also known as Johnson South Reef, Collins Reef, and Lansdowne Reef. Two unarmed Vietnamese cargo ships were sunk in the incident that left 11 wounded and landed nine in a Chinese prison for three years.
The 1988 battle remains a politically charged issue for the Vietnamese government, which must navigate a 2,000-year history with its largest trading partner and sees the event as sensitive enough to keep dissidents from official ceremonies.
In the years afterward, police often dispersed people who attempted commemorations.
The Vietnamese government held no official commemorations until 2022.
This year, news organizations affiliated with the government ran editorials calling the 1988 incident "unfair" and the state-controlled TV channel VTC aired an 8-minute documentary affirming "the inviolability of the sacred sovereignty of the Fatherland in the East Sea."
Authorities also allowed only approved participants such as uniformed military, veterans and government officers to attend incense-lighting ceremonies and to release lanterns on March 14 at the Gac Ma memorial site in Khanh Hoa province, according to local media.
Dissidents told VOA Vietnamese that they were banned from the official ceremonies and similar events elsewhere.
Former prisoner of conscience Nguyen Huu Vinh in Hanoi, who blogs as Anh Ba Sam on Facebook, told VOA Vietnamese by phone that while state media commemorated "the Gac Ma event, and there is a delegation to celebrate the anniversary of the fallen ... patriotic people who perform such celebrations are often blocked by authorities, security, police."
Nguyen added that the government was careful not to fuel anti-China sentiment with events like the Gac Ma commemoration.
"They don't allow activists to engage in these activities because it is hard for them to control the public sentiment," he said.
Tran Thi Thao, 70, an anti-China activist in Hanoi, told VOA Vietnamese by phone on Thursday that two men, one of them a local police officer who had watched her before, stopped her from leaving her apartment building as she headed to the statue of Ly Thai To, who in 1010 founded the city of Thang Long, which later became Hanoi.
The statue is where people burn incense to remember those who have died during Chinese invasions since China's Han Dynasty conquered the kingdom of Nam Viet in roughly 111 B.C. A February 17, 1979, invasion is the most recent, and occurred after Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, a move that historians say Beijing considered provocatively expansionist.
"When I came to the ground floor, I saw them sitting there watching me," Tran told VOA Vietnamese on Thursday. "… I was troubled because they stopped me from expressing my reasonable patriotism. They violated my rights of free movement."
China claims sovereignty
China rarely mentions the skirmish. Days after the 1988 battle, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused Vietnam of preparing for war over the contested Spratly Islands.
Since then, China has reiterated its claim to sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and their surrounding waters. Known in China as the Nansha Islands, the area is rich in fish and natural resources and is claimed in whole or part by Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines as well as Vietnam.
Beijing continues to ramp up activity in the islands by reclaiming land around the Johnson South Reef and building artificial islands, including airstrips with the potential to host military jets.
Pham Thu Hang, deputy spokeswoman for the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, said, "Vietnam requests China to respect Vietnam's sovereignty, cease militarization and refrain from activities that escalate tension in the region" when she was asked on April 21, 2022, to comment on China's militarization of some islands in the South China Sea.