The Passing of General Vo Nguyen Giap
General Vo Nguyen Giap had already been dead more than 24 hours before the long-expected event was confirmed by Vietnamese Communist Party organs. Just before seven p.m. Hanoi time on Oct. 5, a "special announcement" in Nhan Dan, the voice of the ruling party, informed readers that Giap had passed away and would be accorded a state funeral on October 12 and 13.
By that time, news of the death of Vietnam's legendary victor over French and American armies had already been flashed around the world, reported first by the nation's online dissident press and then by the handful of journalists who represent the international press in Vietnam.
Like those prophets mentioned by Jesus (Luke 4:24, for instance), the 102 year-old hero of Dien Bien Phu was no longer much of a hero in his own country – at least not in the eyes of the people in power.
The obituaries posted by the remaining great organs of the world press dwelt without exception on Giap's close association with Ho Chi Minh and his role as the architect of the 1954 Dien Bien Phu victory and of the 1968 Tet attacks that at a stupifying cost in soldiers' lives turned US opinion decisively against America's "Vietnam War."
Many of the obits had the musty scent of text prepared and 'canned' long ago. Indeed, Judy Stowe's rather better than average bylined piece in the Independent (UK) was presumably penned sometime before her own death six years ago.
Uniformly the obits in the international press do not explain why, with years to think about it, the Hanoi regime remained unsure if it should accord Giap a high profile state funeral. Nor, as a rule, do they note that by the decisive years of the "American War," both Ho and Giap had been shoved to the margins by a younger and even more ruthless generation of revolutionaries, an event confirmed by Western scholars who've been able to rummage through Hanoi's archives in recent years.
General Giap has been unpopular with his successors in Hanoi's Politburo for a long time now, not least because his enduring popularity in the People's Army made him the obvious focal point for cabals hoping to shift the balance of power in Vietnam's regime. Insofar as is known, Giap never encouraged such plotting. Later on he did, however, speak out from the safety of retirement against trends that disturbed him.
The distinguished Hanoi-watcher Carl Thayer believes Giap may be remembered best in Vietnam for his late-in-life "interventions in letters to the senior leadership, bitterly criticizing the role of military intelligence in providing information that could be used to suppress domestic dissent and also really arguing that the party needed to open up and its procedures should be more democratic. He'll be seen," Professor Thayer continues, "as a kind of retired mandarin who was able to offer advice without anything to gain by it because mortality faced him when he made these statements, and this will be seen as acting in a highly moral and ethical fashion in Vietnamese culture."
The aging general also lent his prestige to a wave of protest that erupted in 2009 against a project to strip mine extensive bauxite deposits in Vietnam's southern highlands. In a letter to regime leaders, Giap weighed in against the likely environmental damages and the security risk he perceived in allowing Chinese contractors almost free rein to develop the project in a sensitive border area.
In Vietnam, state funerals are as a rule reserved for past general secretaries of the Communist Party, state presidents and prime ministers, and heads of the national legislature. Giap never held any of these positions, so it was doubtless necessary to convene the Politburo in order to worry through an exemption. And, now that the great general is dead, why should the regime have a hard time deciding to give him a big sendoff? Most likely it's because Giap's funeral may not be fully controllable event. He has been the object of genuine affection by his countrymen. They are far more inclined to grieve his passing than the death of any of the current group of leaders. Dissidents predictably will ride the tide of sentiment, seeking to make of it a vehicle for their frustration with current policies.
(David Brown is a former US diplomat who specialized in Southeast Asia and particularly Vietnam.)