Vietnam remembers China border war

A Vietnamese soldier rescues a little girl caught up in the border conflict. Photo courtesy Tran Manh Thuong, Van Hoa Publishing House.

Small groups of people gathered in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to mark the anniversary of the brief border war with China, which is not officially commemorated by Vietnam’s communist government.

Large numbers of police were deployed as mourners laid flowers and lit incense to remember the thousands of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed in the Chinese invasion.

The police in Hanoi used loud hailers to urge the participants to disperse. Reports said that a number of people were briefly detained in Ho Chi Minh City.

Activists interviewed by foreign media accused the the government was dishonouring the memory of fallen patriots for fear of offending China.

The border war of 1979 remains a sensitive issue for a communist government in Hanoi that seeks friendly relations with Beijing but is anxious not to be seen as unpatriotic at home.

State controlled media in Vietnam devoted considerably more coverage to this year’s anniversary, the 38th, than in the past, when it has barely been mentioned.

The online newspaper VN Express, which reflects coverage in other official journals and broadcast media, carried an emotive story about the extent of civilian casualties in the war.

“Many children, pregnant women and senior citizens died in the sudden Chinese onslaught of February, 1979,” began its story in the Friday edition.

It noted that the war normally receives little attention, especially in comparison to the wars against France and the United States. It said that interest in the border conflict had risen in recent years because of the current confrontation with China in the South China Sea.

Trust has been damaged

The leadership in Hanoi has recently been attempting to mend fences with China following a period of high tension over their territorial disputes.

The Vietnamese authorities have moved quickly to break up anti-China demonstrations, signalling to Beijing that they seek a new understanding.

However, trust between the two communist parties has been damaged, and the Vietnamese authorities do allow some venting of patriotic sentiment.

State media published a series of photographs of the devastation left in northern provinces by the brief Chinese invasion. The black and white photos reflected the human cost of the conflict and the impact on civilian refugees.

At least 200,000 Chinese troops are believed to have entered northern Vietnam in February 1979. They occupied a number of towns and cities, and tried to lure Vietnamese forces, from Hanoi and from the campaign against the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, into a battle of attrition.

The Chinese withdrew after a month after heavy losses were been sustained by both sides.

Historians have tended to see the conflict as a moral victory for Vietnam, as it showed it could resist massive Chinese firepower and would not be deflected from its invasion of Cambodia.

The Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, had said he wanted to teach Vietnam a lesson for its assault on a close ally of Beijing.

Vietnam had also antagonised China by cementing its close ties with Moscow, at the height of the Sino-Soviet split, and by its treatment of ethnic Chinese communities in Vietnam.