Cracks show in Gen. Giap's official legacy
HANOI — Vietnam’s most powerful politicians and military leaders were among thousands who paid their respects at the funeral Saturday of celebrated war hero General Vo Nguyen Giap, who died on October 4 at the age of 102.
Giap is considered one of nation's founding fathers, second only to President Ho Chi Minh. He is credited as the mastermind behind the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which ended French colonial rule, and commanding the military to victory over the United States.
During the week, tens of thousands of people lined up outside his home in central Hanoi to pay tribute.
“He is our big brother,” said war veteran Nguyen Xuan Tu, 84, from Nghe An province. “When I heard about his death I felt so emotional, I couldn’t cry.”
“I know him through the Dien Bien Phu battle and lots of articles about him. The feeling for me is that he’s like my grandfather, he’s in my heart,” 23-year-old accountant Nguyen Thanh Tam.
Giap’s image is a “badge of honor” for the Vietnamese Communist Party and state, said Jonathan London, Vietnam analyst and assistant professor at City University Hong Kong.
“He is a symbol of the unquestionable legitimacy of the Vietnamese state so there’s a desire to keep all discussion, his life and his significance, within that fairly narrow storyline."
However, critics say that behind the scenes, Giap’s political life during and after the war was quite different from the official narrative.
Following the withdrawal of the French and the beginning of what the Vietnamese call the American War, Giap was sidelined politically by Communist Party leaders Le Duan and Le Duc Tho, said historian Lien-Hang Nguyen, associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky.
"Le Duan and Le Duc Tho always saw him [Giap] as a threat because of his popularity in country and internationally, so there was no way they could do away with him. But what they could do behind closed doors was marginalize him in the top party leadership, and silence him when he opposed them,” said Hang, the author of Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam.
By the end of the war in 1975, Giap remained a powerful symbol, but he soon lost political influence.
"He was pushed aside after the American War, removed from his position in the Ministry of Defence and the politburo in the early 80s, pretty much pushed out of political office by the 1990s,” Hang said.
Although the general stayed silent on issues of political intrigue, his request to be buried in his home province Quang Binh instead of a military cemetery in Hanoi has roused some debate on political blogs.
It could have been a political statement, London said.
“He will not be buried among his comrades of the old guard with whom he is typically associated, obviously this is something that will not be discussed widely in official state-run media,” he said.
The general reinforced his image as a people’s hero well into his 90s by writing open letters or using anniversary events to protest issues ranging from corruption to bauxite mining. Those efforts ceased four years ago when he was hospitalized.
However, one political blogger said the general was not much of a role model for modern activists.
“I think people now are less confident of veteran communists like him. Their day is gone,” she said, requesting anonymity.