Our Man in Vietnam

Street children selling cigarette lighters around central Ha Noi are finding one of them is particularly popular. It features an illustration of the World Trade Centre shortly after the first plane hit it, and moments before the second. On lifting the lid, a small, simulated explosion lights up in the first tower. Beneath the towers ‘9-11’ is written in the script usually reserved for posters celebrating Vietnam’s revolutionary history and next to them is an embossed likeness of Bin Laden, sporting a Che Guevara style beret, and his beard had been squared to resemble that of Fidel Castro.

Although Vietnamese responses to the America of today are generally less bellicose than this, memories of the war with the US are still very prominent and animosity still lingers. It’s only been a few months since the government organised large scale commemorative celebrations for the 30th anniversary of the twelve day battle of Dien Bien Phu, when the North Vietnamese troops shot down 34 B52s over Ha Noi. Official posters appeared all over the city showing Vietnamese fists pounding the American bombers.

The war in Iraq has inevitably stoked up old memories; the North Vietnamese may be proud of their resistance to the American forces, but it was not something they wanted, and is certainly not something they want to see inflicted on anyone else.

Asked his opinion on the invasion of Iraq, one farmer in Thuong Tin district just outside Ha Noi pulls up his sleeve to reveal a deep scar running down the length of his forearm, which he says he sustained during an American bombing raid on the village. ‘Peace is good,’ he says. Condemnations of the invasion of Iraq have come from all sections of Vietnamese society, from elderly veterans to schoolchildren, who have shown their disapproval in both State-endorsed and spontaneous protests.

The ruling Communist Party have dubbed the war a ‘gross violation’ of international law, calling for international conflicts to be ‘settled peacefully on the basis of equality and mutual respect,’ and demanded that the invasion be terminated.

Anti-war demonstrations were taking place all over the country before the war began, though they were initially rather more orderly affairs than were seen in the rest of the world. Orchestrated by the Fatherland Front – an organisation that aims to ‘propagandise and mobilise people’ into performing the will of the State – protestors formed orderly lines and carried sombre banners handed to them by the authorities, proclaiming Iraq’s right to sovereignty. There were even rumours amid student circles that State universities were offering cash incentives to those who attended.

But as the war picked up pace, few would have doubted the sincerity of the protests. Shirts came off and the official banners disappeared, to be replaced with bare chests daubed with fake blood, peace slogans such as ‘Son of a Bush’ and skulls and cross bones as students chanted and beat drums and cymbals. One girl, who I shall name Hoanh Anh, studies just over the road from the American embassy where some of the non-State demonstrations have been taking place. Asked for her views on the war in Iraq, she doesn’t hesitate: ‘Bush is evil.’

Hoanh has attended every demonstration so far outside the embassy, where she shouted ‘Say no to war’ in Vietnamese and ‘Bush-dog’ in English until she lost her voice. She said she hoped Iraq wouldn’t lose the war.

By turning up at the embassy – an undesignated protest site – students are potentially taking a very big risk. The Vietnamese government may agree with their cause, but it has little tolerance for the unendorsed public airing of political views. Tran Van Luong learned this the hard way in 2001, when he was caught distributing human rights leaflets in the street. The government sentenced him to death, though this was later reduced to twenty years in prison after a human rights protest campaign.

This was not an isolated incident; The International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development reports that the Vietnamese government frequently imprisons and tortures people who raise their voices on domestic political issues.

Predictably, it didn’t take long for the State to crack down on the demonstrations outside the embassy. Protests will continue to be tolerated, but as a police spokesperson said, students are advised to keep their activities to ‘parks, stadiums and cultural palaces.’ In case the students had any other ideas, security police were stationed outside the US embassy with large electric batons that crackled when they flicked the switches.

The protestors didn’t need telling twice – here in Vietnam at least, regime change does not begin at home.

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