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The battle over Long Tan’s memory – a perspective from Viet Nam

Long Tan action, Vietnam, 18 August 1966 by Bruce Fletcher, 1970. © Australian War Memoral

The battle over Long Tan’s memory – a perspective from Viet Nam

The cancellation of the Little Pattie concert last night and the restrictions imposed on Australian tourists at Long Tan have caused controversy throughout the Vietnamese city of Vung Tau and across Australia.

The Long Tan Cross on display at the Australian War Memorial in 2012. Bidgee/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC-SA

I was at the concert dinner last night. No music was allowed, and no microphones for speeches permitted. Most of the attendees were quite upset. Several Australian veterans I spoke to last night contended that the Vietnamese cancelled the Long Tan events to “save face”, arguing that the Vietnamese were using the opportunity to show the Australians “who’s boss”. Many believe that the last minute cancellation was a deliberate, spiteful act by the Vietnamese government to remind the Australians “who won the war”.

There is an element of truth to these accusations. Saving face is important in Vietnamese culture and the Australian celebrations disregarded the Vietnamese requests that the anniversary be a low-key event: sombre, with no medals, ribbons, uniforms or regalia.

Right now, Vung Tau is teeming with veterans in tour t-shirts, ANZAC t-shirts, Long Tan badges and memorabilia hats. It might not be official Australian Defence Force dress, but the look is uniform and tribal, and the nationalistic tone disrespectful to the Vietnamese requests for sobriety.

After initially banning access to the Long Tan site, the Vietnamese PM, following late night talks on Wednesday between himself and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, agreed to allow wreath laying for groups of up to 100 people at the site.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull lays a wreath at a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan at the Vietnam War Memorial on Anzac Parade in Canberra, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Still, a further point of contention between the Australian veterans and the Vietnamese government is the Battle of Long Tan itself. Both sides claimed the battle as their victory, and the history books of both nations continue to reflect this impasse.

There is also controversy about the number of Vietnamese casualties. The Australian War Memorial puts the Vietnamese dead at 245. The Vietnamese estimate their dead at around 150. In previous years, these issues have been kept calm with a joint commemoration between the Vietnamese and the Australians at the site of Long Tan, and no discussion of the contentious body count figures.

This year, with the media coverage and the anniversary, some high profile Australian veterans are very publicly claiming victory at Long Tan, and stating that the Australians killed over 800 Vietnamese soldiers at Long Tan.

The Australian veterans I have spoken to consider their clothes innocuous, and their facts accurate. They also make the point that their presence is a boon to the Vung Tau economy, and it is true that most local people seem very cheerful among the tourists, happy to have the extra business.

The conflict is between the veterans’ organisers and the local government, not between the people of Vietnam and Australians.

A gun salute is given next to a replica Long Tan cross during a service remembering the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan at the Shrine of Rememberance in Melbourne, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016. AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

I spoke to some Vietnamese friends about the controversy surrounding Long Tan today. They are from Central Viet Nam, not Vung Tau, and none had ever heard of the Battle of Long Tan or the annual commemorative events before today. One told me,

I never heard of it and I doubt many Vietnamese know about it.

I explained the situation and asked for their thoughts. Hau said:

I have no problem with Australian veterans coming back to Viet Nam. They are welcome because the war is over, we need to move on. Looking back at the war history, that helps us avoid any future conflicts. But possibly for Vietnamese elder veterans, they are quite stricken. They cannot forget the pain.

Hau reminded me that younger generations feel no animosity towards the veterans, although many are somewhat bemused at the tour buses of Australian (and American) veterans who arrive in Viet Nam as tourists but who only visit war-related sites.

Hau’s attitude reflects what the majority of veterans have also reported to me: the Vietnamese are happy to see them, happy for their business, and bear no grudges.

However, another friend, Nam, disagreed.

I don’t think commemorating such an event right here in Viet Nam, in such an open manner, on such a big scale, is a good idea. Veterans can of course commemorate in a small event between themselves … It is a good thing that the government kept a lid over this event, otherwise it would cause an outrage among Vietnamese. Nationalism is really high in this country. The idea that foreigners come here and commemorate (or celebrate in the people’s minds) a war event in which we were enemies is outrageous to most of us.

Nam’s comments go to the “deep sensitivities” cited by Ha Noi as the reason for the cancellations and restrictions. He added, “for the record I don’t really approve of the way our government celebrates their victory in the war every year either. Such bullshit”.

Australian Ambassador to Vietnam Bill Tweddell and Baria Vungtau province’s veterans association chairman Colonel Phan Chien walk to a wreath laying ceremony at the military cemetery in Baria town in 2006. REUTERS/Kham

It is also important to remember that Vietnamese people are not allowed to congregate in large numbers. Freedom of assembly is restricted. Two years ago, the Vietnamese government attempted a total, if temporary, block on international news following Vietnamese protests outside Chinese factories in response to conflict in the South China Sea.

This year, controversy around the rights of free speech and association spiked again as young Vietnamese people attempted to protest environmental damage caused by factories. Dozens were detained.

Now, thousands of Australian soldiers were planning to congregate on Vietnamese land when the Vietnamese people cannot. One theory is that such a large number of war tourists might encourage Vietnamese people to protest against their government, or incite civil unrest because these tourists have rights that they are denied.

The argument from veterans that the commemorations are apolitical falls flat. Memory becomes history, and history is politics. Of course the commemoration is political, especially when so many veterans are claiming victory over the Vietnamese.

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