In 1954, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap masterminded the crushing defeat of the French empire in Indochina at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. It was a victory that changed history. For a start, it destroyed the assumption of Western invincibility. But it also inspired anti-colonial struggles across the globe.
After the Geneva Conference, war broke out again. This time, Giap faced apparently impossible odds with his poorly-equipped North Vietnamese army and Vietcong guerrillas pitted against the technologically superior United States, with its mastery of the skies. Still, US forces were humiliated and eventually defeated by 1975.
But tomorrow, the General, widely considered to be one of the greatest military leaders of the 20th century, will reach a more personal milestone – his 100th birthday.
His military career may be over, but he showed in 2009 that he still had plenty of fight left in him as he vocally opposed environmentally devastating open-cast bauxite mining in the country.
Such opposition would presumably have surprised Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who appears to have believed this old soldier died years ago – in her address to Australian war veterans, Gillard suggested that Vietnam’s greatest war hero had been killed.
Although he is now physically frail, suffers from respiratory problems and currently resides in a Hanoi military hospital, Giap’s mind remains surprisingly lucid.
The former right-hand man to revered President Ho Chi Minh was surprisingly ejected from the Politburo in 1982, a demotion of the popular hero that shocked the nation.
Why? In the post-war period, hard-liners in control of the Vietnamese Communist Party had become jealous of his international stature and intellectual prowess.He was appointed as one of several deputy prime ministers, but his humble portfolio was limited to family planning, science and technology.
For several years, Giap almost disappeared from public view. But even after officially retiring from government in 1991, Giap was never inactive, and was always in demand. Visiting world leaders lined up to meet him, including Lula Da Silva from Brazil, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and South African leader Thabo Mbeki. Giap also delivered numerous lectures, and wrote about the history of the Vietnamese Communist Party.
Over the past decade, Giap has indicated that he believes Vietnamese society is still far from achieving the ideals that inspired his heroic struggles to secure the nation’s independence.
In 2006, he complained that ‘the prevailing bureaucracy, corruption and red tape reduce the party’s reputation and threaten its very existence.’ But for many war veterans, his criticism didn’t go far enough.
Lobbying at the 1986 Party Congress for him to become prime minister was nipped in the bud by senior party leaders, who feared the charismatic Giap might take Vietnam in a very different socialist direction. But more than two decades later, Giap showed he still had a role to play in the country’s future.
By 2009, the Vietnamese government had signed a joint venture deal to exploit bauxite in the Central Highlands. But Giap was angry over the potential environmental impact and fired off an open letter to the Vietnamese prime minister warning that open-cut mining would destroy vast areas of forest and crops, leaving huge deposits of toxic sludge.
‘Giap was our first leader after the war to focus on environmental problems,’ says Nguyen Huu Ninh, who was part of a UN team awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for their work on climate change.
Upset that there was no response from the Vietnamese government to a second open letter, Giap made sure that his fiery salvo was published by the media. In the letter, he recalled that as deputy prime minister, he had blocked the same bauxite project in the Central Highlands from being developed by the Soviet Union, and noted the same environmental problems remained.
The campaign snowballed, with 135 intellectuals, scientists and communist cadres signing a petition to the Vietnamese National Assembly, a rare act of protest in this one party state.
Of all the leading Vietnamese figures over the past 30 years, Giap – who listened to French radio news every morning and insisted on briefings throughout the day – was probably the best-informed, an intellectual with an impressive breadth of reading both in politics and literature.
Sadly, he was never given the opportunity to match in civilian life what he achieved on the battlefield.
Tom Fawthrop is a Thailand-based journalist and producer.