Vietnam War’s Sting Lingers

Vietnam’s treatment of ethnic Chinese after the war is undermining a rapprochement with Australia.

Australia’s relations with Vietnam have been solid for many years. Canberra was among the first to open a Western mission in Hanoi after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. This was despite Australia’s absolute support for the United States and its Cold War battlegrounds in Indochina.

These days, two-way trade is worth in excess of $5 billion, and regional political power plays are helping both countries to forge strategic relations. But the sting in the tail of the Vietnam War remains.

Recently, senior figures in the Returned & Services League of Australia (RSL) attempted to formalize a relationship with their one time adversaries – the Viet Cong who fought in the former South Vietnam and North Vietnam’s military.

About 60,000 Australians served in the conflict from 1962 till 1972, 500 died and another 3,000 were wounded. The numbers pale when compared with Vietnamese or even US casualties, but were significant given Australia’s mission and its much smaller population base.  

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No sooner had moves been made to establish a memorandum of understanding and foster a greater understanding between the two former enemies than RSL National President Rear Adm. Ken Doolan issued a one line press release saying the MoU had been scrapped.

Why? No reason was given, although Doolan had previously argued a form of rapprochement was needed because ‘we owe it to the future to do all we can to bring former enemies together.’

However, Ron Coxon from the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia said the RSL – which looks after the interests of veterans and their families of all wars – hadn’t consulted members. Hardline vets had apparently accused the RSL of gross betrayal. Coxon added the vast majority of Vietnam vets had opposed the agreement and their opinions were influenced by Australians who came as refugees from South Vietnam.

Most had fled the incoming Communists in 1975 or were forced out of their homeland four years later because they were ethnic Chinese and consequently bullied and expelled after Beijing attacked Vietnam’s northern border in retaliation for Hanoi’s invasion of Cambodia.

Phong Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese Community in Australia, said it was a great relief to learn the MoU wouldn’t be signed, adding that while his community did not hate anyone, it was difficult to shake hands with a regime that doesn’t respect human rights.

The Vietnamese did the world a favour by invading Cambodia and ousting Beijing-backed Pol Pot, but their treatment of fellow Vietnamese who opted to remain after the collapse of the South Vietnamese government simply because of their Chinese ethnicity was reprehensible.

Hanoi owes them an apology. Financial compensation wouldn’t be out of order, either.