Governments and their militaries have well established traditions when it comes to commemorating battles that define a nation. Those traditions dictate that formal ceremonies are held every five and 10 years to remember the fallen.
Billions of dollars will be spent commemorating the 100th anniversary of the First World War, known back then as The Great War. Countries from as far afield as New Zealand and Turkey to the United States and of course Britain, Germany and France will ensure a tour de force.
Such traditions apply to conflicts big and small. The overriding message is to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. The focus is not on the politics behind the conflict, something that put the Vietnamese government in a difficult spot over the weekend.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Given Vietnam’s long running stand-off with China over Beijing’s territorial ambitions in the South China Seas – known as the East Sea in Hanoi and the West Philippine Sea in Manila – the emergence of veterans over the weekend to commemorate battles won in 1979 provided an awkward twist.
On Christmas Day 1978, – after more than a year of cross-border incursions and the wholesale slaughter of ethnic Vietnamese by the Khmer Rouge – Hanoi launched an invasion of Cambodia, ousted Pol Pot from power and exiled the ultra-Maoists to the countryside from where they would maintain a civil war for the next two decades.
The Vietnamese had moral and legal justification. Pol Pot’s crimes are well documented thanks largely to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. But the Chinese, chief backer of the Khmer Rouge, thought otherwise and invaded Vietnam on its northern flank hoping to lend support to its Cold War satellite.
The diversionary tactics did not work, the Vietnamese out-maneuvered the Chinese and sent them scurrying. By Vietnamese standards it was a major victory against the Khmer Rouge and Beijing.
Vietnam, a single party state, does not like protests it does not organize and it has never flinched when using liberal doses of nationalism to commemorate victories over the French colonialists in Indochina in 1954 and the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese 21 years later.
But the deaths of tens of thousands from February 1979 has gone largely ignored amid charges a younger generation of Vietnamese politicians are bowing to business ties with Beijing, angering veterans of the campaign who took to the streets of Hanoi over the weekend to mark the 35th anniversary of the conflict.
On Sunday, veterans, their families and supporters wore red headbands with white roses and black ribbons and marched around Hoan Kiem Lake, made speeches and laid flowers at the Ngoc Son Temple, leaving sympathetic authorities in a difficult spot.
How to do the bidding of their political masters without taking the usual hard-headed approach to dissident protesters which usually results in cracked heads, arrests and jail?
According to well-known dissident Nguyen Quang A, the plainclothes police deployed ballroom dancers and aerobic classes near the statue of Hanoi’s founder Ly Thai To. They were asked to stop while wreaths could be laid but the dancers refused.
It was a peaceful if novel approach. But to confront those with international protocol on side to recognize those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country with the same tactics as a flash mob singing opera to protest a McDonalds restaurant was as churlish as it was cheap.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt