(also as our editorial May 2012)
LESSONS ON SOVEREIGNTY FROM VIETNAM
Roland G. Simbulan*
I have just arrived from a one-week visit to what the French colonialists used to call “the Paris of the East”, Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City and the southern parts of Vietnam. On April 30, Vietnam celebrated the 37th Anniversary of the complete liberation of the southern part of the country from “U.S. Aggressors and its puppet government”, a victory that paved the way for the reunification of north and south Vietnam and the establishment of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. In our current disputes over territorial claims with China, Vietnam presents lessons from which we could learn from without surrendering our self-respect and sovereignty to ANY big power.
Vietnam was colonized by the Chinese, the French, and by the United States, all whom came out bruised and traumatized after ultimately being defeated by the protracted people’s wars waged by the Vietnamese people and their courageous resistance fighters. In the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the best French generals and officers, schooled in St. Cyr, the elite French military academy, were outwitted and defeated by a former school teacher-turned-guerrilla leader Vo Nguyen Giap, capping the defeat of France in the hands of the Viet Minh people’s army. During the America War in Vietnam between 1961 to 1975, the United States was humbled by the Vietnam People’s Army and the black pajama “Vietcong” guerrillas of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam.
I have long heard about the legendary Cu Chi tunnels before I travelled to Vietnam. I have imagined then that it was simply like an ant hill with several layers. But when one visits the Cu Chi Tunnels, a one and a half hour trip northwest of Ho Chi Minh City as we did, one is left in awe and admiration at the determination and creativity of the Viet Cong, who were demonized in our country by U.S. black propaganda during the Vietnam War. The Cu Chi Tunnels are actually an intricate network of tunnels carved out by hand, bucket by bucket. They are a vast network of multi-storied tunnels which functioned as residence and fortress to thousands of Vietcong fighters and their families. These functioned as an underground city.The tunnel system was started by the small farming community of Cu Chi, in their resistance against the French colonialists, and expanded for 20 years, covering almost 250 kilometers to defeat, by April 1975, the strongest military superpower on earth. Here, Vietcong guerrillas and their families lived, ate and slept. The tunnels served as command centers, meeting and conference areas, cultural halls, kitchens, weapons factories and storage rooms, field hospitals, and where many Cu Chi residents got married, gave birth, cared for and educated their children. The Cu Chi tunnels were protected by a sophisticated array of booby traps which guarded the tunnels against intruders. Almost 20% of total U.S. troop casualties during the war – deaths as well as injuries– were inflicted by these booby traps.
The U.S. war machine used every arsenal in their weaponry to flush out and destroy the Cu Chi Tunnel Vietcong guerrillas : carpet bombing with 1,000 pound bombs, defoliants like the deadly Agent Orange, strategic hamlets and a special unit of U.S. Forces called the Tunnel Rats, but they failed. Eventually, the tunnels dug even extended under the U.S. military bases and facilities, so that the American forces wondered how many of their weapons in their base arsenals were being pilfered by the Vietcong with tunnels right under their noses. Cu Chi is a testament to the Vietnamese people’s determination, endurance, ingenuity and sheer will to fight for their country and defeat those who dare intrude into their country’s sovereignty. Cu Chi at its heyday was considered a “holy revolutionary base” of the Vietnamese resistance to colonial and superpower intervention. It was the headquarters of the Saigon-Gia Dinh Regional Party and its Military Command, which led the anti-U.S. resistance and contributed in no small way to the complete liberation of south Vietnam. It is now a national historical site, as it is for most Vietnamese a symbol of the Vietnamese people’s revolutionary heroism.
During the years of U.S. military intervention in Vietnam, the Philippines sent on April 1965 a contingent of 2,000 troops at Tay Ninh, which Vietnam’s War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City describes as “troops of satellite countries” . Vietnam’s War Museum takes note that in addition to the troops sent by the satellite country, “…in addition, the Philippines provided the U.S. military forces with the Navy Base at Subic Base and the Air Force Base at Clark Field for launching air attacks over Vietnam.” The War Remnants Museum documents in exhibits and photos the war crimes of French colonialists but also more focused on the atrocities during the U.S. military intervention and occupation of South Vietnam. Also displayed there are the tanks, warplanes, artillery, weapons and small arms and weapons of mass destruction and defoliants like Agent Orange which were used during the war against the Vietnamese people and their people’s army. The Vietnamese people’s resistance and the world people’s support of Vietnamese resistance is also well documented in the war museum exhibits.
Though China gave critical support to the Vietnamese resistance in the anti-French, anti-Japanese and anti-U.S. intervention wars, the Vietnamese did not hesitate to stand up to its former close ally and supporter China. It even engaged China in combat when it was necessary, when China began encroaching on Vietnam’s borders in the north and in contested islands in the Spratlys where Vietnam is also a claimant. It did not rely on the U.S. Navy to stand up and to to say no to China, but instead developed the military capability of its own Vietnam People’s Army which it combined with astute diplomatic work. China was prudent enough not to continue to bully and not to engage militarily this small country of 80 million, which had defeated and humbled on its own terms, the strongest military superpower on earth.
The staunch and dauntless Vietnamese resistance against the French and the United States, and even against the later bullying by China, on its borders and territorial waters, made up for the scarcity and limitations brought by wartime. The Cu Chi Tunnels are a living testament of the determination, unshakeable will, ingenuity and resourcefulness, and of the courageous people of Vietnam who have eventually won their struggles despite all the odds.
*The author is a Board Director and Senior Fellow of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPeg). He also is a Professor at the University of the Philippines.