General Giap relevant as ever on 100th birthday

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General Vo Nguyen Giap (1st, R) and his wife (2nd, R) during a visit to Dien Bien Province in 2004, where he stunned the world with his victory over a French garrison in the northwestern town of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Giap turns 100 this week.

Vietnam is awash with birthday wishes this week as the nation celebrates the 100th birthday of General Vo Nguyen Giap, architect of Vietnam's historic military victories over French Colonialism and American Imperialism.  

Amidst a cornucopia of celebrations, Vietnamese people across the nation are praying for the well-being of General Giap, the country's most highly-regarded modern revolutionary figure after founding father Ho Chi Minh. Giap turns 100 on Thursday (August 25).

"I was told that he's doing well," said Duong Trung Quoc, a Vietnamese historian who used to work closely with Giap.

"Vo Nguyen Giap is not simply a person who has surpassed 100 years of age," said Quoc. "He is not only a mere witness but one of the key architects of Vietnamese history."

"General Giap is a historic personality, not only in Vietnam's history but the history of French and American colonialism," said Ben Kerkvliet, a Vietnam expert at the Australian National University. "General Giap's military achievements are also known in [other] countries that won independence from colonial rule after World War II."

Born in 1911 in the north-central province of Quang Binh, the General stunned the world with his victory over a French garrison in the northwestern town of Dien Bien Phu. The battle and triumph there is famous for effectively ending French colonial rule in Vietnam.

"In defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu, he [Giap] heralded the end of imperialism," Time Asia wrote in a 2006 article that honored Giap as one of the continent's greatest heroes.

The victory is said to have "struck down the myth of Western invincibility" and represented the first time an Asian resistance movement triumphed against a colonial army in conventional combat.

Fourteen years after Dien Bien Phu, the General masterminded the Mau Than Campaign, also known as the Tet Offensive of 1968, which was considered the turning point of the Vietnam War, which ended seven years later. The offensive was credited with having a huge political impact, swaying American perceptions about the conflict and spelling doom for support of the US presence in Vietnam.

Giap commanded Vietnam's military and insurgent forces for more than three decades against the Japanese, the French, the Americans, the Chinese, and the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

Giap is among 59 military leaders portrayed in the book "Great Military Leaders and Their Campaigns" by Jeremy Black. He is the only living person among the 59 selected figures in this book. Historian Stanley Karnow has also described Giap as ranking with Wellington, Grant, Lee, Rommel, and MacArthur.

A recent photo book published by the Authority of Foreign Information Service quoted Tran Van Tra, who commanded the Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam, as saying that, "Vo Nguyen Giap was the commander of commanders, the political commissar of political commissars"¦and the commander-in-chief who bore the pain of every wound of each soldier and who knew the loss of every drop of blood of each combatant."

"Every person who died for out nation's liberation was like a son or daughter, a brother or sister to me. I carry each and every one of them in my heart," Giap himself said in the late 1980s.

Defending the nation on all fronts

Giap was installed as Vietnam's defense minister in 1975 and as a Deputy Prime Minister a year later.

Giap stepped down from his post at the Defense Ministry in 1980 and left the Party's elite Politburo, the group at the pinnacle of Vietnamese power, two years later. But he remained on the Party Central Committee and was a Deputy PM until 1991.

In his retirement, Giap did not cease to play a pivotal role in the country's development.

In an open letter addressed to the Party and the press in 2007, Giap lambasted the country's education system and called for an across-the-board, if not revolutionary, shakeup. Otherwise Vietnam's education would continue to trail far behind neighboring countries, Giap wrote in the letter.

But perhaps most notably, Giap stood up to defend his country once again in 2009 by writing another letter to the Vietnamese government warning that two bauxite mining developments in the Central Highlands would be detrimental to the environment, displace ethnic minority populations and threaten national security.

The project, approved by the Politburo in late 2007, calls for an investment of US$15 billion by 2025 to exploit reserves of bauxite the key mineral in making aluminum that by some estimates are the third largest in the world.

Vinacomin, the Vietnamese mining consortium that is aiming to produce up to 6.6 million tons of aluminum at the mines by 2015, has awarded the engineering, procurement and construction contract for both the complexes in Lam Dong and Dak Nong provinces to China Aluminum International Engineering Co (Chalieco).

"General Giap has criticized [party] policies and"¦ government policies.  And well he should if he thinks the party and government that he helped to establish and served for decades has taken improper or incorrect or even dangerous paths," said Kerkvliet, the Australia-based Vietnam analyst.

"His letters criticizing bauxite mining in the Central Highlands were, in my view, very relevant. They highlighted the strategic dangers for Vietnam of allowing so much Chinese involvement in that mining, in Vietnam, and in Vietnam's financial dealings."

Giap's letter was hailed as having enough teeth to force the Vietnamese government to heed his warnings. Deputy PM Hoang Trung Hai later responded that the country would not consider exploiting the mineral at "any cost" and would readjust the project in an effort to minimize damage to the environment.

The letter also enabled the public to have a say on the issue and opened the floor for further debates at the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature.

"General Giap's voice on policy matters [has] influenced many Vietnamese citizens and probably some Vietnamese authorities," Kerkvliet said. "I'm not aware of his views causing authorities to reverse or significantly change course.  But perhaps time will tell a different story."

Vietnam will produce the first alumina from a bauxite complex in the Central Highlands in September after months of delays caused by adverse weather, power shortages and slow equipment delivery, the official Vietnam News Agency reported last month. Vinacomin has also been developing the Nhan Co project in Lam Dong's neighboring province of Dak Nong, with projected initial output of 600,000 tons of alumina. Vinacomin planned to start operating the Nhan Co complex in Dak Nong in 2012.

Legacy

Giap's stature as a symbol of Vietnam's hope and national pride has continued to inspire people in his country, analysts say.

"Even in his retirement, Giap's philosophies on the building and defense of national sovereignty as well as his striving for the country's democracy and prosperity make him a symbol for every Vietnamese to be proud of and to tell the whole world about," said Quoc, the Vietnamese historian.

"To my knowledge, Vietnam is the only country to call its founder Uncle (Uncle Ho) and the only country whose veterans call their commander-in-chief Eldest Brother (Anh Ca and Anh Van, where Van is Vo Nguyen Giap's most common nickname)," said Lady Borton, an American author who has written extensively on Ho Chi Minh and General Giap.

"I can't imagine a French Foreign Legion trooper calling General Navarre "˜Brother' to his face, and I certainly can't imagine an American draftee addressing General Westmoreland as "˜Brother,'" Borton said.

Nguyen Kim Phuong, 81, fought in the guerilla resistance movement against both the French and Americans.

Like his peers, Phuong is celebrating the 100th birthday anniversary of his commander.

"I don't think Vietnam will have a second general like Giap in the future," said Phuong, whose father was killed by the French and whose father-in-law was confined at Con Dao prison, notorious for its infamous "tiger cages." "But Giap has been able to train generations of successors who have imbibed his soul, his spirit, and his quintessence."

"With such high-caliber people, I think Vietnam stands ready to defend its independence and national sovereignty under any circumstance," Phuong said.

"And"¦ that should be the most significant message to celebrate on General Giap's 100th birthday."

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