Long Tan commemoration cancelled, then rescheduled with modifications agreed upon by Vietnamese and Australian PMs

For Aussies and New Zealanders, the Battle of Long Tan is the highlight of their wartime experience in Viet Nam, a singular event in which an outnumbered force of ANZAC infantry and artillery held off more than 1500 Viet Cong, inflicting serious casualties while suffering relatively few casualties of their own. Over the years, Vietnamese authorities have quietly permitted groups of Australian and New Zealand veterans to return on special occasions to commemorate the battle at the site near the beach resort town of Vung Tau. This year, the event threatened to balloon out of proportion and the Vietnamese cancelled their authorization at the last minute, later amending the decision to permit a much smaller event as had been the practice in the past. The situation has stirred considerable comment, not unlike the controversy surrounding the appointment of former Sen. Bob Kerrey to be Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the new Fulbright University Vietnam. Kerrey, who eventually admitted his role as a U.S. Navy Seal in the killing of more than a dozen Vietnamese women, children, and old men in a nighttime raid intended to wipe out suspected Viet Cong, has said he does not intend to step down from his appointment despite the controversy.

​The Vietnamese have usually been extremely gracious, patient, and forgiving toward us foreigners in ​permitting us to indulge in various remembrances and recognitions to honor “us” as we salve our wounds and lament the losses we suffered during the war here. In return we sometimes pay homage to the three million dead Vietnamese, mostly civilians, and note the suffering that still burdens more than three million Agent Orange victims and countless amputees and others victims permanently disabled from the war and from UXO accidents since.

But the Vietnamese have also tried, patiently, to let us know that there are certain lines that should not be crossed. Turning a somber commemoration into a beer party, or appointing someone who would be judged by many as a war criminal, based on international law, to the top position at a new institution of educational excellence, is insensitive to Vietnam’s self-respect and dignity — as expressed by a Vietnamese former ambassador who has known Kerrey personally for many years, and who still opposes his appointment.

Below is somewhat extensive reporting and discussion of the ANZAC commemoration, thanks to Carl Robinson, Helen Clark, Lindsay Murdoch, and Nick Turner.

Chuck Searcy
​​

Why Vietnam objected to the Long Tan commemoration
    • By Lindsay Murdoch

Vietnamese officials say the country’s communist rulers decided to cancel the 50th anniversary ceremony of the Long Tan battle because of the large numbers of Australians who have travelled to Vietnam for the event.

Over decades Vietnam has insisted that groups of only 30 to 40 people attend commemorations and visits to the Long Tan Cross site.

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Limited Long Tan commemoration goes ahead

A late night phone call from PM Malcolm Turnbull to his Vietnamese counterpart will see
limited commemorations proceed to mark the 50th anniversary of the battle of Long Tan.

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But up to 3000 visitors have arrived this week in the nearby town of Vung Tau for a series of events, including a gala dinner Thursday evening at the five-star Pullman Hotel, according to Australian businessmen in the town.

They have packed the town’s bars and restaurants.

But after late-night talks on Wednesday between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Vietnam agreed to allow wreath-laying for groups of up to 100 people.Vietnam told the Australian government late on Tuesday that it had banned access to the site, angering Australian veterans and their families.For years the Vietnamese have banned the wearing of uniforms, medals or ribbons, flags, banners and signs at Long Tan, with the exception of Australia’s defence attache in Hanoi.

“They don’t want to see triumphalism,” a Vietnamese source said.

Robert Buick, a veteran of the battle, said the Vietnamese never imposed restrictions at Long Tan before about 1996, the 30th anniversary, when the site was a rubber plantation.

But he said that subsequently the area has been planted with corn to the edge of the concrete slab where the cross is installed.

“A more than 1000 gathering around the cross would destroy many plants and trample a hectare of crops,” said Mr Buick, who was the platoon sergeant of 11 Platoon, D Company, 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment.

Mr Buick also said the 40th anniversary in 2006 would have been a shock when a group of Vietnam veterans from South Australia “behaved in a disgraceful manner at the cross that could have influenced the limiting of numbers visiting the site”.

Mr Buick said he believes that Vietnamese authorities see the way Australia has past marked anniversaries of the battle as contrary to its culture.

“This consideration would have influenced the Vietnamese authorities’ decision regarding the cross,” he said.

The battle has remained a sensitive issue for Vietnam’s communist rulers for 50 years.

In articles, local Communist Party officials still refer to American “vassals”, “lackeys” and “mercenaries”.

Despite the Vietnamese soldiers’ crushing defeat, Vietnam propaganda claimed the day after the battle that its men were victors, “wiping out almost a complete battalion (about 800 men) of Australian mercenaries”.

The country’s rulers perpetuated that myth for decades, even as Australia’s ties with Vietnam have deepened in recent years.

The battle during a tropical downpour saw the Australians outnumbered by at least 10 to one.

“It was eerie. The VC (Viet Cong) weren’t running and diving behind trees like you expect them to,” Allen May, a forward scout for D Company, later recalled.

“They were just like zombies and everyone you knocked down there were two to take his place,” he said. “It was like shooting ducks in a bloody shooting gallery … I would have killed at least 40 blokes that day.

the interpreter

18 August 2016

Long Tan: Half a century on, a battle memory interrupts Australia-Vietnam friendship

By Helen Clark

On Wednesday the Australian government announced its disappointment that the long-planned commemoration ceremony at Long Tan, in southern Vietnam, had been shut down at the last minute by the Vietnamese government. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the battle that killed 18 Australian and possibly 245 Vietnamese soldiers. Australia has been holding ceremonies there, one way or another, since 1989.This year’s event would have been the largest by far, with media reporting more than 1000 Australians planned to attend the event at the Long Tan site, where a memorial cross marks what is now a corn field.

The shock caused by the late cancellation reached the highest levels with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull calling his counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, for an explanation. It seems now that small groups will be allowed into Long Tan, in an orderly manner. For a long time now it has been this way; military uniforms (save for our military attache from the embassy in Hanoi), medals, flags have long been disallowed.

The controversy is unfortunate for veterans and their families and for all those who worked so hard for the event. The abrupt announcement so close to the event was undoubtedly poor management. However we don’t who made the call. Was it the local government in Ba Ria-Vung Tau or the national administration in Hanoi? And, more importantly, why?

The Australian media has mentioned local sensitivities and fears that the event had simply become too big. It’s important to remember that hundreds of Vietnamese were killed in this battle, which was part of a war that divided a nation. The battle of Long Tan and its commemoration by Australians has long been sensitive locally.

It’s understood Hanoi had to get the local Party on side for a cross and a site from the very beginning and local officials have not not always been convinced of the benefit, even as handfuls of Aussie vets have returned to the nearby seaside resort of Vung Tau to make the the town their home and even undertake charity work. Of course, Vietnamese veterans have long been happy to meet (and drink) with their foreign counterparts, and to talk about the war also. A dinner between the two sides had been organised.

The first official Long Tan commemoration took place in 1994. Australia’s ambassador to Vietnam at the time, Dr Susan Boyd, remembers it was ‘complicated and torturous’ process. She told me yesterday: ‘There were lots of levels of decision making and approvals. It wasn’t easy. There were a lot of sensitivities.’

Three years after that first ceremony, the US sent its first post-war ambassador to Vietnam, Douglas ‘Pete’ Peterson , an air force pilot who had spent six years as a POW in North Vietnam. Now an Australian citizen living in Melbourne, he said he was puzzled by the decision to cancel today’s event. ‘I can’t imagine why they would do it … these things are generally local decisions.’ Peterson oversaw the normalisation of ties between the US and Vietnam, including the bilateral trade agreement struck in 2000 that helped Vietnam’s economy tremendously.

Vietnam has prided itself on its hatchet-burying since the American War. But it seems it likes to be in charge; it wants to control the shovels and decide where and when to dig the holes. The event planned for today, involving so many Australians, seemed rather ‘triumphalist’, according to a Vietnamese source quoted by Fairfax’s Lindsay Murdoch.

Five years ago I was at the 45th anniversary commemoration at the same site. It was a smaller event, but the crowd still numbered some 500. All were respectful and then-Australian Ambassador Allaster Cox honoured both the Australian and New Zealand fallen and ‘the many millions of Vietnamese who died in the struggle for full independence in their homeland.’

Among those present were former war correspondents and diplomats from New Zealand, led by Carl Robinson who reported for Associated Press during the war. US-born Robinson emigrated to Sydney with his Vietnamese wife after the war to work for Newsweek. He now convenes the online Vietnam Old Hacks group and travels back to Vietnam regularly. He too was puzzled by this week’s about face.

He says for many veterans, going back to Vietnam ‘is about the best thing they can do to move beyond the experience of the war. In less than 24 hours all those years of anger and resentment disappear…the people are as friendly as ever and make them feel so welcome.’

He adds Australia ‘has gone out of their way to be very respectful over the years’.

Until this week, most who know the Vietnam-Australian relationship well would say it has never been better. Vietnam has become more and more international – as shown during this year’s visit by the US president and the progress of that relationship – and Australia has proved a good friend in the region. Yet, despite all the diplomatic, aid and trade activity, and the much- treasured person-to-person links, there are clearly some different views of important events, reminders that the long-ago war still exacts a price today.

Thu, Aug 18 2016

e-mail from Carl Robinson, facilitator of the Vietnam Old Hacks group:

 

Thank you to Helen Clark for filing on this story while I was away ovenight in Melbourne.

After Australia’s PM Malcolm Turnbull spoke to his counterpart overnight, a solution has been worked out for groups of 100 each to attend the Long Tan Cross, importantly the only memorial the communists have ever allowed from the ‘losing side’ in the Vietnam War.  (Another one is at Dien Bien Phu.)
I have taken many Aussie veterans to the Cross over the years, both for LTD — now celebrated as Vietnam Veterans Day — and Anzac Day in April.
Previously, the Cross was still located inside a rubber plantation and you could more easily sense how and battle took place all those years ago.  But a year or so back, the locals chopped all the trees down around the Cross and planted — of all things — a field of corn.   (Looks like Field of Dreams now.)    These come right up to the concrete slab around the Cross and the ban might very well have been sparked by locals not wanting to see their corn squashed by 1000 returning vets & their families.  Still, with the trees gone, it just doesn’t have the same feeling anyway.
I sense this was all a local over-reaction as Australian and New zealand diplomats have been working for the past 18 months on making sure the ceremony went well.  So, it’s either corn or perhaps some bad behaviour by returning vets as happened on previous occasions when I was more closely closely involved.   In any case, e’one needs to pay a $10-20 fee to visit the Cross and — who knows? — perhaps someone felt they weren’t getting enough of a cut.
In any case, it sure hasn’t earned the Vietnamese many points in the past 24 hours.
New Zealand journalist Nick Turner’s e-mail message to Vietnam Old Hacks group:

Thanks to Carl and Helen for their accounts of the unfortunate standoff over the 50th anniversary memorial service at the Long Tan battle site in Phuoc Tuy province, east of Saigon. I have to say it didn’t greatly surprise me. To have up to three thousand Aussies and kiwis descending on the rubber plantation to celebrate an ANZAC victory over communist forces in 1966 was definitely over the top in my view, and would have completely destroyed the atmosphere of the place, Such a crowd wouldn’t have even been able to get close enough to the small memorial to have had any sense of participation in what has in previous years been a small sedate ceremony. 

The battle of Long Tan was one of the most significant episodes in Australian and New Zealand military history. a truly extraordinary victory against all odds by a an ANZAC force that was totally outnumbered and outflanked on terrain chosen by the enemy. The communist force of between 1,500 and 2,500 included the Viet Cong 275th regiment and at least one North Vietnamese battalion supported by a heavily armed mobile battalion, which sought to overrun the Australian-NZ base camp at Nui Dat and then set a trap for the ANZAC response. Australian troops fought incredibly courageously and were saved in part by gunfire laid down precisely within metres of the front lines by a snall NZ artillery detachment. Hundreds of North Vietnamese and VC bodies were counted afterwards although many others had been evacuated. No doubt at all it was a severe defeat for the communist force who obviously wanted to teach the Aussies and kiwis a lesson for supporting the US effort in VN.

About five or six years ago I led a visit to Vietnam by about a dozen New Zealand ex-correspondents, former dioplomats and others (plus wives) who served in Vietnam and neighbouring countries in the 1960s-70s, and we timed the visit to coincide with the Long Tan anniverary. Carl kindly organised the day-trip to Long Tan, and Helen was towith us. The place was still a sombre rubber plantation when we visited, redolent with the spooky atmosphere of a disaster scene. In a low-key ceremony approved by the Vietnamese authorities but not attended by any Vietnamese representatives, wreaths were laid by Australian and NZ displomats and military attaches and the last post was sounded. All in very good taste.

I thought at the time it was astonishing that the Vietnamese allowed such a memorial to exist and be a place of commemoration by their former foreign military enemies. But I was also struck by the fact that a dozen or so Australians who had taken up residence and ran bars at Vung Tau also turned up and treated the occasion with little respect, wandering round in T-shirts, shorts and sandals with cans of beer in their hand. Not at all in keeping with the spirit of the occasion, I felt.

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