Long Tan: The Battle Haunting Australia-Vietnam Ties 50 Years After It Ended

August 22, 2016

Editor’s Note: This was originally published by The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Sydney. War on the Rocks is proud to be publishing articles from The Interpreter weekly.

 

Last 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. Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the battle that killed 18 Australian and possibly 245 Vietnamese soldiers. 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. In the end, Vietnam allowed small groups into Long Tan, in an orderly manner.

Australia has been holding ceremonies there, one way or another, since 1989. This year’s event would have been the largest by far. Media outlets reported that more than 1000 Australians planned to convene at the Long Tan site, where a memorial cross marks what is now a corn field.

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 due to poor management. However, we don’t know 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 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 always been convinced of the benefit, even as handfuls of Australian vets have returned to the nearby seaside resort of Vung Tau to make the town their home and even engage in 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 organized.

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: “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 United States sent its first post-war ambassador to Vietnam, Douglas Peterson, an Air Force pilot who had spent six years as a prisoner of war 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 normalization of ties between the United States 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 last week, 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 honored 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 the Associated Press during the war. U.S.-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 last 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 last 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 President Obama and the progress of that relationship. Australia has proved itself 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.

 

Helen Clark was based in Hanoi from 2006 to 2012 as a magazine editor and correspondent. She has written for some two dozen publications including The Economist, Time, The Diplomat, and the Australian Associated Press.