By ucanews.com reporter
Mary Tran Thi Thuy warmly welcomed 20 people to the chapel of Cang Huong Ly subparish to pray for the soul of her elder brother Joseph Tran Van Dong, who died in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War.
After they said prayers, sang hymns, listened to a Gospel message and offered incense in front of Dong’s picture, she served tea, fruit and candy to them while they shared vivid memories of the martyr and the bloody war.
“We have held prayer sessions for him on February 16, 17 and 18 for the past 40 years because we never forget but pride ourselves on our brother, who bravely fought against the invading army,” the 53-year-old woman said.
On February 17, 1979, about 600,000 Chinese troops entered Vietnam’s six northern provinces, waging a bloody strike along the 1,400-kilometer border. According to historians, China’s month-long invasion was a response to what China considered to be a collection of provocative actions and policies undertaken by Hanoi.
Comradeship between Chinese communists and their Vietnamese neighbor swiftly began to deteriorate when Vietnam joined the Soviet-dominated Council for Mutual Economic Cooperation (Comecon) and signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union (USSR), then China’s greatest rival, in 1978. China called the treaty a military alliance and branded Vietnam the “Cuba of the East,” pursuing hegemonic “imperial dreams” in Southeast Asia.
In December 1978, Vietnam attacked China-friendly Kampuchea (today’s Cambodia) and quickly wiped out the genocidal pro-Beijing Khmer Rouge regime, which was also friendly with the Soviet Union, then massively building up forces on China’s northern border.
Fearing that China’s security and interests in the region were under threat, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had good reason to take military action to teach a proper lesson to the Vietnamese.
The 1979 war and armed clashes that broke out over border disputes in the 10 subsequent years resulted in a heavy toll in terms of casualties. Though neither side publicized its casualties and the exact figures remain unclear, historical records estimate 26,000 Chinese dead and 37,000 wounded, with 30,000 Vietnamese dead and 32,000 wounded.
Thuy, who serves as a catechist at the subparish in Yen Bai province, said her parents were not informed of their son’s death until late 1980. His body has not been found yet.
“His death was etched on our heart. My dad cried his eyes out and mom suffered mental illnesses for months,” she said.
Thuy, a pharmacist, said the government pays little gratitude and attention to war martyrs and their relatives.
“We are given an annual allowance of 500,000 dong (US$22) for his martyrdom,” she said, adding that when her parents were alive, they were offered only 500,000 dong a month. They died 20 years ago.
She said government authorities did not dare to declare that her brother lost his life in fighting Chinese troops but claimed that he had fought Americans. “They distorted the truth as my brother died in fighting Chinese invaders at Ban Phiet in Lao Cao province on February 17, 1979.”
Thuy, who has seven siblings, said local authorities have never helped her family to look for her brother’s body. They hold no clues to his remains, so they make yearly visits and offer incense at two unnamed graves in Ban Lau commune. Many other people also declare the graves to be of their martyrs.
Nguyen Cong Ha from Thua Thien Hue province each year offers incense, food, alcohol and fruits before a picture of his uncle, who was killed fighting Chinese troops in Lai Chau province on Feb. 17, 1979.
Ha, 34, said his uncle’s body has not been found and it is unfair that few local authorities console his family or offer incense to the martyr.
“The government should erect a monument to war martyrs and officially commemorate them,” he said.
Vo Than, whose right leg was broken in a fierce fight with Chinese troops in 1979, said many of his army comrades were never found after being killed in the war.
Than, who sells lottery tickets to support his four-member family, said he is given 1.5 million dong per month by the government while many veterans are not offered government allowances.
“I am lucky to receive a wheelchair from Caritas in Hue to travel to sell lottery tickets,” the father of two said.
Joseph Tran Van Hong, who survived the devastating war, said Chinese soldiers killed all people including children and women and destroyed all facilities in places they invaded.
“Tens of thousands of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed and their bodies were not found,” he said.
The veteran, who collects firewood and catches fish in lakes for a living, said thousands of war veterans who joined the 1979 conflict have received no support from the government. He received 5 million dong one time from the government.
“We fought against Chinese invaders to protect the nation but have been ignored and treated unfairly for decades,” Hong said, adding that the government had cracked down on those who visited and offered incense at martyrs’ cemeteries for fear of displeasing China’s communist government.
He said this year for the first time Vietnam’s government has allowed local media to publish reports on the war. Many people called on the government to put the war in high school history textbooks. “It is too late to talk about the war publicly,” he noted.
Arranging incense, candles and flowers on the altar of her brother, Thuy said the government should change its policies 40 years after the brief war to respect, honor and treat war veterans and martyrs well.