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 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 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.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia userTacintop