The Unclaimed War: The Social Memory of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border war in China and Vietnam

Tam Ngo

This project addresses the memory politics of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese Border War. This destructive war erupted in 17 February 1979, officially lasted only 17 days but in reality dragged on for 10 full years in which tens thousands of lives of both sides were lost and ruined. Thirty-three years later, this war stands in both China and Vietnam as a war that-you-aren’t-supposed-to-talk-about and is barred from the states’ permitted national realm of memory and commemoration. For the people whose lives were devastated by it, the daunting memory of this war continues to haunt their daily existence today. The intensity of their suppressed memory is starling especially in the present context of a thriving politics and culture of war commemoration in both China and Vietnam.

In this study, I follow the life stories and narratives of people whose lives were defined by this war, such as the veterans, inhabitants of the borderland both ethnic minorities and Kinh and Han majority groups, the ethnic Chinese people in Vietnam, the ethnic Vietnamese people in China. These life stories have led me to a number of geographical locations some of which became the main sites for my research, such as Lao Cai, Ha Noi, Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam, Shanghai, Kunming, and Dali in China. Because of the war, half of a million Hoa Kieu (ethnic Chinese from Vietnam) have fled the country and resettled in the West. This project thus also includes the life stories and memory politics among the Chinese Vietnamese population in three European cities; Berlin, Amsterdam, and Paris. Through my informants’ narrative, I retrace their understanding of the political context that lead to the outbreak of the war. How did that understanding impact the motivation to join the war and the formation of a sense of defiance, or to find a way out of it, or to endure the suffering caused by it, or to make sense of the lost? Inside Vietnam today, when many participants of this war continue to struggle to publicly commemorate this war, to what extent such an enduring effort is to serve the national interests or their memory of the event that had haunted and daunted their life? To what extend social memory can persist independent of public commemoration? Abroad, the commemoration of this war has become an occasion for ant-communist and anti-Vietnamese state demonstration. In this research I aim to contribute a new understanding of how the memories of such unclaimed war impact local resistance to the center or how the politics of forgetting, ignoring, or unclaiming, is in fact an option for those involved. In this project, I pursue a dual aim. Even as I wish to use the blind spots of public history to throw light on the dominant discourses of the present, I also want to reflect on truth-seeking and commemoration as currently dominant mode of coming to terms with past violence. As neo-liberalism declines and intra-Asian politics becomes more important, will this product of distinctly twentieth-century declines and West intellectual developments- from psychoanalysis to the transitional justice- be challenged?

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