History and Uncle Ho

NA CHOK, NAKHON PANOM, Thailand, and HANOI, Vietnam – Had he a moustache instead of stubble on his upper lip, and a goatee sprouting on his chin, Tiew Vien could pass for a relative of the distinguished gentleman whose portrait he is cradling in his hands. But as the fit-looking octogenarian himself tells it, the gentleman in the picture was at best a good friend of his late father, a Vietnamese immigrant to Thailand. His father’s friend was also Vietnamese, says Tiew Vien, a townmate from the old country. That friend eventually became known as Ho Chi Minh, liberator of Vietnam, leader of the Viet Minh that first defeated the French, and then routed the U.S.-backed South Vietnam forces.

Ho Chi Minh was, of course, already dead by the time the South Vietnam government surrendered to Hanoi in 1975. But his people nevertheless attributed their victory to the ideals to which he had them subscribe. As a result, they not only renamed Saigon, the former capital of South Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City; monuments, shrines, and museums dedicated to the late leader can now also be found all over Vietnam, and his visage appears as well on the Vietnamese currency and billboards announcing all sorts of things.

But before all these, Uncle Ho – as he is more popularly called – would first spend three decades of his life abroad. This would include two years in Thailand sometime in the late 1920s. At the time, the young patriot had been in the process of organising Vietnamese students overseas as a united front against the French colonialists in his home country. But then he was forced out of his base in Canton, China during a crackdown on communists there. He had already been a member of the Communist International (Comintern) for at least five years by then, and he would be its Southeast Asian representative while he was in Thailand.

And yet, decades later and barring the likes of Tiew Vien, one would be hard-pressed in finding a Thai who knows anything about Uncle Ho beyond his being the late leader of communist Vietnam. Some even go only as far as saying that ‘Ho Chi Minh’ sounds familiar.

Historical blind spots

This, however, may only be expected in a region where neighbouring countries know little about each other’s history – even at a time when intra-regional trade in Southeast Asia has intensified and there are plans to see ASEAN finally form a community. In fact, in the few instances that an ASEAN country’s history mentions a next-door nation, the reference is often less than flattering, if not outrightly hostile. After all, the interlocking histories of ASEAN nations include wars over territory, with some of these disputes remaining unresolved to this day. Opposing political ideologies held by neighbours have also meant a wary attitude towards each other, especially since borders within the region are porous and easily compromised.

Reminded of this during an interview, lecturer Tong Van Loi of the National University in Hanoi remarks, almost wistfully, “It would be great if ASEAN would initiate a joint project on…(history) textbooks.”

Anyone who would try to heed Loi’s suggestion, though, would most probably face many hurdles, including how to get everyone to agree to disagree. As Loi himself points out, each country is bound to have its own interpretation of a common event or have a view about an individual that may or may not be to the liking of another nation.

Tiew Vien, for instance, says that it has only been in the last decade that he has felt safe enough to tell his stories about Uncle Ho’s stay in Na Chok, a village in the northeastern province of Nakhon Panom. Such tales were not welcome during the Cold War, he says, since Thailand then had a firm anti-communist stance, which therefore cast Ho Chi Minh as an enemy. Indeed, a dusty old volume on the Vietnam War at a library in Bangkok refers to Ho Chi Minh as part of the “communist evil”.

Another complication to any attempt in ASEAN to launch a Southeast Asian history project is the fact that even the most highly regarded heroes and heroines can be regarded as heels by some of their own people. That would include Ho Chi Minh, despite his exalted status in Vietnamese history and the unofficial prohibition against any kind of criticism of the late leader in his country. An informal survey of Vietnamese textbooks also reveals that the story of Uncle Ho the Hero is drilled into the heads of the Vietnamese early in their schooling, with the lessons regarding his exploits intensifying at higher education levels. Or as academic Loi puts it, “Overall, the information is quite similar, but the difference is in the angles being emphasised.”

“It is,” he also stresses, “history that (every) Vietnamese needs to learn.”

But this has apparently been not enough for some Vietnamese. Often from the south, they have been left unimpressed with the man who began his life in 1890 as Nguyen Sinh Cung and who was forced to end his formal education at 18. Among them is a 24-year-old southerner who says that like other Vietnamese, he had learned about Ho Chi Minh mostly in school. But he explains that as South Vietnamese, “our feelings are not as strong as that of the northern people because of the different political systems in the past”.

“We respect Ho Chi Minh for the way he lived his life, which was quite humble,” says the young man who declines to be named. “But for all the successes he was supposed to have achieved – he had not done these alone. There were a lot of people behind his success, and Uncle Ho is just a symbol.”

Not gung-ho for Uncle Ho

Decidedly less diplomatic is a 30-something woman who also prefers to remain anonymous and who still refers to Ho Chi Minh City as Saigon. She says that she doesn’t really care much about Uncle Ho and doesn’t consider him as having any impact on her daily life.

“I was born in 1975 when the Indochina wars were close to the end,” she says. “Basically, the southern people had been accustomed to American liberty and culture. For us, whoever became the rulers (afterwards) were not good. What we actually needed were peace and the opportunities to earn a living.”

“Here (in Saigon)”, she continues, “people who respect Ho Chi Minh dearly might be only the government officials. If you look inside their houses, you will find photos of Ho Chi Minh (there), while the local people normally don’t do that.”

Contrast that with the views of a philosophy major from Hanoi, who says he respects Uncle Ho for his great devotion to Vietnam. Adds the young man: “Ho Chi Minh could teach complicated political philosophy and ideology by simplifying them for people of all classes, especially the farmers. That earned him strong support from the poor who make up the majority of the population. They were empowered to fight, and that was a key factor that allowed Vietnam to defeat mighty nations.”

In Thailand, the opinion of Tiew Vien about his farmer-father’s friend from home is similarly positive. It could well be that the former schoolteacher-turned kitchen hand-turned revolutionary also taught his compatriots in Nakhon Panom, as well as those in the nearby provinces of Bhichit and Udon Thani, philosophical and ideological lessons. Yet if he did, such lectures could have been beyond the comprehension of Tiew Vien, who was only nine years old at the time. Nevertheless, Tiew Vien is confident in saying that Ho Chi Minh had not wanted to be a communist, but at that moment “the only power that supported the Vietnamese fight for liberation was from the world of socialism”.

Perhaps to remind Thais that an important figure in Vietnamese history once had a long visit in Thailand, Tiew Vien has built a replica of the cottage Uncle Ho had used during his stay. Located in Na Chok, which is about 400 kms from Bangkok, the modest house contains several mementos that Tiew Vien says the late Vietnamese leader had left behind.

It’s an effort that could hopefully spark interest among Thais about another nation’s history. It may even lead to someone actually taking on the challenge of putting together the histories of Southeast Asian nations for Southeast Asians to share with one another and to study together.

It’s not as farfetched as it sounds – at least not to Asian history expert Charnvit Kasetsiri. “Thailand may be the first to start (this),” he says. “We don’t need to wait for our neighbours. We can do it right away, and it would be a stepping stone towards peace in the region.”