Hero or critic? Vietnam battles for General Giap's legacy
Veterans hold portraits of late General Vo Nguyen Giap as they line up along a street to pay their final respects in Hanoi on October 10, 2013
More than 100,000 people have visited the Hanoi house of General Vo Nguyen Giap, who died on Friday aged 102, to pay their respects to the military strategist hailed for masterminding Vietnam's stunning battlefield victories against France and America.
Giap will be given a state funeral attended by all the country's top leaders on Sunday, as the heavily-censored one-party state seeks to downplay the general's later activities as a persistent government critic.
"The state is eager to recall the general as a symbol of the unquestionable legitimacy of the communist party," said Jonathan London of the Department of Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong.
But he said the general was actually "quite uneasy with the current leadership", which has faced increasingly vocal domestic criticism in recent years amid persistent economic woes and high-profile corruption scandals.
"His loss is a watershed moment for the country's history (and his death has) given way to its own battle -- a battle over his legacy."
The communist party, which has run unified Vietnam since the war ended in 1975, relies heavily on the personality cult it has built around founding father Ho Chi Minh -- whose body, against his wishes, was preserved and put on display in Hanoi.
All Vietnamese school children learn about "Uncle Ho" and criticising him -- even in jest -- can land people in hot water.
Giap looks destined for the same treatment.
"The party can still produce huge benefits from late leaders like Ho Chi Minh and Giap for a long time to come," said Pham Hong Son, an activist who has spent years in prison for anti-state activity.
"They have lost a living legend but it is not important as they rely not on Giap's life, but his image."
In many ways Giap fits the mould of the perfect communist hero.
A self-taught soldier, he is lauded as a military strategy genius for defeating the French in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu in a battle that ended Paris' colonial rule in Indochina.
The founding father of the Vietnam People's Army later pioneered the ruthless guerilla warfare that was to push the United States from Vietnam.
But despite being a "loyal-to-death" communist, Pham said Giap's outspoken criticism of the party on certain issues gave "implicit support" to the country's dissidents.
The general began to speak out in his 90s, years after he was shunted from politics by enemies resentful of his battlefield success.
Writing open letters and using anniversary events to rail against sensitive issues such as corruption and bauxite mining, Giap "opened a space for others" to criticise the government, London said.
Retired Vietnamese General Nguyen Trong Vinh said Giap was able to raise sensitive issues with the government without fear of repercussions.
"Vietnam's academics and intellectuals have lost a big brother after the death of the general," he said, adding that it would be "harder" for people to have the courage to voice critical opinions without his influence.
Giap was "untouchable" and able to provide an "implicit cover" to those broaching controversial subjects like relations with China, said Vietnam expert Carl Thayer.
Vietnam's rulers will "paper over the controversial aspects of General Giap’s career including political in-fighting," he added.
Viet Tan, an exile group that Hanoi considers a terrorist organisation, said it was embarrassing for the regime that the general had highlighted corruption and failures of foreign policy.
One popular blogger and outspoken critic of Vietnam's authoritarian leaders told AFP "the last 'real communist' has died", and that it was obvious that it was no longer communist ideology that guided the country.
"Only internal conflicts between privileged groups remain," she said on condition of anonymity.
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