The white marble stelae, all identical, extend over terraces on the mountainside. Around, a landscape of steep karst hills and valleys shrouded in mist. In the newly restored Martyrs’ Cemetery in Ha Giang Province, northern Vietnam, the graves bear the same inscription: “Liet sy” (died for the fatherland). China is only 35 kilometers away. In the temple dedicated to prayers, a statue of Ho Chi Minh, the communist hero of independence and president from 1945 to 1969, sits on an altar covered with flowers, banknotes and cans of Coca-Cola. A black plaque lists the names of the 4,200 martyrs already buried. Officially, the mortal remains of about 2,000 other soldiers are still scattered on the border with the Chinese province of Yunnan. But, judging by the size of the cemetery, two-thirds of which is still vacant, the final figure could actually be higher.
Ha Giang province was the scene of bloody battles in 1984, during what Vietnam soberly calls the “northern border defense war”. The aggressor – never named – was China, then led by Deng Xiaoping (1978-1989). Just recognized by the United States, the powerful neighbor had launched, on February 17, 1979, a surprise war against Vietnam. Beijing criticized Hanoi for having signed (in November 1978) a treaty of alliance with the Soviet Union, then an enemy of China, then for having undertaken to overthrow, in January 1979, the Cambodian Khmer Rouge regime, supported by Beijing and which had attacked Vietnam on its southwestern flank. For ten years, Chinese troops harassed the Vietnamese army along the border between the two countries and carried out incursions, killing tens of thousands on both sides. The balance sheet is still the subject of debate.
Is a new war with China possible? “She is, but not for now”, considers, with a certain gravity Duc Mon, a sexagenarian in black pants and a white polo shirt, after having placed incense sticks on several graves. He stops in front of one of them, joins his hands above his head and bows three times. His brother Kanh was about to be 20 years old when he perished in September 1984, along with three other soldiers, in the bombardment of their casemate at the border. “The 1984 battles in Ha Giang have long been taboo, many Vietnamese were unaware of their existence until about ten years ago, because the government is doing everything not to ‘provoke’ China”explains a Vietnamese researcher, who collects testimonies on the sensitive subject of the Sino-Vietnamese war and wishes to remain anonymous. “Despite the cultural, religious and ideological affinities we have with China, there is very strong resentment against the Chinese in Vietnam. But whatever we do, we will always be neighbors.she continues.
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