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Vietnam hero General Giap turns 100

26 august 2011, 12:37
General Vo Nguyen Giap, a hero of the Vietnamese revolution and considered one of history's greatest military strategists, quietly marked his 100th birthday on Thursday in a Hanoi military hospital, AFP reports.

Giap shocked the world with his peasant army's victory over French colonial forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, a success critical in Vietnam's emergence as an independent nation, which ended French rule in Indochina.

"He's a mythic, heroic figure for Vietnam", said Carl Thayer, an Australia-based scholar of the country.

Giap is second only to late founding father Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam's most revered figure, in the nation's affections.

Thayer called Giap the country's "last legitimate hero", whose victories the ruling communists see as providing a nationalist foundation for their rule.

"They cannot rubbish General Giap," said Thayer, explaining that he is revered "because he is part of their narrative".

Born on August 25, 1911 in central Quang Binh province, Giap was not formally trained as a soldier but studied law and political economy before joining Ho in the liberation fight.

Giap's Maoist-inspired guerrilla tactics stressed the need for popular support, the value of hit-and-run attacks, and the will to fight a drawn-out war -- methods that were to prove crucial in the war against US and South Vietnamese forces.

His greatest triumph will always be the Dien Bien Phu victory, based on an astounding logistical feat by his Viet Minh fighters, who surprised the French by hauling their artillery into surrounding jungle hills from where they pounded enemy positions below.

"It was the first great defeat for the West," Giap said.

For two decades after Dien Bien Phu, Giap continued to command his forces as they battled American troops and their surrogate regime in South Vietnam until final victory on April 30, 1975.

His guerrilla tactics inspired fighters worldwide but others have pointed to the tremendous human toll Giap was willing to incur in the liberation struggle, which left millions of Vietnamese dead.

He was pushed to the political sidelines in post-war Vietnam and was eased out of the ruling Politburo in 1982, but he continued to raise his voice on issues of concern.

In 2006 he wrote that the Communist Party had "become a shield for corrupt officials", and an open letter he issued two years ago added to widespread public criticism of government plans for bauxite mining.

His fighting spirit also continues to motivate Vietnamese people.

When nationalist demonstrators took to the streets of Hanoi in recent weeks for rare protests against China's actions in disputed South China Sea waters, they carried pictures of Giap, his fist raised.

Vietnamese count birthdays according to the lunar calendar, which adds one year and means that Giap marked his centenary last year, when state-controlled media wished him "happy 100th".

Now they are doing it again, taking a second opportunity to celebrate the legendary figure.

The country's top leaders visited Giap on Wednesday, bringing flowers and "the affection and reverence of the whole nation", official media reported, without mentioning that Giap is in hospital, where he has been for a number of months.

Giap's visitors included Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and President Truong Tan Sang.

One of Giap's sons, Vo Dien Bien, earlier told AFP that celebrations would be "very simple", with family members joining Giap at Army Hospital 108. Giap visited his wounded soldiers at the same hospital during the Vietnam War against the United States.

Bien described his father's health as "stable".

"We might say that the fame of comrade Vo Nguyen Giap and of his predecessor revolutionary veterans has become a symbol of the entire generation whom President Ho Chi Minh trained to establish and build a glorious era for the Vietnamese nation," Trong, the Communist Party chief, wrote for an exhibition of photographs honouring Giap's centenary.

The most recent pictures in the exhibition are dated 2008 and show a frail figure in a white military uniform.

Tributes have come from his own soldiers -- and a former enemy.

"He's a historic figure," said US Senator Jim Webb, who fought against Giap's forces during the Vietnam War. "I wish General Giap all the best."

By Ian Timberlake

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